Archive for September, 2010

Free lunch? Coming right up

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

dashi

Dashi for the taking

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Dashi Cafe will open in Yurakucho on Oct. 1 serving free miso soup and onigiri. What’s the catch? Nothing, as far as we can tell, except maybe a little MSG. The place is sponsored by spice manufacturer Ajinomoto, whose flagship product is the flavor enhancer (and Japanese kitchen staple) MSG. They say they are working in cooperation with agricultural and fishing associations to assure high-quality domestic ingredients. The cafe is intended  to create a relaxing environment where women can enjoy all-you-can-eat helpings of miso soup and Japanese broth (rice balls are one to a customer) and relax a bit during the work day.

Tokyo Walker reported that the purpose of Dashi Cafe is to rekindle Japanese women’s interest in cooking these traditional foods. To that end, it will be women-only during hours when nearby office workers might sneak out for a quick bowl of soup, between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then open to all until from 3 until it closes at 7 p.m.

This is one in a series of unconventional projects by Ajinomoto designed to get women excited about cooking. You’ll recall their gyaru cooking keitai site for making cooking cuter and more fun.

This isn’t the first free cafe that’s popped up in the Ginza area. Harimaya Station opened about a year ago as a free cafe that showcased the company’s rice crackers. Shoppers could have a cup of tea or coffee and try one of each of several varieties of crackers for free, but it has since started charging ¥200 per drink. So if soup is your thing, check out Dashi Cafe before they change their minds.

Babysitter Mama: Infant care via Wiimote control

Monday, September 27th, 2010

The new Wii game aimed at tots from Office Excite

Baby Sitter Mama is a new Wii game aimed at tots from Office Create

Move over Tiny Tears, there’s a new tot in town. At Tokyo Game Show last week Office Create, makers of the successful Cooking Mama series, unveiled a game that takes playing mommy to new heights of sophistication. Made for the Wii, Babysitter Mama allows young children to hone their parenting skills on a stuffed baby doll that comes included with the game disc.

The games begin after you’ve unceremoniously stuffed the Wii remote into the doll’s back, making the pretend infant sensitive to movement. Hold and rock it gently and your baby will slowly drift off to sleep onscreen; drop the brat and all hell will break loose, as the speakers in the remote emit a lifelike simulation of an unhappy baby crying out. The nunchucks double as a bottle with which to feed the infant and a rattle to make him/her laugh.

The fun doesn’t stop there. There are around 40 mini games to play that allow you to practice other homemaking skills. The games include: making soup; giving your child a ride on a seesaw; and getting the washing in from the garden on a rainy day. There’s even a two-player mode for competitively minded young parents. Throughout the game play you can take photos of your smiling baby’s face and compile it into an album to coo over during quieter moments.

While the mama of the title appears as a woman onscreen, according to Game Watch, Office Create is marketing this product, with appropriate political correctness (and perhaps with an eye to the global market) at young boys as well as girls. Further indications that the makers eventually hope to go global with the product, is the fact that the doll’s ethnicity is indeterminate, leaving it up to players to choose the skin tone of the virtual baby that appears on screen.

Baby Sitter Mama goes on shelves in Japan in December, with a ¥6,090 price tag. With so many bells and whistles, the game looks set to take the baby doll market by storm; meanwhile yesteryear’s plastic tots quietly shed a final tear at the back of the toy closet.

Japan by the numbers (09.24.10)

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Last chance for cheap smokes

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Red Bull and smokes

Buy today or pay the price tomorrow

To smokers in some Western countries, Tokyo’s looming all-time-high tax hike is a pittance – with prices increasing by ¥110 to ¥140, cigarettes here will still cost less than half as much as in New York or London. But everything’s relative, and an increase from ¥300 to over ¥400 has smokers planning strategies and convenience stores cashing in.

For years, single or double packs of cigarettes have come packaged with trinkets, from directly useful products like lighters and pocket ashtrays to more tangential goodies like sparkly makeup mirrors and canned coffee. (What’s that? You wish someone had compiled a site with photos of all the trinkets that come packaged with Japanese cigarettes for the last 10 years, sortable by brand or by type of giveaway? Done. ) Now some cartons, packs of 10 boxes, come with tote bags (buy three boxes, get a bag), the better to haul the goods home with. And people are stocking up. Convenience store cigarette sales this month have been double the sales of last September, according to Jiji Press. At Lawson, some 30% of cigarette sales have been in cartons. Signs for advance orders of cartons are ubiquitous at tobacco shops, convenience stores and even supermarkets. Orders made before the end of September will be charged at the pre-hike price, even if the cigarettes are picked up after the beginning of October.

There seems to be increased interest lately on Internet message board 2chan.net, too, in private importers like my-tobacco.com and Gala Store.  However,  people buying through these sites seem to have had varying levels of satisfaction with the buying experience, with some having to pay tax on delivery.

Lawmakers say the purpose of the increase, and future increases already being eyed, is to reduce the number of smokers and cut down on the 100,000 deaths caused by smoking each year in Japan. While anecdotally some people are saying this increase is enough to prompt them to quit, some are taking a different tack: Kyodo News quoted an economist as saying he’d stockpiled 1,000 packs already.

Daily deal sites tap into buying power in numbers

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Q:Pod is Japan's most popular daily deal site

Q:Pod, Japan’s most popular daily deal site

The idea of flash marketing websites, imported from the States in spring this year, has quickly proven to be a big hit with Japanese consumers looking to snag significant discounts on goods and services. Localized discounts are offered for a limited period and often in excess of 50 percent, for things such as meals in restaurants, hotel accommodations, beauty treatments and so forth. The key to the concept’s success is the use-it-or-lose-it approach to campaigns. An offer is withdrawn if the target number of takers isn’t met, thus guaranteeing a positive response to businesses, large and small.

Q:Pod, according to J-Cast, have already taken the lead in sales compared to their competitors, despite the fact they’ve only been operating for several months. According to Asiajin, their success spurred Chicago-based Groupon to buy a majority stake in the company, meaning that the company now dominate the daily deal market in Japan as well as in the United States.

A recent Q:Pod offer shows just how sweet the deals can be: 80 percent off the price of a ¥1,500  iTunes download card. The offer triggered a stampede of consumers applying to get their mitts on one of the ¥300 cards, whose numbers were limited to 10,000.

Other businesses have been jumping on the bandwagon. Recruit, for example, who already run Hot Pepper, a successful free magazine and website that offers discounts on restaurants, launched Pom Parade in July. The site offers daily deals on golf weekends, yoga, spa visits and meals out. In addition to Q:Pod clones, sites that specialize in particular products and services, such as Yaki Niku Pon, for fans of Korean barbecue, or Wotapon, for otaku (fancy a discount on a massage at a Akihabara maid cafe?), have begun to pop up.

Deals are announced to subscribers via e-mail newsletters, Tweets or Facebook updates, making it hard for consumers to keep pace with the vast number of offers available. Those who really want to stay ahead of the game can visit All Coupon, a website that aggregates information on daily deals across the board, saving you time searching out deals yourself.

First-class train designs

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Train geeks are in for a treat next year. From March 2011 it will be possible to ride in splendid style from Shin-Osaka to Kagoshima in a new N700-7000 series of Sakura shinkansen created especially for the route.

The plush new carriages of the new Sakura trains are the work of designer Eiji Mitooka, who has a long track record for creating sumptuous, award-winning train designs. The video above gives a sneak peak inside the new rolling stock of the Sakura, showing just how much care and attention has been put into this new line. One of the most striking features is the use of real wood throughout the train, which gives the carriages a lovely warm, natural feel. Nikkei Trendy reports that the feeling of luxury goes up a notch in the Green Car (the Japanese equivalent of first class), where the carpet and seat coverings are decorated with a traditional leaf pattern.

Last year Mitooka unveiled an even more elegant carriage design for the 800 series Kyushu shinkansen. As with the Sakura project, the materials used were not cheap: leather-covered seatsgold-leaf partitions between carriages; and real wooden armrests and tray tables. My favorite, though, is the phone booth, which has a noren hanging in the entrance for privacy. Mitooka clearly loves traditional Japanese arts and crafts and tries to weave these elements into modern design as much as possible.

Mitooka is also responsible for the redesigning of Kishi Station, which was completed this summer.  The Wakayama Pref. station became famous throughout Japan due to its feline station master. Tourists flock there to catch a glimpse of  the calico cat Tama, who greets visitors wearing her special cat-size station master’s hat. Mitooka has run with the cat theme by creating a new thatched roof that resembles a cat’s head, with two stained-glass windows for eyes. Local craftsmen were employed at considerable expense to create an authentic thatched roof, which is usually seen in shrines and temples. It is indeed the cat’s meow.

Pulsations (09.20.10)

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Here are the latest Pulsations, links to fresh stories and visuals about Japan, shout-outs to fellow bloggers, and highly clickable stuff that we think you might enjoy.

In no particular order, they are . . .

  • Eikaiwa Underworld: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned (from Japan Subculture Research Center): Repeat after us: “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
  • Paying and Avoiding NHK (from Mutantfrog Travelogue): Tired of NHK knocking on your door from NHK? Click on.
  • The Lead Poisoning Thesis (from Frog in a Well): Did toxic makup reeeally contribute to the fall of the Tokugawa regime? Do tell.
  • Addictive ads (from Pink Tentacle): Pre-Don Draper advertising in Japan: “Defense for country, tobacco for society”
  • The Premium Pricing “Problem” (from Néojaponisme): Japanese are renowned for paying top dollar for imported luxury goods, but is it their fault?
  • Modern Times (from Ampontan):  The Terminator needs Japan’s support for the California bullet train project, but should a country be lending money it doesn’t have to a “deadbeat subnational government”?

Tokyo cafe entrepreneurs bring more to the table

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Sunday Issue

It’s a book corner, a lounge, a gallery: It’s the recently opened Sunday Issue

Would you like cinnamon, cocoa or a dusting of nail jewelry with your cappuccino? From innovative fitness classes to crossover art spaces, new Tokyo cafes are expanding the idea of what goes well with a cup of coffee.

Coffee shops with character have long been an institution in Japan, but  true cafe culture only started to take off about 10 years ago. While coffee chains are now as common as convenience stores and the  designer cafe boom  is still going strong, it appears that some café entrepreneurs are looking beyond java, jazz and scones and serving up some personality with a hobby or two on the side. And we’re not talking maid cafes and cat cafes.

Blurring the line between cafe and fitness center and between outdoors and in, “Wired Cafe <> FIT” opened this summer near Yoyogi Park. The gym part is an indoor/outdoor fitness center. Classes include jogging or Nordic walking in the park alone or in combination with stationary pursuits like yoga or tai-chi inside the studio. Online, their Twitter account and blog post updates (e.g. “Today’s running session is canceled due to bad weather” – bummer). They also have a streaming feed of the park to show the weather. Too hot? Too cold? Too… tired? Stop into the cafe in the same space instead and, you know, think about running. The cafe there offers dishes targeting those who try to stay healthy (dessert is zucchini bread) and, like all Wired Cafes, has wireless Internet access (despite the name).

For those who prefer to get their pulse rates up with more intellectual pursuits, Sunday Issue is a cafe/lounge/bar split into three spaces that merge into one another: a gallery, a book corner and a lounge bar. Gallery director Meg Ohta explains that the name and overall concept were inspired by the way a Sunday paper encourages readers to take the time to relax and spend time soaking in culture and the arts. The back room is a an eclectically curated collection of vintage books for sale or for browsing at the warmly lit table. The gallery space has rotating exhibits, both group and solo shows. The bar and cafe space at the front of the gallery is meant to encourage discussion through events like art talks and film screenings. And artists and authors who come in for events don’t just give talks, they take turns as guest bartenders. “People can talk to them directly over drinks,” Ohta explains. At an upcoming “Film Study Meeting,” the filmmaker-bartenders will hand out personalized movie recommendation cards free with a beverage. Sunday Issue is perched above fellow newcomer On The Corner, which draws the hungry Shibuya crowd with dishes like jambalaya and falafel and coffee by Bear Pond, a favorite among coffee connoisseurs.

Lavish, near Harajuku Station, is a colorful “self-nail” shop that “takes pride in being girly.” Patrons can decorate their own gel nails (under the watch of a supportive professional) at glass-covered shadow box tables while enjoying coffee and other drinks. Go easy on the joe, though – caffeine jitters do not a happy manicure make.

(Research assistance by Leena Salmela)

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