Archive for November, 2010

Drive-thru Nippon: convenience or hazard?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

While finger-food friendly places like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mister Donuts have all had drive-thru windows across Japan for years, Nikkei Trendy says drive-thrus are evolving. These days, more distinctly Japanese fare is getting the meals-on-wheels treatment . . . though drivers would do well to consider that the hazards of eating them while behind the wheel.

Ringer Hut's new drive-thru, featuring Nagasaki champon

Ringer Hut's new drive-thru, featuring Nagasaki champon

Gindaco is a chain of takoyaki restaurants that has made drive-thrus a big part of its strategy for northern Kanto. Takoyaki is known as a street food, a favorite at festivals and in entertainment districts. Rows of cast-iron shells are filled with dough then usually handed out in paper or styrofoam trays. Right before eating, they’re doused with a brush of brown sauce, a shake of dried nori and maybe a glurt of mayo topped off with a handful of katsuo shavings. The takoyaki balls are usually wolfed down at a standing or seated counter. They’re deceptively steamy under all those toppings, and the first bite often leads to hands clapped over mouths and muffled cries of “atsui!” (hot!).  So they’re not exactly an obvious choice for a drive-thru. At almost the exact same size as a doughnut hole, they may seem perfect for handing over to the driver one at a time — except for all those toppings and their searing temperature. And the window between blistering hot and cool and claggy is narrow.

Ringer Hut expanded on the success of its Kyushu branches and opened its first drive-thru in the Tokyo area at the end of August. The Nagasaki champon they serve is surely one of the least drive-thru friendly foods out there. It’s a big flat plate of crunchy noodles with a slightly gluey sauce filled with vegetables, squid pieces and pink slices of fish cake. Ringer Hut designed a special multi-part disposable serving system for the noodles, two separate lidded plates that nestle neatly into a cardboard carrying case. Ingenious? Possibly. Front-seat friendly? No way.

Matsuya has drive-thru windows for its inexpensive beef and rice dishes. They use a similar compartmentalized container to keep the beef and rice separate until ready to eat, presumably while the car isn’t moving. Even-cheaper beef-bowl chain Yoshinoya is just starting to creep into the drive-thru market.

Tsukemen is even more impossible to eat on the road. The noodles and thick soup stay in their separate bowls, and you dip the noodles into the soup. I’m not alone in thinking that this is not really a road-friendly dish. It was actually a topic of discussion on a Japanese Yahoo! message board. Easy to eat or not, noodle shop Rokurinsha saw the drive-thru as an option.  Rokurinsha added a drive-thru window to a popular shop in Shinagawa to combat long lines of pedestrians that were annoying the neighbors. Instead, now, they’re facing the possibility of long lines of cars.

Japan by the numbers (11.26.10)

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Virtual karaoke dates, courtesy of Konami

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

loveplus karaoke

Need a karaoke partner? Rinko Kobayakawa, Manaka Takan and Nene Anegasaki are at your service.

For me karaoke is a really bad date. I mean who wants to hear the excruciatingly awful vocal stylings of your new beau, or indeed subject them to your own caterwauling. That’s why Konami’s version of the karaoke date ticks all the right boxes: your virtual reality partner sounds great, has a bunch of cute dance moves and won’t complain if you join in enthusiastically, even if you’re totally off key.

Karoke Date With Your Girl!” is the latest Love Plus spin-off project to capitalize on the runaway success of the virtual dating DS game. A collaboration between Konami and karaoke machine manufacturers Joysound, the Love Plus songs were launched on the Crosso karaoke machine on Nov. 19.  There are three songs to chose from, each featuring a different Love Plus character who is shown singing and dancing along to the music in front of a background that looks like the typical interior of a karaoke room. Manaka Takane sings “Lum no Love Song,” Rinko Kobayakawa does a rendition of “Sobakasu” and the popular Nene Anegasaki performs “MUGO·N . . .  Iroppoi.” If you’d like to check out the results have a gander at this YouTube video.

Continue reading about Love Plus karaoke →

Ready, set, EAT all you can in 15 minutes

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

How much food and booze gobble up and guzzle down in 15 minutes? This is the challenge presented to patrons at Viking Izakaya Odaidoko Sakeba, where they can eat and drink as much as they like for ¥375. Opened in Yokohama last month, the place is already fully booked at weekends with customers eager to wolf down as much food and drink as they can within the allotted time.

Eat and drink all you can, as fast as you can

Eat and drink all you can, as fast as you can

Viking is not a tall blond Norse marauder but a self-service buffet and this one offers items such as oden, nabe (hot pots) and salads, as well as beer, shochu and cocktails. Customers are not limited to sticking to the 15-minute rule, but simply pay for an extra 15 minutes once the time is up. The concept may well catch on.

This year has seen a cut-throat price war among izakaya looking to break even under poor economic conditions and all kinds of tricks are being implemented to attract customers. Earlier this year we wrote about the trend of izakaya offering free shochu to customers and one price establishments selling dishes and drinks for prices as low as ¥270.

The concept of tabe/nomihodai (all you can eat and drink) deals is not new, but the shorter time period is. Typically izakaya offer these deals for periods of 90 minutes to two hours, after which time the (typically wasted) group is kicked out. We suspect that allowing customers to stay for as long or short a time as they like could cause problems for staff.

Continue reading about tabehodai campaigns →

They’ve got a Twitter bot for that

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Twitter love is showing no signs of abating in Japan. It’s not just real live people “muttering” their 140-character thoughts, though. As much as a quarter of traffic on the microblogging site is thought to come from automated accounts, or “bots.” Japanese Twitter bots are slightly different than English-language bots. While many of the most popular bots in English do something – remind you of your to-do list, say, or help you calculate a tip – a large portion of the most popular bots in Japan spout quotes from celebrities and anime programs.

Welcome your new bot friends

Meet your new bot friends

And while Japanese engineers are working hard to create real-world robots that will fool us into thinking they’re real, some of the artificial intelligence bots on Twitter have already succeeded. Last year, a Japanese blogger wrote about being surprised to discover that some of his Twitter friends were actually bots. There are scads of AI bots like Robot Secretary. Included in this group of advanced bots is the popular Shuumai, which ”learns” speech by reading what people write and then tries to regurgitate it appropriately.

Who’s who

According to a Goo ranking, the celebrity bot that people most want to follow is Matsuko Deluxe. There are at least three bots tweeting quotes by the zaftig cross-dressing TV personality and columnist, with a total of over 100,000 followers.  The quotes are a bit barbed, whether they’re directed at other TV personalities (“The women on Nippon TV are mostly no good“), at him/herself (“I don’t even know if I’m funny“; “I think I should try a little harder“) or at no one in particular (“Basically, I don’t like you.”)

Two ranks down and a world away is Becky, a singer/comedian/actress who at one point  in her career had officially (er, that’s “officially”) changed her name to include emoticons. Her smiling headshot, backed with Brady Bunch blue, replies to keywords, like “good night,” with upbeat messages peppered with music notes and stars. The person responsible for this bot is also the brains behind behind one that impersonates Softbank’s CEO Masayoshi Son.

Also in the top 10 are the famous words of Beat Takeshi (“I want skill more than money, sensibility more than power.”) and the Seattle Mariners Ichiro Suzuki (“What motivates me is that I like baseball.”)

The Peter Drucker bot translates the American management expert’s wisdom into Japanese tweets. A novel about a high school girls’ baseball team studying his techniques made him a buzzword in Japan this year, perhaps an unexpected posthumous honor.

Continue reading about Twitter bots in Japan →

Japan by the numbers (11.22.10)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Anti-virus products diversify as fear sells

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Pico's masks provide trendy protection from infection

Pico’s masks provide trendy protection from infection

Products that claim to filter out or kill viruses are hugely popular in Japan; likewise, the market for surgical masks, sterile hand sanitizers and air purifiers is pretty healthy. There’s no shame in wearing a mask on the crowded train to work and, since the swine flu outbreak of 2009, it’s become pretty standard procedure to use a hand sanitizer upon entering the office building. While such precautions might seem a little obsessive, it’s become just a part of everyday life in Japan.

Virus Attacker designed by Nendo

Virus Attacker designed by Nendo

As the market grows, the design of these products is getting increasingly funky. This summer an air purifier called Virus Attacker, designed by the famous Nendo team for S.T. Corporation, came out on the market. Minimal and white, the Virus Attacker leans forward in order to target those nasty bugs, while adding a touch of space-age glamor to your home.

Anxious parents looking to protect their infants from infection have been snapping up a new product that completely encases a child in a protective environment when out and about. Basically a protective covering made out of breathable fabric that fits over baby strollers, the Vacuum Mask is designed to filter out harmful viruses, creating a sterile environment that would have been the envy of hypochondriac millionaire Howard Hughes. With little in the way of a media campaign, according to Nikkei Trendy, the product has sold out in many pharmacies across the country since it went on sale on 19 Oct.

Outdoors adult protection is still restricted to surgical masks, but recently cooler versions than the classic hospital white have been appearing on the market. We like this zebra print version by Pico and the girly mask from Design Mask, made with Gothic Lolita’s in mind.

As the weather gets colder and trains fill up with sniffling passengers, sales of anti-virus products look set to be brisk. Stocked up yet?

Can PET bottles and Hello Kitty rescue Beaujolais Nouveau?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Aeon's 'one coin' Beaujolais Nouveau looks set to win the price war

Looking for just a taste? Aeon's half bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau (left) might be the ticket

There was a time, in the early naughties, when Japanese consumers rushed en masse to wine shops and events in late November to snap up bottles of the hugely hyped Beaujolais Nouveau. Due to a number of factors, sales began to slide toward the latter half of the decade,  and the young French wine is now going through a bit of a crisis in Japan. Can a combination of cut-throat prices, cheaper bottles and clever marketing save it from the wastebin of also-rans?

Your average bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau used to cost around ¥2,000 to ¥3,000, but falling sales have sparked a price war. At the front lines of the battle is retail giant Aeon, who own Jusco, Saty and MaxValu. The company will be offering a 375 ml half bottle of Philippe de Mery Beaujolais for the low “one coin” price of ¥500.

Continue reading about Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan →

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