Archive for January, 2011

A Valentine’s day out with the girls

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Kichiri's Valentine set meal claims to have beauty and health boosting properties

Japanese women are used to taking the initiative on Valentine’s Day. In fact, it’s traditional for ladies in Japan to buy a nice box of chocolates for their objects of affection. Pay-back comes on White Day, when it’s the men’s turn to hand out the chocolates. Every year in Japan, vendors roll out new products and services to cash in on the dual rites of romance (as well as the obligatory giri choco for the office set).

Coincidentally, a recent survey carried out by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare showed  evidence of an alarming trend that could affect Valentine Day’s to come. If such surveys are to be trusted, less and less Japanese are having sex. The number of married couples doing it are down and more than a third of men between the ages of 16 to 19 just aren’t interested.

Can we link lower libidos with chocolate-buying patterns? No. But we couldn’t help but notice another timely trend in the mix: Valentine’s joshikai (women’s group) packages.

Restaurant chain Kichiri is offering a jyoshikai Valentine’s set meal for ¥4,000 from Jan. 28 to Feb. 14. Perhaps to prove that ladies needn’t give up on the idea of future dates completely, the meal includes health- and beauty-boosting ingredients such as avocado and broccoli. The Valentine’s jyoshikai offered by Vega in Kobe, in contrast, comprises of a gut busting five-course meal to be rounded off with a stupendous chocolate pastry.

Other businesses offering Jyoshi Kai Valentine’s Day set meals include: Hotel Osaka Bay Tower, Hotel New Hankyu, Osaka and Hotel Monterey, Osaka. Our favorite, though, has to be the Outback Steakhouse Valentine’s joshikai campaign: The lucky ladies who win the online lottery will get to tuck into a premium steak, smothered in garlic cream sauce, for just ¥2,500. If a smooch with the man of your dreams is off the menu, then why not?

Do Valentine joshikai reflect a tectonic shift in Japanese society … or are they just another way to a milk a marketing buzzword? For now, we’re leaning toward the latter. But with more herbivorous men seeping into the gene pool, you never know.

Do you think joshikai will become part of Valentine’s Day traditions? Sound off below.

Personal humidifiers steam things up

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Moist and light

Say what you want about man-made global warming. How come nobody’s railing against man-made global drying? At least in Tokyo, where a lot of indoor heating is some variation of forced air, hot blasts of air parch throats, gum up eyes and chap skin.

To combat the low indoor humidity, there are humidifiers in all shapes and sizes, from behemoths that sit on the floor to the ubiquitous bright plastic rings and teardrops and globes that puff away on lobby end tables and office desks. Now, moisture is getting more personal. This winter is seeing lots of new USB humidifiers, little tanks of water that plug into your computer (what could go wrong?) to sultrify your own workstation. Sauna Boy is pretty adorable, in a stressed-out cartoon kind of way.

The USB Humidifier from Green House is eco-chic, while Owltech makes USB plug-in humidifiers that look like cans of green tea or “Premium Moist” beer. To complete the college dorm effect, there’s one that looks like a styrofoam cup of instant noodles. That’s fine for people who sit still. But this is the age of people on the go! Who has time to sit around near a machine that pumps out warm steam or clouds of cool-to-the touch ultrasonic vapor? If the disheveled  shelves at Bic Camera are any indication, not the people of Tokyo. Electronic personal humidifiers and misters offer a pocket-ready solution to a problem you may not have known you have: how to keep hydrated on the go?

Despite the rather unsexy name, Panasonic’s Pocket Inhaler (ポケット吸入器 ) is positioned firmly in the beauty market. Its 12-ml tank will electronically pump out a fine, 40-micrometer mist for up to 3 minutes to comfort a dry throat.

Battery-operated misters like Moisture Mist (not to be confused with enormous industrial cooling humidifiers with the same name) aerosolize any watery beauty fluid to rehydrate skin. The imiy (pronounced “I me”) slides open like a cell phone to deliver a proprietary nanomist-ified  hydrating “essence.” The Ya-Man Photomister raises the stakes by adding a ring of little lights to its nanomist. This increases the moisturizing properties of the mist, they say. These devices range from about ¥5,000 to ¥20,000.

Similar in concept, Sharp has scaled down its line of Plasmacluster ion generators and introduced two new personal-sized devices this season. They don’t humidify exactly; they spray ions around you to, they claim, disinfect the air.  The car Plasmacluster unit is  shaped like a big coffee cup to fit into vehicle cup holders. The desktop unit plugs into a computer’s USB port and looks like a sleek, slightly overgrown cellphone. A display model spotted at Bic was even covered in applique crystals — would you expect anything less in the heart of Shibuya?

Thirst growing overseas for nihonshu

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Barrels of sacred sake at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Barrels of sacred sake at Meiji Jingu Shrine (Miguel Michán photo; Flickr link below)

Nihonshu, or sake as it is known to the rest of the world, is selling well overseas. According to a recent report by Mainichi newspaper, Ministry of Finance trade statistics for January to November exports indicate that more sake than ever before has been flowing out of the country. To be precise, 12,223 kiloliters of sake, breaking the record of set in 2008 of 12,151 kiloliters. An upturn in the global economy and an increase in interest in Japanese cuisine both seem to be factors driving the boom. Countries importing sake included the U.S., China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and North Korea.

“In truth, the trend has been going on for about 15 years or more,” sake expert John Gauntner said in a recent e-mail. “And every year a new record was set, until the Lehman Shock in ’08, and sales dropped again in ’09, only to rebound in 2010. There are a million things behind the long trend, but the gist of it all is that people overseas are finally coming to understand what good sake is all about. At the same time, more and more premium sake is becoming available as the distribution system realizes its potential. The big problem now is the exchange rate. If it were not for that the growth would be much, much better!”

The strong yen aside, the market growth has been phenomenal in South Korea. According to Sankei News, the country’s agriculture and fishery marketing corporation put the sake import market at $270,000 in 2000 but in 2009 this rose to $9,560,000. This rise is all the more astounding considering the fact that, due to heavy taxes, a bottle of sake in South Korea can cost three times as much as the same product in Japan.

The trend is driven by an increase in the numbers of Japanese-style pubs (izakaya) that have been popping up all over the country. Quite simply, when Koreans eat Japanese they also want to drink nihonshu. But it’s all part of a wider trend in South Korea that began around the time of the 2002 World Cup when many Koreans traveled to Japan and experienced Japanese culture (and vice versa). Young people are now keen to embrace Japanese culture and that includes not only its cuisine but also manga and anime.

The love is flowing both ways. As we reported previously, Korean pop culture is booming in Japan and appropriately, Korea’s sweet white alcoholic drink makkori has also proved to be a big hit with the nation. Part of the appeal of makkori is that it’s lower in alcohol than nihonshu and appeals to younger drinkers who find sake a little too strong for their taste … which provides impetus enough for  nihonshu  brewers to see new drinkers overseas.

Photo by Miguel Michan

Unusual souvenirs deliver Japan in a can

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Browsing the shelves of Tokyu Hands the other day, a member of the Japan Pulse team came upon a display of weird and wonderful sweeties. Among the items on sale were various cans of bizarrely flavored sweets including: katsudon (deep fried pork cutlet) drops from Aisu and yaki udon (fried noodle) drops from Kakura. After marveling at these canned items, a story in Nikkei Trendy caught our attention: From May this year, visitors to the volcanic island of Sakurajima will be able to buy cans of volcanic ash to commemorate their visit. Once we’d read that, we had to satisfy our craving for more weird and wonderful canned goods being sold as souvenirs in Japan. Here’s our roundup of what we found:

Katsudon drops with extra "source"

Aroma! Osaka: These three cans each contain aromas that are designed to conjure up the atmosphere of the city. Each can is meant to contain a smell that sums up a particular area of the city. The smell of thick stage makeup in one can is supposed to conjure up an image of Dotonbori’s theatrical past. In another can, the smell of the sea is meant to make you think of kimono-wearing mama-sans from the Kitashinchi entertainment district. The aroma of Tenpouzan, Osaka’s harbor village, is billed as a “scent of memories” — that first date on a Ferris wheel. Ahhh. Surprisingly, there’s no takoyaki (fried octopus ball) scent.

Akihabara canned oden: Oden, a soup which contains thick chunks of radish, eggs and other delights, was put into cans by Chichibu Denki and went on sale on the streets of Akihabara from vending machines back in the ‘90s. The product has been hugely popular with the town’s geeks who consume the stew while waiting in line to purchase limited-edition goods. If you’d like to try Akihabara canned oden, you can buy a can on Flutterscape.

Canned pearls: These cans contain shellfish that you are supposed to prize open to extract a pearl hidden inside. The color of the “freshwater pearl” you end up with will signify luck in a particular area of your life: a pink pearl indicates you’ll be lucky in love; white guarantees good health;  cream is for all-round good fortune; purple is for study and black bodes well for your finances. While this is not necessarily a souvenir, it can be bought at souvenir stores in seaside tourist destinations such as Matsushima.

Canned drops: These canned sweeties come in “traditional” flavors, yet not exactly the sorts of flavors you’d normally associate with candy. Each flavor is linked to a region. For Fukuoka, there’s Motsu Nabe, which captures the taste of the region’s famous offal hotpot. Yum! Others taste treats on offer include Kyoto Tsukemono (pickled vegetables), Mojiko Yaki Curry (fried curry) and Ooita Yuzu Kosyo (yuzu pepper). (Here’s a photo gallery of a few.) As mentioned, you can currently find these on the first floor of Tokyu Hands Shibuya, and online at JBox.

Hai! Douzo: What’s the perfect souvenir to bring back from a volcanic island? Canned volcanic ash, of course. The name of Sakurajima’s Hai! Douzo plays on the double meaning of “hai,” which can mean both “yes” and “ash.” We reckon that those buying the can of ash will probably be purchasing it more for the joke than for its contents. Hai! Douzo is scheduled to go on sale from May this year.

Seen any more funky souvenirs? Keep us posted in the comments below.

A winter touchscreen solution that fits hand in glove

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Touch screen gloves at Loft

Last winter, enterprising South Koreans reportedly found a low-tech answer to a first world problem: To avoid operating cell-phone touchscreens without gloves in freezing weather, they used mini sausages as finger surrogates. Whether or not you choose to believe that people were actually using the so-called meat stylus, it did make the news in Japan.

A year later, alas, sausages are not flying off the shelves, but Japanese retailers obviously did read the hand signals for help. This winter, as sales of smartphones in Japan topped 3.8 million units for 2010, local stores are stocking special gloves with conductive fingertips that let people to keep their digits warm and still operate phone and tablet touchscreens.

The current range of touchscreen gloves at Seibu Loft and Tokyu Hands is impressive, with prices ranging from about ¥1,000 to ¥5,000.The E-Touch gloves (not to be confused with the similar iTouch gloves) are also knit gloves, but have gripping material at the palms for hanging onto to those extra slippery devices. Echo Touch gloves, imported from New York, are at the higher end of the price spectrum. Made from a fleecy wool blend, they feature panels of “eLink” fabric at the fingertips.

Japanese brands are also holding their own. The simplest and least expensive are the Pitakuro Touch, which come in bright colors with contrasting silvery thumb and index fingertips. Gloves from evolg sold out almost as soon as they went on sale online at Rakuten two months ago. Though Rakuten promised a new shipment in mid-December, almost all patterns and styles are currently sold out on evolg’s own website. With soft fabric and playful dots and stripes sealed into sleek packaging, it’s not surprising.

Touchscreen gloves from Momiji, another made-in-Japan line, might not have the same flair as the flashier brands, but they are conductive in all fingers, not just two or three. Come to think of it, any make of gloves is bound to be more stylish than carrying around a plastic-wrapped sausage. And you can rest assured that they’re not going to go bad if you happen to leave them in a pocket for a while.

Lucky bags give away secrets before purchase

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Wild scenes were witnessed in Shibuya’s 109 on Jan. 2 as the scramble for fukubukuro (lucky draw bags”) got underway. The store opened its doors at 6:45 a.m., to let in long lines of teen shoppers, some of whom had been queuing since midnight to get their hands on a bag of unknown goodies from their favorite brand. Once inside, according to Shibuya Keizai Shimbun, staff struggled to maintain order as the teen hordes waged war to snap up bargain bags.

Taking a gamble on a fukubukuko (Janne Moren photo)

Uptown in Ginza, things were, of course, a little more refined, but competition for some of the choicest department store fukubukuro was fierce. According to Yomiuri Online, hot items like Printemp’s Jyoshi Kai (women’s meet up) bag, sold out in the first day they went on sale.

Swift sales of fukubukuro, coupled with healthy sales figures for the first day’s trading for Tokyo’s department stores, have been taken as good indications that the Japanese economy is recovering. The newly refurbished Mitsukoshi Ginza, which was reopened in September, last year reported an increase in sales of 40 percent for the same day last year. Part of the draw for customers was the lucky bags that stores claim contain items exceeding the bag’s retail price.

These days, fukubukuro buying is a more transparent process. There’s a tendency now to advertise what the bags will contain. What’s now left to chance is whether you happen to land a bag that contains a special extra item. The standard Jyoshi Kai bag, for instance, contained a fondue set and an apro,n among other pre-advertised contents. Three out of 20 bags, however, also contained a bottle of rose champagne. The bags cost ¥15,000 each.

The bags also reflected recent cultural trends. Jyoshi kai is a word to describe the growing trend among women to indulge in female-only activities, especially dinner dates. Mountain climbing was also a hit with young women this year and, appropriately, Seibu brought out the Yama Gaaru (Mountain Girl) fukubukuro. Aimed at beginner female mountain climbers, the bag, which cost ¥10,000, contains climbing gear from famous alpine brands. Out of  10 available in the store three contained tickets for a prize draw giving the holder a chance to win a domestic holiday.

Another trend in fukubukuro is the “experience lucky bag.” Those who pre-order a bag before the New Year are buying into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mitsukoshi department store came up with this concept in 2008 and the idea has really caught on. This year one of the most sought-after experience fukubukuro was Tobu department store’s Sky Tree Tower Trip. The lucky few would get to visit the construction site, take photos and get their mitts on some special souvenirs, all for just ¥2,010.

Perhaps one of the weirder experience bags was the mother/daughter department store experience. Those who bought this bag for ¥2,100 will be able to dress up in a shocking pink Seibu department store uniform and then enjoy the experience of manning the store’s reception desk, working in the elevator and making in store announcements. That’s right, Mom. You can set the bar high for your little girl’s future career prospects!

Fukubukuro photo by Janne Moren

Will fortune shine on a campaign for new year’s udon?

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Nissin's Toshi Ake Udon that contains your new year's fortune and bears the Toshi Ake seal

Can traditions be kickstarted with just a clever marketing campaign? Well, Kentucky Fried Chicken successfully managed to get the Japanese to associate Christmas with fried chicken, so there is a precedent. A campaign to get the nation to eat udon (thick wheat flour noodles) over the New Years’ holidays  is now in its third year and, according to J-Cast, it’s experiencing modest success.

Udon manufacturers in Kagawa Prefecture banded together in 2008 to form Sanuki Udon Promotion Committee. To combat declining udon sales, the committee launched the “Toshi Ake Udon” (start the New Year with udon) campaign to introduce the concept of eating a bowl of noodles on or after New Year’s day. Traditionally Japanese eat toshikoshi soba (end-of-year thin noodles) before New Year’s day (eating the long thin noodles is a way to promote a long healthy life), so the idea is to to get Japanese eating udon in the same way once the new year has begun. The udon is to be consumed with a celebratory red topping such as red kamaboko (slices of steamed fish paste), shrimp or ume boshi (dried plum).

Central to the campaign is a round seal that is displayed on products endorsed by the committee. Sanuki Udon Promotion Committee have announced that the number of companies applying to use their seal this year has increased. In November 2010, 391 companies in Japan had applied: an increase of 66 companies since January 2010. The number of restaurants serving toshi ake udon in Kagawa Prefecture has also increased: from 49 to 66 in the space of a year.

The reason why the committee was formed in Kagawa Prefecture is because Sanuki in Kagawa is known for its delicious noodles. The area even enjoyed something of a tourism boom earlier in the decade when a guide to the region’s noodle stores was published, and a movie, unimaginatively called “Udon,” was even made about the craze and even Haruki Murakami namechecked the town of Takamatsu in Kagawa, where his main character in “Kafka on the Shore” goes and enjoys a bowl of Sanuki udon.

So far a couple of major brands have launched products displaying the seal. Instant-noodle company Nissin launched its limited edition Donbei Toshi Ake Udon last year. It contains ume boshi, kamaboko and a fortune, which can be found at the bottom of the bowl. Last year the product sold out quickly and this year was reintroduced on Dec. 20. Udon chain store Hanamaru Udon has been selling toshi ake udon for three years running, each year with different ingredients. This year’s product is Medetai (congratulations) Toshi Ake Udon, which contains slices of seabream sashimi (the tai in medetai is the kanji for sea bream), served atop udon in a dashi broth. Available until Jan. 10, it costs ¥580. If you’re up for taking up a new tradition, pop by and fill up.

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