Archive for December, 2011

2011 trends: B-kyu here to stay

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Cheap, filling and locally produced, B-kyu gourmet food has been trending for awhile now in Japan, so much so that rather than being a passing fad, it’s now become an integral part of Japan’s foodie culture. Driven at a grass-roots level by local chefs and fans, simple and satisfying B-kyu dishes are now also available in convenience stores and increasingly in metropolitan restaurants.

Mikihiro Ishiga, from the Hiruzen Yakisoba Fan Association accepts the B-kyu Grand Prix top prize this year. (Kyodo photo)

Though B-kyu dishes can now be sampled at food festivals throughout Japan, the nexus event for B-kyu gourmet is the B-1 Grand Prix. Established in 2008, the event pits teams of chefs from all over Japan against each other. Interest in the event is rapidly growing. At this year’s event last month in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, ticket sales reached a record high, totaling  ¥200,006,000, while a record number of 63 groups took part.

At this very democratic event, visitors get to pick the winners for themselves, by depositing their used chopsticks in a tin at the stall offering the dish they like the best. A win can boost local economies bringing foodie tourists to that area, and it can also get consumers interested in trying out local ingredients used in a dish.

Winning dishes can often get picked up by convenience stores, who then offer a version for sale in their stores. For example, Atami B-kyu Yaki Udon (fried noodles), which came fifth place in last year’s Hokkaido Grand Prix, was on sale for a limited period in Circle K and Sunkus this year. The ingredients for the dish’s trademark sour sauce, which included apples, shitake mushrooms and onions, were locally sourced in Iwate. Another B-kyu dish on sale in convenience stores was Tsuyama Hormone Udon (noodles), which went on sale in Poplar convenience stores.

Restaurants are also getting in on the act. Nakano B-kyu Izakaya has a menu based around the B-1 Grand Prix, allowing citizens in Japan’s capital city to get a taste of local dishes without having to travel. Filling, reasonably priced, and unpretentious, B-kyu dishes are perfectly suited to be served in izakaya (Japanese inns); other similar establishments, such as B-kyu Gourmet Village in Shibuya, also seem to be thriving.

Last month “Tokyo B-kyu Gourmet Chronicles,” Tokyo’s B-kyu version of the insanely popular Michelin Guide, was published. A guide to well-established local neighborhood eateries, which might have been passed over by the more elitist diner, the book’s emphasis is on eating well for under ¥1,000. With the economic downturn set to continue, it’s no wonder that this trend for homely cooking has taken root in Japan’s food culture.

2011 trends: Korean boom spreads to a new generation

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

The news that Korean girl group Kara will be performing on “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” a widely watched New Year’s TV show that features Japan’s top artists, is further proof that the Korean boom is here to stay. As K-pop continues to dominate the charts, it’s now an irrefutable fact that the craze for all things Korean has crossed over to the younger generation and officially become cool.

Ginza K Place, opened in September this year features handsome young Korean artists

Though an older generation of Japanese women have been swooning over handsome Korean actors for years, now the younger generation is hooked on the upfront sexiness of acts like Girls’ Generation and Kara. Along with getting into the music, many fans have developed a curiosity about all things Korean, which has lead to growing numbers of young Japanese hitting the streets of Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s Korea town.

Aside from the spicy cuisine, one of the biggest draws in Shin-Okubo is K-pop music hall Seichi, which opened in April this year. Performances by young Korean musicians are held three times a day and groups of fans can be seen waiting outside for performances on the streets. Also opening in April this year was the K Theatre, located in the slightly more upmarket Ebisu area. Further uptown a third venue opened in September. Rather more pricey, Ginza K Place caters to the older diehard fans who come to swoon over attractive male Korean singers.

But don’t let this lead you to believe all Japanese are enamored with Korean entertainment. This year Japan witnessed a rather ugly backlash against the trend for airing Korean dramas on Japanese TV. Five-hundred protesters gathered outside of Fuji TV headquarters to protest against the channel’s programming policy. The protest was sparked off by a tweet from disgruntled actor Sousuke Takaoka. Takaoka wrote: “I’ll never watch Channel 8 (Fuji TV) again. I often think it’s Korean TV. Japanese people want traditional Japanese programs.” Predictably, the nationalist far right rallied around his whine and mobilized the 2chan forces.

The summer’s skirmish aside, the Korean phenomena is likely to continue apace in 2012. Nikkei Women is predicting that Japanese women will be embracing the latest Korean cosmetic trend: a beauty cream called Prestige cream d’escargot made from snail entrails that is all the rage in Seoul.

More than one way to keep your heating bill down

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

King Jim's Urapoka brings the kotatsu experience to your work station

In general, insulation in Japanese homes is poor, so that means during winter heating devices have to be constantly on, driving up heating bills and sapping the power grid. Though this winter is predicted to be warmer than most, many Japanese, aware of energy shortages, will be feeling more than usually chilly as they try to cut down on power consumption.

A traditional method of beating this problem is the kotatsu, a low table that has a heating element underneath and a warm blanket hanging down from all sides; by turning up the heat on legs and feet, the main heating device in the room can be turned down, thus saving energy. Modern methods of keeping nice and toasty without resorting to turning up the room heater are understandably catching on. We’ve compiled a list of the best:

King Jim’s Urapoka: This nifty heating device transforms your desk into a kotatsu. After attaching the heat-sealing flaps to the sides of your desk, simply pop the device under your feet to warm up those frozen toes. 30W, ¥7,329.

Behold the Humanoid Sleeping Bag.

Humanoid Sleeping Bag from Doppelganger Outdoor: Specially selected by Nikkei Trendy as one of the best energy-saving products for winter on the market, if you snuggle up in these caterpillar suits, you probably won’t need to bother switching on the heater at all. It’s possible to unzip hands and feet to free them up for work, though the puffy style probably falls outside the bounds of smart casual business attire. ¥11,550.

Heat Tech underwear, Uniqlo: A survey conducted in October by Nikkei BP’s AIDA showed that over 60 percent of Japanese were intending to wear some from of “underwear”(including short and long t-shirts and short and long shorts) to protect against the cold this winter. Most modern innerwear is designed to have quick drying properties and, of this type, over 50 percent of both men and women favored Uniqlo’s heat tech range. This year sales of heat tech products are up 25 percent from last year, according to Sankei Biz.

Nitom’s Transparent Window Glass Film: Since double-glazing is rare in Japan, many people simply opt to insulate by sticking plastic sheeting directly onto window glass. A newish kind of insulation that sticks onto the window frame, rather than directly onto the glass, thus creating an air pocket, is very popular this year. According to Sankei Business, sales of the stuff during November were triple that of the same period the previous year.

Warm up with these winter drinks trends

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Hot Calpis

Hot beverages in cans or pet bottles are one of the best things about winter in Japan. Warming up your hands as well as your tummy, they’re a great way to beat the cold during this setsuden (power saving) winter. Sold in vending machines or heated displays in convenience stores, product lineups are ever-evolving and this year is no different. Here’s a quick look at what’s trending:

Hot Calpis: Stop sniggering. We know what the name sounds like. Unpleasant connotations aside, this sweet milky drink has been popular as a cooling beverage for years in Japan. Released on the market on Nov. 7, the heated version is milder than the summer drink and a dash of honey gives it a nice wintry touch. It’s one several products added to Calpis’ winter range of heated drinks. Another is Hot Fruits au Lait, a milky blend of sweet fruit juices.

Suntory Iemon Green Espresso

Suntory Iemon Green Espresso: Matcha in a black can for manly men; Suntory is targeting businessmen who would normally warm up with a hot can of coffee. The product has been reasonably successful, according to Nikkei Trendy: During the first month of sales after its launch in September, 600,000 cases of the stuff were sold. The espresso part refers to the fact that this is very strong, gritty green tea, just like the kind made for tea ceremonies. Containing 20 mg of caffeine in every 100 ml, it’s just the thing to give hard workers a boost.

We see some similarities to a product Georgia launched last year. X Green Tea Style Coffee does exactly what is says on the tin, i.e. blending together green tea with coffee. The product also contains sugar and cream and we reckon is the natural, if not mouthwatering, progression on from the popularity of the matcha latte.

Kirin Poppo Cha

Kirin Poppo Cha: Ginger is very much in style at the moment. According to J-Cast, hot ginger drinks have been trending, especially among women, over the past few years. Asahi Newspaper also reports that ginger is trending as a health food. Some women are even carrying around tubes of grated ginger to add to meals as the seasoning is thought to improve circulation and prevent colds.

A non-caffeinated blended tea with a dash of ginger, Kirin’s Poppo Cha is just one of many products on the market. In October, Calpis also released a hot ginger drink onto the market and this year Ginger Chai from Nagatanien has become more widely available in conveninece stores throughout the country following on from its success as a mail order product.

Japan puts out a big welcome mat for wealthy Chinese tourists

Friday, December 9th, 2011

This month sees the launch of Japan Premium, a brand new free magazine targeting wealthy Chinese visitors. A collaborative project between KNT! travel agency and Kadokawa magazines, the publication is an attempt to tap into this desirable demographic by featuring stories on shopping and travel within Japan.

Japan Premium targets wealthy Chinese tourists

Glitzy and up-market, the first issue includes a feature on Tokyo Disneyland and shopping in Ginza. Editorial content and advertising is compiled in Japan, but the magazine itself is translated, printed and distributed in China. The first magazine of its kind, it’s yet another sign that Japanese businesses are beginning to actively target China’s new super rich citizens.

Recent years have seen upscale department stores throughout Tokyo begin to broadcast announcements in Chinese as well as in English and Japanese, and other service industries are now getting wise to the power of the yuan too. Take Mazda Car Rental, for instance, which announced this month that it’d just given its website a facelift which includes multilingual support for Chinese customers. The company stated that it took this move in the recognition of the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists.

According to Bloomberg, the numbers of foreign tourists in general dropped by 63 percent after the quake, but since then the numbers of Chinese visiting Japan have bounced back and even exceeded pre quake levels. Figures recorded by Japan National Tourism Organization show that compared to October last year, visitors from Hong Kong were up by 17 percent and those from Taiwan by 2.6 percent.

Though Western tourists are still hesitant to visit Japan due to a combination of fears about radiation and the high value off the yen, Chinese visitors have proved themselves resilient to these concerns. Bloomberg’s article suggests that visitors to Japan from China will continue to increase as the Chinese economy grows ever more powerful. In the face of these developments we expect to see a lot more Japanese companies who cater to wealthy clientele take measures to attract this rapidly growing demographic.

New era for New Year’s cards

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Forgotten the address? Postman gets it for you via Facebook

As holiday season approaches, people are beginning to start thinking about sending out New Year’s greeting postcards to relatives and friends. JP Post guarantees that all cards marked as nengajo will be delivered on New Year’s day and hires temporary staff to help them achieve this goal. However, in recent years, the burden of delivering nengajo has shifted from the post office to the internet and cell-phone networks, as increasing numbers of people opt to send electronic New Year’s greetings.

Though the web can cope with this increased traffic, cell-phone networks can’t, and every year the major networks issue warnings to customers that after midnight on New Year’s Eve, they can expect delivery delays of up to two hours for mail service as well as difficulty in making calls due to high traffic.

Even if you do get through, sending your nengajo via email may create the impression that you’re not that bothered about the person receiving the message — either that or they’ll think you’re a bit of a tight wad. This year, however, the traditional nengajo has been given a digital facelift and several innovative new services are available to help you get your New Year’s greetings done properly.

  • Postman: Mislaid addresses? No worries. Similar to Giftee, which works utilizing Twitter, this service finds addresses for you via Facebook. Ad agency Dentsu has teamed up with Japan’s Post Office to create Postman and in the future the service will be extended to allow people to send other kinds of greetings cards and even gifts. Using the templates available, you are able to customize your own cards. Available only in Japan, cards cost upward of ¥97.
  • Nenga-Cinema: These nengajo double as gifts. A code printed on the postcard can be input into the nenga-cinema website allowing the receiver to view one of 30 movies available online for free. The service is offered by Ripplex and Sony, and titles available are “Spiderman,” “Men in Black” and “Taxi Driver.” These cards cost a reasonable ¥365.
  • Budemame Nenga 2012: Want a personalized card, but too busy to sit at your desk and create one? Try this Android app, which allows you to create your own card on your smartphone. Combine photos taken on your phone with customizable templates to create a personalized nengajo. To print, send the info to a PC or use a smartphone compatible printer.

Japan’s top 10 buzzwords of 2011

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Nadeshiko Japan, with head coach Norio Sasaki (center) and captain Homare Sawa (center right), show off their Women’s World Cup trophies. (Kyodo photo)

The news in Japan in 2011 was dominated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of the Tohoku region (and proved the worth of Tokyo’s earthquake-resistant architecture). It’s only natural that words related to the disaster and its aftermath made up a good portion of the top buzzwords of the year as chosen by Jiyu Kokuminsha, publishers of an annual book of new and newly important words. However, the mundane and the downright silly mix with the serious in this list, whittled down from an initial 60 nominees, as life did go on for most of Japan, albeit with a new sense of gravity. In descending order, here are the top 10 buzz phrases of 2011 in Japan.

Grand prize-winner: Nadeshiko Japan (なでしこジャパン Nadeshiko Japan): This name for Japan’s women soccer team actually made it into the 2004 list of buzzword nominees, but it was the team’s amazing and inspiring victory at this year’s World Cup that brought them into the lexicon. Even the losing U.S. side was moved by the down-to-the-wire win just three months after the quake. Nadeshiko Japan was the first sports team to receive the People’s Honor Award from Prime Minister at the time, Naoto Kan, for the “fighting spirit” they showed against a better-ranked team and the joy they brought the country with their victory. It’s worth noting that the phrase “yamato nadeshiko” conjures up images of self-sacrificing wives of soldiers, and appropriately, Team Japan really did have to hold down days jobs while working to become the No. 1 team.

Continue reading about top buzzwords of 2011 →

Power saving puts Christmas illuminations in a new light

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

The Winter Sakura lights along Meguro River are powered by used cooking oil

As is the tradition, Christmas lights are twinkling all over Tokyo. When it comes to Christmas decorations the Japanese, who tend to go wild for the glitziest, brightest possible displays, aren’t exactly famed for their self-restraint, so this year poses the problem of how to accomplish the desired amount of dazzle without being seen as an energy hog.

The most obvious answer, and the most popular one, is to swap out normal bulbs for energy-efficient LED lights. Due to LED bulbs’ power-saving qualities, ad agency Dentsu has rated them as the second most popular product in Japan for 2011.

According to Sankei News, Keikyu Railways and the New Otani Hotel have both switched to LED lights. But Ebisu Garden Palace has not only switched over the bulbs of its gigantic Baccarat Crystal chandelier, it’s also reduced the number of bulbs from 60,000 to 40,000. On top of that a solar power panel has been installed to supplement the power supply. The Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa’s, however, have outstripped this effort by installing an entirely solar-powered display of LED lights in its Japanese garden.

Though the hotel’s garden sounds attractive, our favorite eco-friendly display in Tokyo is the “Winter Sakura” illuminations along the Meguro River. Pink LED bulbs are strung on the branches of trees along the river so that it appears as if the cherry blossom trees are blooming out of season. Better yet, the lights are powered from bio diesel made from used cooking oil collected from homes and restaurants in the area.

Some businesses have decided that the best way to do their bit, however, is to dodge the whole issue by not putting up any decorations. SG Holdings, for instance, who run Sagawa Express Ltd. announced that in light of power-saving measures, they decided to cancel any plans for illuminations that might have been put up at their head office or branch offices. This seems a pity especially seeing as Nikken Release Kyogo Ltd has begun renting out eco-friendly LED Christmas trees to meet the demand for a setsuden (power saving) Christmas.

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