Archive for February, 2012

New dishes on company cafeteria menus

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Cleverly promoting their health devices, Marunouchi Tanita Shokudo is capitalizing on the manufacturer's popular book of cafeteria recipes.

Offering cheap, filling staples like curry rice and bowls of noodles, the company shokudo (canteen) in Japan is not generally a place that has foodies waxing lyrical. But ever since Marunouchi Tanita Shokudo opened for business in January and started attracting press for its healthy nutritious meals, there’s been an increasing interest taken in what’s on offer at the company shokudo.

Offering the same dishes as served at Tanita’s cafeteria, Marunouchi Tanita Shokudo serves a low-calorie but tasty menu. The restaurant was opened in response to the success of a recipe book of company canteen dishes published last year. Tanita manufactures bathroom scales and other health devices and is able to use the restaurant as a showroom for its products to health-conscious customers. Visitors to the restaurant can get free dietary advice from nutritionists.

The success of Marunouchi Tanita Shokudo has sparked media interest in the humble company shokudo and a recent set of tours offered by LUXA, a website that sells luxury experience coupons, has allowed a select few members of the public and press to take a sneak peek inside some rather upscale company cafeterias. Recent tours of the canteens of Microsoft and cosmetics manufacturer Pola have shown that these companies are putting on a spread beyond the usual cheap and filling fare.

Microsoft, featured in Tokyo Bargain Mania, has the One Microsoft Cafe on the 19th floor of their new offices in Shinagawa. With its splendid view, the upscale space resembles a luxurious hotel lounge more than a dining hall. The menu is rather sophisticated too offering dishes like “chicken fried in basil with tomato paprika sauce” or “cream cheese mince cutlet.” Despite the swankiness, the prices are extremely reasonable with a main meal and side dish going for around just ¥680. After meals staff can lounge in sofas nearby to enjoy a coffee or a chat.

The latest tour held was at cosmetics company Pola in Gotanda and was featured on J-Cast. Though Pola’s cafeteria predictably serves items such as curry rice, each item is made to be rich in dietary fiber and potassium. The cafeteria also has a unique anti-aging menu on offer every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month that includes dishes such as “clams, bamboo shoots and rice with mackerel sauce” and “tea jelly.”

Dishes containing collagen are purported to be good for the skin and have been popular for several years, so we’re wondering whether the folks at Pola might not be considering publishing a shokudo book of their own, filled with anti-ageing recipes. We’re also keen to see whether other company shokudo will follow their example.

Tech for keeping pace with the marathon trendsetters

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A participant in last year's Tokyo Marathon takes the rat race literally. (Mark Thompson photo)

It’s been two years since the Japanese press got all out of breath announcing an “unprecedented running boom,” and yet the spandex-clad pack of joggers shows no sign of slowing down. Though the numbers are down from last year, this Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon still had almost 10 times as many applicants as the 35,500 spots in the race. The increase in women running put the phrase “beautiful jogger” onto the shortlist of top buzz words for 2011. As the marathoners get in their final practice runs and the spectators stake out their spots, we bring you a few of the tech trends that are going the distance for runners in Japan.

Sites like Run Net and Sports Entry make it easy to apply online for the growing number of races held all over the country. Popular races can fill up the same day they’re announced, leaving many would-be entrants hovering over their computer screens like they’re waiting for a starting gun. In addition to dedicated sites like these, runners in Japan are using Twitter to find running partners and groups with hashtags like #run_jp and #running (in both English and katakana).

Running rings around the Imperial Palace

The American fitness app RunKeeper has a loyal following among runners in Japan, even though the interface is only in English. A similar Japanese app called Tweet Runners also maps and shares completed runs on social media and is sponsored by pharmaceutical and supplement company Otsuka. Maybe not surprising for an app from a company better known for products like CalorieMate bars and the sports drink Pocari Sweat than its software, runners find its functions less robust than RunKeeper’s.

While not a role model for every runner, Tokyo Marathon veteran Joseph Tame is showing exactly what is possible when mobile tech is applied to the marathon course. Over the past few years, Tame has made an international name for himself by broadcasting his Tokyo Marathon runs via a wearable Ustream studio cobbled together from various mobile-tech devices. He keeps in shape between races and sharpens his tech capabilities at the same time with his “Art of Running” project: His meticulously plotted routes draw pictures or Japanese characters on the Tokyo map when he’s done. This year, he’ll be broadcasting a live interview with a fellow runner every kilometer of the race.

Continue reading about tech at the Tokyo Marathon →

Shared office space bringing businesses together

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Shared open-plan space at Co-lab's Shibuya Atelier allows co-tenants to collaborate

Even if you’re sharing the same floor with another business, traditionally in Japan, to preserve a sense of privacy, office boundaries are properly demarked with booths and partitions. But lately, according to Nikkei Trendy, some new real estate ventures are offering office spaces that blur or even demolish these lines, allowing businesses to interact in potentially beneficial ways.

Take Co-lab, for instance, a company that owns trendy office space in several locations across Tokyo. They offer open-plan office space to those in creative industries, with the aim of getting residents to collaborate together. In order to rent office space, companies must first submit creative work to be vetted by the people at Co-lab before being allowed into the fold. Rather than being secretive about what they’re working on, creative types have the opportunity to share ideas and even collaborate together on projects.

This model resembles the way entrepreneurs are sharing office space and ideas at startup incubators. But open plans are not the only way to encourage connections between businesses located in the same building. Real Gate real-estate agency manages five office blocks across Tokyo, with a sixth to be opened in Aoyama in March, and organizes networking events at all of them to bring tenants together. In addition some buildings also house communal spaces such as bars, gyms and spas, where people can gather to socialize and exchange ideas.

Their latest venture, The Share, in Harajuku offers shared office space similar to that found at Co-lab and, in addition, shared housing space, so that those working there are also able to rent living space if they chose to do so. Opened in December 2011, the place now has a waiting list for those wishing to rent units. Shared housing starts from  ¥95,000 a month for a small private room and access to shared kitchen, bathroom and lounge facilities.

Another space-sharing idea is for businesses to rent out space when their property is not in use, or to rent out surplus space. Website MaGaRi serves as a bulletin board for businesses offering just that. A bar in Shibuya, for instance, is renting out its space in the day to a young woman selling homemade sweets. The bar gets a little bit toward the rent and the businesswoman gets a prime retail spot. Those offering surplus office space also get the chance to make connections with companies in complementary fields, not only lowering their rent, but also potentially giving their business a boost through collaborations.

Plenty of room for passions to grow

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Though Japan is a nation of passionate hobbyists, it’s also a country in which space is at a premium. This poses a dilemma for otaku who spend years amassing huge toy collections, gearheads who want to work on their greasy motors, or arty types who want room in which to slap around some paint without ruining the tatami. Rather than renting out a cheap apartment or storage space, a new solution has been supplied by Reise Hobby, a company that offers versatile units for hobbyists to rent.

Founded in 2006 as a subsidiary of Reise Box storage company, Reise Hobby now own 30 buildings in Kanto and Kansai that house more than 200 “loft” or “maisonette type” spaces. Each space has two floors with private access via a garage door; the lower garage area serves as a workspace, while the upper area can be used as a storage space. This style has proved extremely popular, according to Nikkei Trendy: When the company opened up their new Tama Center in December 2011, half the units were snapped up on the first day they were first offered for sale.

Though users are generally male, the kinds of hobbies they pursue are diverse, ranging from those who want to store bikes or cars to artistic types to avid collectors. Some people rent units just to have a private space of their own, sort of like a secret club house. Units do not come cheap: A 41-sq.-meter unit at their Tama Center, for instance, costs ¥84,000 a month. However, on the plus side, these spaces are well-equipped with toilet, water supply, air conditioner, 50 kw electricity supply a month, electrical outlets and free Internet access. Add to this the freedom to customize the space as you please and these units look increasingly attractive.

If the rental fee still seems steep,  there are places where you can rent time in a shared space. The increased interest in railways, for example, has resulted in a number of businesses offering track rental time on train dioramas. Models IMON, for instance, offer track time in locations across Tokyo, in Harajuku, their rental layout costs¥2,100 for just under two hours and rental of trains comes extra. Since 2010, the Akihabra Washington Hotel even has a special room for densha otaku (train geeks) who can bring along their own trains and whizz them round a diorama of Akihabara for a rather pricy ¥23,000 a night.

The rent-a-space entrepreneurs are also amateur seamstresses. As we mentioned a few years back, there’s been a surge of interest in “remake” fashion (restyling second-hand clothes) and some stores like Sewing Machine Cafe & Lounge Nico, which opened in Setagaya in September 2011, have caught on to this and are offering sewing machine time for budding clothes designers for a small fee.

For some, hiring a space in which to practice their craft becomes the step from being merely an enthusiast to becoming a full-fledged professional. In our next post, we’ll take a look at how new kinds of shared rental spaces are cutting down costs and helping budding entrepreneurs build connections.

Making new connections over lunch

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The Social Lunch app hooks up like-minded business people

A new way of networking is catching on with the twenty- to thirtysomething crowd in Japan. Social lunches arranged over the web, where those in similar industries get together for an informal chat have been growing in popularity lately. At the forefront of this trend is the Facebook app Social Lunch which matches up pairs of professionals for friendly lunches. The idea is that going with a friend you already know takes a lot of the stress out of occasion. According to J-Cast, since the app launched in October last year, 20,000 people have registered for the service and around 900 social lunch dates have taken place as a result.

The app, produced by SyncLunch Inc., is simple to use: Team up with a friend in a similar profession, type in preferred location and time and it will match you up with another pair who may be useful for you to network with for a lunch date. J-Cast’s writer signed up with a former colleague who was a graphic designer and was paired up with a couple of guys, one of whom was looking for design tips for his new website. The lunch was a success and seemed a possible opening to future collaborations.

A similar option is the Twitter-based Hirukai service from Digital Garage Inc. Instead of meeting at a restaurant, though, the meet-up organizer offers a space in their office for others to gather in. Bringing along their own bento lunches, those attending can swap ideas, or sandwiches, in an informal atmosphere.

The model for Social Lunch borrows something from gokon (group dating), in which  the presence of friends takes much of the stress out of an initial encounter with a potential partner. As marriage rates fall, gokon, konkatsu (marriage hunting) and now machikon events have been on the rise and this has been accompanied by a slew of  new apps to help young Japanese find Mr. or Ms. Right. As young Japanese are increasingly willing to try out group dating, it seems that the next logical step is for go-getters to find business partners by using similar methods.

Searching for a soulmate? There’s an app for that

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Lots of ways to show your love

This Valentine’s day, that cold slab of glass and metal in your pocket could get you closer to real, warm love — that is, if you have the right apps.

There’s more to it than just Japan’s everyday mind-boggling array of dating apps and love simulation games. With more Japanese singles now than ever before, the Koi Kuru proximity-detecting app from clothing retailer Beams is extra timely. It alerts you when someone else with the love-locator is nearby. You input your info (age, sex, blood type, etc.) and assign it to a funky little avatar you design in the app. It then alerts you when you cross paths with another user and what your percent compatibility is. (These close encounters are represented visually and updated constantly on the associated website Koi Kuru.) You can send little virtual gifts, like cyber-flowers or a generic “present,” to the other person. There are buttons for virtual flirty gestures, too — you can wink, blow a kiss or “drop your eraser.” It’s all anonymous, so there’s no giveaway of who the mystery match is, unless you catch someone else sneaking glances up from their phone, trying to look like they’re not looking around. This continues the trend of retailers putting out loyalty-building apps.

If you already know who your true love is, there are branded tablet and smartphone apps with recipes for making homemade chocolates and chocolate-covered baked goods from confectioners Meiji and Ghana. Meiji’s includes step-by-step instructions for creating fancy individual wrappings. Ghana’s app lets you choose recipes not only by ingredients, but also by “scene.” We’re guessing that’s referring to whether you want to whip up some “love chocolate,” “friend chocolate” or the least inspiring (but most purchased) chocolate of all, “obligation chocolate.” The app from Excite Japan Co. simply called Choco has lots of mouthwatering photos and English as well as Japanese for over 100 recipes. It also, somewhat cruelly, includes calorie counts.

For sending a little virtual love, Valentine Photo lets you plaster your cellphone photos with all kinds of hearts and then email them directly or upload them to Twitter or other social networking sites. There are also endless collections of “deco-mail” characters and icons to liven up cellphone love letters. Looking ahead, Starbucks would do well to release  the AR Valentine app that’s out in the U.S. here next year as well. If the buzz in online forums is to be trusted, it already has a fan club in Japan.

Guys can get greedy and girly on Valentine’s

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

According to the folks at Chocokure, the era of men patiently waiting for Valentine’s chocolates is over. Now they can stand up and be counted by demanding chocolates from the woman they love. If something seems a bit skewed about this picture, it’s important to remember that in Japan it’s customary for men to receive chocolates from their sweethearts or colleagues, not vice versa. (The favor is returned on White Day, March 14.) The idea of demanding chocolates via social networking platforms, however, is brand new.

Valentine's chocolate could be yours for the tweeting ... if you're lucky.

A witty little one-off service for Valentine’s Day, men type in the Twitter username of the lady they wish to demand chocolates from, then enter their address and telephone number. A cheeky tweet is then sent that roughly translates as, “Choco please. Pretty pretty please.” A link on the tweet takes the lady to a page where she can click on either the “Present” button, or “Sorry.” If she is obliging she can then pay ¥500 by credit card and, presto, the requested chocolates will be sent.

The ¥500 “one coin” choco is a pretty popular price range with women purchasing giri (obligitary gift) chocolates for co-workers, but when it comes to really satisfying the man you love, nothing beats posh chocs from a department store. So unless you’re sure your girlfriend is in danger of forgetting this important occasion, it might be wise to hold out and drop some heavy hints instead.

This year chocolate on a stick is trending as a Valentine’s Day gift for lovers. According to Nikkei Woman,  the modern man is apparently not adverse to receiving a chocolate lollypop like Savarin’s bitter chocolate or caramel flavoured numbers, available at Isetan Shinjuku. An interesting variation on this trend is the Chocolat-o-Lait milk drink by patisserie Aoki Sadaharu. Sadaharu, who has a shop in Paris no less, has developed this choco lollypop to melt once placed inside hot milk, producing a delicious drink, available in matcha, yuzu or noir flavors.

If lollypops seem a little too girly, how about the Mechasaurus, a chocolate mechanoid dinosaur to melt the heart of the most hardcore of otaku? Only available at L’eclat, Osaka, this incredible creation comes with the equally incredible price tag of ¥52,500. If your girlfriend presents you with this on Valentine’s Day, you’ll know it’s for real.

For more Valentine’s ideas, JT has some sweet somethings.

The bags that came from another dimension

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Maybe it was inevitable that the country that made manga world-famous would fall for a bag that looks like it was peeled out of the pages of a comic book. JumpFromPaper‘s whimsical bags (above), with their eye-fooling primary color blocks and heavy outlines, jumped up the ranks of trending topics on Twitter in Japan last week under the keyword “2-D bag.” The burst of attention coincided with TV personality Terry Itoh introducing the line on the mid-day variety show “Sukkiri!!” The bags’ designers are based in Taiwan, and though there are many retail outlets carrying the bags there, in Japan they are only available online for now.

Mihara Hideaki’s bags have a slightly more serious lineage. The designer’s bio says he studied leathercraft in Florence, but it’s not his leather work that’s getting second glances for some of his latest bags. The (variously spelled) Trompe L’oeil bags have belts and buckles, leather tassels and decorative chains printed onto canvas bodies. The great big buckles may not be fooling anyone, but the thinner faux straps look convincing, and the silk scarves printed on the sides of some look like they could flutter right off.

Acrylic designer Masako Ban takes that feeling of slightly retro whimsy and goes in the opposite direction. While JumpFomPaper makes 3-D bags that look flat, Ban uses holographic lenticular material on some of her messenger bags and handbags that gives their flat surfaces a disorientingly three-dimensional and rather futuristic look.

You don’t need to spend a lot to get in on the eye-fooling action, though — just get into the check-out line at Isetan. Brain magazine reports that the venerable department store, which has long had distinctive plaid paper shopping bags,  has also added a paper bag with a photo-realistic print covering it that makes it look like a wicker basket. The bag is for purchases from their food shops.

Why all the trickery? Maybe it’s a way to play with luxe designs at a budget price. Or maybe people just want to make you look twice.

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