Archive for November, 2009

Takarakuji: What’s chance got to do with it?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

An hour to wait and think of how you'll spend all that money

An hour to wait and think of how you’ll spend all that money

Last week sales for this year’s Nenmatsu Jumbo Takarakuji (Year-end Jumbo Lottery) started, and as usual there have been long lines every day in front of the Nishi Ginza Chance Center at the Sukiyabashi Crossing. These people are waiting, often for more than an hour, to buy as many ¥300 lottery tickets as they can afford in order to increase their chances of winning a share of the (tax free!) ¥300 million in prize money available: more specifically, 70 ¥200 million prizes, 140 ¥50 million prizes, 700 ¥5 million prizes and so on.

Chance is in the eye of the beholder. As gambling goes, lotteries offer pretty awful odds. Only pachinko is worse, which is ironic given that lottery and pachinko are the only legal forms of gambling in Japan outside of racing sports.

Nevertheless, people think they have a better chance if they buy their tickets at the Nishi Ginza Chance Center, simply because a larger percentage of past winners have purchased their tickets there. Apparently, the ticket office with the most first and second prize Jumbo winners is the one in front of Osaka Station in the Osaka Ekimae #4 Building. Nishi Ginza is second and the ticket office in front of Nagoya Station is third.

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Even pawnshops got it rough

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Only a pawn in their game?

Only a pawn in their game?

You have until Sunday, Nov. 29, 4 p.m. to partake of the bargains at the semi-annual Shicchy Charity Fair, which takes place at the Tokyo Ryutsu Center in Heiwajima, Tokyo. The fair offers at rock bottom prices some 100,000 luxury items that have been donated by members of the Jounan Pawnshop Cooperative. The proceeds go to charity, though exactly which charities isn’t specified.

How cheap is the merchandise? Well, genuine Louis Vuitton bags start at ¥20,000, which is, I gather, really low. There are a lot of designer bags on sale, as well as fur coats, jewelry, watches, kimonos and accessories.

Apparently, there is less merchandise than at previous Shiccy Fairs owing to the fact that, like everything else in this recession, the pawnshop business isn’t doing so well. That may strike some people as being strange. Pawnshops would seem to thrive during bad times, since people who’ve been laid off or otherwise financially compromised tend to be desperate and thus would be more likely to pawn their possessions for some quick cash. However, the nature of the pawnshop business in Japan has changed over the past few decades.

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Taiyaki: the people’s choice during hard times

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Not fishy at all

Not fishy at all

The media is covering a new fast food outlet called The Taiyaki, which opened Nov. 3 on Center-gai in Shibuya. If you are at all familiar with popular Japanese foods you’ll know that taiyaki are plain yellow pancake-like concoctions filled with red azuki bean paste and shaped like tai (red snappers). The Taiyaki sells variations on the theme with fillings that some morning news show commentators find almost blasphemous. In addition to azuki (¥150), there’s chocolate & custard (¥180), apple cinammon (¥180), Italian tomato & cheese (¥220) and German potato (¥220). Normal street-stall taiyaki tend to go for ¥110-140.

So far the store, which occupies only 10 sq. meters, is a hit, with a constant line of customers trailing down the street. The Taiyaki is owned by Hotland, a company based in Gunma Prefecture that made its name with Gindaco, a chain that sells another fish-identified fast food, takoyaki (octopus balls). In addition to the Center-gai outlet, Hotland has two other The Taiyaki stores, one in Sendai and one in Sano.

Hotland says that the Center-gai store attracts 1,000 customers a day, thus lending credence to reports that we are now in the midst of a “taiyaki boom.” Supposedly, taiyaki sales increase dramatically during economic downturns, and we are certainly in one of those now.

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Deflation at the vending machine

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

A Wex vending machine in a parking lot near Kabuki-za

A Wex vending machine in a parking lot near Kabuki-za

The “one-coin theory” is a hallowed principle of retailing in Japan, the idea being that if your product can be purchased with one coin, people are more willing to buy it. This principle was formulated through Japan’s extensive vending machine business, in particular vending machines that sold beverages. Until the mid-90s, 100-yen was the upper limit for all canned beverages sold in vending machines since it was considered a kind of psychological barrier. Most vending machines are owned by beverage makers, and no one wanted to be the guy who increased their prices first, even though material costs had been rising for years. If one was going to do it, they all should, and eventually they did. After a short period of sluggish sales, profitability eventually returned and there have been regular rises in prices ever since. The standard VM price is ¥120 for canned drinks and ¥130-¥150 for drinks in larger PET bottles.

But in the past few years, there’s been a marked reversal. Independent vending machine operators have bucked the big manufacturers like Kirin, Suntory, Asahi, Pokka and Dydo by selling their products below the retail prices these manufacturers dictate. The trend has seen prices not only drop back to the one-coin level, but even further. Wex, a VM operator out of Osaka, sells Suntory, Pokka and Kirin products for ¥100, as well as its own private brand of canned coffee called Two Down for only ¥80, all in their own vending machines, and the big manufacturers are seriously ticked off.

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Cold cash for hot stoves

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

You have to actually read the flyer to find the ¥50,000 offer

The ¥50,000 offer is mentioned in the yellow area below the line of heaters.

Always around this time of year, Panasonic runs TV ads for its discontinued line of large kerosene heaters, which don’t sell the product but rather encourages people who have them to bring them in to a Panasonic dealer. However, it wasn’t until I recently saw a flyer for this campaign in my morning paper that I discovered the company will actually pay you ¥50,000 for each heater you return.

The recall has been in effect since 2005, when a person died of carbon monoxide poisoning that was blamed on a National FF-model heater whose rubber exhaust hose had cracked. A month later, the manufacturer, which was still called Matsushita at that time, decided to stop production of all heaters, boilers, and other merchandise that burned oil. The FF series was produced from 1985 to 1992, and about 150,000 were sold. They were large, fixed units, which meant they had exhaust attachments that were supposed to be connected to the outside.

At first, Matsushita replaced the hoses with metal attachments, but about six months later another death was associated with an FF heater, and the company decided to recall all of the extant heaters after the government ordered the company to do something. According to a Japanese Wikipedia entry about Panasonic, the ¥50,000 cash offer has been in effect ever since.

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Are point cards worth it?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Did I really shop there 22 times?

Did I really shop there 22 times?

The other day I was at OD Box, a sporting goods store in Ueno, buying my annual supply of SmartWool socks. I gave the cashier my OD Box point card, which, utilizing some clever technology, displays the number of points accumulated right there on the front of the card and revises the number with each purchase. After I paid, he handed me my change, the receipt and my card.

Something wasn’t right. The card showed that I had only two points after the purchase. I was sure I had more points before that.

He told me the points I had accumulated before were erased because I hadn’t made a purchase in over one year. Apparently, that was in the contract when I made the card a few years ago, and in fact was written in very small print on the back of the card. I only buy socks there, and I only buy them once a year so I suppose I have nothing to complain about. But one point is the equivalent of 75 yen, and since I had 5 points on the card previously, I could have saved ¥375 on the socks if I had bought them a few weeks earlier.

I know this is a common condition with point cards and that I should have expected it, but I was still a little put off, especially since I had just seen a report on NHK a few weeks ago where a woman complained of the exact same thing. She had point cards that expired without her knowing about it because the conditions weren’t explained when she received the card, which usually involves nothing more than the cashier asking if you want one and you saying “yes.” I suppose what really bothered me was that the cashier didn’t say my points had expired until I mentioned it myself.

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Pet cremation goes mobile

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Hannah then and now

Hannah then and now

People with pets dispose of their deceased animals’ remains in different ways, but if they live in the city the options are obviously more limited. You can’t just go in the woods and bury Pochi or Tama and set up a little memorial. Moreover, there are laws about disposing of dead animals.

About a year ago our cat died. We’d lost two cats previously. With the first one, we called a local temple, which immediately sent someone over to take the body away. Several days later they called and we went to the temple where they said a little prayer and gave us the cremated remains in an urn, which we took home, even though the temple has a reliquary for pet remains. For the second cat we called a pet cremation service directly.

Most such services are associated with temples so as to make their work seem less commercial, but even when you take your pet’s body to a temple they send it out to a commercial cremation facility anyway. These services will pick up the body at your home and later bring back the ashes; or, more precisely, the bones, since cremation in Japan—even for humans—doesn’t usually get as far as ashes, which entails another, different cremation process.

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