Archive for December, 2009

Annals of cheap: Hanamaru

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

For some reason they're always in basements

For some reason they’re always in basements

Probably the most overused term in culinary matters in Japan is kodawari, which implies a strict scrupulousness, usually to flavor. Attendant to the idea of kodawari is simplicity: the more unprepossessing the food, the easier it is to appreciate its adherence to basic goodness. In this regard, the purest Japanese dish may indeed by sashimi, since it is simply sliced raw fish, but the purest prepared dish is sanuki udon.

Udon are wheat noodles, which are found everywhere in Japan. Sanuki udon is from the island of Shikoku. It is udon in a clear broth made from various stock ingredients such as mushrooms, bonito and seaweed. Sanuki udon is sustenance for common people, which means it has a reputation for being very cheap, but kodawari still applies. Outside of Shikoku, sanuki udon may be expensive in accordance with the unspoken rule that once a regional dish leaves its bailiwick it becomes something of a delicacy.

The udon chain Hanamaru blithely shatters this truism by offering sanuki udon at prices that are probably lower than they are in Shikoku. The most basic item on the menu is kake udon, which is merely noodles in broth topped with green onion. A small bowl will set you back a mere ¥105. A medium bowl is ¥210 and a large one ¥315.

Get in line

Get in line

From there prices get more involved as you add the usual things like ontamago (half-boiled egg), wakame (seaweed), or oage (fried tofu); and there are specialties like shredded beef and curry and sesame. But the price almost never rises above 500 yen, even when you add side dishes like tempura (in my experience, not as crisp as it should be), salad, onigiri (rice balls) or croquettes.

Hanamaru is actually cheaper than buying lunch at a convenience store, which is why any outlet is usually packed with salarymen during lunch time. And almost every one of them will probably be slurping the cheapest dish, a small serving of kake udon. I’ve been told that a lot of men, under the shadow of metabolic syndrome, find this a better dietary alternative than the standard lunchtime dish of gyudon (beef bowl), but I also assume there’s an economic component to it. Still, I might be wrong. In the early evenings the outlet in Shibuya is usually packed with high school girls, who aren’t really worried about saving money but know their kodawari.

Foreign currency saving: Norway or the highway

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Here's a pretty picture of Bergen while you think about opening a Norway kroner savings account

Here’s a pretty picture of Bergen while you think about opening a Norway kroner savings account

As you undoubtedly know, keeping your money in a regular savings account in a Japanese bank is as fiscally productive as stuffing it in your futon – or keeping it in your tansu (wardrobe), as the locals like to say. In fact, with interest rates near zero, you’d actually make more money keeping your money in your futon if the inflation rate was bigger than the interest rate, but with deflation as it is right now that isn’t going to happen.

Zero inflation has been a fact of Japanese banking life for longer than I care to remember, and one of the alternatives is foreign currency savings accounts. Back in 2004 we stashed a couple of million yen we received after cashing in our miserable insurance policy from then defunct Chiyoda Seimei (lost on that one) into a Citibank savings account in Australian dollars. At the time the interest rate was 4 percent and the exchange rate was ¥82.14 to one Australia dollar. The maturation period was one year, but each month you could extract whatever interest you made that month and turn it back into yen. The sticking point is that the exchange rate was fluctuating, so if the Australian dollar went up, you could make a little money, but if it was going down, you might want to wait until it bounced back.

Well, we waited . . . and waited and waited. During most of 2004, the Aussie dollar fluctuated between ¥74 and ¥79. By the time the account matured in February 2005 it was back to about 81. With the loss in the exchange rate and the accumulated interest all factored in, when we converted the money in the account back to yen, we ended up with just a little more than what we started with. One reason is that you don’t really get ¥81, because Citibank takes one yen on each Australian dollar as a handling fee.

Continue reading about saving foreign currencies →

You too can be Hatoyama!

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Tell mom what you want for Christmas

Tell mom what you want for next Christmas

The government wants to increase the tax exemption on gifts that parents give to their children, so if your folks were inspired by the largesse of Yasuko Hatoyama to her three kids — one of whom is the prime minster and got into hot water because of that largesse — they’ll be able to give you up to ¥20 million tax free, if land minister Seiji Maehara gets his way.

According to the media, however, he may not get all he wants. Maehara is in charge of keeping the housing market humming, and following the Liberal Democratic Party’s lead last spring, when the former ruling party allowed tax exemptions for gifts of up to ¥6 million as long as they were spent to buy or improve residential housing, he wants to increase the exemption in the next budget.

Basically, the idea is that there is some ¥1,400 trillion not circulating in Japan, but rather just sitting in people’s bank accounts or in their mattresses (or, to put in Japanese terms, in the tansu, or wardrobe). About half of this dormant money is in the possession of Japan’s elderly. Normally, when these people die, the money goes to their offspring, who, in turn, just put it into their own back accounts or in their own wardrobes. Since people live quite long in Japan, their children usually are already settled with their own homes when their parents die. The LDP’s scheme was to persuade these older people to give some of their money to their kids (or grandkids) earlier, while they’re still alive, at a time when they are thinking of buying homes.

Continue reading about tax exemptions for monetary gifts →

Last call for Wendy’s

Friday, December 18th, 2009

All lines lead to Ginza

All lines lead to Ginza

You may have heard that the American fast food chain, Wendy’s, will be closing all 71 of its Japanese outlets on Jan. 1. Zensho, the local company that runs Wendy’s Japan, announced at the beginning of the month that it would not renew its contract with Wendy’s, which runs out Dec. 31. According to J-Cast News, McDonald’s is just too strong in the hamburger biz and Zensho has other chains that it wants to concentrate more resources on, like the gyudon (beef bowl) restaurant Sukiya, udon (noodles) restaurant Nakau, Cocos Japan, and the family restaurant Sunday Sun.

As often happens in situations like this, Wendy’s is suddenly the most popular fast-food chain in the country. Since the announcement was made, all the outlets have reported lines forming even before they open, and then after they open selling out a full day’s worth of their hamburger products by the early afternoon. The Wendy’s at Shin Yurigaoka in Kawasaki told J-Cast that usually by the time dinner rolls around all they have left is chicken sandwiches and fish sandwiches, but other outlets don’t even have those left. After the standard Wendy’s burger, the most popular item is Wendy’s chili, something you can’t get at McD’s. There’s been hundreds of Twitter posts a day from Wendy’s fans reporting on what’s available and what isn’t. “I went to mourn, but everything is sold out except drinks!!!” one micro-blogger reported.

Continue reading about Wendy's leaving Japan →

Old condos finally attract interest

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Blues skies in store for used condo buyers?

Blues skies in store for used condo buyers?

The Japanese media keeps harping on how the prices of condominiums in the major cities are dropping along with the number of housing starts. Obviously, now is the time to buy, though experts always say that if you wait until it’s being reported that it’s time to buy, then it’s already too late.

According to a recent article in Shukan Asahi, condo developers are stuck with inventory that they can’t get rid of, no matter how much they lower the price. Many of these companies are selling their unsold condos to outside agents for as much as 30 percent less. In some cases, these agencies have to sell the units for even less than what they paid for them, basically “dumping” these units onto the housing market. Needless to say there are many people who may be interested in such cheap housing, but finding these units takes more time and effort than they have. There seems to be no one place where this information is available.

What’s finally attracting more interest is older condos that are available dirt cheap. The article uses the example of an editor who bought a small 35-year-old maisonette-style apartment in trendy Kichijoji for only ¥5 million and then spent ¥2 million fixing it up into an “English-style” residence.

Continue reading about dirt-cheap condos →

A streetcar named beer

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Tis the season to forget about the year with a mess of alcohol, so Kirin Holdings conducted a survey of salarymen to find out just how much they were willing to pay for a single bonenkai (end-of-year party). The limit, they found, was ¥4,690, which is less than what Kirin found last year, which was less than the year before, etc. Obviously, salarymen’s wallets are getting tighter, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to forsake their traditional December puke-fests.

The suds express

The suds express

Thus it was no surprise to learn that the Arakawa-sen’s “Toshi-wasure Beer-go” (Forget-the-year Beer Special) was booked up solid right away. The Arakawa-sen is the last of Tokyo’s streetcar lines, which runs from Minowa-bashi in Arakawa Ward to Waseda in Shinjuku Ward.

From Dec. 8 to 12 they are running a special “beer car” once a day at 7 p.m. (twice on the 12th). For ¥3,000 you get all the canned beer you can drink plus snacks. Reservations are limited to 20 persons, which is why there are no more spaces left, and the ride itself only goes as far as Otsuka Station, but it lasts two hours, presumably because it sits in a few stations to let the regular cars pass it by. Also, it should be noted that the cars have no toilets, so you have to wait until it stops at the Arakawa garage, where there’s a bathroom break.

Toei, which runs the streetcar (as well as the Toei subway line and city bus system), says that it set up the Biiru-go to help people forget not only the year but also “the recession.” In a way, it makes perfect sense for the line, colloquially called toden, to offer such a service. It’s probably the cheapest mode of transportation in Tokyo — ¥160 anywhere. Also, it’s the oldest. The municipal lines started in 1878 at horse-drawn carts that changed to light rails by the turn of the 19th century. In their heyday, streetcars were everywhere in Tokyo, but except for the Arakawa line, they had all shut down by 1972. So in addition to getting a buzz on, you can enjoy a piece of old time Tokyo — at old time Tokyo prices. But you’ll have to wait until next year.

Be good to your fry pan, and it will be good to you

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Out of the box and into the fire...

Out of the box and into the fire…

Japanese cooking is generally less time-consuming than Western cooking. For one thing, Japanese cooking traditionally doesn’t utilize ovens. There isn’t a lot of baking or roasting going on in your average kitchen; and while some dishes may require more preparation time, the actual cooking time is relatively brief. The main denominator in determining how much time is spent at the stove is stir frying, an art that Japan got from China, so in that regard the most important implement in the Japanese kitchen is the fry pan.

To someone who is serious about cooking, a fry pan is an important investment in terms of both money and effort. Most chefs will say that iron is the optimum material, since it’s better at distributing heat and retains the nutritional value and flavor of the materials being cooked more efficiently. However, iron fry pans are also a lot of work since they have to be cared for. You can’t wash them with regular dishwashing detergent. You have to maintain them with oil so that over time the pan becomes “seasoned,” and its utility improves. If you burn something in your iron fry pan you can actually ruin it, since it may take a long time to return it to its former condition.

Continue reading about frying pans →

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