Archive for February, 2011

Strawberries: The gift that keeps on growing

Friday, February 4th, 2011

When a Japanese person visits another person’s home, he or she traditionally brings a gift. The most common gift in such a situation is fruit. Recently, a friend came to our apartment for lunch and we bought strawberries, which was a dumb thing to do because it was more than likely that our friend was going to uphold this tradition and bring strawberries herself, since, right now, strawberries are the only fruit “in season,” basically because modern farming technology has made it possible for strawberries to be never out of season.

Fruit on steroids: amaou vs. otome

And, of course, she did bring strawberries; massive ones, in fact, which made the strawberries we purchased look puny in comparison. We had bought a package of the most popular type, otome from Tochigi Prefecture, which cost ¥398 for 300 grams. Our friend, however, had brought the more extravagant and topical amaou strain, grown in Fukuoka. We didn’t ask how much she paid, but we did ask if she ever bought this particular type of strawberry to eat at home. She said, “Of course not.” Later we went by the supermarket and checked out the price. Six amaou berries cost ¥680, about 300 grams. Further research uncovered organic strains of amaou  for ¥888 (300 grams) and ¥598 (200 grams). Though strawberries are grown in 40 prefectures, mainly because it is almost always a guaranteed money maker (thanks, in part, to Chinese tourists who buy up a lot of expensive stawberries), Tochigi and Fukuoka are currently the two heavyweights, battling it out for berry dominance.

However, the king of luxury (kokyu) strawberries is a brand called Aiberry, which retails for ¥500 a pop. Aiberry is being touted as the 21st century equivalent of the cantaloupe, or “musk melon,” which was typically the go-to fruit when foreign media wanted to demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of high-priced Japanese food culture. And it is ridiculous, as illustrated by an online primer for potential Aiberry aficionados (presumably people who received them as gifts) on how best to appreciate the delights of this rare fruit, which is grown with fertilizer that utilizes decayed strawberries. (Does that count as cannibalism?) The instructions say you shouldn’t even wash the berries with water, since it might deplete the aroma. Just “blow on it” to get ride of any residue. Then you smell it, hold it up to the light to “enjoy the color,” say goodbye, and then slowly eat the berry one bite at a time (two to four mouthfuls), savoring not only the flavor (each part of the strawberry has a different grade of “sweetness”) but also the “structure.” When it’s over, you can even appreciate the aftertaste. And keep the box. You never know when it might come in handy for gift-giving.

For movie freaks some good news and some bad news

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

On Jan. 19, Japan’s largest movie theater chain, Toho Cinemas, announced that it was cutting ticket prices at regional shinekon (short for “cinema complexes,” or multiplexes) starting April 5 in Utsunomiya, Midorii, Yojiro, Nagasaki, Kofu and Ueda. At present, standard ticket prices, meaning the price you pay at the box office, is ¥1,800 for adults. This will be reduced to ¥1,500 for persons 18 and older and ¥1,000 for persons under 18. The current pricing structure is more complicated. Patrons under 18 pay ¥1,500, while seniors 60 and older shell out ¥1,000. Then there are special discounts for advance purchase, women patrons on certain days, and other deals. In fact, one of the reasons Toho is initiating this new pricing system, which will supposedly go nationwide in a year, is to simplify ticketing; but, of course, the real reason is that movie prices are way too expensive and have been for years.

End of an era: Cine Saison Shibuya announces it's closing after 26 years

Since Toho is the biggest chain, others are eventually expected to follow suit, which is good news for theater-going fans, at least economically speaking. In terms of variety and quality of product, the news is not so good. Despite the fact that 2010 saw an increase in Japan’s box office revenues — a record ¥220.7 billion yen, 7 percent more than the box office in 2009 — the actual number of tickets sold was less than that sold in the previous year. Sales increased because of 3-D movies, which can add between ¥200 and ¥400 to the price of a regular ticket. With all the special discounts factored in, the price of an average ticket in 2010 was ¥1,266, which is 4 percent higher than the average ticket price in 2009.

In particular, 3-D boosted the profile of foreign films. The top five foreign box-office hits were all 3-D, while only one of the top five domestic hits, “The Last Message,” was a 3-D movie. Consequently, some analysts say the success of 3-D is misleading. One industry insider told Asahi Shimbun that 3-D had momentum in 2010 because of the success of “Avatar,” one of the only movies that did 3-D right. He sees interest in 3-D already fading in Japan, which could be extrapolated as meaning even less interest in foreign films. For the third year running Japanese movies outsold foreign movies overall, which is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. As fewer people patronize foreign films, distributors who specialize in them cut back on releases or go out of business altogether, thus reducing the availability of foreign product in theaters.

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