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Annals of cheap: Narita express buses

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Screen shot of new express bus service to Narita Airport

Screen shot of new express bus service to Narita Airport

We live in northern Chiba Prefecture on the Hokuso Line, part of the conduit for the Sky Access Express, a train that runs between Haneda and Narita airports and which incorporates a number of other private railways. Our closest station is only three stops from Narita International Airport, and it takes a little more than 20 minutes to get there. However, it costs ¥790 one-way, which seems like a lot of money for such a short journey.

The reason for the high fare is that the Hokuso Line is one of the most expensive train lines in Japan owing to its high construction costs and the fact that not enough people use it to pay off those costs. But if you take the Sky Access from Nihonbashi on the Toei Asakusa Subway Line, it takes one hour and 8 minutes to get to Narita and costs only ¥1,330. Though passengers who board the Sky Access for Narita at stations on lines other than the Hokuso still have to ride over Hokuso tracks, they don’t have to pay Hokuso prices.

What’s even more frustrating for us is that now there are express buses between central Tokyo and Narita Airport that cost only ¥1,000 each way. A company called B Transse, headquartered in Chiba City, launched an airport bus service in August 2012 between Ginza and Tokyo Station at one end and Narita Airport at the other: ¥1,000, one hour. And don’t worry. It has toilets.

The impetus behind the new service is the rise of Low-Cost Carriers (LCC), or budget airlines, which have been gaining a foothold at Narita ever since Haneda Airport in Tokyo started increasing the number of its international flights. Right now, 21.5 percent of all the flights in and out of Narita are LCCs. In April, Narita will open a new terminal dedicated exclusively to LCCs.

CONTINUE READING about transportation fees to Narita

Deflation Watch: bean sprouts

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Bean down so long: Cheap moyashi is still the norm

Bean down so long: Cheap moyashi is still the norm

Last week Tokyo Shimbun reported that an industry association of food producers sent letters to supermarket chains and other food retailers saying that they had reached their limit of patience. This particular association represents companies that produce moyashi, or bean sprouts, a pretty lowly item, even within the realm of produce, and one that is not strictly agricultural in nature.

Though bean sprouts definitely qualify as vegetables, almost all Japanese producers import the basic ingredient, which is mung beans (ryokuto or midori mame), and then make them sprout in factories. In other words, no land cultivation is involved. Bean sprout production is a ridiculously simple process, since all it entails is making the mung beans wet, setting them aside for a few days to sprout, and then packaging them.

The moyashi association is saying that production costs have become untenable, which sounds strange considering how easy the process is, but what they’re really talking about is the cost of mung beans, 80 percent of which are imported from China, mainly Jilin Province, where farmers are switching over to corn because the price of animal feed has gone up and they can make more money. Consequently, the market price for mung beans has also gone up, by as much as 30 percent since a year ago.

CONTINUE READING about the cost of bean sprouts

Cosmetics market shifts up in age

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Poster for Shiseido makeup outside discount drug retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi

Poster for Shiseido makeup outside discount drug retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi

You can tell how important an industry is to the media by how many news outlets cover the same story in the same way. What happened was a company put out a press release that everyone feels obligated to cover since the company is a major advertiser.

Last week everyone mentioned that cosmetics maker Kao will be coming out with a new line of eye shadow targeting older women under its Aube brand. Makeup specially formulated for older consumers isn’t a new thing, but what makes Aube Couture Bright Up Eyes of more than just passing interest is that its main appeal is the application rather than the wearing. When older eyelids become flaccid, it’s more difficult to put on eye shadow evenly, so Kao came up with a special foundation that makes it easier for the customer to apply the shadow on top of it. In addition, the case comes with a special 2X magnifying mirror for older eyesights.

Shiseido also announced a brand new line of 33 items for older women called Prior that will come out Jan. 21 and is centered on a cream that gives the skin a glossy tone which “medicates” wrinkles and age spots as a way of “reducing” them. It’s another way of saying that the cream covers them up. It also obviates the need for foundation, thus making it “easy to use.” Also, Prior’s eye shadow comes in a box with instructions in large type and photos to make it easier for consumers to understand how to apply it. CONTINUE READING about new markets for cosmetic makers

Attitudes about money continue to affect marriage prospects

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has characterized the upcoming general election as a referendum for his fiscal policies, popularly known as “Abenomics,” so it’s not surprising that the opposition has focused on those policies as a means of discrediting his administration.

The Democratic Party of Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, recently gave a public speech from a sound truck in Yamagata City, and talked mainly about the effect that Abenomics has had on employment. Abe brags about creating new jobs with his policy, but Edano contends that these jobs are not the kind that allow young people to “get married and start families,” since they are mostly temporary or contract work (haken) that doesn’t guarantee a stable future. “At the very least, we have to increase the number of jobs that guarantee stability, otherwise we can’t call it an employment policy,” he said.

Edano has a point, though he may not realize how sharp it actually is. Last year, the marriage information company O-Net, which is part of the Rakuten Group, conducted a survey of single men and women in the Tokyo metropolitan area between the ages of 25 and 39 to find out their prospects for marriage. When asked why they were not married, the most common answer (multiple responses were allowed) for both genders was that they “don’t have a chance to meet people of the opposite sex.”

CONTINUE READING about marriage proposal criteria

Local governments finally getting around to public toilets

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Japan is a country of tradeoffs. Though there is an intentional paucity of public waste receptacles, there are plenty of free public restrooms, something that foreign tourists should note with appreciation. What they may not appreciate is the fact that most of the public facilities still feature squat-type toilets, which is certainly an irony since one of Japan’s most famous gifts to the world is the all-service commode, or “washlet,” which does practically everything but pull your drawers up.

We searched high and low for some kind of survey that revealed the portion of public toilets that are squat-type and couldn’t find any, so our claim that most public toilets, whether they be in parks, train stations or just along a street, feature squat type facilities is mainly due to observation.

But it’s obviously a situation that people are aware of. Chiba Prefecture recently announced that it set aside a supplemental budget in order to subsidize local governments and private entities who need to replace older Japanese style toilets under their management with Western style equipment before 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and it’s assumed lots of foreign tourists will come to the metropolitan area.

CONTINUE READING about public rest rooms

Are Japan’s public school teachers paid too much?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0)

Last month the Ministry of Finance presented a policy recommendation based on studies made by an advisory group. Such recommendations are fairly common, but this one caught more than the usual amount of attention because of where it was directed.

The ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40. In purely economic terms, such a change would result in a reduction of as many as 4,000 teachers, which would translate as ¥8.6 billion in savings for the central government alone. However, the ministry’s explanation for why the change should be implemented was not made in fiscal terms. It was made in educational terms.

Until the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, maximum class size was 40, and the DPJ changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem. But the finance ministry says that bullying incidents have increased slightly since class sizes were reduced, so obviously it has had no effect.

CONTINUE READING about education budgets

Megabanks start to feel the heat from upstarts

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Shop 'n' save: Taking applications for Aeon credit cards and Aeon Bank accounts

Shop ‘n’ save: Taking applications for Aeon credit cards and Aeon Bank accounts

With the coming sale of the retail banking operations of Citibank in Japan, many of the bank’s customers here are looking for an alternative, especially if those customers want to transfer money to and from overseas. Japanese banks tend to be disappointing when it comes to this type of service, but they are also becoming less appealing in terms of other matters most people used to take for granted.

For instance, we have done most of our banking with the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ for many years, but since we moved out of Tokyo we’ve had to carry out local transactions at convenience stores because there are no MUFG branches or ATMs anywhere near our home, even though we live in a populous and growing suburb of Tokyo.

So we’ve been looking to change banks, and have found that new financial services provided by retailers and IT-related firms are more attractive than what’s available from so-called mega-banks. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun described how the retail giant Aeon has been signing up new customers for its banking business by offering services that regular banks can’t . . . or won’t.

CONTINUE READING about new banking upstarts →

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