Archive for the ‘Food & drink’ Category

Where’s the milk? School lunches no longer sacred cows

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Screen shot of February lunch menus for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

The February lunch menu for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

Last Saturday was the start of Gakko Kyushoku Shukan (School Lunch Week), an annual celebration of the meals that public elementary and junior high school students in Japan enjoy every day by force of law.

School lunches have been a point of pride for Japan’s education institutions, a means of integrating lifelong health maintenance into the standard curriculum. On another level, mandatory school lunches, as the late writer Kuniko Mukoda once famously pointed out, was the basis for the widespread idea that all Japanese belonged to the “middle class.”

Several years ago, the government said it wanted to reinforce “food education,” though it hardly seems necessary since the school lunch program already does that, and very effectively. According to law, all public school children below high school must buy lunch, and those who cannot afford it receive subsidies from the authorities. Each school will have its own nutritionist to make sure the children receive properly balanced meals. In terms of cost, the ingredients for the meals will be paid for by the students, meaning their parents, while labor, maintenance and other related expenses are taken care of by local governments with help from the central government.

This latter element has lately been challenged as more local governments look for ways to cut their budgets. Last summer, Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.

CONTINUE READING about school lunches →

More convenience stores adopting restaurant functions, and vice versa

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Drink 'em if you got 'em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Drink ’em if you got ’em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Ministop, the fifth largest convenience store chain in Japan with 2,200 outlets nationwide, was the first of its ilk to provide counters, tables and chairs for patrons who preferred to consume their purchases on the premises. Because of relatively lax tax laws in Japan, they could do it without having to charge more. This service was originally devised as a gimmick that would differentiate Ministop from other chains, and for years no other CS chain felt that it needed to do the same thing.

Last summer, Ministop, which belongs to the Aeon retail conglomerate, expanded on this idea with an offshoot called Cisca, an abbreviation for “city small cafe.” It’s basically a more attractively appointed convenient store centered around the sit-down space. So far, only one Cisca has opened, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and according to Asahi Shimbun the target is women who work in the area. The selection is more limited than what you would find in a regular Ministop, with the focus on high quality deli items and beverages, including fresh coffee and alcoholic drinks.

The “eating corner” seats only 17, but what really distinguishes Cisca from other Ministops is that eating-in is encouraged with free use of utensils. You can buy a bottle of wine for ¥700, for instance, and drink it right there, because they will provide you with wine glasses. Each seat also has its own electrical outlet. According to Ministop’s publicity department, since the store opened it’s been almost continually full.

Cisca is part of a trend taking place in both the retail and restaurant trades toward a more practical and less expensive view of dining out. Half of the new outlets opened by CS giant Family Mart since the beginning of 2013 also have sit-down counters and tables.

CONTINUE READING about convenience-store meal corners →

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

When protecting farmers hurts consumers — and farmers

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Butter isn’t as essential in Japanese cuisine as it is in certain other countries’ national styles of cooking, but it does have its place, most commonly in white sauces and baking, and anyone here who uses it regularly has had to pay premium prices for it. Lately, they’ve been paying even more.

In a recent Asahi Shimbun feature a housewife shopping in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is tempted to pick up a package of “luxury brand” butter because all the regular butter is sold out, but in the end she leaves the store without it because she just can’t see spending that much money. The article doesn’t say what that price is, but regular butter right now is said to cost “¥400 or more” for 200 grams, and the luxury butter is “twice as expensive.”

The implication is that ¥400 is already too much to pay, but in any case wherever you go, regular butter tends to be sold out, and many supermarkets now limit customers to only one package per trip. More significantly, businesses such as ramen restaurants and bakeries, which rely on butter as an essential ingredient, are also suffering from the price increase. That’s because there is an acute butter shortage.

And the reason there’s a butter shortage is that there’s a milk shortage and butter is the least prioritized of dairy products. Most milk that’s produced in Japan is sold as milk, and only when there is milk left over after being channeled into by-products like cheese and yogurt does butter get made. Unlike most other dairy products, butter can be frozen and stored for a long period of time.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's butter shortage →

Foreign tourists expected to take up (some of) the slack in consumption

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

According to a survey of 12,000 tourists in 2013 carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Chinese spend more than any other group, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is by how much they outspend other nationalities.

On average, a Chinese visitor spends ¥191,741 in Tokyo. The average spent by all foreign tourists in Tokyo is only ¥46,546, which means Chinese spend about three times as much.

After China, the most spent is by Singaporeans (¥135,377), and then Spaniards (¥129,558). Another notable aspect of Chinese spending is that the bulk is not spend on accommodations or dining, but rather on souvenirs, about ¥122,000. The most popular area for Chinese shoppers is Ginza, because that’s where all the luxury brand stores are.

The government wants them to spend even more, and is thus expanding the list of items that foreign tourists can buy without having to pay consumption tax. Previously, consumables like food, liquor and cosmetics were not exempt from CT when bought by foreign tourists at stores in Japan, but since Oct. 1 they are.

CONTINUE READING about new duty-free lists →

Rice is nice when the price is right

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba prefecture in September

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba Prefecture in September

The main rallying cry of those opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotations, such as JA (National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations), is that Japan can no long feed itself with the food it produces, since its self-sufficiency rate is a meager 39 percent. But as attorney Colin P.A. Jones recently pointed out in his Japan Times “Law of the Land” column, this figure is misleading since it measures food consumed in calories.

In terms of production, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is 65 percent. Moreover, in terms of total volume of food produced, Japan is fifth in the world. The point is, Japan produces plenty of food for itself, and it also imports lots of food. It is a wealthy country by any measure. However, its agricultural sector is lopsided in that it doesn’t produce food in a way that matches demand.

Rice is the culprit. Even without American threatening their livelihood with shiploads at the ready of cheap short-grained rice, farmers in Japan are already seeing prices drop precipitously. There is just too much rice being produced, despite the fact that the government still pays farmers not to produce so much.

According to Tokyo Shimbun the problem started in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed much of the crop in the Tohoku region, a major rice-producing region. Consequently, rice stocks became low and the price skyrocketed. This situation lasted through the 2012 harvest. As a result, restaurants and prepared food makers cut back on the amount of rice they used. But by the middle of 2013, stocks of rice had increased to the point of a surplus, and a bumper crop was produced in the fall. But demand didn’t follow suit and the surplus grew considerably. Again, the situation remained unchanged and the price has been dropping steadily since then to the point where it’s lower than it was before the earthquake.

CONTINUE READING about domestic vs. foreign rice →

European winemakers fret over competition from Chile

Monday, August 25th, 2014

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

During the first half of the year, sales of wine from Chile exceeded those of wines from Italy, thus making Chilean wine the second most popular imported wine in Japan, and apparently, Chile is now gaining rapidly on No. 1, France. The main reason is the Chile-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement signed in September 2007, after which the tariff on Chilean wine started to decrease gradually from the standard duty on foreign wines of either 15 percent of import price or ¥125 per liter. Right now the tariff rate for Chilean wines is 5.8 percent, and it will be zero in April 2019.

According to a Jiji Press report, the further the tariff drops, the more sales increase. More significantly, the amount of wine being imported has gone up. In 2007, when the EPA went into effect, Japan imported 10,517 kiloliters. But 2013, the volume was 36,435 kiloliters, which is an average annual growth rate of 20 percent. For the first half of this year alone, 17,349 kl entered Japan, and since the end of the year is the big season for wine, it’s clear that this year’s volume will exceed last year’s. And note that France exported 19,093 kl to Japan in the first six months of 2014.

Nevertheless, importers have told Jiji that the EPA isn’t as big an influence as it seems. One wine industry association said that Chile’s product is more suited to Japanese tastes, whatever that means. But the fact is that other wine-making countries and regions are paying close attention to the Japanese market and may be worried about Chile’s ascendance. For one thing, while sales of alcoholic beverages in general have been on the decline, the consumption of wine has been going up. At present, the average Japanese person consumes a little less than three bottles a year. Consequently, Japan signed another EPA with Australia in July. According to the terms of the agreement, the tariff on Australian wine will disappear in seven years, which is faster than the rate reduction with Chile.

So Europe is especially anxious to get its own EPA hammered out, since it’s losing ground to these New World winemakers. Wine and cheese are two of the main products under discussion.

It may already be too late. According to a report in the Hokkaido Shimbun, Hokkaido Prefecture’s most prominent convenient store chain, Seico Mart, has seen a 10 percent increase in the sale of Chilean wines over the past year, or one-fourth of the chain’s entire wine sales revenue. That’s even more than French wines. The newspaper narrows the appeal down better than Jiji, saying that Japanese people prefer the slightly sweeter flavor of Chilean wine. But the real reason is the price. The bestselling wine in the chain is a Chilean wine that goes for ¥480.

A common retail belief when it comes to selling wine to people who aren’t connoisseurs in Japan is that ¥1,000 tends to be the limit, and Chilean wine is consistently below that ceiling.


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