Archive for the ‘Services’ 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 →

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

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 →

Annals of Cheap: Eco Rent-a-car

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

Since selling our car some years ago we’ve made do with public transportation, bicycles and our own four feet to get around, even after we moved out of the city. It hasn’t been as much of a hassle as you might think, but, then again, we’re easy about such things. Still, once in a while you need a car.

Several weeks ago we had to go to Ota in Gunma Prefecture to do some research. Ota is the home of the manufacturer Fuji Juko, whose most famous product is Subaru automobiles. Our mission in Ota would take us to two locations, and since we don’t have a car we had to play out our itinerary beforehand to make sure we would be able to get around. Getting to Ota from where we live wasn’t a problem at all. From Kita Senju in Tokyo, which is convenient from where we live, we caught the Tobu express train to Ota and got there in about an hour.

Our first destination in the city itself was on another local Tobu train line that connected to Ota Station, but there is only one train an hour. That station is 5 km from Ota Station, so walking was not a desirable option. The bus system also seemed dodgy, which is often the case in towns where large car makers are the main source of employment. Sometimes you can rent bicycles near a station, and they usually cost between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 for two hours or so, but usually it’s a place that receives a lot of tourists, which doesn’t describe Ota at all.

We considered taking a taxi and estimated that the first leg of our trip would cost at least ¥3,000. When we were finished with our research at that location, we would have to call another taxi to take us to our second destination. Of course, when you order a taxi in Japan by phone they tack on an extra fare segment. We figured it might cost ¥5,000 to get to the next place, so that would already be ¥8,000 even before we found a way to get back to Ota Station for the return trip home.

So we decided to rent a choinori (short drive) car and almost accidently came across Eco Rent-a-car, which we’d never heard of but happened to have an office right at Ota Station. Much more interesting than the location, however, was the price: ¥980 for three hours. Was that right? There had to be some sort of catch, even if it was for the smallest model, a mini-car (k-car, in Japanese). You even got a 5 percent discount if you reserved online, so we did. Naturally, all the cars Eco provides, including an electric model, are made by Subaru.

CONTINUE READING about Eco Rent-a-car →

Whatever you do, don’t call Nestle’s coffee ‘instant’

Friday, August 15th, 2014

According to the business magazine Toyo Keizai, on July 24, Nestle Japan announced that it was quitting four industry groups it belonged to: the Japan Fair Trade Coffee Conference, the All Japan Coffee Association, the Japan Instant Coffee Association and the Japan Coffee Importers Association. These groups have, according to Toyo, had problems acknowledging Nestle’s description of its new manufacturing method for coffee products that it started using last September.

Nestle's Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle’s Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle no longer calls its Gold Blend and Nescafe Excella brands “instant coffees,” but rather “regular soluble coffee,” and insists that others do the same. Two months ago, these associations revised their industry fair competition rules, saying that they couldn’t allow Nestle to use such a description in their advertising, so Nestle decided to not work with them any more.

Nestle says the manufacturing method is different, so it has a right to call its coffee something different. Most coffee called “instant” these days is made by freeze-drying liquid concentrated coffee liquor. Soluble coffee, however, is a “unique” blend of pulverized roasted coffee beans and dried coffee concentrate. To the layman and, obviously, other members of the coffee industry in Japan, that description doesn’t qualify as much of a distinction, but Nestle wants to stress that the new method makes for coffee that is closer to the real thing, meaning coffee brewed from ground roasted beans.

An executive of the All Japan Coffee Association explained to Toyo that his group’s reluctance to accept the new designation is based on complaints it’s received from consumer groups that say people may buy Nestle’s new product under the mistaken assumption that it’s “real regular coffee.” And as far as the new designation goes, people who don’t know what “soluble” means may think that regular coffee grounds dissolve in hot water, which, of course, they don’t. In any case, “soluble” is a pretty good description of instant coffee in general, so the distinction is moot.

But Nestle Japan can pretty much do whatever it wants since its products account for 70 percent of the — pardon us — instant coffee market in Japan. It wasn’t until 1960 that the importation of coffee beans to Japan was liberalized. The next year importers started bringing in instant coffee, and by the middle of the decade Nestle’s Nescafe was the best-selling brand in Japan, as it was in the world.

Then, in 1967, Nestle Japan started selling Gold Blend, the first instant coffee to use the freeze-dried method developed by Nestle at its headquarters in Switzerland. The Japan affiliate was nervous, though, because it thought Gold Blend would “cannibalize” sales of Nescafe, so it made two different advertising campaigns: Nescafe for everyone, Gold Blend for more discerning consumers.

The Gold Blend commercials became famous for using well-known “artistic” talent, like novelists, classical musicians and kabuki actors. The ads were a success. Instead of eating up sales of Nescafe (which soon became Excella) Gold Blend’s sales augmented them. Eventually, Excella had a 50 percent share and Gold Blend a 20 percent share.

CONTINUE READING about Nestle Japan →

Japan tourism still suffers from a credit card gap

Monday, June 30th, 2014

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

So close, and yet so far: Shimosa Manzaki Station on the JR Narita Line

In a letter to the editor published in the June 23 Tokyo Shimbun, the writer relates an anecdote about two American women who while waiting at Narita Airport for a connecting flight to the states after arriving in transit from a vacation in Southeast Asia, decided to kill time by taking in a local onsen (hot spring bath). After checking the Internet with whatever mobile devices they had with them, they found that the nearest one was at Shimosa Manzaki station, one stop away from the Narita city terminal on the JR Narita Line. Since they weren’t going to be in Japan long they didn’t bother getting yen, and were able to buy JR train tickets with their credit cards. They could also use their cards at the onsen itself.

However, when they went back to Shimosa Manzaki station to make the return trip to the airport after their bath they discovered that their credit cards were no good. Neither the ticket vending machine in the station nor the employee selling tickets at the window would accept them. The letter writer happened to be at the station at the time and understood English. She was kind enough to buy them tickets so that they could get back in time to catch their flight.

This incident highlights a major gap in the government’s plan to increase foreign tourism in Japan. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of foreign visitors exceeded 10 million, thus encouraging the Japan National Tourism Organization to aim for 20 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the summer Olympic Games. Significantly, 80 percent of the tourists who came to Japan last year were individual travelers, meaning they didn’t come as members of organized tours. Individual travelers book their own accommodations and arrange their own transportation with the idea of playing things by ear and enjoying their travels at their own pace.

Credit and debit cards make it easier since they allow for more flexibility than cash or travelers checks, which have to be purchased through foreign exchange outlets. As we’ve mentioned before, most Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign credit cards, but even more vexing for individual tourists is that many Japanese businesses, including some who cater to tourists and especially those outside the large metropolitan areas don’t accept credit cards.

Hotels tend to be OK, but as the two American women who visited Shimosa Manzaki found out, a lot of transportation outlets aren’t. As far as JR goes, larger stations in the cities accept credit cards, but most others don’t. If you’re buying a shinkansen ticket, it’s usually OK to use a credit card, even with the special vending machines, but the Midori Kenbaiki, the special vending machines for long-distance travel, are complicated to use even for Japanese and don’t have English instructions.

Foreign tourists can buy Pasmo and Suica prepaid IC cards just like Japanese residents do, and they certainly make life easier, but both cards require a ¥500 deposit that may put some tourists off. Both cards can also be tied in with credit cards so that they recharge automatically when their value drops to almost nothing, but that option is not available to tourists. Mitsubishi Research has found that almost 90 percent of the travelers it surveyed from Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S. buy some sort of transportation pass, be it the JR rail pass or one-day Metro tickets, so obviously it is the sort of service that’s appreciated. But while these same people express a high level of satisfaction for the transportation service that’s offered, they also find it difficult to make sense of the network.

Specifically, they have difficulty figuring out how to get to specific destinations and how to buy tickets, especially from vending machines, even when English explanations are available. Moreover, while they appreciate the various passes on offer, they don’t often know which one is best for their needs. In Tokyo, should they buy one-day passes for both subway lines or just one?

The research arm of Mitsubishi UFJ found that 88 percent of foreign tourists use guidebooks, maps, smart phone apps or some combination of the three, but they would like to be able to do everything using their mobile devices. Some businesses have already said they plan to increase the number of free wi-fi hot spots by 2020, which is a good start. But making it easier to use credit cards more flexibly would also be a big incentive for visitors since it would save them time, trouble and maybe even money.


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