Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

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.

Japanese low-cost carriers hit hard by pilot shortage

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita airport

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita International Airport

Low-cost carriers (LCC ) — airlines with cheaper fares than standard carriers — came relatively late to Japan. Peach Aviation was the first in March 2012, followed by Jetstar Japan, an affiliate of Australia’s Qantas Airlines, in July of the same year, and then Air Asia Japan, which has since changed its name to Vanilla Air, for some reason. (Skymark, which also charges less that most airlines, is technically not an LCC.)

As of March, LCCs accounted for 7.5 percent of domestic passengers, which isn’t bad, and growth seemed assured, but suddenly all three bargain airlines have hit a wall. Vanilla recently announced that it will cancel 154 flights, or 20 percent of its schedule, for June, and Peach said it would curtail its own schedule by more than 2,000 flights through October. Jetstar had planned to expand its flight coverage this year but has since postponed those plans.

The reason is a serious shortage of pilots, in particular flight captains. Vanilla says it has had personnel problems recently due to pilots quitting or taking sick leave, but its president, Tomonori Ishii, has assured the public that it will address the problem by “borrowing” personnel from its parent, ANA, but on a temporary basis. Of Peach’s 52 captains, eight were out of action due to illness or injury, but, in fact, the problem is more intractable.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's pilot shortage →

Golden Week activity influenced more by logistics than by economics

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

This year’s Golden Week holiday isn’t as golden as it normally is owing to the way the national holidays that make it possible fall in relation to the days of the week. Showa no hi (the Showa Emperor’s birthday) was on a Tuesday and Constitution Day on a Saturday, so there was enough time between them for people to work, which means they didn’t get those days off. That left a measly 4-day weekend to get all the things people usually do during Golden Week done — like visit their home towns — and the truncated time period meant more highway congestion in a shorter time span, which the media treats with such predictable urgency every year that it has become something of cultural touchstone. In any case, all that gasoline wasted in 45-km traffic jams and constant stops at expressway service areas doesn’t make up economically for the money lost during the reduced holiday.

The Japan Travel Bureau declared that the Golden Week holiday started on April 25 and ended May 6, despite the fact that, for the first half of that period, schools weren’t closed the whole time so it wasn’t a bona fide “break” for families with children, regardless of whether or not dad had to work.

According to a JTB survey of 1,200 people who presumably already knew what they were going to spend over the holiday, the amount expended per person for those who planned to travel domestically was ¥34,400, or 4.2 percent less than last year. For overseas travelers the amount was ¥249,500, which represents an increase of 8.1 percent. The peak days for domestic departures were May 3-4, and for foreign departures May 2-3, thus proving that the first half of the holiday was virtually meaningless. This concentration of recreation into such a short period will likely spawn even more post-GW stories than usual on the spike in attendant divorces and job resignations.

CONTINUE READING about Golden Week 2014 →

Consumption tax hike projected to increase appeal of electronic money

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The ones: You'll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

The ones: You’ll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

Last month the national mint intensified production of ¥1 coins in anticipation of the consumption tax hike on April 1. The Ministry of Finance wants 26 million of them manufactured by the end of March, and then another 160 million after the start of the new fiscal year. Once the consumption tax goes up from 5 to 8 percent, retailers will need more small change.

With a 5 percent tax, it’s relatively easy for stores to limit their use of coins since they can set prices based on multiples of 5. Maybe it’s possible to do that with multiples of 8, too, but not right away, and many fear they will not have enough ¥1 coins on hand when the tax hike goes into effect. An employee of the nationwide ¥100 shop CanDo told Asahi Shimbun, “Altough we sometimes receive ¥1 coins in payment from customers, we don’t recycle them as change to other customers, but now we’re trying to hoard as many as possible.”

If the consumption tax increase is an inconvenience to retailers, it’s even more of a pain in the neck for the government, since it costs between ¥2 and ¥3 to make a ¥1 coin, which is 100 percent aluminum. It’s the first time the mint has produced ¥1 coins on anything approaching this scale in four years. It will also produce an extra 100 million ¥5 coins, just to be safe. The government doesn’t want to relive the small change panic that happened in 1989, when the 3 percent consumption tax was first introduced.

CONTINUE READING about the consumption tax hike's effect on e-money →

Special K: Mini-cars come of age in a maxi-world

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Thinking inside the box: Honda's N-WGN

Thinking inside the box: Honda’s N-WGN

The nationwide used car dealer, Gulliver, recently set up a new venture called Gulliver Minicle, which deals only in kei-jidosha, often referred to as minicars in English, though here we like to call them K-cars, which make up a separate class of automobile. The engine displacement can’t be more than 660cc, and they were developed in the ’60s and ’70s for people with limited incomes.

When K-cars first appeared the engines were as small as 360cc, and have always been a point of contention for the U.S. automobile industry, which describes them as a “non-tariff trade barrier” because taxes for K-cars have been much less than they are for regular cars and thus are deemed as being unfair competition for infamously larger American cars — though it should be noted that U.S. automakers have tried to sell compacts in Japan.

K-cars have always had one glaring drawback. Because the engine is so small, they have to be light, and that means they are less safe. Consequently, families don’t buy them; or, at least, they didn’t until recently.

Gulliver’s launch of a retail entity that only sells used K-cars shows that there must be a viable market, since K-cars are already cheap and Japanese people aren’t big used car buyers. So far there is only one Minicle, in Morioka, and it has about 50 cars on display divided into three sizes: S, M and L, like apparel.

According to an article about the store in the Asahi Shimbun, there really isn’t much difference in the sizes, but the designations appeal to women, who are now the main target demographic for K-cars. There is even a play space in the store where kids can relax while mom is shopping for new wheels.

Gulliver is already planning Minicle stores in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and the San’in region, and by 2018 expects to have about a dozen throughout Japan, mainly in the vicinity of regional capitals and not so much in the big three metropolitan areas.

In December, the Japan Light Motor Vehicle and Motorcycle Association estimated that 2.1 million K-cars would be sold in Japan during 2013, a new record. In contrast, sales of all other cars amounted to about 3 million. So while sales of minicars increased by 4.8 percent over 2012, sales of other cars decreased by 5.3 percent.

As a portion of all car sales, Ks increased by 2.4 points to 39.3 percent. The only other automotive sector that showed more growth was foreign (read: German) cars, whose sales increased by 9 percent, also a record. And in terms of production by Japanese automakers, 40 percent are now K-cars.

The obvious reason for the popularity of minicars is their price, but they’ve always been cheap. It’s their reason for existing in the first place. Some say that people bought them last year because the K-car tax is set to be eliminated sometime this year, but a more likely reason is increased safety and functionality.

More than a year ago, Daihatsu started selling a new version of its Move model that uses sensors to automatically reduce speed when it gets too close to the car in front of it. Though it’s offered as an option at ¥50,000, more than 80 percent of the buyers order it. In succession, similar options were added by Suzuki to its popular Wagon R model, for ¥42,000, and by Honda to its N-WGN model.

A Honda representative told Asahi that since 64 percent of K-car drivers are women, this option was incorporated specifically to attract them. A good portion of K-cars are bought as second cars, for shopping and shlepping the kids around. In the past, these women bought compact cars, but they’re switching over to Ks.

Nissan and Daihatsu have upped the ante by also offering windshields that cut ultraviolet rays, something else women demand. In addition, K-cars now have much roomier interiors than in the past and larger cargo areas. In truth, there isn’t much difference, performance-wise, between a K and a standard compact.

Which is why the U.S. is even angrier than before, because that makes the so-called trade barrier even higher to scale. Due to regulations and consumer sentiment, K cars aren’t marketable in America, and the Big 3 automakers aren’t going to manufacture them only for one market, but that could be changing. India seems ravenous for K-cars and Suzuki is quickly setting up factories and joint ventures on the sub-continent.

Some experts say that the U.S. Trade Representative’s gripe about Ks is actually a means of keeping pressure on other sectors, generating leverage to open Japan’s agriculture and insurance markets more, for example. Also, it gives the American government an excuse to maintain its own tariff to protect the U.S. truck market from low-priced Japanese imports.

Government tries to jolt EV sales with charging station subsidies

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Norway boasts the highest per capita ownership of electric cars in the world, for a number of interrelated reasons, it seems. The tax on purchases of new cars, all of which are imported, can be more than 100 percent, depending on weight and fuel efficiency, but it’s almost zero for electric cars. The annual automobile tax is about a seventh of the tax burden for a gas-powered vehicle. This savings is apparently enough to offset the higher sticker price of electric cars. According to a friend of ours who is Norwegian, the American Tesla sells for 580,000 kroner, or ¥9.6 million, and there is a six-month waiting list. We asked our friend if there were enough high-speed charging stations in Norway, and he said there are about 4,000, which is not considered enough but he says most people are “satisfied” with charging their EVs at home, where it takes about 8 hours to top them off.

In addition to offering tax breaks, the government promotes EVs by subsidizing the installation of charging stations. EVs do not have to pay road tolls, and they can use lanes that are normally limited to buses and taxis. More significantly, despite the fact that Norway’s wealth is derived from oil, its gas prices are among the highest in the world, twice as much as they are in Japan. So while EVs are very expensive to buy , in the long run they are much more economical thanks to the government.

One of the reasons auto-related taxes are so high in Norway is that the country has no automotive industry to protect. Electric cars are manufactured in Japan and are relatively cheap, but much less popular. At last week’s Tokyo Motor Show, Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, admitted that EVs weren’t selling as well as expected and that the company’s sales goal of 1.5 million units by 2016 would not be reached.

According to Sankei Biz, EV sales in Japan have picked up slightly in recent months, and as of October 120,000 electric cars have been sold in Japan since they were introduced. About 87,000 of these were made by Nissan. Ghosn says the main reason the target won’t be met is “lack of infrastructure,” meaning lack of charging stations.

In August, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi announced that they would jointly build more recharging stations throughout Japan to promote electric vehicle sales, with the help of government subsidies, and last week the four automakers agreed on the details of “specific financial assistance” to parties who install charging stations.

Tokyo Shimbun reports that at present there are 1,900 quick charging stations in Japan and about 3,500 normal charging stations. The government will provide subsidies of up to ¥1.7 million to businesses that install quick recharging stations on their properties and ¥400,000 to businesses that install normal recharging stations. The government’s aim is to increase the number of quick stations by 4,000 and normal stations by 8,000, though no timeline has been given.

These subsidies are being offered through both the central government and local governments. Maintenance of the stations will also be subsidized for a limited time. If the business is a convenience store, it has to have parking for at least ten cars, and if it’s a gas station it has to be open 24 hours. Applications for the subsidy, however, will only be taken until February of next year.

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