Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cha ma mo cat room (meow!)

I found another neko cafe- and it's closer to both home and school, just south of the Omotesando intersection in the Harajuku/Jingumae area. Dylan and I stopped by the other day, opting for the "set menu" (1000 yen buys an hour of playtime with the kitties, plus a drink -- coffee, tea, oj, ginger ale...). The lady who runs the place asked us to wash our hands before entering (there's a sink outside the door) and then told us not to pick any of the cats up before taking our drink order.

When we arrived the 8-10 cats were sleeping, curled up in baskets, on futon couches, in cardboard boxes. It was like they had all been drugged. Maybe that's how these places work, by sedating these notoriously unpredictable, fickle creatures (hey, I owned a couple cats, had 'em for years, and I can tell you that even the sweet-natured ones, the ones that don't seem to have any issues with anyone, are capable of flipping out at any time). But several of them did eventually rise and perform, giving chase as Dylan dangled toys tied to the end of a string, and shined a penlight on the floor (I felt like they were humoring him, really -- all in a day's work).

One tabby perched himself on the top of one of those scratching posts to lick his paws and pose.
He didn't mind Dylan petting him.

The lady in charge really made an effort to make things interesting for us. She put a gizmo called Cat in a Bag onto the floor where it rolled around, twitching the fake tail that was sticking out of the top, as if a real cat was trapped inside. Dylan loved it.

JaLaLa is cozier, but not nearly as convenient. This may be my new place to kill time before pickup. Especially since they keep a lint roller by the cash register, so you can remove the cat hair from your clothes before you head back out into the world.
The place is on the 5th floor of a small building not far from UT (Uniqlo's big T-shirt store) on Meiji-dori. You leave your shoes outside the door, of course, and grab a pair of slippers from the basket on the floor.
Ciao for now, Cha ma mo!

the barber shop of Kurasawa

while Conor got his haircut, Dylan watched a samurai show on TV

the shop when it's closed (I'm told that the pole sign reads "cut and perm" and that the Kanji on the door means "barber shop" -- and that's the name Kurasawa written larger in Hiragana)

Enjoy Jesus

at Kaikaya, one of our favorite seafood restaurants, in Maruyamacho, Shibuya-ku

edamame Kit Kat bars

My friend Mizuho brought us many gifts today -- some delicious homemade tonkatsu sushi rolls (the fried pork bits were wrapped in shiso leaf-yum!), a variety of soft drinks in wacky cans, a box of Belgian waffles, and some edamame-flavored Kit Kat bars. They are the same creme wafers but coated in something pale green, which I can only describe as "like white chocolate with a hint of something else."

Also flavors sold somewhere in Japan at one time or another: pickled plum, bubblegum, wasabi, cucumber, apple, maple syrup, caramel salt, sakura (cherry blossom), yuzu (sweet lemon citrus) and azuki (sweet red bean).

I lifted this straight off wikipedia (so of course it must all be true):

In recent years, Kit Kats have become very popular in Japan, a phenomenon attributed to the coincidental similarity between the bar's name and the Japanese phrase kitto katsu, which roughly translates to "You will surely win!" This has reportedly led to parents and children buying them for school examination days as a sort of good luck charm.

However, transliteration is not always in Nestlé's favour -
kitto katto (where 'katto' is taken to be a katakana transliteration of the English verb 'cut') is understood to bestow Kit Kat with the less positive significance of "you will surely miss the cut". As such, gifts of a single Kit Kat are a running joke for senior high school students taking the University Entrance Examinations in some areas...

Further building on the teen market, Nestlé created a music label in 2005 and bundled Kit Kats with CDs, which has propelled the Kit Kat to become the #1 selling biscuit in Japan...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ski trip to Ishiuchi Maruyama, Niigata Pref.

There's night skiing at Ishiuchi!

(that's Conor in the foreground, at left, with Dylan behind him and Terry in the background on the right)

This resort area-- and there are oh so many in this country! -- is less than 2 hrs. away, door to door: about 1 hr. 15 min. by bullet train from Tokyo Station to Echigo-Yuzawa station, and from there, another 10 min. by car, or in our case, hotel shuttle-van. (We stayed at Esprit, a boutique outfit, which was basically ski-in, ski-out, and was run by some very nice people who provided some very fine food plus free Wi-Fi. Oh and the owner drove me to the 7-11 down the road so I could use the ATM.)

We just got back so this post is to be continued...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day

next to the Apples stamped "Happy Valentine's Day" were these plum-sized perfect strawberries, individually packaged, at the fruit shop in Shibuya station, 420 yen (nearly $5) each

what the boys got me!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I've always wanted a Prius

I find the whole Toyota recall mess fascinating.

The article I read today (by Martin Fackler, on the front page of today's International Herald Tribune) notes that Toyoto "looms so large that Japan can seem like a one-company town" and that the company has "long enjoyed near hallowed status here as the greatest practitioner of monozukuri, a centuries-old ideal of perfection in craftsmanship, seen in pottery and ancient sword-making."

And now?

"Once a leading symbol of Japan’s rise to global economic might, Toyota has become one of the most visible signs of its decline."

The piece quotes Masatomo Tanaka, a professor at the Institute of Technologists, a university in Saitama that specializes in training engineers: "At this rate, Japan will sink into the sea. If Toyota is not healthy, then Japan is not healthy."

Fackler writes: "Many economists and business executives say they hope that Toyota’s trauma will be the unsettling blow that Japan needs to understand that its reliance on manufacturing and industrial exports, which served the country so well after World War II, is no longer wise."

One expert says that "Japan must finally evolve into a postindustrial, service-based economy — a painful transition that the United States and Great Britain underwent in the 1980s" while others say it "should focus exclusively on high-end, high-profit products, like robots and fuel cells."

To read the whole article click here. (It ran first in the New York Times.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

'cult of the living doll'

Kaori Shijo has an interesting article in the NYTs this week about two new-ish fashion trends that have gained ground here in the last year or so: the "Mori" (forest) girls and the "Ageha" (swallowtail butterfly) girls.

Shijo (and her sources) explain: "The forest girls wear layers of thin cottony dresses, thick tights and boots, unpretentious makeup and cloth tote bags, the intention being to resemble a handmade doll from some romantic, Black Forest setting....[They] want to obliterate sexuality.... [and] are wary of all forms of aggression or self-assertiveness. They're just too fragile, or would like to be that way. They don't want to live so much as to exist, preferably on a metaphysical level.”

Meanwhile, swallowtail butterflies "show a similar mistrust of the real world. Their aim is to look as much as possible like the blow-up figurines men buy online, only with flamboyant makeup." (Says one 23-year-old Ageha girl: “I like it when everything about me feels artificial.") These "doll impersonators" spend hours applying false eyelashes, hair extensions and heavy makeup.

Apparently, as much as they wish to alter their appearance, they won't get plastic surgery, because in Japanese culture, it's considered a "sin against their parents."


Monday, February 8, 2010

Tokyo Metro says GET UP

Hey- not for nothin', but nobody ever gave me a seat on a New York City subway when I was big and pregnant. Well, maybe once or twice. But it was always a skinny person, which meant that I couldn't actually fit into the spot they were offering.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

chills and frills

Nothing says February like... petticoat miniskirts?

Beef Bowl Economics

by Hiroko Tabuchi (published in The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2010)

The broiled meat is tender and the rice is silky-smooth. But as Japan’s economic recovery falters, beef bowls have come to symbolize one of its most pressing woes: deflation.

Japan’s big three beef bowl restaurant chains, the country’s answer to hamburger giants like McDonald’s, are in a price war. It is a sign, many people say, of the dire state of Japan’s economy that even dirt-cheap beef bowl restaurants must slash their already low prices to keep customers.

The battle has also come to epitomize a destructive pattern repeated across Japan’s economy. By cutting prices hastily and aggressively to attract consumers, critics say, restaurants decimate profits, squeeze workers’ pay and drive the weak out of business — a deflationary cycle that threatens the nation’s economy.

"These cutthroat price wars could usher in another recessionary hell,” the influential economist Noriko Hama wrote in a magazine article that has won much attention. “If we all got used to spending just 250 yen for every meal, then meals priced respectably will soon become too expensive,” she said. “When you buy something cheap, you lower the value of your own life.”

Deflation — defined as a decline in the prices of goods and services — is back in Japan as it struggles to shake off the effects of its worst recession since World War II.

While prices have fallen elsewhere during the global economic crisis, deflation has been the most persistent here: consumer prices among industrialized economies rose by a robust 1.3 percent in the year to November, but fell 1.9 percent in Japan.

In the decline, companies that undercut rivals too aggressively are being chastised as reckless at best, or as traitors undermining the country’s recovery at worst. Every markdown of beef bowl prices by the big three restaurants — Sukiya, Yoshinoya and Matsuya — has been promptly broadcast by the national news media here.

Japan has reason to be worried. Deflation hampered Japan from the mid-1990s, after the collapse of its bubble economy, to at least 2005. Households held back spending on big-ticket goods, knowing they would only get cheaper. Companies were unsure of how much to invest. At the time, the three beef bowl chains were in a similar price war.

Still, government officials back then emphasized the supposed benefits of deflation; falling prices were good for households, they said. Others said deflation would help restructure the economy by weeding out weak companies.

But the drawn-out deflationary cycle weighed heavily on Japan’s recovery. Apart from putting a damper on consumption and investment, asset deflation ravaged the country’s banks and shut out new businesses from credit.

Now that deflation is back, Japan is wary. Unemployment remains near record highs, and wages are falling. Mounting public debt is also a problem, causing Standard & Poor’s on Tuesday to cut its outlook for Japan’s sovereign rating for the first time since 2002. Japan must do more to lift its economy out of deflation and bolster long-term growth, S.& P. said.

Moreover, the population is shrinking, making demand inherently weak. Economists say Japan’s economy is saddled with a 35 trillion yen, or $388 billion, “demand gap,” or almost 7 percent of the country’s economic output.

“With supply continuing to exceed demand by a massive margin, deflationary expectations are proving very difficult to shake,” said Ryutaro Kono, an economist at BNP Paribas in Tokyo. “Households have been tightening their purse strings as the income outlook looks increasingly bleak, and we believe firms will continue to respond by lowering prices.”

Matsuya, the smallest of the three chains, set off the price war by cutting the price of its standard beef bowl to 320 yen, or $3.55, from 380 yen in early December. The market leader, Sukiya, followed suit that month, lowering its price to 280 yen, from 330 yen.

This month, the No. 2 beef bowl chain, Yoshinoya, lowered the price of its beef bowl to 300 yen, from 380 yen, though it says the cut is temporary. A smaller chain, Nakau, has also lowered prices.

The restaurant chains insist they have not downsized their portions, and will make up for cheaper prices by raising efficiency.

“We don’t consider this a price cut. We’ve simply set a new price,” said Naoki Fujita at Zensho, which runs the Sukiya chain. “With incomes falling, we needed to figure out what would be a reasonable price,” he said. “We hope customers who came every week will now come twice a week.”

In a sense, the beef bowl has always been about low prices. Yoshinoya, the beef bowl pioneer with about 1,560 stores in Japan and overseas, helped bring beef to the Japanese working class with its first restaurant in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo in 1899.

Though beef was a delicacy at the time, Eikichi Matsuda, the Yoshinoya founder, kept prices cheap by buying in bulk, and serving as many customers as possible from his tiny stall. Speed and efficiency reigned, with workers trained to start preparing a bowl even before a customer sat down.

The same principles still apply at Yoshinoya. At a branch in central Tokyo, servers rarely take more than a minute to fill an order. The average customer spends just 7.5 minutes on a meal, and a small restaurant can serve more than 3,000 customers a day.

But forced to sell at ever-lower prices — and hurt by lower-priced competitors — making a profit has been increasingly difficult. The company suffered a 2.3 billion yen net loss in the nine months to November, and the next month, before Yoshinoya slashed prices, its sales slumped 22.2 percent. In contrast, sales at Sukiya, which serves up the cheapest beef bowl, surged 15.9 percent that month from the previous year.

Yoshinoya is not considering further price cuts. Squeezing out more savings is “like wringing a dry towel,” said a spokesman, Haruhiko Kizu.

Meanwhile, labor disputes at Sukiya show how falling prices and revenue can quickly hurt workers. A string of former workers have sued the chain over withholding overtime pay. Sukiya denies the accusations.

Other companies have been harshly criticized for slashing prices. Fast Retailing, the company behind the fast-growing Uniqlo brand, has garnered as much disapproval as awe for selling jeans as low as 990 yen. McDonald’s, on the other hand, has won kudos for resisting bargain basement prices by introducing a series of big “American-style” burgers for more than 400 yen, considered expensive in today’s Japan.

“Some Japanese companies are waging such reckless price wars, they’re wringing their own necks,” said Masamitsu Sakurai, who heads the influential business lobby Keizai Doyukai. “Companies need to be more creative. They should come up with products that add value.”

Economists say it is absurd to blame individual companies for Japan’s deflation. “For prices to fall during an economic downturn is natural. That stimulates demand and facilitates an eventual recovery,” said Takuji Aida, chief economist for UBS in Tokyo. “But this mechanism doesn’t work when there is such a big demand shortfall.”

“When prices fall because of an increase in productivity at a company, it’s good for the economy,” said Sean Yokota, an economist for UBS based in Tokyo. “It’s the demand gap that’s damaging.”

The government has vowed to lift household incomes through a series of subsidies, including new cash payments to families with small children. But the scale of government payments — 2.3 trillion yen in the case of the child subsidies — is hardly enough to fill the nation’s huge demand shortfall. With interest rates close to zero, Japan also has few options left in monetary policy.

In the meantime, cutthroat price battles are already driving laggards out of business. Wendy’s, the American burger chain, left Japan on Dec. 31.

It is not surprising, considering the competition. A mere stone’s throw from Tokyo’s celebrated Ginza district is Shokuan, the kind of restaurant that is undercutting everyone.

Shokuan, which has no chairs nor table service, is a cluster of beer vending machines huddled under the train tracks. A man behind a tiny counter sells dirt-cheap morsels: fish sausages for 50 yen, prawn crackers for 60 yen, canned yakitori for 160 yen. Many days of the week, Shokuan is spilling over with customers.

“I don’t think there’s anything around here cheaper than this. That’s why I started to come,” said Yasunori Miura, a manufacturing company employee and a recent regular. “This here,” he said, pointing to his fish sausage, “is deflation.” --Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

Monday, February 1, 2010

shirako? no.

I'm pretty adventurous when it comes to food. But I can't do shirako. I thought shirako was fish guts. Ya know, the intestines or whatever. But no. It's sperm sacs. That's right: male fish sperm sacs. Say it again. Sperm sacs. That you eat.

And here, it's a delicacy. My good friends Siu and Mizuho gobbled up a great big pile of the stuff today at lunch.

I tried, I really did. I took a bite and swallowed. I will not be doing that again.