A major trend in Japan recently is how local beer brands are trying to reverse their falling sales as the population declines and younger consumers turn away from traditional beers.
After years of product development suicide where they foolishly put all their efforts into producing ever-cheaper beers that could circumvent the beer tax laws and be priced at post-Bubble-friendly levels, the results — daisan beer, happoushu, non-alcoholic beer — are so bad that they have damaged the reputation of the breweries for a generation.
Now they are trying to make a comeback with another approach entirely, attracting younger people to drink beer as an attractive summer beverage. And so we have seen seasonal “super cold” beer bars and beer gardens opening in Tokyo in the last four years, as well as special “extra cold” beer servers being installed at limited numbers of restaurants and beers.
Yes, foam and cold temperatures make for a perfect thirst-quenching summer drink! This has now combined with the trend for toy makers, especially Takara Tomy, to produce food toys for kids and the family to enjoy making stuff at home.
Here are some of the best results: great home drink makers that serve up ideal beverages to cool you down this summer!
Originally created as a free promo giveaway to advertise Kirin’s summer beer gardens where you could get these “beer slushies”, the Takara Tomy co-produced tool was so popular it then became its own product. A beer slushie? You haven’t lived till you’ve tried it!
This is the original in the Takara Tomy ARTS series of beer servers that can fit a standard can and then also give you the foamy head that a freshly-poured sud will have in a Japanese bar. Although not common overseas, the creamy cap will actually prove very refreshing in the dog days.
And for that real freshly-pumped-draft-beer sensation, get out the Beer Jug Jokki Hour Foam Maker. Just push down on the switch to create the cooling foam bubbles in your glass.
This is the latest in the Beer Hour series, a beer server that can also give you the foamy head AND serve up super cold beers. A great addition to any summer picnic.
This special ice shape maker means you can toast with Japan’s most famous mountain in your glass.
It resembles a cocktail shaker but it’s actually a chilled smoothie-style drink maker. The maker, Takara Tomy ARTS (of course), promise that the type of drink the Tumeta Oicino creates is a completely new kind of beverage, a sort of ice cream crossed with a frozen smoothie.
Not necessarily a summer drink but this still looks cool. The Fujiyama Glass will turn your glass into a beer-colored Mt Fuji. Just correctly pour in your beer with a foamy head (use the Beer Hour for best results!).
And when all else fails, get out the now classic Ice Ball Mold and create perfect ice spheres which not only look awesome, but they melt slowly and keep your drink cooler for longer.
Teapots are all well and good but they retain only around 30% of the nutrients from the tea leaves.
Sharp spotted a way to deliver better cups of tea and in a very convenient way for the person who really values their kitchen.
Enter the Sharp Healsio Ocha Presso, an “espresso maker” for tea.
Not only is this super convenient (it can make matcha green tea, chai, black tea, herbal tea, and even latte), the tea is actually healthier since the Healsio Ocha Presso brews a cuppa with 1.9 times the catechin of tea from a teapot.
Now available from Japan Trend Shop in either white or black designs, this is a very stylish-looking addition to your home.
In the best tradition of Japanese monozukuri, this is more than just an electronic gizmo for giving you a quick cup of tea. Quite the opposite, the Healsio Ocha Presso features an internal ceramic tea mortar to mill the tea leaves into a fine powder.
The resulting tea is stronger, fresher and healthier, since the grinding is a slow 100rpm and so there is no friction, and thus no loss of catechin, chlorophyll and dietary fibers. Instead, these all stay in the tea for you to consume and benefit from.
Mill the leaves into a powder and then put the powder into the brewing pot, to be stirred and blended into a perfect cup of green tea. Now all you need to do is master the Tea Ceremony and you are truly Japanese!
See more at Japan Trend Shop.
Now this is an innovative way to cool down your drink.
While we still love the quietly industrial and precise ice sphere offered by the Ice Ball Mold, there is something to be said for having “3D-milled ice cubes”. Don’t worry, you’re not alone in not understanding exactly what that means but when the results — including a miniature Japanese temple — are this stunning, who cares?!
“3D on the Rocks” as the stunning ad campaign declares.
A shark. The Statue of Liberty. An astronaut. A space rocket. Michelangelo’s David. A high-heel shoe. Design ideas were submitted by members of the public which were then selected to be made by drilling into a block of ice.
The ice sculpture is then placed into the whisky glass to melt and cool the beverage. Artistically a bit of a waste but what a great concept!
Here’s the ad to give you more of an idea of how the ice shapes are made.
Scottish beer brand BrewDog is set to open its own bar in Roppongi from March 1st.
BrewDog Roppongi will offer ten beers on tap — six standards and four seasonal brews — plus a further ten guest beers from the UK, Japan and around the world. The bar, managed by BrewDog Japan, will also be decked out using furnishings procured from the same supplier as BrewDog UK uses.
This comes amid a flurry of new craft beer and micro brewery bar openings in the Tokyo area over the past few years. Although the actual number of craft beers and smaller breweries hasn’t itself increased much (or at all) since its peak in the early 1990′s, there has been a major boom in bars. Many of these are managed or staffed by foreign residents.
While drinkers often decry the decline in beer standards in Japan, the rise of the craft beer bars shows that consumers are willing to pay more for quality beer (in larger servings than regular beer anyway) in the right environment.
Single craft beer brand bars are also itself not without precedent. For example, there is the wildly popular Yona Yona Beer Kitchen, which opened in Akasaka-mitsuke in October 2013 and serves only Yona Yona beers from Karuizawa. These include the eponymous Yona Yona Ale, Tokyo Black and Aooni, plus seasonal specials.
While this is BrewDog’s fist Asian venture, the beer’s connections to Japan are already quite firm, not least because it brews an imperial stout called Tokyo that is a very nice oaky sud (and strong). You can already get BrewDog on tap at places like the snug Beer Pub Camden in Ikebukuro, as well as in bottle form from Tanakaya at Mejiro Station. BrewDog sales doubled in Japan between 2011 and 2012.
BrewDog also already has several specialist bars around the UK as well as in Stockholm last year. A bar in Sao Paulo also opened in early 2014. Its current expansion is backed in part by the firm’s successful Equity for Punks crowdfunding scheme that was massively oversubscribed.
“Launching bars outside of Europe is a huge step towards taking the craft beer revolution global,” BrewDog co-founder James Watt told BBC Scotland in December.
“The craft beer scene has really blown up in some unexpected destinations in recent years and it’s amazing how people from around the world have taken to a small brewery from Aberdeen. Three years ago we never imagined we’d now be planning to open a bar in Tokyo or Sao Paulo, and it’s a testament to the passion and loyalty of our beer fans and Equity Punks.”
We love BrewDog for its pop bottle design and its tongue-in-cheek approach to naming; Punk IPA, Dead Pony Club and Dogma are just some of their wittily denominated range.
BrewDog was founded in Scotland in 2007 and currently exports 62% of its beer to 32 countries around the world.
Another year, another packed calendar of trends.
What were some of the main ones that caught our eye throughout the past twelve months?
Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games amidst great controversy, not least the continuing plight of Fukushima and Tohoku, PM Abe’s lies to the IOC that the situation was “under control”, an already ballooning budget, a non-Japanese architect handling the stadium design, and a rather bizarrely pronounced presentation by Christel Takigawa (whose bank balance — along with Dentsu’s — has done very nicely out of the Olympics, of course). Oh, and the man celebrating in the center of the picture above is Naoki Inose, the Governor of Tokyo who has lost his job over a financial scandal.
TV Drama is Big Again
After years of flagging TV ratings, the year scored some major television hits, not least NHK’s morning drama Amachan and Hanzawa Naoki.
Mascots (official and not so)
Everyone knows that Japan loves mascots. Now even the Communist Party has some cute characters. In particular, the year has seen the meteroic rise of “unofficial” pear mascot Funassyi from Funabashi in Chiba.
Ghibli strikes golds
Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises was a phenomenal hit in Japan, not least because it was announced as Miyao Miyazaki’s final anime film… but he has said this before. While the Ghibli/Miyazaki brand is formidable, the success of the movie is pretty incredible when you considered how uncommercial its subject matter (fight plane design!) is. The jury’s still out on its overseas reception, though.
Meanwhile, Takashi Murakami’s first anime feature film appeared to make zero impact.
From the ascent of Starbucks to become the nation’s second largest chain — along the way opening a special traditional crafts branch in Meguro — to the fashion for convenience stores to offer their own drip coffee products, Japan has become one of the biggest consumers of coffee in the world. It also comes with its own generous portion of snobbery and hipster-dom, aided by a constantly renewing library of magazines and books about which espresso bar to go to in which area of Tokyo at which time.
Bakattaa is a new word that was coined to describe one of the biggest online trends this year. It means the idiots (baka) who tweet pictures of themselves doing silly stuff. This has proved particularly problematic when the said fools are doing unhygienic stunts at their part-time jobs in restaurants and shops. This has led to bankruptcies and job losses, but the trend seems to show no sign of abating. The news today mentioned a man in Osaka who stupidly tweeted that he had stabbed someone. If you’re going to do a crime, don’t tell social media! The current generation in their teens and twenties are digital natives, and thus are still negotiating the new rules of caution and courtesy when tweeting a selfie. This is worldwide, of course. Remember the idiots who tweeted questions asking who Osama bin Laden was when he was killed? This took the same amount of typing time as they could have used to answer their own question if they had bothered to think before “sharing”.
Mt Fuji was given designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO earlier in the year, while washoku (Japanese food) was also registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, this was soured by the continuing controversy over contamination in Fukushima and how it was affecting crops, as well as a food mislabeling scandal engulfing many noted restaurants and hotels.
Rise in Nationalism
Japan is going backwards. Prime Minister Abe is set on reversing history. He has passed a massively controversial state secrets bill, forged ahead with returning to nuclear power, purchased drones and a raft of other military equipment to “protect” contested territories, announced his intent to change the pacifist constitution, and now capped off the year by visiting the most sensitive place in Japan, Yasukuni Shrine. Good job, Mr Abe. A lesson in diplomacy for the world.
Coupled with the rise of regional right-wingers like Toru Hashimoto in Osaka and the unstoppable juggernaut that is Shintaro Ishihara (when will the octogenarian die?!), these are very, very troubling times for the country. Is this Cool Japan?
Here in Japan, you can get a decent meal for (arguably) as little as 500 yen. Some people choose to spend the same amount on a cup of coffee at a café or on the go. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer as to how we should spend our money, yet the majority of us are still inclined to think that cheaper is better. Needless to say, we can argue that the price of a drink at a café includes cover charge giving you the right to occupy a seat for the next couple of hours — or even more — without being disturbed.
But if we could get a coffee of the nearly equal or same quality for half the price offered at giant chains, we would be tempted at least to try it, right? And that’s where convenience stores come in and are thriving now to satisfy Japanese coffee lovers of all ages.
At Seven Eleven, a regular-size coffee is offered at 100 yen. Their coffee brand, Seven Café, is proud to present an original drip coffee machine. Simply order a coffee at the cashier, receive a cup (for iced coffee, you need to get a different cup from the frozen section and bring it over yourself), place it in the machine and press the button. There you have a freshly brewed hot coffee in less than a minute.
Self-service convenience store coffee (or “konbini coffee”) has already been voted the number one trend of the year by Nikkei Trendy. Each chain has established its own brand to differentiate their product from one another.
At Family Mart, Famima Café offers a blend coffee for 150 yen (120 yen for a small cup) and uses an espresso coffee machine made in Germany.
Lawson’s Machi Café, on the other hand, boasts the “hospitality” of its employees, unlike other chains, where they make the coffee behind the counter and hand it to customers themselves.
M’s Style Coffee at Mini Stop uses two different coffee blends: one for hot coffee and the other for iced coffee.
And finally, at CircleK Sunkus you can choose from four types of (hot) coffee at its Fast Relax Cafe: Original Taste (100 yen), Organic (150 yen), Extra Blend (160 yen), and Blue Mountain Blend (180 yen). They also have iced coffee and Lipton tea on the menu.
For all coffee lovers out there, konbini coffee might now have become a serious alternative to Starbucks, which is almost as ubiquitous today as a convenience store. While convenience stores have always been appreciated for just being there, ready to serve customers 24/7, authentic coffee at the counter is certainly a great addition to their service and may even attract fans in its own right.
Japan is a country known for its great generosity when it comes to serving customers, both current and potential alike. The level of customer service can be seen in various forms of service, from marketing freebies you can collect on the street (such as packets of tissues and paper fans) to multiple layers of wrapping paper covering a gift you purchased at a department store, which make the final product look three times bigger than its original size.
Yet there is one thing we tend to take for granted: drinking water.
Whenever you dine at a restaurant, eatery or even a small food stall on the street, the first thing you expect to get is a glass of water or even tea. If you start to wonder, just a few minutes after taking your seat how hard it can possibly be for a waiter to bring you a glass of water and even ask “Why hasn’t my water come yet?” then that’s when you know you have fully developed the local “customer is god” mentality.
In Japan, drinking water is almost always expected to be free of charge. Growing up, I don’t remember ever buying bottled water or drinking water out of a container. At school, we just drank water directly out of the tap.
Recently I was struck by the advent of a new summer “water jello” (or “water jelly”) sweet. Water jello and other jelly drinks have been around for a while, but this is one step further. On June 21st, Cozy Corner, one of the biggest sweets chains in Japan, launched the sale of its own water jello made from pure natural water from Hokkaido.
Four cups of water jello are sold as a set priced at 1,050 yen and come with four packs of fruit sauce: lemon, orange, grapefruit and shikwasa (Okinawan citrus).
Here this lady is showing how to make water jello at home. Simply dissolve gelatin in hot water, pour it in containers and chill them in the fridge. The first 28 seconds is making the sauce, which in her case is kuromitsu (black sugar syrup).
Although Cozy Corner’s water jelly is only available for the summer (the sale will end at the end of August) it’s probably not the kind of summer sweets that you would expect to eat in a sweat. I can easily imagine people eating such jello in a perfectly air-conditioned room, yet if I had to choose between tap water (no matter how lukewarm it may be!) and water jello on a typical summer day under the sun, I would definitely run for the tap water and be forever grateful for its supply.
Japanese beer makers are in trouble. Retail sales for regular beer have been declining for years now as salarymen who like a can of fizzy lager in the evening opt for cheaper variations. Even happoushu, the first kind of ersatz beer the makers came up with to get round the tax on booze, is no longer popular, usurped by the even cheaper (and even more fake) daisan (“third”) beers.
In other words, no one cares about quality any more. It’s just about the price.
Some people are fighting back, hence the gentle growth in craft beer bars in Tokyo over the last few years, where people are willingly to pay for high-end ales and (over-priced) food.
But what about the big beers? How can they try to whip up excitement in a cynical consumer base?
Kirin has succeeded with its frozen beer campaign, where you can get a beer that not only has a large head — the typical serving style in Japan, much to the exasperation of foreigners — but is even frozen so as to offer a hyper-cool drink for the summer. The result is below-zero beer slushies (at least, for around half an hour, before it melts). They are also advertising this with popular actress Yu Aoi to show that drinking beer is not just for middle-aged businessmen.
Following its successful launch last year, there is now frozen beer on tap at the “Ichiban Garden” spaces in Tokyo and elsewhere. And for 2013 it’s not just the basic Kirin Ichiban Shibori lager but a stout and others, all available with frozen foam to chill you down in the humid months. It has been particularly popular at baseball games at stadiums where the frozen foam head servers are available.
It reminds us also of the success that Asashi enjoyed with its “sub-zero beer”, a special Extra Cold version of its Super Dry lager, which you can get at certain bars with the right equipment. They even opened a special bar for sub-zero Super Dry suds in Ginza in 2010, which had huge lines outside during the summer. Asahi continues its aggressive expansion of special Extra Cold bars, and the number of Extra Cold servers in regular bars and restaurants around Japan.
In the same vein, Takara Tomy has been releasing a series of home beer-drinking gimmick toys. They all make a joke about the word “hour” meaning “drinking time” (Happy Hour etc) and also awa, or foam.
The latest is the Sonic Hour Beer Head Froth Maker, a special platform that uses sonic waves to generate the right “head” that Japanese drinkers want from their beers, even ones that they pour at home out of a can.
The first was the Beer Hour, an unusual beer can pourer that gave you the much-desired foamy head, which was followed by the Beer Jokki Hour, a unique type of beer glass (jokki) that had a very analog-looking switch that generated the right amount of foam.
These people seem to love it, at any rate.
If there’s one thing you’ll notice walking around Tokyo, it’s that people are always on the move. At any given moment of the day, no matter where you are in the city, the sidewalks are jammed with people.
Where do Tokyoites get that extra pep in their step? A good, old-fashioned cup of coffee, that’s where. Although, I’m not sure old-fashioned is the right term.
Coffee, much like everything else in Japan, comes in every variety imaginable.
An easy choice for Japanese and foreigners alike is Starbucks. We all know the logo, and with just under 1,000 stores in Japan, it’s no difficult task finding a Starbucks location. They’ve even released a Frappuccino Loves Fashion booklet to help plan your outfit that your drink will best accessorize.
The free booklet is filled with modern-vintage looks inspired by current Frappuccino flavors. It is laid out as a how-to style guide for the fashion-conscious Starbucks customer. If you’re feeling a floral print, why not pair it with a Mango Passion Tea Frappuccino to complete the overall look? Taken on surface value, the booklet is fun eye candy while reminding us that Starbucks is for everyone, even those with a sweet tooth.
Perhaps something a little less cookie-cutter is more your style? All you coffee aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief. Hipster coffee spots like Omotesando Koffee, which was originally planned as a one-year pop up in a house, are here to stay in Tokyo. There seems to have been an explosion in recent years in uber-cool coffee joints in Tokyo neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa, Aoyama et al, all supremely curated in their beverages and also the world they present for the Monocle-reading crowds.
There is also a risk that some of this slips into snobbery and self-importance. In the case of, say, Bear Pond Espresso, it has even produced its own book and will not make its signature espresso for patrons who dare to turn up after 2pm, since apparently it is by then “too busy” for the barista to concentrate on his art! Certainly some visitors are not pleased with the “overly precious” and unwelcoming atmosphere of the place.
There is a danger of taking yourself too seriously — and a danger partaken not just by the hipster hang-outs. Even Doutor, the most ubiquitous and low-brow of all coffee shop chains in Japan, produced its own piece of navel-gazing literature, Doutor Lovers, with Casa Books, complete with photos by Takashi Honma.
The NY Times recently said that coffee is as Japanese as baseball and beer, given that Japan imports more than 930 million pounds of coffee each year, which is more than France of cafe au lait fame.
But all that coffee is not going into the siphons of exclusive Tokyo coffee shops or even the cheap cups of Doutor et al. Where does a lot of it end up?
It’s the old faithful coffee in a can. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But, here in Japan, drinking a can of coffee, bought from one of thousands of vending machines that litter the streets, is common practice. To put things in perspective, Georgia Coffee cans are Coca Cola’s number-one selling product in Japan. A favorite of busy salarymen, canned coffee (hot or cold, depending on the season) is a quick and cheap solution for that caffeine jolt you need. Extra sugar, no sugar, black, extra creamy… The varieties to choose from are near never-ending. Even Starbucks has its own canned coffee and other drink products that you can get in some convenience stores and vending machines.
In the sub-cultural Mecca that is Japan, coffee culture is alive and deliciously thriving. Grab a cup (or a can!) and enjoy.