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.
Residents in Japan may have spotted that recently Kirin has been featuring Disney characters on its Gogo no Kocha (Afternoon Tea) drink bottle labels.
Just another gratuitous and forgettable ploy to lure youngsters to buy the drink, right?
Yet the really keen-eyed among you — or those who drink a lot of tea — may even have spotted that there are numbers on the labels.
Well, some people at any rate did spot the numbers and were curious. What could it mean?
But after drinking and collecting a few bottles with different numbers, you can line them up and then the answer starts to reveal itself.
A flip book!
Some enterprising Japanese writers went and bought 32 bottles of the tea, which come in three Disney characters (one for each flavor) and each have three different illustrations (on the different sides of the bottle).
Then they lined up the illustrations in numerical order, taking a shot each time.
The results are rather charming.
Here’s Mickey Mouse and his packaging flip book.
And here’s a musical Donald Duck and lackadaisical Winnie the Pooh…
There are lot of superfluous uses of famous characters on packaging and advertising in Japan (and elsewhere), but this is one genuinely innovative ruse of which we think even Walt Disney would have approved.
The ever-growing popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest has made the act of sharing quicker and easier than ever before. In fact, it goes without saying that everything is sharable online now. While this move can certainly be detrimental to some businesses out there, others are more eager to take advantage of this trend.
On March 4, 2013, Coca-Cola Japan launched a campaign, Share a Coke and a Song. While the drinks are the same as usual, the real deal comes in the form of a nine-digit code printed on the labels of coke bottles, which will give you access to ten popular songs of the year. The year that your code will give you access to is also printed boldly on the front label.
So simply choose a year, buy a coke, visit the campaign website, enter your code, and then you get access to ten songs of the year via Sony’s music streaming platform, Music Unlimited.
The music selection covers a period of more than fifty years, from 1957 when Coca-Cola first went on sale in Japan, right through to the present. Some readers might have seen the TV commercial already.
The sale of the “year” bottles will continue to the end of June, but you can enjoy all songs throughout summer, right until August 31. For those of you who just want a “sip” of each song, you can visit the sample player and listen to a 30-second edited version of all the songs.
Six designers from luxury fashion brands have got together to create a “Cocktail Collection” at Table 7 at Shibuya Hikarie.
The different cocktails include phoenix from Christian Dada, Tribe by Whiz Limited, Ambell Rose by Ambell, Calla Lily by alice auaa, and Milky White by Factotum.
All drinks are original and invented especially for the project, which also features brand araisara.
The collection will be available at Hikarie from March 7th to 24th.
While we can’t vouch for the taste — yet! — the drinks look amazing. No doubt they will be quite pricy too.
JT, ostensibly a tobacco company, has launched a new fifth version of its intriguing carbonated drink Komezukuri.
The name means “making rice” and naturally this is a fizzy beverage made using real Japanese rice.
It was first launched in 2009, JT is playing with our expectations here. Of course, a drink made from Japanese rice and we all think of Nihonshu. But there’s no alcohol in Komezukuri.
Instead, it is basically sparkling water made from rice with a balance of the sweet and the refreshing for an ultimately clean, clear taste.
Made in co-operation with Ozeki, a long-established sake brewery of One Cup Sake fame, this latest “Tokusen” version uses Yamada Nishiki, a type of high quality Japanese sake rice.
A 140ml bottle will set you back a mere ¥140, a standard price to pay for a soft drink in spite of its high-grade ingredients and inspirations.