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?
In this project, participating pastry chefs are asked to make a whole cake with one missing piece. Customers then pay the price for the whole cake, and the money that they paid for the missing piece will be donated to World Vision.
Last year, 89 stores participated in the project, selling 798 whole cakes, and raising a total donation of 382,295 yen. Working in partnership with the World Food Programme, they delivered various food supplies to approximately 13,000 people in the Turkana region, Kenya.
In total, they have sold 3,268 cakes so far, raising 1,477,672 yen and helping about 100,000 people in the northern part of Kenya. This year, they are planning to send food aid to Zimbabwe.
These special cakes (or “Love Cakes” as they call them) can be purchased at participating stores all across Japan, which you can search for on their website.
The Number Measuring Spoons are a set of brilliant measuring utensils for the kitchen that are both visually and functionally different.
Transparent and ergonomic, the three resin spoons are for measuring our salt and sugar and other ingredients. Nothing unusual about that. But the unique part lies in how they do the measuring. It’s through the numbers!
Designed by Atsuhiro Hayashi (of the Polar Ice Molds fame), the idea came to the creator when he wanted to visualize ingredients and recipes. Now with the Number Measuring Spoon you can really see how much liquid or powder you are about to plop into your dish.
The spoons were made by an kitchen goods company, Toyo Aluminum Ecko Products, though the stylish spoons will be feel right in any modern domestic food station. They measure out the standard Japanese sizes: 15ml (1/2 fl oz), 5ml (1 teaspoon), 2.5ml.
They look the same and can be stacked, but in fact the thickness varies and thus, the amount of ingredients that can be measured out. The spoons stay looped together by a ring and one of them even has a built-in pasta measuring hole at the other end.
First released in 2012, the design was selected to be included in the recent book Made in Japan: 100 New Products by Naomi Pollock.
The Number Measuring Spoon are now available for international purchase via the JapanTrendShop.
For some people, the best reward in life are sweets. Pleasure-seeking as we all are, marathon runners are no exception. Sponsored by International Sports Marketing, Sweets Marathon might sound like a contradiction in terms but it started in August, 2011 as a one-of-a-kind marathon that encourages runners to complete the race with a wide variety of “sweet” rewards.
Runners can taste more than 200 kinds of bite-size sweets at the aid station while completing either a 10 kilometer (solo) or 42.195 kilometer (relay) round race. There are some rules to follow (they can’t give sweets to non-participants, carry them around with them on the race, or take them home), but runners are free to try everything.
The basic concept is the same as regular hydration points where runners stop to supplement energy just enough to get to the next point, so they are advised to consume the sweets the same way. In other words, it’s not an all-you-can-eat buffet, though it may certainly look like one!
The entry fee varies a little at each venue, but is around 5,000 yen for anyone above high school age and 3,500 yen for kids. The best part of the sugary marathon is that runners can actually purchase their favorite sweets at retail booths, established near the race route. Admission is free, so both participants and non-participants alike can get a real taste of featured sweets at each marathon in merchandise forms.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, girls apparently make up over 50% of the participants in these saccharine sports, and overall 30% are first-time marathon runners.
Here’s the video clip from the 13th Sweets Marathon which took place in Osaka in December, 2012.
The next Sweets Marathon takes place in Chiba in November, followed by other events in Aichi and Osaka. The next Tokyo race is in January at Odaiba.
The ever growing popularity of Tokyo Marathon which will take place at the end of February, 2014, shows that marathons are now big public spectacles. The results of the lottery were announced just a few days ago, and applicants had approximately a 1-in-10 chance of winning!
Sweets Marathon might seem more like a fun and relaxing event as compared to a hardcore, full marathon race, but why not use this opportunity to promote business?
First we had One-Man Karaoke in Kanda to meet the need of the thousands who want to sing solos, literally. (Be careful of the “acoustic howling” in the small booths, though.)
Then we had Hitori, the yakiniku (Korean meat grill) restaurant catering exclusively for solo diners.
Eating typically group meals solo needn’t be a dull or embarrassing situation. As Shigesato Itoi said, “Only is not lonely”.
Solitary dining just got a bit more exciting with the addition of nabe (hot pot), just in time for the colder months when it is tradition to eat it.
Yoshinoya, the biggest gyudon (beef and rice bowl) fast food chain, has opened up Ichinabeya (My Nabe Style), the first in what it hopes within three years will become a mini series of ten restaurants round Japan offering nabe exclusively for single diners.
The target for this Chiyoda Ward eatery are working men and women in their twenties and thirties. All seating is at counters and the interior has a western feel, much like gyudon or Japanese curry rice restaurants tend to have (a classic nabe restaurant, on the other hand, will likely be in a more traditionally Japanese style).
The menu includes the usual kinds of nabe — beef, pork, kimchi, tofu — plus some adventurous Chinese food-inspired dishes. There are seven types of hot pot to choose from.
As you’d expect from Yoshinoya, it is serving to customers at the lower end of the price scale, though with dishes as high as 830 yen — not that much less than a full set meal in a nice cafe or regular restaurant, and over double what a basic gyudon dish costs — prices aren’t as rock bottom as the image of a new venture from this brand might suggest. Saying that, rice is free at lunchtimes.
They have retained that other feature of the gyudon chain, though: Speed. Apparently, it should only take three minutes for your order to arrive.
Although it is more expensive that initial expectations, it is still reasonable in times of filling lunch tuck. And no doubt there will be many office workers in need of a quick nabe fix at lunch and who will be glad of the chance to satisfy their culinary cravings without feeling sheepish about dining alone.
No matter your income or status, instant noodles are a staple of any household in Japan. When all else fails, reach for the dried ramen and pour in the hot water… Bon appétit.
But it’s a cutthroat world out there amongst the shelves of instant noodles. There are dozens and dozens of choices of flavors and ingredients, so food brands really have to go the extra mile to stand out from the competition.
Industry leader Nissin knows this, as you might expect from the company that created the very first instant noodle product. That’s why they have not only created such gimmicks as the interactive Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama and even an instant noodle restaurant on a train station platform, but they also run campaigns like this one.
Now in its third incarnation, 10,000 customers have the chance to win a cute Cup Noodle Robot Timer.
This nifty little fella is one original way to time when your noodles are ready — though we also like the now classic color-changing Cupmen series. In the TV commercials the Robot Timer even dances to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, since, after all, eating the most generic of snacks should be an experience with a classy soundtrack.
The Robot Timer can move his legs, neck and arms, and also features eight LED lights to give him personality, as well as lighting up the “40th” (marking the anniversary of Nissin) on his uniform. He is programmed to move in forty different ways, changing automatically every thirty seconds. Oh, and he talks too.
Unfortunately Nissin have very sensibly not uploaded the official TV commercial to YouTube so we cannot embed it here (go to their website to watch it), but we did find this video of an older model. No Tchaikovsky or dancing, though.
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.
Kagawa prefecture on Shikoku island, famed for its udon noodles, has found another way to turn its popular food to good use — power.
Chiyoda Manufacturing in Takamatsu City has announced “udon power generation” in which waste udon noodles are fermented to make methane gas, which is then burnt as fuel to drive electricity-generating turbines. This will be sold on to Shikoku Electric Power Company from September. In a year it is planned to make around 50 households’ power, or 180,000 kilowatt-hours. The generation facilities will also be available for purchase by other would-be noodle electricians.
The same company has already been manufacturing biomass ethanol gas from waste noodles from Kagawa and the methane gas plan emerged when they wanted to utilized the leftover materials from their previous bioethanol operations.
Using around 1 ton of raw garbage collected from restaurants and 1.5 tons of udon used in ethanol production, this then forms one day’s worth of fuel that is placed in the fermenting tub to be burnt. This produces methane gas, which drives turbines that generates electricity.
The plant can be operated for twenty-four hours a day and then sell its output for some 7 million yen a year. This value almost doubles when you add in the income the company receives for supplying waste disposal services to udon manufacturers and restaurants to take their waste noodles off their hands. Now that’s what we call an ace renewable energy business model.
Why be boring in the kitchen?
The Nejicco borrows the idea of a pencil sharpener and adapts it for peeling or slicing vegetables.
There are three color-coded types in this set. Each slices or peels in a different way, so you can then create slices in all kinds of thicknesses and shapes with radishes, carrots and other veggies.
The makers are marketing it as a super convenient kitchen tool, but we reckon, given the colorful design and how it makes salads and cooking creative, this will be popular with families where kids like to get involved in the kitchen. (The pencil sharpeners are totally safe.)
The Nejicco also stack on top of each other in a mini tower so they can be kept out of the way on a counter, rather than cluttering up drawers that are already packed with utensils you’ve used once and never since.
This is a nice video illustrating the different things you can do with the three “pencil sharpeners”.
It also reminds us of the heart-shaped and star-shaped cucumber molds that proved a sleeper hit a few years back, though in that case you actually grow your salads into the unique shapes you want them to be served as.