Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Fast Booze 29 August, 2010

Filed under: city,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:55 am
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In contrast with the binge-drinking youth of Britain I’ve been reading about, young Japanese have been leaving beer and cars behind lately, much to the dispair of Kirin and Toyota among others. I don’t know what they’re spending their money on – the fact is they haven’t really got any money these days, with only crummy dead-end type jobs on offer when they graduate… When Japanese youngsters do go out for a drink these days it’s often sweet alco-pop things they drink, not the bitter ice-cold golden nectar that goes so well with the Summer heat here, and they’ll be drinking it in the cheapest places they can find.

Just lately there’s been an outbreak of chain establishments where everything is ¥280. Food, drinks, everything. Maybe with the yen at the ridiculous current rate of 85 or so to the US dollar that doesn’t sound too cheap to you but usually a beer is around ¥500 ( ¥550 at Raffles’ ) so ¥280 for a jug of draught beer (not happoshu ) is pretty good for a start. The food’s not disgusting either – food processing technology has been got down to a fine art – though nothing to write home about and not huge portions. With profit margins cut right down, they have to sell a lot of stuff to make the business viable so need to keep people coming in at a fast rate. The branch near us is usually pretty full, and pretty noisy.

More recently a rival has started up where everything is ¥250 – they cut their costs even further by having customers come to the counter to collect everything. The overall effect is pretty much like McDonalds, but if that’s your idea of an evening out…

Fast Booze – you saw it here first OK?


A walk in the woods 16 June, 2010

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 3:00 pm
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A "Jizo" Buddha at the pass on many country roads.

Beautiful day in Golden Week, and we took the road above the house up the hill, past the “Jizo” at the pass, down a bit and took this little road off to the left. More a track really, with an almost obliterated sign pointing to a village we hadn’t heard of. About a 20-minute walk though cedar plantations later we arrived at this “village”: three buildings drowning in the forest. A few years ago people lived there, in these rather nice traditional wooden houses, growing rice in paddy fields nearby, now planted with cedars or spruce which have grown up all around.

...another couple of years...

These once-handsome buildings are slowly collapsing, disintegrating and returning to the hills they came from. Sad but inevitable I suppose. It’s not really on to expect to make any kind of living out in a place like this. Just after the war there was a building boom to replace the flattened cities and since wood was (and still is, really) the main construction material large areas of Japan’s wild forest was replaced with plantations of quick-growing cedar and spruce. The idea of many people was that 20 or 30 years down the road these trees could be sold off at a good price, so were regarded as an investment for their childrens’ future. Unfortunately cheap timber imports from countries like Canada have knocked the bottom out of that, so now the value of a tree is less than the cost of transporting it down the hill into the town…

A footpath, still usable, led up the side of the hill from those houses to, we calculated, the next village a kilometre or so away. Just above was a little shrine with a couple of Buddha statues, an empty sake bottle and some flowers which were still fresh, so someone must have visited in the last day or two. A bit further on, down a slope, and sure enough there was the village, basking in the Spring sunshine. An image of rustic tranquillity. Really, quite beautiful, but so quiet. There is only a handful of people living there now, all getting on in years. Children have moved out into the cities to get jobs in offices and factories, leaving their parents tending the ricefields and cows in this corner of paradise. As it happens, we know a couple of the people here. The couple who live at the top looked after our house – opening the windows to let the breeze though once in a while, bit of weeding etc – while we were in Thailand for a year. Further down the road we ran into Hashimoto san, who must be 70 or so by now; he keeps some cows and grows rice.

I wonder what it will be like in 10 or 15 years when most of these people have passed on? Will there be a u-turn from the city, a boom in eco-living… or will this idyllic village go the way of those houses in the woods?


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Beef Wars 9 April, 2010

Filed under: food & drink,news — johnraff @ 10:44 am
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In the paper and on the radio yesterday, now on TV today: the “beef bowl” chain Yoshinoya have cut their main standard bowl from ¥380 to ¥270 for a limited period, and the two other big chains, Matsuya and Sukiya, are taking it down to ¥250. ( All these “something-ya”… “ya” means “shop”, also in Nagoya. ) Cooked beef on rice is qite tasty really, much better than a Mac in my humble opinion, and was already quite cheap anyway.

Yoshinoya has been around for years – I would drop in sometimes after drinking beer till 3:00 back in the days… (They’re open all night.) The other two are newer, but I wonder if there’ll be a limit on how low prices can go around here?

We’ve got deflation, folks.


Our Mayor 20 March, 2010

Filed under: city,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:27 pm
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Takashi Kawamura‘s a bit of a character. He first crossed the radar when he was running as Diet member for a constituency round here – his trademarks were riding around on a bicycle and speaking with a broad Nagoya accent, the kind nobody except him actually uses these days. He got elected and bicycle canvassing caught on, but nobody else tries that Nagoya accent… It’s OK for a bit, but he does lay it on a bit thick. It’s all about the Common Touch no doubt, and he’s doing something right because now he’s the Mayor of Nagoya.

There are other reasons for that, though, a big one being his promise to cut Nagoya city tax by 10%. Of course 20% would have been even better, but you can see the appeal of that idea – for those on low incomes (like us) city tax can be quite heavy as it doesn’t have as many allowances as national income tax. Of course for those whose incomes are too low to be taxed at all the 10% reduction has no meaning. For them, more important might be the social services that would have to be cut to pay for that tax reduction.

Kawamura has laid on a distraction though – his plan to halve the number of city councillors from 75 to 38 or so, and halve their salaries too, as well as stopping their expense allowances! Here he has rather more support among the general Nagoya population than in the city council, where the overpaid leeches are fighting him tooth and nail, understandably. Even at half, they’d still get much more than I do so I’m with Kawamura on this one, and it has to be admitted he’s already halved his own salary. He’s going to try to dissolve the council if they don’t pass his motion, and I’m sure they won’t, but needs to collect a huge number of signatures in order to do a “recall”. He’ll probably succeed, but it will take some time, during which the councillors can continue drawing their inflated salaries and collecting their expenses…

So is he a genuine man of the people or a right-wing demagogue in disguise? We’ll see eventually…


Toyota Shock, part two 18 March, 2010

Filed under: news — johnraff @ 2:12 am
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We don’t need this. Just as with GM, what’s good for Toyota is good for Japan, and, more specifically, good for Nagoya. The economy of Aichi prefecture and Nagoya revolves around Toyota – the network of suppliers and sub-suppliers, and all the people selling things to their workers all feel the pinch when Toyota take a hit, and the effect percolates through to the rest of us. Just as the Lehmann shock seemed to be wearing off, and the big T seemed to have got in ahead of the competition with the eco-car Prius, we get this quality-control, rip-off-the-customers thing, and all the bonuses due out this Spring have been cut.

I don’t want to say anybody’s just Japan-bashing, because there does seem to be some truth in some of the issues: the accelerator-floormat thing, and the half-second delay before the brakes kicked in under some circumstances that some people noticed here, for example, but clear evidence of fatally serious defects in the system is not plentiful. To some extent it’s been whipped up by the media, and I’m sure lots of people whose livelihood does not depend on Toyota’s prosperity were not particularly bothered to see them brought down a peg or two. Their response wasn’t that skillful either, PR-wise. Toyota are pretty good at customer service generally, at least here, so that came as a surprise.

Anyway, something we could have done without.


Aso’s sayonara present 24 October, 2009

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:39 pm
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Yesterday I finally went and picked up my 12,000 yen. This has been in the works since last Autumn. The current LDP government wanted an economic boost that would appeal to the electorate, and proposed a tax cut. Their partners the Komeito party said it wouldn’t help those too poor to pay income tax, and insisted on a cash handout instead. Twelve thousand yen – just over a hundred dollars. It’s nothing to get that excited about; I thought it would be better spent tackling youth unemployment or helping the homeless, and opinion polls showed most people didn’t want it! If it had come in December as was originally planned it might have worked a bit – I would probably have gone out for a couple of drinks – but bureaucracy meant it would take a bit longer…

People in smaller towns got theirs in the Spring but here in Nagoya the local government said there was no way they could organise a cash handout for 2 million people before August or so, and so it proved. First I got an envelope with a couple of forms and several leaflets explaining how to send off your application. Hardly anything in English of course. I think they were trying to make it as complicated as possible so some people would just not bother. I sent mine off and eventually got another paper-stuffed envelope telling me exactly where and when to show up to collect this money.

Waiting at the reception area was a security guard and a lady who checked my name and gave me a plastic token to hand in when a processing desk was free. There were 20 or so seats in the waiting area and 3 or 4 desks with a couple of clerks at each. I was the only person waiting so right away they checked my papers, got me to sign at the bottom and gave me a slip to hand in at another counter round the corner with 2 more people. There I finally got an envelope with my name on it and the money inside. The whole thing took 10 minutes maybe, but at least 10 people were employed dealing with this complicated transaction. Along with all that paper, I wonder how much the administration added to the cost of giving away 12,000 yen?

The ironic thing is if this does boost the economy a little the credit will go to the current DPJ government!


Revisited 8 August, 2009

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 3:07 pm
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“Hey, this place hasn’t changed a bit!” …and it was true – a typical Japanese izakaya with a counter, a couple of small tables and some tatami space at the back. The interior is mainly brownish wood, a bit like an Amsterdam “brown cafe”, with the odd beer poster covering some of the sprayed-on wall stuff, a TV in one corner, a “maneki neko” in another to welcome in customers, and a blackboard with a selection of food to order with your beer.

Typical, that is, of izakaya about thirty years ago, when I used to frequent this place along with other members of Daihachi Ryodan, which I’d just joined. Right in front of a college it was always packed out, but since the students moved out of town things have quietened down a bit, which might be just as well since the owners are now 78 and 80-something, although still amazingly lively. Even more amazingly, the menu on the wall looked just the same as I remembered it, including the prices! (Of course Japan’s just been through a long periiod of deflation, but even so…) Great food too. Fresh broad beans, squid tempura, beef salad… simple but tasty.

I think izakaya like that are a major Japanese contribution to civilisation and at that time there was one on every street corner, but now you really have to search around, especially for a “Mum and Dad” type, privately-owned place. 80% of the eating-out market in Japan is now taken by 10 companies, who are offering something a notch above junk food. Nearly everything is cooked in factories and carried out to the shops in trucks to be microwaved or put in the fryer. They’ve got the technology down so that it doesn’t taste all that terrible, but it’s the same everywhere and the staff are all working to some Manual so there’s no human contact at all. The remaining 20% is shared out between places like Raffles and, what seems to be the current trend, sort of “neo Japanesque” restaurants with modern decor and “international” cuisine.

Another few years and you’ll have to go to the nearby “Showa Village” theme park to find places like our rediscovery, so in the meantime I’d better make a point of getting over there more often!


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