Saturday, February 16, 2008   9:40 PM

A Week in Tokyo

Well, it's just about a week since I touched down on the sacred Japanese soil (much of it covered in protective layers of concrete), and as it's been well over a year since I was last in Tokyo, the changes which have occurred stand out much more than they would if I'd been here all the time. It won't be long before they merge into the background, so I'll note them here before I forget.

Inevitably many buildings have disappeared, and new ones have appeared, though quite often it's difficult to remember what was on the empty plot before, or whether the new-looking building is really that new, even in places I know well. However, I can definitively say that Meat Shop Bambi has tragically vanished, while the Shinjuku skyline has sprouted a new, innovatively shaped skyscraper (the first of its sort in Tokyo, where rounded corners have been the most radical advances in tall building architecture until now). Cocoon Tower (コクーンタワー) in Shinjuku Being of an adventurous mindset I toddled along to have a look, fearing it might be yet another Richard Rogers effort, but it turns out the 50-story structure in question - the Tokyo Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (東京モード学園コクーンタワー, some details from Tokyo Construction News) - is by Tange Associates, founded by Kenzo Tange (the architect behind some of Tokyo's other notable large buildings such as the nearby Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building).

Tokyo Midtown Tower Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi (right) is this year's fashionable new retail complex in which to go and stand in a queue. Meanwhile, over in Harajuku, the site of the former Palais de France (パレフランス, location of popular café Aux Baccanales and demolished in 2004), is still a dormant building site - apparently some sort of strife is preventing the involved parties from agreeing on what to replace it with.

No major changes on the transport network, although the Chuo Line has suddenly got nice shiny new trains (mind you I preferred the old ones with their uniform orange sides and late Showa atmosphere). It seems paper-based tickets are slowly being phased out, with more and more automatic ticket gates becoming electronic ticket only. Bi-lingual station announcements on trains are becoming more widespread (though they impinge severely on My Japan ;), and I wish they'd make up their minds whether to pronounce the station names in either the Japanese way or the slightly cringeworthy Japanese-American accent prevalent in most announcements).

Lotteria, purveyor of my favourite Japanese junk food the ebi burger (shrimp burger) has renovated most of its branches with a new design. A chain of standing-only sushi bars has made its appearance, accelerating sushi to true fast food status (standing-only eateries were previously the preserve of noodle places and the odd hole-in-the-wall bar).

The environment, particularly global warming (温暖化 / ondanka) is becoming a much-talked about subject, no doubt soon there will be an Ondanka-kun mascot character made of plastic in factories in China being widely distributed to raise awareness of the issue. Shop assistants seem far more likely to ask me if I would like a bag with an individual purchase, rather than try and give me one anyway, which I then have to gently but firmly refuse, and the concept of the "eco bag" (エコバッグ, i.e. a shopping bag you take with you to put your shopping in and use again and again) is making its debut.

Flag supporting the 2016 Summer Olympics for Tokyo Prices seem to have remained largely stable, though some foodstuffs are creeping up, and no doubt energy is not getting any cheaper. The Post Office has been privatized (I think), at least its component parts are marketing themselves more aggressively than they used to. TV-capable mobile phones are suddenly all the rage. The former Vodafone network has finally been rebranded as SoftBank. Tokyo is actively campaigning to host the 2016 Massive Construction Boondoggle Summer Olympics. There seems to have been a sudden profusion of pet shops (the kind with shelves of glass boxes about as big as a decent-sized hamster cage, each containing a rather pitiful puppy or kitten).

Finally, there's been a creeping hardening in the political attitude towards foreigners, most visible in the compulsory fingerprinting at immigration. I won't go into that - except to say it's one important factor in deciding whether I want to spend the next few years in Japan - but here's an interesting opinion piece on general policy direction towards foreigners by Terrie Lloyd of Japan Inc.

Posted in Life in Japan
I tried commenting a couple of time yesterday, but to no avail.:-(
anyway, a good update on Japan. I don't use the Post Office much except to buy a few Doraemon stamps. :p
Posted by: lina | 2008-02-17 06:30
Regarding prices in Japan, according to the Japan finance news, prices have gone up 2.5% and wages have gone down 2.7% since last year. It's definitely getting more expensive. If people don't modify their consumption downward, the combined effect of lower wages and higher prices (at this point) results in 5% less cash overall than a year ago.

I personally think prices are going to continue to rise. The increase has only been over the last 4 months. If I were a wagering person, I'd bet on the overall average going to between 5%-10% over last year by the end of this year.
Posted by: Shari | 2008-02-17 13:38
Your cocoon building looks nice. Very much enjoying your lovelily-written Japanography.
Posted by: BiB | 2008-02-17 19:49
Thanks for all your comments, most encouraging!

Shari: I'm a bit divorced from reality at the moment, but as a passionately frugal person prices are something that interest me :-). On wages, the Japan Inc. site I linked to above says in their latest newsletter that average monthly pay fell by 0.7% last year, and makes the interesting observation that one factor in this are retiring workers leaving their full-time jobs and taking on less-well paid part-time ones.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2008-02-18 06:34
I think the information you're getting is incorrect. Bloomberg reports wages in Japan fell 1.7% last December alone and the cost of goods went up 2% last December. Given that a one month drop exceeded .7%, it seems unlikely that wages dropped only .7% during all of the former year. If you're seriously interested, you may want to search other sources to verify, but, as someone who lives here, I can tell you what I see around me and that's prices going up and people who aren't getting raises.

I can't find the Japan Finance News page I had been reading anymore (there are too many of those types of pages) but it was a pretty good one and that's where I got my stats from.
Posted by: Shari | 2008-02-19 03:40
Maybe the difference in the figures is due to the different reporting periods? You do sometimes get relatively large swings in individual months (seasonal factors etc.) which average out over the year to less dramatic figures. Not that I've looked into it any further yet.

Anyway, whatever set of statistics you take, the general trend is clear...
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2008-02-19 09:00
Sorry to break the bad news but you're missing a Japanischer Frühling in the Arcaden which I reckon is even better than the real thing. Though they seem to have gone overboard with the bird-cage decoration.
Posted by: BiB | 2008-02-20 10:57
Right... sounds like I am missing something highly bloggable. I shall ask the missus.

By strange coincidence (and boy is it strange coincidence week here in the Penguin Enclosure) I got an email today from the Arcaden management in response to a vitriolic complaint I dropped in their complaints box (several weeks ago, obviously). Might blog that instead.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2008-02-20 12:43
Really? What coincidences? Do you mean you were out in Tokyo and you bumped into mummy Penguin who'd just popped over for some real sushi and had clean forgotten that her son was in Japan? Something of that magnitude?
Posted by: BiB | 2008-02-21 15:28
Not quite like that, but still quite bizarre, in a very positive way.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2008-02-23 14:37
You tease.
Posted by: BiB | 2008-02-23 20:35
The latest post contains tantalizing allusions.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2008-02-24 10:59
I found a shop selling real genuine Japanese Food in Hereford. It's a little shop and sells other oriental delicacies as well.
Deepest Hereford is catching up
Posted by: Mummy Penguin | 2008-03-04 11:41