Friday, May 30, 2008

Japan: the country where life is cheaper

During the economic bubble of the eighties, Japan was the costliest country in the world. Surfing on the upswing mood, companies sold their ware as expensive as possible, playing on brands and fashion. Ten years of economic stagnation followed, with many of them having to struggle for survival. Most reduced their expenditure to the minimum in order to lower prices. Not everything became cheap. Housing is still expensive, and, as it loses most of its value after a few decades, is not an investment. The motorways are very expensive, sometimes twice or thrice the price of already costly French or Italian motorways. However, many goods and services are now offered at a price far lower than in Europe, with far superior service standards.
This story takes as an illustration half a day in the Kansai (関西) area. It regroups in less than 100 kilometers the economic powerhouse of Osaka (大阪), the fashionable port of Kobe (神戸), and the major tourist attractions of Kyoto (京都) and Nara (奈良). This is not countryside, but a region that compares well with Paris, Amsterdam, or Hamburg in population and wealth.
Our day started, quite predictably, in a hotel. We booked a double room in a western style “business hotel” located downtown Osaka. The accommodation was quite new, and perfectly clean. The room was not so large, but included free high-speed Internet, a shaving kit, a toothbrush, and a cotton yukata for the evening. A buffet style breakfast was served in hotel lobby in the morning. The price for a night is around Y8700 (54 Euros) for an advance internet reservation. As a comparison, a room in the central Ibis Hotel in downtown Bristol will set you back £56 (90 Euros). This price does not include internet connection, the shaving kit, and breakfast is extra.
We then left for shopping in downtown Osaka. As my glasses were worn out, I went to the “Alook” shop. Having chosen the frame, the attendant proposed to perform an eye test, or to use lenses identical to my current glasses. After a quick try, the frames left for the workshop, and were ready one hour later. The price of this very efficient service is Y5050 (around 31.5 Euros) for classical organic glasses. The cheaper French glasses shops do not go under 39 Euros.
After shopping, we left for Kyoto. The Keihan (京阪) company has a “limited express” service running on the 50km tracks links the downtown area of both cities. The seats can be oriented in the direction the train is running, and all coaches have air conditioning. The train is always running on time, with an excellent service: there are employees at most stations, and a conductor is on board of the train in addition to the driver. The fare is Y460 (2.80 Euros). In comparison, the very decent Transpennine service between York and Leeds (42 km) is around £9.20 (12 Euro) for a full fare ticket.
In Kyoto, we were in the mood for Tofu, and we headed for the sosoan (爽草庵) restaurant, close to the silver pavilion (銀閣寺), a major tourist spot. A very refined lunch is served every day: starters included a grilled trout fillet, Japanese omelets and a delicious steamed bun. The main dish was a pot of Tofu (豆腐), served with rice and miso soup. The menu also included dessert: a white wine jelly with strawberries. The atmosphere of the restaurant was peaceful, and the service was fast and elegant. As in most places in Japan, guests are welcome with a glass of fresh water and a hot towel, and excellent tea is served at no cost during the whole meal. The menu price is 2500 Yens (15.6 Euros). A decent meal in a parisian « brasserie » will set you back at least 25 Euros.
The examples highlighted here are not the most extreme. We could have spoken about the numerous healthy and cheap fast-food joints, such as the Otoya (大戸屋) chain, with grilled fish menu served in very decent restaurants for around Y700. Yoshinoya (吉野家) is even cheaper, at Y400 for a rice bowl with sliced meat on top. We did not speak here about high tech stuff, such as cameras, often far cheaper in Japan.
Those low prices have many reasons. VAT is only 5% in Japan, and social contributions are far lower than in Europe, especially for student or temporary workers. Competition is often more intense in Japan than in Europe: there are 4 different companies (Keihan, JR, Kintetsu et Hankyu) offering train service between Osaka and Kyoto. This does not explain everything, and one can wonder if France or England would need a few years of recession to get back in touch with reality.
Note : this article does not want to shame European companies chosen here, most of them being amongst the more competitive of their industry, and with very different constraints from their Japanese colleagues.
Sosoan 爽草庵 京都市左京区浄土寺下南田町129shimominamidacho jodoji sakyo-ku Tel : 0757713617. Close to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), and 20 minutes walk from Demachiyanagi (出町柳) station.
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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gathering bamboo shoots

Bamboo thickets (竹) are often found around Japanese temples. The delicate blow of the wind in the leaves and the beautiful light create a peaceful atmosphere well suited to such places. This astonishing plant is also put to less spirirtual uses. It has the fastest growing rate of all species, up to a meter per day. Some people in Asia use it as an awful way of torturing prisoners. Light and strong, bamboo is also used in China as scaffolding for buildings. Also, bamboo shoots (竹の子) are a delicate spring meal in Japan, where they are harvested in April. In this story, we are leaving today for the Boso Peninsula (房総半島) near Tokyo with a spade, a large basket and gloves to pick fresh shoots.
Some species of bamboo only flower every fifty year or so. This is considered of bad omen in traditional agricultural societies with good reasons. The large increase of bamboo fruits means a boom in rodent populations, which will often devastate the harvests. Also, the death of all bamboos after their flowering will leave local cottage industries that use it as a raw material idle. Between two flowerings, bamboo is extending by creating clones. During the spring, each bamboo will create a few of them. Those are linked to their parent by the root at the start of their life. In the first days, only a small green cone 4 centimeters high is appearing out of the ground. The bamboo shoot should be gathered at that time, as it is still tender. When a bigger cone is out of the ground, it is already too late, as the plant has started to solidify.
To harvest a shoot, we should first dig around 30 centimeters deep. It is important not to break the precious shoot when digging. Then, the shoot should be separated from the parent. It is possible to see the direction of the parental root by looking at the leaves at the top of the bamboo shoot. They are curved in the direction of the parent. To separate the shoot, we should hit vigorously with the spade at the base of the shoot in the side of the parent.
An afternoon of gathering will make for a pleasant work-out in the Japanese country-side. Private bamboo plantations will allow visitors to pick bamboo shoots for a few hundred yens. The gathering is quite exhausting, and your hands may suffer a little if you are not used to gardening. A pair of all-purpose gloves (軍手) will come in handy, and can be bought in all gardening or do-it-yourself stores. A big basket will also help you bring back the shoots, and you should plan for a large pan to boil them.
You will find the bamboo shoots in many different Japanese meals. Before cooking, the shoots should be boiled in water during one or two hours, with some rice bran (米ぬか) in the water. The soonest you can boil them, the more tasty the will be. You should leave the shoots in the pan one night after boiling them, and then peel them.
One simple recipe is Bamboo shoot rice. Wash 3 cups of rice (540 ml), and put them in the rice cookers. Add two large spoons each of sake (酒), mirin and soy sauce (醤油), and around one cup of bamboo shoots cut in fine slices. Add two slices of fried tofu (油揚げ) and two large spoons of dashi. Add water up to the level indicated by the rice cooker. After the rice has cooked, stir it gently, and wait for 30 minutes before cooking. It is also possible to cook rice in a pan on very gentle fire with the same volume of water and rice.
Access to a bamboo plantation: “Yamada” park in Yokosuka can be accessed easily by public transport and car from Tokyo. It is open everyday from 10am to 5pm. Entrée fee is 500 Yens per person, and you can use the tools provided by the park for the harvest. Le parc can be accessed from the Keihin Kyuko line (京浜急行), YRP Nobi (野比) station. You can then take the bus bound for TsushinKenkyusho (通信研究所) or YokosukaShiminByoin (横須賀市民病院) et stop at « Sengen Jinja » (浅間神社). Owner : M Sato Yamada 山田聡 (phone : 090.1530.3576. Address : 6-33-12 Nagesawa, Yokosuka, Kanagawa 239-0842神奈川県横須賀市長沢6-33-12). Site : There are of course many alternatives that can be searched on the internet.
Warning : Raw bamboo shoots can be poisonous. You should avoid pick them in the wild, and go to a serious bamboo plantation. It is required to cook thoroughly the shoots in boiling water, which destroys the toxic element. Both shoots bought in supermarket and those harvested by yourself should be cooked. It is normal that a slight ammoniac smell is emitted during the boiling, so you should take care to air your kitchen appropriately.
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