Tokyo in Bloom

Back from Tokyo where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and everyone was in a particularly good mood.  Grateful to have got the timing just right, as if we’d arrived a week later it would probably have been too late to see this:

Or the sight of this poor dude whose sole responsibility for the day must have been to secure a good location under the blossoms, hours in advance of the drinking and debauchery scheduled for later in the evening:

But as this blog is not supposed to read like the travelogue of some JET, I will refrain from indulging myself further in posting pictures of the Nat Geo variety.  I didn’t have too much time this time around to “braille the culture” as we used to say back when I worked at Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, but I did manage to sneak in my usual tour of the design floor in the Matsuya department store in Ginza, where they had their usual selection of stunning housewares by Yanagi Sori and ±0 with a smattering of neat new things I hadn’t seen before like these memo sheets from D-BROS designed to look like wedges of apples and pears.

Also got to check out the much buzzed-about store  called Pass the Baton that just opened a few months ago in the new Marunouchi Brick Square complex.  Started up by the same entrepreneur behind Soup Stock Tokyo, Pass the Baton takes the concept of recycling to a whole new level by combining the trend towards all things vintage with the public yearning for storytelling and community.  The way it works is that customers can submit “formerly loved” items that they want to sell at Pass the Baton, alongside a requisite introductory description of who they are, what they are selling, why they want to sell it and what the item meant to them, etc.  Once accepted as resale-worthy, the merchandise gets posted online alongside the owner’s profiles, and select items get chosen to be displayed in-store.

So instead of the experience of merely coming across old knickknacks at a flea market, you get a much more comprehensive sense of the “life” each object on sale had before ending up in Pass the Baton’s exquisitely curated shelves.  The prices are relatively high, but the sense of specialness that the stories of prior ownership imbue each item makes the experience worth the premium.  Pure genius!

Pass the Baton in Marunouchi Brick Square
A new type of recycle shop.

TTL Baby

Check out these awesome stickers you can get with any order when you buy stuff at Turntable Lab right now.  If you don’t get the reference, then you must be a much more intelligent, deep and cultured person than I am.  Or maybe you just live under a rock with no cable.

*Fist pump to Shota who works at TTL and wants you to start spending that money grandma gave you over Christmas on records now.

Improving Coffee IQ

Coffee Cupping at Intelligentsia's NYC Training Lab

I went to a coffee cupping session the other day at Intelligentsia Coffee‘s NYC Training Lab.  Cupping is similar to wine tasting and is mainly used professionally in the industry as a way to evaluate coffee quality.  I’ve seen it done before by a roasting expert on an innovation tour I led last year in Tokyo on the topic of connoisseurship, but this was my first time trying it out myself.  Our Intelligentsia coffee educator showed our little group how to evaluate three types of ground coffees in multiple stages, from dry to wet, stirred (called “the break” from when you puncture the upper crust of grounds that forms), and to finally tasting  after most of  the floating grounds have been scooped out.

I felt totally smell-deaf at first as the only descriptive word that came to my mind when smelling the grinds was ‘coffee’.  But with increased focus and some imagination, I eventually managed to find some more nuanced descriptions to write down on my chart of aromas and flavors, like ‘almond cookies’ and ‘molten chocolate lava cake.’  (Perhaps I was just hungry?)  It was encouraging to realize at the end of the session that despite the group consisting mainly of first-time amateurs, in general people seemed to be writing down descriptions that were roughly in the same ballpark.  My favorite description given by a fellow attendee about a particularly complex coffee was, “like a winter wonderland in the spring!”  Sort of makes you think  about coffee in a whole new way, doesn’t it?  Like wine, cheese and chocolate, coffee is well on its way to becoming better known for its origins and artisinal qualities rather than as mere commodity.

It’s a shame that Intelligentsia doesn’t yet have a coffee shop in NYC.  Luckily you can still get their superior coffees in many cafes around town like Kaffe 1668 in Tribeca, a beautiful shop owned by Swedish twin brothers.  Not only is the coffee amazing, courtesy of Intelligentsia, they have delicious pastries and the shop’s Svenska design aesthetic is utterly charming.  Anyway, the cupping session costs only ten bucks and it’s open to the public so if you’re a lay coffee-freak like myself, I highly recommend it.  And from a marketing perspective, what a lovely way to get consumers to interact with your brand and foster brand loyalty!  I for one am totally sold; especially on their Rwandan Bufcafe.  Upgrade your life!  Go buy some good beans!

MUJI in Motion

It’s not often that I find myself mesmerized by a brand website but then again MUJI is not like any other brand.  Check out their Play MUJI site here and tell me you don’t find it intoxicating!  What an unbelievably beautiful way to showcase a ton of products without boring or overwhelming the viewer.  I love the way they use movement in each of the frames but in deliberate timing that leaves some frames still so as not to bombard you with too much stimuli at once.  It’s also clever how you can change the music if a particular tune is driving you crazy while you scroll through and lust after all the genius products displayed.  Given that MUJI is all about great design that combines simplicity with high functionality, it’s perfect that they’ve figured out a way to showcase those qualities so seamlessly in this site.  I know there are a bunch of MUJI stores in NYC now, but I am still counting down the days until my next trip to Japan because there really is no comparison to their flagship store in Yurakucho.  They sell everything from MUJI food, plants, eyeglasses and bikes to entire houses.  If there ever was a reason to visit Tokyo, the MUJI flagship store would be it.  Seriously.

And while we’re on the topic of well-designed brand websites, check out Uniqlo’s Uniqlock if you want to find out what time it is anywhere in the world while watching random Asian women dancing.  Right now they happen to be dancing in Paris but they switch it up from time to time.

Tower Records Revisited

The digital age quickly turned Tower Records into a Towering Inferno, and last year saw even the Virgin Megastore in Union Square permanently shutting its doors.  So it’s quite a remarkable opportunity that starting tomorrow we’re invited to enter the old Tower Records store on Broadway and 4th for one last farewell to that convivial era of buying music with others in bricks-and-mortar megastores.  The good people of No Longer Empty, a non-profit arts organization that revitalizes unused public space, has curated a month-long multimedia exhibition called Never Can Say Goodbye involving more than twenty artists to recreate a fantasy Tower Records, complete with record bins and a live performance stage.

As someone who once stood outside that exact same Tower Records for hours in the winter of 1997 to get an album signed by Blur, I am sure the experience will be a nostalgic one.  However, don’t let all the funeral dirges make you forget that there are still some awesome independent record stores still cranking out high-fidelity tunes and experiences.  After bidding adieu to Tower Records, hit up Other Music just down the block where you can buy a limited edition copy of the latest Vampire Weekend album.  Ya, it’s worth it.

Brooklyn Flea at One Hanson

Lobby of One Hanson Place

Hurrah!  The Brooklyn Flea is coming to One Hanson starting this weekend.  Affectionately known to locals as “the penis building” for its suggestive shape, One Hanson is an incredible Brooklyn landmark and the Flea will provide us with a great opportunity to see the inside of this former Williamsburgh Savings Bank building known for stunning mosaics and stained glass windows.  Would have loved to buy an apartment in this building but alas, it was way over budget and now (shocker!) the building is going rental.  Now that the scaffolding has come down from the Atlantic Terminal entrance across the way, I’m looking forward to the continued revitalization of Hanson Place.

One of my favorite new Brooklyn stores is a Japanese florist/knickknack shop called Saffron that opened a few months ago at 31 Hanson.  It’s hard to describe this beautiful little addition to Fort Greene as it’s not a typical florist — their hyper-curated selection focuses more on wildflowers and unusual stems so you won’t find giant bouquets here.  They also sell things like antique copper kettles, vintage kimonos, local artwork and miniature cacti alongside the cut flowers.  It’s all incredibly subdued and tasteful — and reminds me of some of my favorite shops in Tokyo, so I suppose I’ve got a cultural bias for this kind of aesthetic.  In any case, check them out.

Flowers from Saffron in Fort Greene

Shoe Sales Up Despite Recession

Today’s article in the NYTimes by Stephanie Rosenbloom about why despite the crap economy women will never stop buying shoes to make ourselves feel better (duh) is really just an excuse for me to post this classic YouTube video:

These shoes rule. These shoes suck!

Also, on a somewhat shoe-shopping related note: I’m going to LUCKY SHOPS today!  Talk about ridiculous logic — to pay $35 in admission to SHOP, but hey, there’s nothing like drunk-shopping (all that free booze!) with friends and finding Rachel Comey boots at 70% off like I did last year.  It’s kind of brilliant because not only is Lucky making $$$ off the ticketing, the vendors make money from people who are hearing that little voice in the back of their heads saying, “You just paid to BE HERE so you better BUY SOMETHING to make it WORTH IT.”  It’s exactly the kind of reasoning that makes marketers wet their pants!

J-Pop for the People

Gothic Lolitas outside Grand Opening of New People (Photo by Deb Aoki)
Gothic Lolitas outside Grand Opening of New People (Photo by Deb Aoki)

It’s been over 7 years since Douglas McGray introduced the term “Gross National Cool” via Foreign Policy magazine to describe Japan’s shift from economic superpower to a cultural one–better known for exporting Harajuku fashion trends and anime than mp3 players and flatscreen TVs.  If Japan’s post-bubble period of economic stagnation was good for anything, it’s the fact that global fears of an international takeover by an army of cash-rich Japanese salarymen were allayed, and people started paying more attention to the other stuff they were good at, like  drawing manga, creating video games, putting together crazy outfits, and coming up with ideas for brilliantly pointless entertainment.

While I’m not the biggest fan of mainstream media’s one-dimensional representation of Japan as the land of all things wacko, I do feel strongly that Japan has not done enough to capitalize on the global perception that they produce a lot of cool (and yes, oftentimes weird) stuff.  It’s one thing to get cultural recognition, but actively exporting it to make money from it is a whole other issue.  Sure there have been notable examples of great success over the years, like Takashi Murakami’s superflat empire and more recently, the splashy stateside arrival of Uniqlo, a brand that turned its ‘Japaneseness’ into a compelling marketing platform rather than trying to assimilate.  But these examples are too few and far between given that global consumer interest in Japanese pop culture and brands has been growing for over a decade now.

So it goes without saying that I was excited (and nervous) to hear about this summer’s opening of New People, a three-story, $15 million complex in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown that is intended to showcase all things J-Pop.  The project was conceived by VIZ Media, SF-based translators and importers of manga and anime.  The structure houses a cinema that screens only contemporary Japanese movies, a cafe space serving local Blue Bottle Coffee and food from Japanese deli brand Delica rf-1, a retail floor selling Gothic Lolita fashions by Baby The Stars Shine Bright and other Harajuku-inspired clothing and accessories, and an art gallery that is currently exhibiting the work of Yoshitaka Amano, known for creating the original Final Fantasy characters.

I’m reluctant to say anything concrete about New People as I’ve yet to have an opportunity to actually visit, but I do find it interesting that the revitalization of San Francisco’s Japantown is being spearheadead not by an already established brand, but by a niche media company trafficking largely in printed matter in the age of ‘The Media is Dying’.  If manga publishers are able to pull together the resources to make something like this happen, imagine what would be possible if Japanese brands with more mainstream appeal decided to think big and make a collective push to actively market outside of their comfort zones.  With all the interest over the past several years in everything from Japanese denim to wagyu beef, it kind of blows my mind how few Japanese brands have been able to effectively capitalize on the organic buzz. Too often they are slow to seize an opportunity and allow demand to lay fallow.  There is a sort of paralyzing modesty about everything that exacerbates the overall lack of aggression.  One indication of this is the well-known fact within Japanese creative media circles that their content is routinely ripped off without licensing or acknowledgment (a result of deep naïveté in litigious matters).

In any case, this is one of those posts that I keep scrapping and then coming back to because the issue of how non-major (i.e. not Toyota) Japanese brands market themselves here in the US is one that I’ve been deeply concerned with for some time now and have extremely mixed feelings about.  Even without having visited, I have to give VIZ props for at least having the balls to go ahead and build New People.  How things play out in the execution remains to be seen, but I admire the fact that they identified a unique market and just went after it.  Sure, not everyone will be interested in what they have to offer but at least they are trying something new other than just maintaining the status quo.  I just hope that other Japanese brands that are just sitting on potentially lucrative products eventually recognize that the product-quality-will-sell-itself mentality no longer applies.  Proper branding and marketing strategy (as well as execution) are absolutely essential to compete and grow volume outside of Japan in a new world to new people.

Alice in CPG-Land

Alice

Being an almost pathological devotee of free shipping, this week I decided to try Alice.com, a nifty new site that connects name-brand CPG manufacturers of household staples to sell directly to consumers and eliminate the middle-man.  Alice is still in beta and is in the process of getting new members like myself to sign up and test-drive their simple service.  Unlike sites like Drugstore.com or Amazon Grocery, Alice doesn’t take a cut of the sales revenues.  It offers heavily discounted prices direct from the manufacturer, along with tons of coupons and best of all, free shipping.  The site makes money from selling the companies spending data, ad space and sampling opportunities.

Alice was created as a way for CPG brands to respond to lagging sales as more and more financially strapped consumers started turning to store-brand (private label) products at their local drug and grocery stores.  Through Alice, brands like Hefty, Colgate, Neutrogena and Kleenex can set their own prices and market their household essentials direct to consumers.  I’ve used Drugstore.com a couple of times before and I have to say that despite the fact that Alice has fewer brands to choose from, it provided a much more streamlined experience with better prices.

The site is designed as a series of virtual “shelves” that you stock with your own name-brand products of choice.  It initially asks you the makeup of your household so that it can guesstimate around when you are likely to run out of whatever it is you are purchasing and send you reminders.  So if you always use Always pantiliners, Gillette Mach 3 razor blades and Bounty paper towels, all of these items will be sitting on your virtual “shelf” for you to simply pick out to restock when the time comes.

It’s ideal for families that consistently use the same brands for their home essentials, as well as households like mine that don’t own minivans to stuff full of toilet paper from Costco.  When it came to buying bulky essentials, I oftentimes ended up sharing a cab from the local Target with a neighbor just to get the stuff home.  With Alice, I can have the stuff sent straight to my door without paying for shipping and still get a price that’s cheaper than what I usuall find at Target.  On Monday I had picked out my brands on Alice, organized my shelf, and put 7 items in my basket.  On Wednesday I received a blue box containing all my stuff, neatly packed.  It’s kind of amazing how shopping just keeps getting easier!

Can I Get a Coffee With My Phone?

More from the Why Don’t We Have This? Chronicles!  On a recent trip to Bangkok I saw that all the big mobile phone companies operated cafes and lounges in shopping centers where users could top up their phones, charge them, surf the web and basically just hang out.  At the Siam Paragon, there was an entire floor that was devoted almost exclusively to these kinds of mobile phone lounges, some more impressive than the others.  Thai mobile phone network True Move had a huge space where people were just hanging out texting and e-mailing, similar to the Apple stores, only with comfortable seating and nobody trying to sell you anything…well, at least not overtly.

Wouldn’t it be great if for the money you throw at AT&T or Verizon each month you were able to say, run into one of their shops and use the bathroom?  And while you’re at it order an iced latte and wait for your phone to charge?  It’s one thing to complain about Asian phone technology being more advanced than what’s available here in the US, but c’mon…this is just retail!  Setting up brand spaces that invite people to just chill are not new — ING has been serving up Peet’s coffee and financial advice at their branded cafes for years, and seriously, when’s the last time you went into the Apple store to do something other than use the bathroom and check your email?  It’s too bad that for all the hundreds of mobile phone vendors you see lining the streets, there isn’t a single one that you actually want to spend any time in!  Instead of being a place you want to go, it’s a dreaded zone you have to enter only when something bad happens, like you dropped your phone in the toilet or you need a new battery.  In the US we equate these spaces with taking a number and waiting for somebody who has no idea what they are talking about try to sell you something you don’t want.  You’d think you deserve at least a coffee for that!

True Move's Lounge at Siam Paragon
True Move's Lounge at Siam Paragon
Upgrading to AIS Plus means you get to use their Serenade Lounge
AIS Serenade Club Lounge is for members only