Two Convenient

Despite poor economic times the number of convenience stores in Japan continues to grow. The sale of snacks, cigaretts and alcohol truly is a recession-proof industry.

There are 10 convenience stores within a 10 minute bicycle radius of my house. The most prominent chain around here is 7-Eleven, which has over 40,000 stores around the country. But what really takes the biscuit is this quiet nearby street featuring not one, but two 7-Elevens within 60 metres of each other.

If you stand somewhere in the middle you’ll have 7-Elevens at 7 o’clock and 11 o’clock respectively. Ladies and gentlemen, we have crossed from the realm of convenience to that of absurdity.

seeing double
Seeing Double.

P.S. If you want to find out why Japanese convenience stores are just so damn great check out this post over at This Japanese Life.

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Oi! Oi! Nuclear is Back!

Prior to the accident at Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear power for around 30% of its generation capacity (with plans to raise that to 50% by 2030), and had a total of 54 active reactors dotted around the country’s coast. For the last few months none have been operational because of ongoing public concern over their safety.

With the summer season now upon us however, demand for electricity for air conditioning will skyrocket leaving the Kansai area in particular with a significant shortfall unless some of the nuclear reactors are restarted. The most likely candidate was the plant at Oi, in Fukui Prefecture, part of Japan’s “Nuclear Alley”. This is a place close to my heart, because when I was last living in Japan it was close to my home!

For weeks we have witnessed a pantomime with the nuclear regulator, plant operator, prefectural governments and the Prime Minister all playing roles. This pantomime slowly conveyed to a largely sceptical public a carefully crafted message: this is safe, and this is inevitable. When the Prime Minister finally announced the restart he framed his argument around the importance of affordable electricity for maintaining the Japanese standard of living.

The Oi reactor was restarted this week and is expected to start to transmit electricity from today.

I have just a few thoughts to share:

Firstly, I think it’s incredible that Japan has to-date survived the loss of 30% of its generation capacity without rolling blackouts. This has been achieved through restarting mothballed thermal plants and encouraging people and businesses to save energy.

Secondly, I note with interest that there is no sunset date for the restarted operation of Oi, something which would seem sensible given that the extra demand will only last until the summer ends and that reaching public consensus over the future of nuclear power in Japan is still far off.

Thirdly, I think geothermal electricity generation could in future play a much larger part in Japan’s energy mix. For this source of electricity Japan’s unstable geology becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo area still have no nuclear plants in operation. Several years ago TEPCO boasted in a TV commercial that 40% of its power came from nuclear plants in Niigata and Fukushima. I didn’t want them looking silly (again), so I took the liberty of updating their ad.

before
Before (view commercial)
After

Self-serving Self Service

It’s taken a long time for self service petrol stations to take hold in Japan.

When I was last living here some 7 years ago they were still the exception. Filling up at a full service petrol stations became something that I quite enjoyed at that time, which is surprising considering the sentiment most people hold when paying for a cartel-controlled overpriced daily necessity. At Japanese full-service petrol stations not only do you not have to get out of your seat, but the service extends to cleaning your windows and side mirrors, filling up the tank, emptying your ashtray and taking any other rubbish off your hands, taking payment and giving change without leaving your seat, and even safely directing you back onto the road when there is a gap in the traffic.

Fast forward 7 years – the economy is down and cheap self service is king. But in typical Japanese style they haven’t done it half-heartedly. Today I stopped at a self-service station. There is a touchscreen terminal at the pump at which you place your “order”, pay in advance and fill up. After the machine determined that my tank was full it forced me play a slot machine game. Three wheels started spinning on the screen and the only option was a large “stop” button. I touched it and the wheels slowly span down (wasting valuable time while the person behind was waiting to fill up) and stopped on 777. They ALWAYS stop on 777. My prize was then announced: a discount, not for today when I actually need it, but for when I come back next time. Hmph.

After the mandatory slot machine you are then presented with a receipt with a barcode. You take that to another machine located literally 2 metres away from the pump where you paid, and you scan the receipt for your change to be dispersed into the tray underneath. The whole process takes far too long – but the mandatory slot machine is what I think really makes this Japanese self-service petrol stations absurd.

Slot Machines
This photo is only vaguely related to the post, but it gives me an excuse to include some Engrish. The “Slot Machines” referred to by this sign were actually vending machines. They can be found right next to the ravatory.

Convenient Conveniences

The Japanese are expert at taking pre-existing things and refining them until all inconveniences are eliminated.

The toilets at any modern Japanese shopping centre are a prime example of this. Imagine you’ve arrived on a rainy day, umbrella clutched under your arm. At the entrance to the mall you’ll find a machine that bags your umbrella, preventing it from dripping all over the floor as you walk about. Enter the male toilets and next to each urinal you’ll find a hook upon which to hang your now bagged umbrella, and a shelf above for your bag or briefcase. There’s nothing inherently clever about the existence of these two things, but the fact that someone thought to put them in those locations is very clever indeed. The urinal itself flushes automatically when you arrive, as if say, “I’m clean. I’m cool.” Do your business and step back and the urinal flushes automatically.

urinal

Does your business involve something more, ahem, substantial? Enter a cubicle and sit on electronic bliss. The lid raises at the touch of a button on the wall-mounted control panel. The toilet seat has been pre-warmed for your pooing pleasure. (By contrast, if you sit on a toilet seat in Australia to find that it is warm, it is never a good thing.) Use the built-in bidet to get that freakishly fresh feeling. Adjust the temperature, location and pressure of the water jet at will. Make a few mistakes with all those buttons and you’ll soon learn not to do so again. Use the in-toilet dryer to desiccate your derrière. Don’t worry if you forget to flush or close the lid. The toilet will do these menial tasks automatically on your behalf. That way you can pretend to care even though you don’t.

Rest assured that if you are pregnant, the toilet will know about this before you do, and kindly inform you of the fact. What better way to find out than being told by a toilet? I am reliably informed that ladies embarrassed about the sound of their natural bodily functions also get a special button on their toilets that plays a beautiful masking sound, such as the tweeting of birds. In Australian toilets the only tweeting you’ll get is on a smartphone Twitter client. Uncouth.

Do you have a toddler that needs to go? Use the provided child seat. Do you have a toddler that you need to restrain while you go? Use the “jail seat” provided inside the cubicle, where you can secure the toddler while you take care of business. Enjoy the convenience. Don’t think about “human rights”.

At the sink soap is dispensed at the touch of a button and instant warm water, heated to just the right temperature for the season, begins to flow as soon as you put your hands near the spout. An “air towel” blows excess water off your hands much faster than it would evaporate using a traditional hand dryer. It also takes off a layer of skin.

I enjoy the fact that conveniences in Japan actually live up to their name.

Cold Convenience

Don’t you just hate it when you buy frozen products from the supermarket and, by the time you get them home, they’re frozen products no longer? Has your ice cream become just “iced” cream? Have your vegetables become inedibles? Has your cryogenically frozen grandfather become just a wet cold old dude? Fear not, for Japan can fix that!

Just ask the nice lady at the checkout for a dried ice token. She’ll then give you a bag and a free token to use in a machine near the door that dispenses dried ice right on top of your shopping or frozen relative. Excellent.

dried-ice

 

“Very Well”, I hear you say, “But what about refrigerated products like milk and meat? They’re gonna feel left out in the cold, in the warm.” (The yogurt is particularly narcissistic, presumably because it has a well-developed culture.)

Hold your horses, you young upstart, for Japan can fix that too! Many supermarkets now have refrigerated lockers where you can store your shopping. This allows you to browse at other stores before returning to collect your frigid fungibles on the way home. Excellent.