The next best thing to IKEA

IKEA, the famous furniture retailer, is not quite as ubiquitous in Japan as it is in Western Europe. Being an avid IKEA fan, I went through some withdrawal when I was living in Japan. Living in the Nagoya area, the nearest IKEAs were in Tokyo and Osaka. That is very far away to just buy a set of bookshelves.

My IKEA withdrawal became very apparent when, early on in my stay, I found an IKEA catalogue on sale in a local convenience store. I was completely over the moon.

japanese ikea catalogue

Japanese IKEA catalogue in a convenience store

But of course finding the catalogue that didn’t solve the problem of having no IKEA near where I lived. I was therefore forced to look for alternatives. Fortunately I found two very good alternatives in my area. The first one is NITORI. Their furniture is clearly inspired by IKEA, but they also offer a lot of typically Japanese items like futon and Japanese cooking utensils. Although the quality of NITORI isn’t always that great, the prices are low so their price-quality ratio is actually pretty good.

nitori in toyota city

NITORI in Toyota City with a beautiful moon in the sky above

nitori showroom duvet

Duvets in a NITORI showroom

nitori showroom cabinet

Cabinet in a NITORI showroom

The other alternative to IKEA that I found in Japan is MUJI. MUJI is a great shop with furniture, things for the home and even clothing, stationary and food. I have come to love MUJI almost as much as IKEA. Who would have thought?! MUJI has a very natural style which appeals to me a lot. In fact, the word ‘muji’ means ‘plain, without pattern’ in Japanese. I find their simple style to be very ‘wabi’ (wabi means ‘the beauty to be found in simplicity, quiet refinement’) and therefore very Japanese. The quality of items at MUJI is a lot better than NITORI, and even better than IKEA, but prices are according.

muji logo

The MUJI logo, with both romaji and Japanese writing. Both writings are used in both Japanese stores and abroad.

Muji Japan furniture

MUJI furniture. All very clean and organic looking. I love it!

muji japan purse inserts

Cute and convenient purse inserts at MUJI

Muji Japan stationary and storage

MUJI stationary and storage

Now that I am back in Belgium, where the IKEAs are plentiful, I am going through MUJI withdrawal. How ironic! There used to be a MUJI in Belgium at one point, but for reasons unknown to me, it is no longer here. There are MUJIs in the UK, France and Germany, but again, that is a long way to go just to visit a shop. I do hope MUJI opens a store in Belgium again in the near future!

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Japanese customer service: boxes and bags

The Japanese are masters of customer service. Shops are always thinking of new ways to make things more convenient for their customers. A good example of this is when we bought our rice cooker. It was a heavy machine in a big box. Rather than giving us a giant plastic bag, they attached a handle to the plastic wire around the box, which made it super easy to carry. I’d never seen such a thing in Belgium. Ah, the wonders of Japan!

Japanese box carrying device

Convenient handle for carrying boxes. So much easier and sturdier than a giant plastic bag!

Japanese box carrying device

Here’s a cute couple that happened to stumble into one of my pictures, carrying a box with a similar contraption.

There is something else that almost all shops do: when they give you a plastic bag, they attach a piece of tape below the handle to keep the bag closed. It makes the bag a lot easier to handle, especially when you are carrying several bags and are still trying to shop at the same time. Japanese people are so thoughtful!

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Closing the shopping bag with a piece of tape makes it easier to carry and prevents object from falling out in case of vigorous movement.

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Close up of the ingenious little piece of tape. It’s all in the details!

Some attentive readers pointed out that the purpose of the little piece of tape is also to prove that the product was paid for and to prevent theft by making it difficult to add unpaid items to the bag later on. Thank you everyone, for contributing and teaching me new things about Japan! 🙂

Japanese gift wrapping

Japan has an elaborate gift culture. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Japanese are masters of gift wrapping. Their attention to detail, combined with their ancient tradition of beautiful paper makes for some of the most gorgeous gift wrapping I have ever seen.

japanese gift wrapping

An example of Japanese gift wrapping, as seen from the front and the back

You might notice that the Japanese wrapping paper is held in place with a single piece of tape. This style of wrapping is different from the common Western way of gift wrapping, in which at least three pieces of tape are necessary: one for the bottom and one for each side.

western gift wrapping

western gift wrapping – image from beyondcovers.com/how-to-wrap-a-present

The trick to only using one piece of tape is in the way you fold the paper. Not only do you need less tape, the Japanese way of folding the wrapping paper is also very beautiful. The only downside is that you need to use more paper than with Western gift wrapping.

I have often stood watching in fascination as a Japanese store clerk was wrapping a gift. For several months I worked up the courage to ask one of them if I could film their gift wrapping technique. Finally I managed to secure the following footage. Unfortunately the man in the video is not the most skilled gift wrapper that I have ever seen, nor the most speedy one. He even uses a few extra pieces of tape! But it might still prove useful in case you want to have a go at Japanese gift wrapping yourself.

Japanese gift wrapping diagram

In case you’re really serious about trying it yourself, this diagram might also be useful

At the end of the video, the store clerk asks ‘yoroshii desu ka (is this ok?)’ before putting the bow on the package. That is because in many department stores, the customer gets to choose which paper and which kind of bow or decoration is used. The store clerk in the video is confirming that we want, in fact, the blue bow.

In Matsuzakaya, where this video was taken, they have convenient sample cards with all the available options. The customer can choose any combination of these bows and papers. The fact that a choice is offered and the cute little sample card are so Japanese! It’s things like these that I really miss from Japan.

japanese gift wrapping sample

Japanese gift wrapping options card from Matsuzakaya

 

People watching – Japanese monk

After living in Japan for a while, you kind of get used to all the things that used to excite you so much at first. But every once in a while, you get what I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’.

Today I will tell you about one of those faceslap moments that stand out in my memory. It happened when I was browsing a local fabric store with a friend. A visit to the fabric store is an event already exciting in itself, because of the multitude of gorgeous Japanese fabrics everywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of the housewives and rolls of fabric, we saw a Zen monk in traditional robes.

The monk was just going about his business, looking at different fabrics. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by an overly excited gaijin, asking him if she could please be allowed to take his picture because she never saw a monk in a fabric store before. But true to his zen background, he remained unfazed and kindly posed for a picture. The result is one of my favourite images from Japan!

japanese monk in a fabric store

Look how calmly he is standing there amid the colourful fabric. For me, this image says more than a thousand words.

So much sauce!

A trip to a Japanese supermarket is quite the adventure. The aisles are filled with unknown products. I feel especially overwhelmed when standing in front of the sauce stand. Any Japanese supermarket will have up to three aisles that are filled with nothing but sauce.

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

There are so many different kinds: a wide variety of soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, …), salad sauce, sauce with orange aroma, sesame sauce, sake derivates like mirin, … The list is endless. Liquids and sauces are the main condiments in Japan (as opposed to the West where we mostly use herbs). And of course I have no idea how to use most of these sauces. Even if you have come prepared and looked up a recipe beforehand, finding the sauce that the recipe requires can be quite a challenge, as most of the labels are written in kanji (chinese characters). To sum things up, facing this wall of sauce is both awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time.

tsuyu sauce in a Japanese supermarket

Most of these sauces are different brands of ‘tsuyu’ (つゆ), a dipping sauce for noodles

Ponzu sauce in Japanese supermarket

Another sauce stand, mostly ponzu (citrus sauce) and sushi vinegar

After returning to Belgium last month and seeing the selection of cheese in Belgian supermarkets, I imagine Japanese people living in Belgium must experience a similar sensation when being confronted with this vast array of cheese for the first time. How would they know the difference between young and aged gouda, or that camembert is actually supposed to smell like that. Some cheese is for cooking, other cheese is to put on bread. There is Italian cheese, French cheese, Dutch cheese, … There are so  many options, while most Japanese supermarkets only offer one kind of cheese: a very soft, synthetic cheese, with every slice in its individual plastic wrapper.

If you see a confused looking foreigner in the supermarket, desperately staring at the cheese stand (in Belgium) or at the sauce stand (in Japan), please rescue them! They need your help!

white cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A selection of white and blue cheese

dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

Different kinds of Dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

The hopeful sale

Last year around Christmas time, the pictures of an Osaka department store advertising a ‘fuckin’ sale’ went across the globe.

Fucking sale Osaka Japan

Fuckin’ sale in Osaka

I recently came across another funny sales advertisement in Tokyo, although this one had a more positive message: the hopeful sale (or rather, bargain).

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo

The Japanese have a habit of combining English adjectives and nouns in ways that can seem funny to foreigners. But it can be a little tricky to explain clearly why the concept of a ‘hopeful bargain’ would seem funny to us. Anyone care to have a go at it?

Buying a cell phone in Japan

Buying a cell phone couldn’t be easier in Europe. They practically throw the things at you. But what is normal in Europe, often isn’t in Japan. In Japan, buying a cell phone and registering for a phone number is serious business. It’s best to set aside the better part of a day to do it. And if you’re new in Japan, I recommend getting some help from a local.

To buy our Japanese phones, we went to a huge electronics store in Toyota City called Eiden. It’s two floors of electronica heaven – or hell, depending on how well you respond to an overdose of visual and auditory stimuli.

Eiden electronics store in Toyota City

Eiden electronics store in Toyota City

First things first: picking out a phone. Typical Japanese cell phones are a lot bigger than European ones (my Japanese phone is 11 cm by 5 cm). Although these days, many people in Japan have a smart phone, which pretty much looks the same all over the world.

Japanese cell pones in Toyota City

Japanese cell phones

Picking out a phone is it the fun part. After that, the paper work begins. There is an endless pile of forms to complete, documents to register and questions to answer. All the registration is done by means of carbon paper, not computerized forms. Not quite what I had expected from a high-tech nation like Japan.

Fortunately the famous Japanese customer care makes it all bearable. We are helped by the most ‘kawaii’ (cute) and bubbly salesperson ever.

Sales person in Eiden electronics store, Japan

Cute sales person

While we are waiting for our documents to be checked (which takes more than an hour), we are free to wander around the store or even go grab a bite to eat somewhere. They will contact us when everything’s ready. As if that’s not enough in terms of customer care, the store features a rest space where the weary shopper can repose during their shopping spree.

Rest space in Eiden electronics store, Japan

Rest space for weary shoppers in Eiden electronics store

After having spent many an hour in that store, we finally get our phones. Now we’re ready to start having a social life in Japan. FYI: phones in Japan come with their very own e-mail address. So it’s even possible to send e-mails to phones that don’t connect to the internet. Very convenient!

eiden  toyota city

Eiden Toyota City, or at least how it's supposed to look like according to Eiden website (click on the photo to be redirected).