Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas cake in Japan (part 3 - marzipan+icing!)

Following on from the Christmas cake recipe post, you now have a beautiful, boozy fruitcake that you've been lovingly watering with brandy for a few weeks. The next steps are to marzipan and ice it to turn it into the traditional festive treat.

I have not been able to find marzipan in Japan yet (correction, now I have!), but it is quite easy to make. I tested out a raw egg version against a slightly cooked egg version, and the end results were very similar. I used about 700g of the cooked version and found it was quite enough to cover my 9 inch cake without being too stingy on the thickness.

Here's what you do when you've made your marzipan:
  • Roll out your marzipan in a large round to your desired thickness. Some recipes advise cutting out a piece the exact size of the top of your cake, and doing strips for the sides separately, but I went for the large circle to encompass the whole cake in one go. If your marzipan is sticky and hard to roll, try rolling it between two sheets of plastic wrap, it helps a lot!
  • Heat up a few tablespoons of apricot jam in a pan. This will make it runnier and easier to apply to the cake but most importantly it will kill any tiny spores of mold that might be forming in the jar, unbeknownst to you.
  • Place your fruitcake on a cake board or baking paper, with the bottom side facing up to create a nice flat surface for icing.
  • Add a little brandy to the jam and brush the warm 'glue' all over the top and sides of the cake. Give it plenty on the sides to avoid the marzipan dropping off when you're cutting the cake later.
  • Place the large round of marzipan over the top of the cake and gingerly smooth it down the sides, cutting off any excess that trails around the edges. Smooth it down nicely with your hands and press together any cracks that appear. Don't worry too much if you have to patch parts of it, the marzipan will be completely covered by icing later.
  • Put the cake somewhere cool and dry for a few days, up to a week, so that the marzipan can dry out completely. If you skip this drying stage then the oil from the almond powder can discolour your icing, apparently. I laid a piece of baking paper loosely over the top to stop it getting dusty.


While the marzipan is drying out you have a week to look around for ornaments for the top of the cake. :) Once it's dry, you'll be covering the cake with icing. You can use fondant icing if you like, which is a rollable gummy kind of icing that doesn't get too hard, even when on the cake. In the UK you can buy this ready made and just roll it out to fit your cake. I haven't yet found it in Japan, but I preferred the sound of using home made traditional royal icing anyway, and set my mind on doing a rough snow scene of a cake with swirls and peaks. Royal icing is made with icing sugar, whipped egg whites and lemon juice. Most recipes call for adding some glycerine to stop the icing from drying too hard, but I was unable to get hold of food-quality glycerine in time for the cake. Any Japanese pharmacy sells a form of glycerine intended for external use, but I understand that this is not of the quality you'd want to be putting in your food. Next time I'll try ordering online in advance.

Making the icing was a bit intimidating but it all came together easily enough, following the recipe and whipping with a hand mixer on slow speed as the consistency gradually stiffened with the whipping and adding of sugar. Slapping the icing on the cake was also huge fun, and although I found a rubber spatula easier to use than the traditional pallet knife, I found it was difficult to make it look too bad whatever I did.

Two things I would advise perhaps: if you're adding a tiny bit of blue food colouring to make your white dazzling bright, as many royal icing recipes confide, do add just a tiny, tiny amount at a time and mix it in completely. Also, though slapping and swirling the icing on is fun, when I do it again I'm probably going to make my icing layer slightly thinner - The top layer of the icing dried out overnight, but to my initial horror it was still marshmallow-like under that crisp shell when we excitedly cut our first slice. Patience prevailed and a few (4) days later the whole thing was completely dry. Solid! It's really quite hard to cut through the icing layer without parts of it shattering, and I think the glycerine would have helped there along with the icing being a slightly thinner layer.

Over all though, it's a great success. It tastes just like it should, the cake is wonderfully moist and doesn't taste too boozy despite the regular and generous brandy feedings, you can taste the marzipan, and the fresh royal icing tastes fantastic, even if it does come in bits. I took a few slices to a party recently and it was very warmly received. With a 9 inch cake I'll be giving slices away for some time to come!

Here's the finished product:

Decorations from Roppongi Hills German Christmas market, Nissin + the 100 yen shop
And here's the inside.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Becoming a food hygiene manager in Japan

One of the requirements of opening a food related business in Japan is that you need to have a person who is the designated 'food hygiene manager' / shokuhin eisei sekininsha / 食品衛生責任者. My understanding is that if you are already a qualified chef, nutritionist (etc.) you can be given this designation fairly simply. Since I'm not already qualified, and since I'm planning to start this business alone I've been looking into the possibility of becoming a food hygiene manager as a foreigner in Japan.

The training takes the form of a 1-day seminar with sessions on relevant topics, ending with a short test to see that you've taken in the information given during the day. Yes, it's all in Japanese, but there is no guidance against foreigners applying, and on the Japan Food Hygiene Association's official website's FAQ they discuss non-Japanese people taking the test saying something like there shouldn't be a problem "as long as they have enough linguistic ability to pass the test, and have an alien card" (or the upcoming equivalent replacement of the alien card, I guess).

The seminars for Tokyo are held multiple times a month. You apply by post (application form) or directly at the health centre, specifying your top 3 choices of times and places to attend - it seems they get booked up. If all goes well on the day and you pass the test, you'll come away with the certificate there and then. You must then display it in an easy to see place on your premises. I'm going to see if I can spot and take pictures of some of them I see round and about town.

According to blogs from people who have attended the seminars, the test is supposed to be fairly simple. It's a multiple choice, so if your kanji reading skills are good and if you study up in advance I don't see why there wouldn't be a very good chance of passing. Since this is just a one-day thing it does seem to me that the real rationale behind this requirement is to designate the person to blame (fire?) in the event something goes wrong (^ - ^); 

There is a nice page here, with a sample test, along with explanations of the answers:

And here is one of the questions, with a rough translation:
問1 食品衛生法に基づく営業許可に関する記述で、正しいものはどれか。
  1. 菓子製造業を営業しようとする者は、都道府県知事が定めた施設基準に適合しなければ営業許可が与えられない。
  2. 菓子製造業の常業許可には、有効期限がないので、一回取得すれば施設がある限り営業することができる。
  3. 菓子製造業を営業しようとする者は、住所地の市町村長の営業許可を受けなければならない。
  4. 菓子製造業の営業許可を受けた者は、施設に必ず食品衛生管理者を置かなければならない。
Hygiene Law Questions
Q1 Based on food hygiene law, which of the following is correct regarding business permits?
  1. Persons wanting to run a confectionery business will not be given a business permit if their facilities do not meet the requirements of the relevant authority.
  2. A confectioner's business permit has no expiry date, so you can continue to operate as long as you have the facilities.
  3. Persons wanting to start a confectionery business need to get permission from their local mayor.
  4. A person who has a permit to run a confectionery business has to have a food hygiene supervisor at the facility.
The correct answer is 1. 
Hmm, it was a bit trickier than I thought it might be, because as I was thinking that 4 could also be correct. Reading more carefully though, it seems that the distinction is between a food hygiene sekininsha, and a food hygiene kanrisha. The kanji translates roughly as 'person responsible' in the case of sekininsha and 'manager' for kanrisha, but confusingly the most common usage of 食品衛生責任者 in English uses 'manager' for sekininsha already. Easier to think about it in Japanese I guess! The reason 4 is wrong then, is that although you need a food hygiene sekininnsha ('person responsible for') you don't need a food hygiene kanrisha ('supervisor' or official manager) when you're only running a cake shop or restaurant. Kanrisha are needed when you're manufacturing things like dairy products and meats, in factories I should imagine.

Aside from studying up for and taking the test, I also need to find out what the health and safety requirements are for opening food businesses in my area of Tokyo. That's one of my next tasks, and maybe it'll require a trip to the local Health Office. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Tokyo Business Entry Point visit

While I await the verdict on my permanent resident visa application (I'll know in April 2012 at the earliest) I'm starting to look into the steps I'll need to take to set up shop. I'm about to head off to Tokyo Business Entry Point (TBEP) (2014 note! The service's name has now changed to "Business Development Centre Tokyo and the direct link to their site is here), a free consultation service "providing a wide range of useful information for foreign-affiliated businesses and entrepreneurs who are already operating or are considering establishment of a business base in Tokyo."

Although very welcoming, their site describes their services so broadly "…available to answer various questions.." that I'm not sure if my 'little shop' idea is really in line with the kind of enquiries they prefer to deal with. The email exchanges have been encouraging however, so I'm looking forward to visiting. I'm hoping they'll be able to tell me the kind of licenses I will need for the different activities I'm thinking of doing, and the costs and procedures involved in getting them. I'll post a write-up of the consultation, and let you know what kind of things TBEP is interested in helping with.

... A little while later...

Gosh, well that was very nice! I spent a pleasant hour with two kind gentlemen in the partially screened-off section of a sprawling open plan government office that is Tokyo Business Entry Point. TBEP is part of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, and when I visited had offices on the 30th floor of the North Tower of the No.1 Tokyo Metropolitan Government building directly above Tochomae station. Please note! TBEP have moved to a new location, JP Tower close to Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (old office of TBEP)

Quite the view! 
It started with a little light form filling, and then the gentleman I had been in contact with picked up on some of the things he'd looked into following my email.

His first recommendation was to try to spend as little as possible at the outset and build the business before thinking about a space. Of the three parts of the business I had explained to them, he recommended me to start with the cooking school: "you don't actually need a license" they went on to suggest I use my kitchen, or a community centre kitchen to get going without much start-up money, and gave me a list of those of types of places in Minato-ku. I feel a little reluctant about the suggestion. I think it might be easy to get pulled into this type of casual activity, and it might keep me from sorting out my own business space. I felt that the lessons would be more incidental to the cafe space, but it could be a great way to get more experience and to build a community base even before the shop opens. Wouldn't lessons in the shop and lessons in a community centre be quite different though, and the participants also be of a different type? Clearly more thinking to do…

Regarding having a cafe space, the main thing they wanted to talk to me about was the need to partner with someone because a business producing or selling food requires having a designated hygiene manager. I had heard about the health certificate, seen them framed on the walls of the Matsuya fast food chain, and asked if I might be able to get one myself. They told me to check with my local health centre, but imagined it would be quite difficult because I'd probably need to do an exam in Japanese. Well I think I've found my next research project!

They gave me this list of the steps to get a business permit to open a restaurant in Tokyo. They also recommended that I consult with real estate agents who deal with closed businesses - this would help me find a ready furbished space with the oven and equipment I'd need, and hopefully work out more reasonably than me buying everything new. They gave me the names of two agents who specialise in these types of properties. This was a great piece of advice, I just hope I can be lucky enough to find something affordable, nice enough, in one of the locations I have in mind… Exciting!

When asked what kind of legal entity a cake shop usually is in Tokyo, they replied that a stock company kabushiki kaisha would probably be best as it's now possible to start one with 1-yen capital, and it would help me appear credible for any loans, partners and customer interactions. They mentioned that if family and friends want to help me start the business in the form of loans, then I could consider having them as board members or 'employees', and pay back those loans in the form of 'salaries' because loans don't look good on company books. I have a feeling that there could be a lot of strange pathways and loopholes to navigate in the course of running a business in Japan.

Speaking of shades of grey, I was very embarrassed to ask my next question. I didn't know how to phrase it. I certainly didn't want to use the word 'yakuza' and was aware that asking a government worker their opinion of whether I needed to worry about organized crime when considering starting a business in Tokyo might not be the best bet. After some verbal squirming along the lines of "well, Nishi Azabu is near Roppongi, and.. you know, protection money, that kind of thing" they caught my drift and reassured me that it wasn't something I needed to worry about, particularly as my cake shop would be closed well before nightclub hours. I felt silly, they were quietly amused.

I asked them what they usually do at TBEP when not advising about cake shops, and found that the range is quite extensive. They defined themselves as similar to JETRO but dealing with mainly small and medium sized businesses, whereas JETRO deals only with large companies. They also give advice to foreign businesses for their day-to-day needs such as which hospitals have English speaking staff. They are currently helping a medium sized company based in Osaka set up an office in Tokyo, and they have been visit the trade departments of various embassies to see what help they can give international companies looking to find partners or set up in Tokyo. I checked, but they said there isn't any kind of enquiry that they don't want. Their only limitation is that when giving introductions they always have to give more than one option, in order to remain impartial, which from the enquirer's point of view doesn't sound like much of a problem at all ;)

So yes, it was a useful and enjoyable visit, I didn't feel rushed or belittled at all. It was nice to have all my questions considered carefully - there wasn't one insincere smile when they talked about the tiny cake shop, and they added quite a few spontaneous suggestions for me to consider. I understand now why the TBEP site is so vague about what they do, they really do accept all kinds of enquires! We spoke partly in Japanese and partly in English, but they can handle enquiries purely in English, and I'd recommend booking a free consultation with them if you like me are wondering where to start with your business idea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You too can have real Bramley apple pie, in Japan!

My excitement might be difficult to understand: I found Bramley apples in Japan! (Also see my later post about the original home of Bramleys in Japan.) I've looked before, in English and Japanese, and found only "currently out of season" information on seller sites, and the Bramley Fan Club site which interesting though it is, didn't tell me how to get my hands on the unprocessed fruit itself.

Apple pies of all varieties can be lovely, and everyone has their favourite type. In Japan anything called 'pie' is usually made with a flaky puff-pastry type crust. In fact you can even get 'leaf pie' which sounds horrid now I think about it in English, but refers to a biscuit-type piece of sweet flaky pastry in the shape of a leaf. See for yourself, there is nothing forest-floor about it. Most apple pies you'll get in Japan then are of the flakes of pastry down your front variety, and are filled with dessert apples. No!

Sorry. I don't really mean to decry anyone else's love of apple pie made with Fuji apples, or any other dessert apple, it's just that I crave what I had when I was little. The house I grew up in had 2 Bramley apple trees and a cherry tree. Each year we'd try to get as much of the ripening fruit as we could in a fight against the crows who would take all the best ones as they ripened first at the top of the tree. I have fond memories of washing and peeling the fruit, rolling out the pastry with Mum, and the taste - the perfectly balanced tart and sweet result you get from the high-acid cooking apple. That's the taste I crave. A well structured white wine, a nice riesling let's say, will have an element of acidity to balance out the sugar in the palate, without it, it's just a flabby 80's Blue Nun - that's how I feel about apple pie made with dessert apples. Many non-cooking apples also keep their shape far too well during cooking, resulting in dry slices of over-sweet apple in your pie, rather than a lush tangy-sweet puree with pieces of soft apple. Am I being too forceful about this?

You might now be vicariously excited to learn that, giving the cooking apple quest another go the other day I came across 北の果族 Kitanokazoku, an online store for a farm shop in Hokkaido which stocked among their produce what appeared to be real bramley apples. I put in my order in disbelief, surely a 5kg box of Bramley apple jam will arrive.. The method was cash on delivery, quite a common payment method used in Japan, so I felt the only thing I was risking was the chance of being hugely disappointed upon the arrival of a box of juice. It was all so fast! I could select the upcoming Saturday morning as my delivery time, and there, I was done.

Saturday morning the box arrived, I steeled myself. The cats were just as fascinated with the arrival of a new package - though to be fair, they like all new boxes.

Kyaa! What's inside?

Removing the newspaper covering the top revealed a beautiful sight. Just look at them! In true Japanese fruit rearing fashion, these apples were perfect. The fruit of my childhood were a little more gnarled, and well, littler. I don't think we ever beat the crows to any apples ripe enough to be slightly red.

Bramley 'E-1' seedling apples

I gleefully resolved to spend the day making up a few different kinds of pastry and crumbles. I tried regular shortcrust and sweet shortcrust pastry, and now have a freezer full of pies and crumbles that should last us a while.

Sweet shortcrust Bramley apple pie. Oh yeah!

This pie, a sweet shortcrust pastry filled simply with slices of apple sprinkled with sugar and spices and dotted with butter, with little leafy decorations on top, was my clear favourite. When I make these pies again I'll use more apples I think, but the flavour was spot on, fulfilling my ambitions of that real apple pie of my childhood taste in a way worthy of Proust. :)

A lady from the Kitakazoku store explained that they keep the apples in cold storage, and so they will still have stock well into next year, probably up until March, at which point we'll have to wait for them to come back in season. "E-1" stands for England-1, meaning they are true English Bramleys. They also have Cox Orange Pippin apples, wow!
(Postscript - 2013, Kitakazoku online store is now closed. For Bramley apples try Obuse-ya in Nagano or 三氣の辺 in Hokkaido. Also check here for further updates!)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Christmas cake in Japan (part 2 - recipe!)

A taste of England's festive season in Japan. Love it or hate it, it's unlikely you'll pass a winter in the UK without being offered some traditional Christmas cake.

Here is the recipe for the fruit cake I was hankering after making in my last post (marzipan and icing to come much - weeks!- later). At the end of the post I also included the main links I used in adapting it.
  • 215g unsalted butter at room temperature*
  • 215g dark brown sugar
  • 225g all purpose plain flour
  • 4 free-range eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature
  • ½ tsp of vanilla essence
  • ½ tsp of fine salt
  • ½ tsp mixed spice (unavailable, even at Nissin, gasp! Make your own**)
  • Pinch ground nutmeg (or fresh if you can find it)
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Zest of 1 medium orange and 1 lemon
  • 700g mixed dried fruits (350g currants, 175g sultanas, 175g raisins - or preferred combination)
  • Handful of dried apricots, chopped
  • 80g chopped mixed candied peel (I found lemon and orange candied peel at Nissin)
  • 50g glacé cherries, (rinsed, dried and chopped - you can use more if you like them, I'm not so keen)
  • 100g blanched almonds (not roasted), chopped (using some hazelnuts would be nice too)
  • 1-2 tbsp molasses (I used the Brer rabbit brand from Nissin. Traditionally black treacle is used, but molasses give a better flavour apparently.)
  • Brandy*** (1 slug to soak the fruit, and then keep half a bottle or so handy to feed the cake for the next few weeks, a few tablespoons at a time.)
Nissin supermarket had ALL of the above ingredients (hurrah!), apart from the mixed spice.

You'll also need a 8 or 9 inch (20-23cm) cake tin, and lots of grease-proof paper. Set your oven to 140°C. The hardest things about this stage of making a Christmas cake are probably sourcing the ingredients and correctly judging the cooking time.

Soak dried fruit in a bowl overnight with a slug of brandy. Delia suggests that 3 tablespoons are sufficient to "plump up the fruit" but I found that with 700g of fruit a more generous splosh was called for.

Introducing the fruit to the brandy. That's a lot of fruit!

Grease and line your 8 or 9 inch cake tin (great page here, with a video on a quick way to make parchment circles).


To get ready, measure out your spices, mix all the fruit, nuts and peel and zest together in one bowl, and crack your room temperature eggs into another bowl and add the vanilla essence and molasses to the eggs, beat lightly. Cream the butter and sugar together with hand mixer (or by hand) 'till fluffy in a third very large bowl. With no baking powder in this recipe, this is the part of the process that incorporates air into the batter for leavening. Mix the beaten eggs bit by bit into the butter mixture (avoid curdling by having the butter and eggs at room temperature, and you can also use a little flour while adding eggs a bit at a time).

Add a little flour to prevent curdling.

Sift flour, salt and spices into the mixture and gently fold them in (over mixing the flour, or leaving the mixed batter to hang around too long will produce too much gluten and give you a tougher, dry cake). Carefully fold in soaked fruits, chopped nuts, candied peel and fresh zest.

I need bigger bowls!

Spoon into greased and lined cake tin, smooth down the top and make a little well in centre to avoid the cake rising too dome-like.

Make sure to remember to cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment to avoid burning. Tying brown paper around the outside of the cake can help to prevent the outside of the cake cooking too quickly as well. Cook at 140°C for about 3-4 hours.

The final cooking time will depend on your oven, and regardless of the setting you use your oven may be lying to you about the actual temperature inside. Check around 2.5 hours - is the top browning too quickly? You might need to turn the heat down - best to err on the side of cooler temperature/longer cooking for Christmas cake. The tests to find out if the cake is done are whether a skewer through the centre of the cake comes out clean, or if the middle of the cake springs back when lightly pressed.

Once it's done, leave it in the tin for half an hour, then turn it onto a wire rack to cool completely. Make a few holes with a chopstick and pour in the first couple of tablespoons of brandy. You'll want to wrap the cake in grease-proof paper and then foil, and put it in an air tight container. Repeat the 'feeding' on alternate sides each week leading up to December and the great marzipaning/icing of the cake. But more on that later.

I'll edit the recipe based on how this turns out. Let me know how it goes if you make your own!


* Why use unsalted butter if you're then going to add salt?
This is something that had bugged me for a while, especially since butter of any variety has been harder to come by recently. I looked through a few different sites and forums (fora?) until I found an answer that made sense to me: a) you want to be able to control how much salt to use in any given recipe, and more importantly b) unsalted butter is purer than salted butter. Apparently the preservative qualities of salt mean that aside from being able to keep the butter longer, a lower percentage butterfat can comprise the finished product, with the rest made of presumably cheaper milk solids and water. Unsalted butter is better quality then, and is likely to give you a better bake.

** Making your own British 'mixed spice':
Mix together 1 tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp ground coriander  1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp cloves. I also added a pinch of ground caraway seeds. You end up with a more than you need for one cake, but you can store the rest to make sticky toffee pudding, Yorkshire parkin, your own mincemeat filling for mince pies... Note! 'Mixed spice' is a particularly British mix which is different to 'all spice' which is different again to '5 spice'. How confusing. If you want to buy your spices in bulk, try Spice Home behind Roppongi Hills, near Cafe 8.

*** Brandy (cognac), rum, whisky, sherry, port or Baileys in my Christmas cake?
I chose brandy, mainly because I thought it might bring out something nice in the dried apricots in the mix, however I've seen a good many recipes also recommend rum. Sherry could be good and feels appropriately festive as long as it's not too sweet, and I feel port should be avoided for the same reason (just my opinion here though.) I feel that whisky would overpower the fruit in the cake, and match less well with the marzipan and sugary icing, but again, if you love the taste of whisky, you'll love the result. I would steer well clear of putting Baileys, Kahlua, Malibu, limoncello, chocolate liqueur in the cake. What have you had great results with, and how much of the bottle did you end up using? ;)

Here are places I got some of the ideas from: (Delia's trusted recipe, great photos on how to protect the cake tin once it's filled.) (Includes conversions for different sized cake tins.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Christmas cake in Japan (part 1)

British style Christmas cake (c) jystewart
Although November might seem a bit early to many people to be thinking about Christmas cake, it's actually a little on the late side when you're talking about real homemade, heavy, fruity English Christmas cake. And well, the first festive jingles are already starting to be played in Tokyo Starbucks..

Christmas cake in Japan is usually eaten on Christmas Eve and is a lighter, fluffier affair - a vanilla sponge 'shortcake' filled and covered with whipped cream and topped with strawberries, looking like something Father Christmas might wear. It's lovely, and so popular that you can order yours from any convenience store, or make it at home thanks to the out of season abundance of show-stopping strawberries specifically grown for the purpose appearing in supermarkets from December.
Japanese style strawberry shortcake (c) Tomomarusan

Strawberry shortcake is all well and good, but it doesn't fit the bill traditionally speaking - not the tradition I grew up in anyway, and it feels more like a summer cake, a bit out of place on a cold winter day. There must be shops that do traditional English style boozy Christmas fruitcakes, but I fancied having a go at making my own. I have heard that the home made versions are hard to beat, fed on brandy for weeks leading up to Christmas, then lovingly tucked up in marzipan (also home made - have you found any pre-made blocks in Tokyo..?), slathered with real royal icing (no 'ready-roll' fondant for this cake!), and decorated I'm not yet sure how.

It'll be a first for me, and I don't know how it will turn out, but for those who are interested in trying for themselves, I'll follow up in the next post with how I did it and where I got the ingredients and accouterments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is Tokyo out of butter? (Again?)

With Nissin, my local supermarket, being out of butter 3 times in a row, I poked around online to see if we are facing an actual butter shortage in Japan. Most of the articles I found were from a shortage in 2008 - I remember the talk of rice and wheat being in short supply at that time, but hadn't been as aware of the butter issue. Planning to open a shop that would be heavily dependent on supplies of raw ingredients has made me a bit more observant it seems.

With a bit more searching I found that a combination of last year's hot summer, which resulted in fewer calves and less milk produced this year, the disposal of milk following the leak from the Fukushima power station, along with restrictions and high taxes on imported butter has indeed lead to a shortage. I found the tone of some of the reports to be over emphatic about the hot summer last year, implying the butter shortage is not related to Fukushima, but at the very least the effect of limits on electricity consumption since the earthquake can't have helped the production / transport/ storage etc.

In the Japanese media, this is being presented as a 'price hike' which sounds less alarming than a food 'shortage' of any kind. This news report in Japanese shows cows affected by heat and then asks a cake shop owner about how the price increase in butter will impact his business. He's mainly optimistic, saying that expensive is better than none at all. The fact is that right now at least domestic butter is absent from my local supermarkets, regardless of how much I might be willing to pay.

Butter/marg mix
When I last visited Nissin, there was a new margarine/butter mix where the butter usually sits, along with extremely expensive blocks of imported butter. An excel sheet I made to calculate how much a given recipe costs to make, shows me that apart from the time taken, it's butter (along with eggs) that is already the most expensive constituent of most cakes, and so having to buy more expensive butter would have quite a significant impact on the cost of production. 
253% more expensive than domestic butter!
For now, I have found that some convenience stores still have domestic butter (sunkus, and 7-11 specifically), and so by shamelessly taking 3 or 4 blocks to the counter and withstanding the unspoken judgements about my diet I've been able to continue baking. When I own a business I'll be buying wholesale rather than from supermarkets, and I read that an emergency import of 2,000 tonnes of butter for commercial use has been authorized to help ease the strain on businesses, which is somewhat reassuring.

I'm counting on butter being back in stock in Japan by the time I'm ready to open my shop, but it has made me aware of the delicate balance my business would be in, reliant on produce that has only a recent history in Japan and has been scarce more than once in the last 3 years.
I'll see if I can ask some business owners if they have been affected by the shortage. I noticed a French restaurant switching to olive oil for the bread rather than little dishes of butter, could that be related? How would I plan for this happening to me? Would I keep a supply frozen? Try making my own? Though reluctant, I guess I should experiment with some of the alternative choices to see the effect on the end product.. but some things just *have* to be made with real butter!

Update! Nissin now has butter:

Slightly more expensive than the usual brand, and only 2/person.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview 1: Wool shop owner, UK

To help me get an idea of what to expect running my own business I am speaking to a few people who have had experience setting up their own shop, running a food business in Japan, or running a business as a foreigner in Japan. Here is one of the interviews.

I grew up in a shop. My Mum ran a wool shop, with buttons, hand knitted items, wool and women and children's clothes. My sister and I would help out behind the counter and with counting up the takings at the end of the day. Sundays usually involved visiting the warehouses in Manchester and redecorating the shop window for the coming week. The front room was the business, and we had a living room and kitchen behind that, with bedrooms upstairs. There was a little back garden and a shed. Here's my 'interview' with my Mum about running her own business. Turns out there was a lot I didn't know about her business!

View from inside the shop window

Why did you set up your own business, how did the idea come to you? What were you doing at the time, work-wise?
- I had two small children, well you were about 8 and your sister was 6, and I wanted a job that I could fit around you two. I wanted to be around for you in the school holidays and when you got home from school, and I wanted to be able to look after you if you were off school ill. At first I thought I'd go for a job in a school but it was quite hard to get into - all the jobs I applied for weren't really available, they were just interviewing because they were required to but there was always someone already in mind for the job who had been trained up on the computer system they used.
When I decided to open my own shop I was working as a dinner-lady, preparing school meals, as a way of trying to get a school admin job from the inside. The idea for the shop was that if we lived at the property, or at least if there was a sitting-room there, then I could take you to work with me whenever I needed to. I liked the idea of working for myself, though I didn't know if I had it in me to run a business, and I liked the idea of having a challenge. I always enjoyed knitting, and so it was a natural choice that the business was a wool shop.

A dinner-lady, yes I remember you coming home with big balls of pastry we would freeze and use for making apple pies and cherry pies. :) So how did you make the shop happen? Was there a bank loan, did you have to save up? 
- I think there was a bank loan to start with, yes. Although we couldn't get a loan for the whole thing - I bought the shop as a 'going concern', it was already a business albeit a bit run down. So you buy the premises, the stock and pay extra on top for the business itself as 'good will' - something unmeasurable a bank can't give you a loan for really. The woman we bought the shop from asked for more than we wanted to pay, but because she hadn't been very active in keeping the business going, we kept asking for discounts on the 'good will' side of things.

When you saw the property you ended up buying, did you know that was the one?
- Definitely. It had a living space with it so it was perfect. It was also opposite the local maternity hospital, and in a busy residential area and so you could count on there being enough custom, especially for the baby items. A few other places we looked at either didn't have the living space, or were too close to an existing wool shop.

How long did you have your own business? How would you describe the trends of your business over the years.
- I ran it for 11 years. At some point I'd built it up into quite a nice little business, it made a profit and I tried things like outsourcing some knitting jobs during particularly busy times. Towards the end though, I did notice that costs were getting higher while takings weren't going up. Wool itself became expensive: say someone wants to make a baby cardigan and it takes 2x 50g balls of wool, if each of those is £1.75 each you're looking at £3.50 just for a tiny cardigan, and then you've got to take all the balls home and make the thing yourself. When you could start buying machine-perfect cardigans down the street for £2.00, some people didn't see the point of knitting, or even learning how to. The older customers started to get arthritis and stop knitting, and there just wasn't the same level of interest from the younger customers. Now I think that knitting has come back in a way, but more as an arts and crafts thing.

Was that what made you sell the shop and move on?  
- Though I noticed the decline in business, the real thing that made me stop was that I started to feel unsafe. I chose a wool shop partly because I thought it would be a safe business - you'd have to be mad to break into somewhere to steal balls of wool. I thought I would be fine. There were a few incidents in the end though where someone came in acting strangely with the aim of taking the till. There was one man who came in speaking incoherently, with his arm inside his coat. I felt afraid of him immediately. Thankfully there was a customer in the shop at the time and she stayed until he left. He was caught later by the police with a crow-bar under his coat. I had a panic button fitted behind the counter, but didn't feel safe after a couple of attempted incidents like that. The police said that with the accident and emergency ward being moved in with the maternity ward, the incidents were likely to increase: "people will be pulled of the street for being drunk, fighting, whatever, and taken to A&E and not have the money to get home. They look across the road, see the wool shop and think 'there'll be a woman alone in there'. " Once I had thoughts like that in my head, and the nights were getting dark for 3:30pm in the winter, the shop bell would ring and you wouldn't know who you were going out to, it was frightening.

Did having the shop make you more, or less employable afterwards?
- I felt it made me less employable, at least from an interviewing point of view - I hadn't had a job interview for 17 years! - but in the end it probably didn't matter as much as I worried it would. With the shop I was completely responsible, if there wasn't enough stock of something I couldn't say to anyone "well you didn't put the order through" and if there was a complaint I couldn't ask the manager to come and deal with it, it's different to working for a company. Not to mention that I hadn't had bosses and colleagues for all that time, and was outside corporate culture. Depending how you talk about it in the interview some of those things could be seen as assets, but I thought that someone interviewing me might be put off. When I started working for someone else again, I did feel at first that I'd been left behind in the work world, but in the end I don't think it has made much difference.

Part of the reason you chose a wool shop is because you like knitting. Did doing it professionally change how you felt about it?
- I still enjoy knitting, though I do it less at the moment. I think I did still enjoy doing it most of the time I had the shop. There were definitely busy times, staying up late to finish an order, that were quite tough and there were some orders I really didn't want to take, but on the whole I enjoyed it, yes. There were 2 orders in particular I remember trying to dissuade the customers from placing, because I just didn't want to do them. One was a crocheted (very labour intensive), double-sized bed spread. It took bloody months! Another was a knitted suit - a skirt and jumper suit (laughing), with a tiger that went from the skirt to the jumper and down the back. I tried to persuade her it would be too expensive with all the different colours but she really wanted it, so I made it. I have a photo of both of them somewhere. I guess there were also times when I felt bored at the prospect of making another one of something I'd made loads of already, but I could outsource some of the work I didn't want to do to my knitters.

What do you remember fondly from the experience?
- I enjoyed the relationships you built up with your regular customers, I liked what I was doing and I liked that I was in control and I knew what to do. Doing a good job made me quite confident.

Would you consider running your own business again at some point?
- I would run a business again, but probably not a shop front because of how I feel about the personal physical risk. If I had my time again I would still open the wool shop though, yes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Applying for a permanent residence visa (永住権) in Japan

My understanding of the guidelines for applying for permanent residence visa status in Japan is that unless you are the child or spouse of a Japanese national then you will need to:

- Fill in forms (naturally) to request the change to your visa status. Note that your current visa needs to be for the maximum number of years allowed for that visa type. Until recently this was 3 years for many visas, but with the new immigration system the upper limit for many visas is now 5 years. I'm unclear as to whether you'll now need the 5 instead of the 3 year version, but you are unlikely to get PR if you only have a 1 year visa. See here for the list of requirements on immigration's official site, though it's a little confusing.

- Write a 'letter' translated into Japanese stating the reason you're applying for permanent residence status. There is also a line on the application form asking for this information, but I guess the letter can go into a little more detail. I doubt it has to be very long, it will just need to seem logical to the person evaluating your application. Examples might be planning a family, or wanting to set up your own business in future.

- Have lived in Japan for over 10 years, or be contributing significantly to Japan. Judging from the website however, short of being a Nobel Laureate, being accepted based on your artistic, diplomatic, economic etc. contribution to Japan looks tough. (If you have been married to a Japanese citizen/PR holder for over 3 years, you can apply after just 1 year of living in Japan provided your current visa has the maximum number of years.)

- Show good conduct (have no criminal record).

- Get a certificate of "registered matters" from your ward office showing your current status of residence. (Ask them for a 外国人登録原票記載事項証明書 / gaikokujin touroku genpyo kisai jiko shoumeisho. This is more or less the same information as on your gaijin card, but will also have a record of any changes made and it'll have the ward office's stamp on it. Official documents from the ward office usually cost a few hundred yen to have printed, and they usually make them for you while you wait.)

- Prove stable employment sufficient to support yourself: Get your company to make you a certificate of employment / 在職証明書 / zaishoku shoumeisho and if you have one also submit an up-to-date employment contract / 雇用契約書 / koyou keiyaku sho, along with proof of 3 years of tax payments. For me, proof of tax payments is in the form of withholding tax slips / 源泉徴収票 / gensen choshu hyo from my company and my tax return forms / 確定申告 / kakutei shinkoku, as well as a proof of income tax payment certificate 所得課税証明書 / shotoku kazei shoumeisho from the ward office (also for 3 years) since my current company doesn't process all of my taxes. In your case your company may be able to supply all the necessary information including detail of your ward tax payments as in the next bullet. The lady on the phone at immigration suggested I also include a recent bank statement to show my bank account details and as proof that I'm set up here well enough to support myself. She added that it wasn't a requirement though. As a general rule of thumb from speaking with immigration lawyers, having over 200,000 yen/month wages consistently appears to be a minimum.

- Be paying residence/ward tax (go to your ward office an ask them for a residence tax proof of payment certificate for the last 3 years / 住民税の課税証明書 / jyuminzei no kazei shoumeisho. This might be a recent addition to the requirements which, along with more active chasing up and freezing the bank accounts of non-payers, appears to be part of a bid to get tougher on ward tax evasion/forgetfulness. In my case, the ward office gave me one document that covered all my income and residence tax payments in one go. This all-in-one document was called a 特別区民税・都民税(個人分)証明書 / tokubetsu kuminzei tominzei kojinbun shoumeisho, and they gave me one sheet for each of the last 3 years, showing no tax was outstanding.)

- Be sponsored by a guarantor who is a Japanese national or a holder of permanent residence status. (Have them sign this guarantor document or this one in Japanese. This clause is interesting (read: possibly meaningless), in that on the MOJ website itself it is stated (in Q.7) that the guarantor is not legally bound to the agreement they sign). The guarantor will need to supply proof of their past 12 months' income, their certificate of employment / 在職証明書 / zaishoku shoumeisho, and either their residence certificate / 住民票 / jyumin hyo if they are Japanese, or if they are a permanent resident, their certificate of registered matters (as above for you) / 外国人登録原票記載事項証明書 / gaikokujin touroku genpyo kisai jiko shoumeisho.)

- 8,000 yen stamp for the application fee, which you can get at the convenience store on the ground floor of the immigration building.

- Finally, if an employer or friend can write a letter of recommendation in Japanese, while not required, it is also helpful.

Given that I have been in Japan for over 10 years now and can meet the other requirements, I feel cautiously optimistic about the chances of receiving the status. The application seems to take anything up to 8 months though (update: it took 10 months and was rejected due to length of current stay), while police checks and so on are carried out. I guess the only thing I'm slightly unsure about is whether, after handing in my gaijin card after the JET programme just over 7 years ago, they will count my stay as 10 or 7 years. That, and whether the 'reason' for applying for permanent residency as requested on the application form, needs to be attractive in a particular way.

As reported in a number of places, getting the permanent residence status appears to have no down-side and has the benefit of freeing up the long-term resident vocationally speaking, prevents accidental overstaying on shorter visas and has the additional advantage of rescuing the foreigner living in Japan from annual or triennial trips to the windswept Immigration Bureau on the bay in Shinagawa.

Currently gathering the paperwork for my application. Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Starting a small business in Japan - visa status (part 1)

My current visa status is a 3-year renewable working visa with the catchy title of 'Specialist in Humanities and International Services' (or 人文知識・国際業務 in Japanese). This is the kind of visa applicable for a wide variety of professional reasons for being in Japan, from teaching English as a foreign language, to working in marketing.

To run a business in Japan you will generally need a 'Investor/Business Manager' visa (投資・経営 visa category in Japanese), although if you have a spouse visa or permanent residency those would do just as well.

Though I have heard of people being awarded investor visa status without meeting all of the requirements set forth by the Immigration Bureau of Japan, I'm operating on the assumption that the requirements do need to be met, including:
- Employing two or more full time Japanese citizens or permanent residents of Japan, or
- Annual investment in the company of at least 5 million yen. (About 39,000 GBP, or 64,000 USD).

The problem with planning to open a little shop is that neither of the above conditions are likely to be met given the small scale of the enterprise, particularly at the startup stage. Feeling that the requirements were a little forbidding, I had a look around to see how Japan compares to other countries in this respect. The UK is alleged to compare favourably with the US and other countries, but despite recent lowering of initial hurdles to non-UK resident entrepreneurs through a creation of a Prospective Entrepreneurs visa category, the requirements that need to be met are still higher than those of the Japanese Investor/Business Manager.

Not discouraged, and also not particularly interested in exploring the complexities and legal issues of the marriage of convenience route, I'm looking into the remaining option - becoming a permanent resident of Japan.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hatching the Plan

Shutter graffiti reads "we want Gothic Dolphins" I think..
What does it take to open a little shop, as a foreigner in Tokyo? Where would you start and why would you want to do such a thing anyway?

Walking home from work the other day I took a different route and came across this empty shop near Nishi Azabu crossing.

While aware that this shop probably wouldn't be the shop (yeah, what do you think the rent would be on a place round the corner from Gompachi?), previous 'what ifs' appeared more possible with a space to project them into. My mind started swimming with how I'd arrange the space, what a rainy day from the inside of the shop would be like, ideas of how to get the word out, what products and services might best pay the rent.. Then I promptly pushed the thoughts back down and avoided mentioning it at home for the evening. Don't be daft.

Thanks to now owning a small oven (quite a thing, in Japan where toaster ovens seem to be more common) recent baking exploits and the reaction of friends and family led me to brood on the idea of opening my own cake shop. It would have a cosy tearoom kind of seating area and be focused around certain kinds of specialty cake. With some walk-up traffic, some online orders and regular arrangements with other businesses, and afternoon baking lessons.. wouldn't it work?

"Just what Tokyo needs, *another* cake shop..." Right?
Well, I do have a fairly niche idea that I can't find someone else doing and I would be thrilled if I was able to just get it up and running well enough to pay the rent and wages. I'm starting to do the maths, think about the business plan, I'm adding to an already considerable heap of things that are 'worth looking into', making lists of considerations, people to talk to, steps to be taken. This blog is a place for me to collect these notes, and who knows it might help someone else with similar thoughts in future.

The first step is visa status.. I am a foreigner over here afterall.

Watch, and be amazed as the plan falls flat, or as perhaps many months later it comes to fruition!