Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sugar poinsettias - Getting ready for Christmas

I've been indulging my crafty side recently having fun working on some basic gum paste techniques. The color scheme for my sister's wedding next year is purple and white so I've been practicing various flowers and things for the corsage-type decorations for the cake - but more on that next year I'm sure..!

Since I've been doing taste tests with coverings for traditional British Christmas cakes I thought I'd have a go at something a bit more seasonal as well and went for the red Christmas 'flowers' Poinsettias - the red things are leaves, but more on that in a moment - and some holly.

I'm undecided whether I prefer a simple decoration of something like holly on a flat surface, just the traditional spiky snow scene with a ribbon and no gum paste decorations at all, or a very over the top and showy poinsettia decked out in ribbons. I'm slightly embarrassed by how fun it was trying them all out.

The traditional royal icing snow scene

If you go to a Wilton shop you can get all kinds of handy tools and cutters to make leaf and petal shapes for various flowers and mats to imprint leaf textures etc. Poinsettias however appear to need to be made free-hand - unless you order a set from abroad. I relished the challenge, and had a go.

This is my first attempt, the leaves of which could probably be made a little finer and would benefit from some dark dusting powder to show the textures better. I assembled the red bracts in much the same way you would make a lily petal, folding the little flap over each wire, and then cutting them freehand with scissors.

Designing this reminded me how weird and amazing plants are. Earlier we covered the fact the red bits aren't actually flowers, but have you ever had a good look at the centre of one of these plants? There are crazy things going on in there! When poinsettias are depicted on fabric or in a drawing, there are often just a couple of yellow or gold circles in the center, but on the real plant there are actually intricate little flowers, or "cyathia" there in green, red and yellow. Though strange, my representation in sugar doesn't even do full justice to the wonderfully bizarre arrangement of the actual plant.

The spiny leaves of the holly were created using lily cutters and then a small round cutter to remove semicircles from around the edge. I put a dot of clear varnish on top of the berries so they would shine. Since these displays are for placing on cakes that are for eating, all the wires need to be wrapped in floral tape so that the metal doesn't touch the cake. Note that if you have a large display that you want to anchor into the cake, you should insert your wrapped stems into a plastic flower spike that you push into the cake.

There is, of course, an inherent strangeness to this kind of sugar craft. You go to all the trouble to make something delicate out of sugar, only to include wires and make it inedible.. It is a conundrum, but they are not completely redundant as aside from being quite impressive when made well, they don't wilt as would fresh flowers, and since they are made for special occasions, they can be kept indefinitely as a memento of the occasion if you're careful with them.

It is also possible to make simpler gum paste decorations that contain no wires and would be completely edible, albeit crunchy. You would need to mount them on a gum paste base to set them on the cake, or glue them directly to the cake with edible glue. Similarly, if you make simple decorations using fondant or marzipan, they would be completely edible too.

Oh and yes, all these decorations travelled with me to the UK too, carefully wrapped in tissue in a box in my hand luggage this time. No problems at security for these or the oh, 100 or so macaron shells packed along side them - "you do macarons don't you?" says my sister, the bride to be, "this 10-layer tower I've seen looks great!" (Next year I'll need to take more than 100 macarons..) The Christmas sugar decorations survived the journey quite well, with just a couple of the spiky tips falling casualty along the way.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Royal icing vs. rolled fondant - Getting ready for Christmas

Traditionally speaking, British Christmas cakes and wedding cakes are heavy, rich fruit cakes that are made weeks or months in advance of the date they are needed, matured and 'fed' regularly with brandy, then covered in a 3 mm or so layer of marzipan and finished off with a hard, white layer of royal icing.

These days if you search online for information about royal icing, you're more likely to find yourself on sites discussing decorating cookies, or perhaps creating lasting decorations. The Wilton site even goes as far as to recommend royal icing is not used as a cake covering. Certainly, the sometimes impractically hard covering created by royal icing would be a strange match for a butter cake or chocolate cake, but I do think it has a place still for fruit cakes.

This year, partly as preparation for making my sister's wedding cake (congrats!) next year, and partly to do the kind of side-by-side taste test I love so much, I made a few Christmas cakes for a rolled fondant vs. royal icing showdown.

Fondant is extremely easy to work with - it stores well if you don't use all of it at once, is easy to cut slices of once it's on a cake, and you can get creative with colours and make all kinds of decorations. The downside for me is that, depending what brand you use, there are a bunch of things in there I wouldn't usually choose to eat, like shortening, thickening agents, emulsifiers, preservatives etc. I have also seen recipes for home-made fondants that include stabilised cream and butter rather than shortening, but I wonder how they would hold up under heat.. more experiments ahead!

Royal icing by contrast is traditionally made with just egg whites and powdered sugar. Some recipes also include the additive of food-grade glycerine (a sugar alcohol) to stop it from drying too hard, others add lemon juice. Many modern British recipes suggest using powdered egg white, or pasturised egg whites instead of raw, to remove any risk of salmonella.

Smooth, but slightly pocked royal icing surface

Slightly bobbly surface of rolled fondant icing

Royal icing can create sharper lines on your cake than fondant, it's also a brighter white than most types of fondant and can hide the lumps and bumps of the fruit cake better, though there are ways to improve the bobbly appearance even when working in fondant. A downside to royal icing as a fruit cake covering is that it's not easy to get a neat cut - even with glycerine it dries very hard! The layer of icing frequently cracks as you cut into the cake, and shatters either side of the knife as you cut down.

Considering its use in traditional wedding cakes, and the common ritual cutting of the cake together, this is a fairly big consideration - you don't want the happy couple giving the impression they can't achieve things together by failing to cut into the cake :) I've found that using glycerine, whipping up the icing to stiff peaks and building the icing up in thin layers on the cake, smoothing and sanding between each layer creates a more powdery (rather than concrete!) covering that a sharp, thin knife can handle relatively easily. I'm still experimenting here.

Having cut these cakes in half I wrapped them up, sealed them in a cake tin and stowed them in my check-in luggage. In preparation for the wedding I also need to discover how well these coverings travel. Indeed, and whether the purported similarity of fondant to Semtex means my case arrives in the UK at all.. :) I'm currently on the plane and shall report back. (Edit: travel success! They both arrived in good condition and were not exploded by airport security.)

In these tests, for elegance and taste the royal icing won hands down but the fondant being easy and practical means it has a lot going for it. I kinda hope my sis choses the royal icing for her wedding cake, but we'll see..!

Monday, November 25, 2013

This year's mincemeat - getting ready for Christmas

Just a quick post to remind any ambitious parties who are planning to embark upon making their own Christmas puddings, mincemeat or Christmas cake, stir-up-Sunday was just this weekend and it is perfect timing to get stuck-in and make your house smell like Christmas.

I wonder how much mincemeat I’ll be making this time next year? I’m so excited about getting started with the business I can barely concentrate on all the (still many, many) tasks at hand in order to start... This year I made a modest amount just for gifts, samples, and I’m reserving a special 400g of it to take back to my family in the UK in a couple of weeks time, to bake mince pies “for Father Christmas” with my niece and nephews.

I made this particular mincemeat with butter instead of the traditional suet, as suet suitable for baking is hard to come by in Japan and I wanted to see if I minded the non-traditional version. I’m pleased to report that I don’t mind at all! It is really lovely. Of course it also means that my vegetarian friends can enjoy the mincepies too.

Here is the recipe I used, adapted from Delia Smith and Mary Berry's recipes.

  • 225g Bramley apples cored and chopped
  • 175g raisins
  • 110g sultanas
  • 110g currants
  • 25 chopped almonds
  • 110g butter
  • zest and juice 1 lemon
  • zest and juice 1 orange
  • 175g brown sugar
  • 60g dried apricots, chopped
  • 50g candied lemon peel
  • 60g candied orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons of brandy (or preferred amount to taste)

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pan and heat gently to melt the butter and sugar. Continue to heat through very gently for 10 minutes, stiring occasionally and leave to cool.
  2. Once cool, add your preferred amount of brandy and decant into sterilised jars. 
  3. Store the mincemeat in a cool dark place while the flavours develop further until you need it at Christmas.
Note that if you are using glass jars with metal lids, it's best to put a piece of plastic wrap between the lid and the jar to avoid any reaction between the lid and the acidic contents of the jar. 

The best thing about making your own mincemeat is that you can adapt the mix of dried fruit to your own tastes – just keep the total weight of dried fruit roughly the same as your recipe. Many recent recipes add cranberries, I like to add dried apricots, as I think they go fantastically with the almonds and brandy.

If you've also made your own British mixed spice and customised your blend of spices to your preference, then you’ll have a totally unique mincemeat of your own!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Choosing consistent colours for branding your business

Near my current office in Tokyo is a branch of a the paint shop Benjamin Moore. I popped in the other day to take advantage of their wall of colour swatches (free to take!) and to start homing-in on colours for my business.

Despite appearances, I'm not planning pink!

For consistency in your brand identity – making sure your online content, business cards and in-shop decor match as far as possible - you will want to define your brand colours across a few of the standard colour systems.

It's quite fun and not too difficult to do to a basic level (if you want to take it quite seriously however, look here and here). It can reinforce your brand's message and helps you build a recognisable and trusted identity with your clients (good summary in that link), while also avoiding giving an unprofessional, slapdash impression by not having thought about it.

Where to start depends on where you will be using your branding the most, because the different colour systems create colour differently - for example by using light, or using ink - and not all colours are available across all systems. You probably don’t want to start in a paint shop, fun though that is. :)

If you’re mainly online, then start by looking at RGB and hexadecimal colour picking tools - use design software such as PhotoShop or one of the tools listed below. If printed material will be more important to your brand, then it’s probably best to start with CMYK, since most of your printing will probably be done using digital printers.

Many major brands choose specific Pantone colours for their branding. Pantone corporation developed this system of uniform colour definition and produce sample books of colours that are used by manufacturers, designers and brands to ensure their materials are precisely the same colour wherever they are produced. These colours are labeled with a PMS (Pantone Color Matching System) number, and approximations (or exact matches for some of the colours) in CMYK are given in some of their swatch books.

It can be handy to know your equivalent or closest approximate PMS number, in case you need to manufacture goods in your corporate colours, or to do large single-colour offset printing but in general, it appears that decisions on CMYK and RGB/Hexadecimal will be enough for a small business.

For a degree of consistency across various media, once you have your main brand colour defined in the most suitable colour system for your business, you can look up the closest matches in the other systems using conversion tools like those listed below.

Note that there are many more colours available online (RGB/hexadecimal) than can be created in ink, and so if you are starting with a web colour, it could be hard to get a perfect match. If possible, test print the CMYK version of your chosen brand colour before doing your first large print project.

Building outwards from your main official colour, you can also use colour theory to look up contrasting and complimentary colours and create a brand palate (try this color calculator tool).

Keep note of all your colour values and create an official colour guideline for your brand - in RGB, hexadecimal, CMYK, Pantone if you like, and perhaps even a paint range! You can then refer to this guide when you design new online materials, need to ask a designer to create something, order panels for your trade show booth, or a sign for your shop-front...

Have a look at some brands' style guides to see how they do it. Note that large brands often go into tremendous detail (pdf) and include (pdf) direction regarding fonts, required space around logos etc. You probably won't need to be quite as extensive or strict as these examples, but preparing at least a basic style guide for colour sets you off in the right direction as your business grows.

Some useful tools to play around with: - Cool little colour wheel you select or input your hexadecimal and get to see various workable colour combinations to go with it. – Great tool converts CMYK or RBG (and other) colour systems to equivalents in well known paint ranges. Also helps look up complimentary colours and tells you the closest 'web safe' version of your chosen colour. – An online Pantone colour chart (oxymoron?), click to see colour fill the browser window, also shows CMYK and hexadecimal values. This isn't an official Pantone site. - Official Pantone apps, including one that looks up Pantone colours from CMYK/RGB. (Video of app) – No Pantone or CMYK values here but a fun colour gallery with images of rooms using your selected colour along with complimentary options if you want inspiration.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Incorporated! Becoming a kabushiki kaisha

It’s official, the business is incorporated! It took about 3 weeks in all, with the help of a fantastic lawyer to prepare and submit the documents.

The official seal (round), and the every-day seal (square)

It costs about 400,000 JPY including lawyer’s fees to incorporate as a kabushiki kaisha (stock corporation - the most common company type) in Japan - standard notarization fees are 52,020 JPY, registration duties are 150,000 JPY and there are some other sundries such as company seal creation in addition to the lawyer’s service fee. Though it is possible to prepare and submit the documents yourself, I felt it was more than worth it to have a lawyer's help for the process to happen quickly and efficiently, without the mistakes I undoubtedly would have made, and to be able to ask questions along the way.

Even with a lawyer’s help, there are certain things you will need to decide and prepare for the articles of incorporation to become a 株式会社 / kabushiki kaisha / joint stock corporation:
  • 会社名 / kaisha mei: company name 
  • 住所 / jyusho: company address 
  • 資本金額 / shihon kingaku: starting capital 
  • 代表取締役 / daihyou torishimariyaku: Representative Director 
  • 取締役 / torishimariyaku: Director 
  • 出資者 / shusshisha: investors 
  • 目的 / mokuteki: business activities 
  • 取締役の任期 / torishimariyaku no ninki: serving term of Directors 
  • 営業年度 / eigyo nendo: financial year
  • 定款 / teikan: articles of incorporation
  • 代表者印 / daihyoushain: company's representative seal, registered with the legal affairs bureau. Your most important company seal as it legally represents your company (also called 会社実印 / kaishajitsuin, or 社長印 / shachoin)
  • 会社印 / kaishain: corporate seal for every day use, stamping invoices etc.

Note that after incorporation there are a number of notifications that need to be submitted within specific time frames to the tax office by your accountant, and so you’ll probably want to be sourcing an accountant while you are undergoing the process of incorporation. TBEP have many good and often bilingual accountants to refer you to if you are not sure where to start.

For the company name, you could start by checking here (in Japanese) to see that no-one has already registered a business under the name you are considering. I have found that not all companies are listed in this database, but it's not a bad place to start.

For a more complete database and also bit of help deciding what you'll list up for your business activities, if your Japanese is quite good, consider registering with and have a look at the articles of incorporation for other companies. You'll need to know their company name and what region they are registered in, in order to look them up. You can also drop in your local legal affairs bureau and look up company records at their office, if you don't want to go to the trouble of registering with this site and wading through the kanji.

This site can be helpful to see what kinds of activities other companies have listed, and also includes the documents for companies that have since closed. You need to register a credit card to use the service, and wait for your user name to arrive through the post (snail mail!).

There is a small charge each time you request a pdf of a company’s incorporation document, and the system only keeps them in your account for a short time. When listing your planned business activities, the general advice is to be quite broad and extensive, as changes to your articles of incorporation later on will incur additional charges. Strictly speaking, you're not supposed to carry out any activities not covered by your incorporation document.

If you do not yet have an office address and don't want to/can't use your home address to register, some virtual offices allow you to use their address for setting up new companies, and for registering with bank accounts as well as serving as a mail box/mail forwarding service until you are set up at your new premises.

Regarding the financial year, you can choose to have it whenever you like. You don’t have to keep with end of March like most Japanese companies, and perhaps it will be better to have your year end at a time your accountant will be less busy with other year end accounts. Another important consideration is that setting your year end to almost a full 12 months after your date of incorporation means that you have a couple of financial benefits – you have the longest period of time before your first corporate tax bill and you get to benefit from not paying consumption tax for a full 24 months (if your accountant has submitted the appropriate tax notifications for you, as these have effect for the first 2 financial years of your business).

Once you've decided the details of your articles of incorporation (in English or Japanese, depending on whether translation is included in the service you use) your lawyer will prepare the necessary documents for you and any other shareholders to stamp with your officially registered personal seals. You’ll need certifications from the ward office to prove your personal seal is registered with them as officially belonging to you (they take a copy of your stamp's impression and keep it on record).

With these documents submitted, you will now need to show proof of the starting capital for your company. A kabushiki kaisha can now be created with any amount of capital, but most small companies have between 3-million and 9.9-million yen. Note that you will need 5-million or more if you are going for a business manager/investor’s visa. Higher than 10-million yen takes you into a different tax bracket.

Since you won’t have a corporate bank account yet, you prove your capital using the passbook of your bank account. I used my Shinsen account which is online only, and so we proved the account was mine by using an official statement I requested printed on Shinsen headed paper for a previous month, and then a screenshot of recent transactions showing the amount of capital.

Somewhat strangely, this involved me having to withdraw the exact amount from my account and re-deposit it into the same account, so that the exact amount of capital was visible on one line on the screen shot.. Oh, and I had to do this physically, with the cash, at an ATM..!

If you are planning to withdraw and redeposit like this, do call the bank in advance, as certain branches don’t have millions of yen in cash available every day and may need to order it in for you, and they may also want you to book an appointment to do it. Similarly, if you’re planning to just transfer the amount in bulk to another account you own, make sure your daily transfer limit is set high enough in advance so everything will go smoothly. Finally, if there is more than one investor, you’ll need to transfer everyone’s contribution to one bank account.

Once you've submitted this proof of capital you can then start using it if you need to, to pay your lawyer etc. My lawyer’s incorporation package very handily included her sorting out the company seals for me too, and so once all the documents were submitted I just needed to wait for the update that everything was approved, and it was. Hurrah I say! Now we can start having serious fun :)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Are UK and Japanese Bramleys the same?

This is one of the most common questions among the Bramley aficionados here in Japan, and so I thought I'd do a small (and totally unscientific) test.

Lumpy, bobbly fruit vs. beautifully round orbs - which is which?

Here we have four randomly selected apples, roughly the same size. The two on the left are from an ASDA supermarket in the North West of England, and the two on the right are from Obuse, Japan.

At first glance you notice that the UK apples are very shiny - this is the wax that is applied to the skin which doesn't appear to be used on the Obuse fruits. The Japanese apples are also of a more uniform shape, almost perfectly round and much less bobbly.

The visual contrasts could be down to a cultural difference in how they are used. In the UK they are somewhat ubiquitous fayre, but in Japan they are still an exotic treat. Consider how Muji is quite the trendy design brand in the UK with just 12 stores (and is more expensive than in Japan) yet in Japan the 379 'no brand, quality goods' 無印良品 shop is in every medium sized train station and shopping area, and their goods carried in many convenience stores.

Another cultural difference is that fruit is often given as a gift in Japan, and so perhaps fruit is required to look exquisite here, in order to sell. Maybe they use the ugly fruit for wholesale and other purposes.

Incidentally, these bags of Bramleys (below) are of a more common size and colouring that you see in British supermarkets.

They are often bit smaller than Japanese ones and often have a little bit of blush on one side from the sun. They are currently £1.88/kg (just under 300 yen/kg) which is a little over a third of their price in Japan.

Cutting into the fruits you can see that the UK apples on the left seem to be a bit more open in the core - though, being a completely unscientific test, this could just be down to chance.

In the stewing down I found that the UK apples (again, 1st pic) fell more quickly into a puree and were perhaps slightly juicier. The Japanese apples (2nd pic) held their shape slightly longer.

Taste-wise, both raw and cooked, I found something slightly unexpected. The Obuse apples were possibly ever so slightly more tart than the UK apples, at least in these that were tested. I didn't expect this because I thought the warmer Japanese weather would cause for riper, sweeter fruit but this doesn't appear to be the case in this particular test. Again, some of these differences could be accounted for by the difference in starting temperature, as my Japanese fruit came from the vegetable crisper of my fridge.. this is not a rigorous test.

Most importantly anyway, the Japanese fruits definitely have that distinctive Bramley taste and will satisfy that craving just as well as the ones from back home. Very similar, perhaps the same, certainly similar enough!

No soggy bottoms here!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Choosing a bank for a small business in Japan

I'm currently going through the process of incorporation with the help of a lawyer (updates to follow!). Once you're incorporated you can open a company bank account. I've been calling and visiting banks in Tokyo, looking into a few options and thought I'd share some of the findings.

Firstly, opening a bank account for a business in Japan usually requires a kind of 'applying to apply' - a vetting procedure, through which some applicants will be rejected. It is an anti-fraud measure, and is all about proving that you are a legitimate business.

There are two main types of high-street bank in Japan 都市銀行 / toshi ginko "mega banks" like Mizuho and Resona, and 地方銀行 / chihou ginko (or 第二地方銀行 / dai ni chihou ginko) which are regional banks such as Chiba Ginko or Kansai Urban Ginko. According to this (other and very informative) blog about setting up a business in Japan, the mega banks currently appear to be less difficult to get an account with than the regional banks.

In either case, initial documents to submit for opening a business bank account in Japan usually include the following (though they will of course will vary by bank):
  • 履歴事項全部証明書 / rireki jikou zenbu shoumeisho - Certificate showing the complete records of your company to-date, from your local legal affairs bureau (法務局 / houmukyoku).
  • 法人の印鑑証明書 / houjin no inkan shoumeisho - Official company seal certificate, also from the legal affairs bureau from within the last 3 months.
  • ご本人を確認する公的資料 / go honnin wo kakuninsuru kouteki shiryou - Officially recognised proof of identity of the person submitting the application (such as a driver's license or Japanese medical insurance card).
  • 社員証等 / shainsho tou - Proof that you are employed by your company (company ID card, a business card, possibly a copy of your contract or employment agreement - 雇用証明書 / koyou shoumeisho or certificate of enrollment 在籍証明書 / zaiseki shoumeisho - especially if you're a small company and don't have an official company ID card).
The above listed documents should be originals rather than copies. If the company is new, they are also likely to ask for the following:
  • 定款の写し / teiken no utushi - Copy of your certificate of incorporation.
  • 法人設立届出書 / houjin setsuritsu todokedesho - notification of incorporation as submitted to the tax office, probably by your accountant when you incorporated.
  • 給与支払事務所等の開設届出書 / kyuryou shiharai jimusho tou no kaisetsu todokedesho - the tax report for commencement of payroll as submitted to the tax office by your accountant when you incorporated.
  • An explanation of your company's activities and what you plan to use the bank account for.
Once they've had a look at these (which I believe can take up to 2-weeks), they may contact you for additional information to help your application - this could be administration documents such as invoices/purchase orders, pay slips, or promotional materials such as company brochures, and even to see the tenancy agreement for your premises, or actual products you make or sell etc.

If you are successful in applying you will be able to go and pick up your bank book and open your account. If your application is rejected then try to find out why and try again at a different bank, as requirements vary.

Depending on the size of your business and what you do, there will be various things to consider when choosing who to try applying with first:

Japanese Q+A sites often recommend that small business owners just choose the bank that is closest to your business, as you may have to (or want to) physically visit the bank to make transfers and do payroll etc. Indeed, closeness is usually a requirement from the bank too - if you want to open a Mizuho account for example you will need to go to the nearest branch to your company address for them to accept your application. If you are using a virtual office, make sure to check your plan's details to see if you are allowed to use that address to open a bank account.

Aside from location then, here are some additional points you may want to consider and ask your prospective bank about, or discuss with your accountant:
  • What are the fees for making domestic bank transfers? (Compare wire transfer charges for the same vs. other banks)
  • What are the fees for sending and receiving international bank transfers?
  • Do they have good ATM coverage in your area, what are the daily transfer limit options and transaction fees at ATMs?
  • Will you need online banking, is there a monthly fee for the service? 
  • Will it be easy for your customers to do bank transfers to this bank (does it show up on the bank list of your personal online banking for example)?
  • Is there a fee for creating a cash card? Mizuho's cash card costs a one-off fee of 1,500 yen, MUFG cards are free.
  • Do they offer a corporate credit/debit card and is there a fee?
  • Can you check your account on your phone to quickly confirm payments received etc?
  • Do you have to keep a minimum amount in the account?
  • Can you set up auto payments/standing orders?
  • How do you pay salaries, and is there a limit on the number of staff for each service tier?
  • Will you need to export information directly to any accounting software?
  • Do they offer any financial advice for small businesses?
  • What are the company's future needs and ambitions? Will you be asking for a loan?

It's worth knowing that although there are usually no basic monthly costs for having a corporate bank account, Internet banking is usually an add-on service for the big banks, and is not included by default when you open an account. Differently to their personal Internet banking services, the high-street banks usually charge monthly fees for corporate Internet banking.

Here are a couple of the main "mega" Japanese banks, along with information about their online banking services for business:
Considering the free Internet banking 'light' service and no charge for a cash card, MUFG appears to be the least expensive option.

Another cheap and handy option could be using an Internet bank (often referred to as ネット銀行 or ネットバンク/ netto ginkou or nettobanku) where the monthly online banking service fees are often 0 yen, ATMs are widely available at convenience stores, and most of the transactions are also cheaper than the online banking services of regular high-street banks, as you can see if you enlarge the table below.

Comparing online bank transfer charges - click to enlarge

Here are a couple of the main Japanese online banks:

If you're a small business, the cost of making transfers for payroll, partners and suppliers can add up to a considerable expense - a company I know of in Tokyo with just under 10 staff spends an estimated 50,000 yen a year on transfer charges alone. In fact, some large Japanese firms have their new employees open a bank account with the same bank the company uses so that the company can benefit from reduced transfer costs.

Another advantage with using an online-only bank is that if you're wanting to set up a bank account before you've found a permanent location you could start off with an online bank and then open an account at a high-street bank once you know your new address.

However, bear in mind that depending who you plan to do business with, it is possible that having an account at a large high-street bank may feel more reassuring for your partners and customers than an online-only bank, this is probably the biggest down-side to consider. Some Internet banks such as Rakuten Bank also require that you have an existing high-street bank account before you can open a net-banking account with them.

This information was correct to the best of my understanding at the time of writing, but I imagine the fee data in particularly will quickly be out of date, so please do check the links to the banks' own sites for the latest figures.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Can Bramleys make it big in Japan?

I've done quite a few posts about how great I and members of the Bramley Apple Fan Club here in Japan think Bramley apples are, and about their story here, but what about Japan in general - what are the chances of these cooking apples being a hit over here?

Indeed, don't I have my work cut out for me in general, starting a business based around British sweets when so many of them are unknown here and not very, erm, 'elegant' in appearance?

Let's begin with the taste - I did a little experiment recently, sending a few pies to friends in Kyushu to see what they'd make of their first taste of Bramley apple pie. The feedback was mixed.. "certainly unique, I think I like it" but "too sour, almost like vinegar! The little kids couldn't eat it" gosh.

True, I'd held back a little on the sugar a little with the idea that Japanese people prefer subtly sweet desserts (甘さ控えめ / amasa hikaeme), but it certainly seems that further experimentation is needed. Comparing a few well known British chef's Bramley apple pie recipes, sugar ranges from 10-20% of the weight of prepared apples, though it of course also depends how tart your particular apples are to begin with and whether you add lemon juice to stop them browning etc.

At the recent Bramley apple lunch I sat next to a master pâtissier, owner of a famous French-style cake shop in Tokyo who has been using Bramley apples for 15 years. He said that using enough sugar with the Bramleys is important as it brings out their 'umami', and talked about how butter also enhances the natural sweetness in the apple.

It's going to be important to find just the right balance, as people with Bramley cravings would be most disappointed to have the unique flavour smothered in a sweetness too syrupy. Challenge!

How the pie is explained to customers will probably be the key to the chance of a positive first encounter - someone expecting American style apple pie might end up a bit shocked tasting a spoonful of British style pie. Like when I first tried kombucha - I was told it was "tea" and expected something astringent and bracing and had quite a shock with a mouthful of salty broth. If it had been described to me as tasting like soup I may have liked it immediately!

Additional challenges for apple pies and various rough-and-ready English desserts in Japan come from their appearance and use. My friends in Kyushu were concerned that people might not be able to cut neat slices out of the pie with the filling being puree rather than the slices of fruit that they are used to seeing in apple pie. Similarly, attendees at the Bramley lunch told Celia that things like the apples cooking down to a puree and juice/jam leaking from the top of the pie are often seen as failures in Japan - all things that are not problems at all for the enthusiastic British family waiting to dig-in after dinner.

Being unpretentious and not too fancy makes these desserts somehow more genuine, certainly more authentically British :) Are we too serious for frills, embarrassed by something too showy? The French friends in this funny and savagely-written article may have a point "This so-called 'baking' is not patisserie, it's masonry".

These kinds of dishes are firstly comfort foods in the UK, good honest treats made at home for sharing. In Japan however, perhaps more of my customers would be wanting to use them as gifts, and perhaps they'd prefer individual portions of something a bit neater-looking.

Still lots to think about and tinker with then, and I imagine that things will need to evolve during the course of the business too.

There is definitely something special about the flavour of Bramley though, and I think it will win many more Japanese fans - that balance of acidity and sweetness is mouth-wateringly craving-inducing once the taste has been acquired. After all, it has been charming people for over 200 years.

So yes, I can see Bramleys being fiercely popular with those people it wins over in Japan, though it might take a couple of encounters with the fruit to get there.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A real slice of Bramley apple history!

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to the annual ブラムリーを楽しむ会 / Buramuri wo tanoshimu kai / Bramley apple lunch held by the Japan Branch of the Royal Horticultural Society, Obuse town and the Bramley Apple Research Group - and there had an encounter with Bramley apple history!

Celia Steven, great-granddaughter of Henry Merryweather who was the first person to cultivate and sell the Bramley apple in the UK, was visiting Japan for the first time and attended the event which was lead by Mr Arai – the person who helped bring the first Bramley trees to Japan in tandem with the RHS 23 years ago.

Celia presents Arai-san with a "Southwell time" apple clock

Members of the Bramley Apple Fan Club who were instrumental in forming the connection with descendants of the Merryweather family were also present (see the fan club's report here in Japanese), along with eminent Japanese pâtissiers, food writers and British food and culture enthusiasts.

Celia is very active in the UK in the promotion and education about the Bramley apple and its history and has now also visited Obuse, the first home of Bramleys in Japan. There with the help of local schoolchildren she planted a tree, which will perhaps come to symbolise the growing bond between Obuse in Japan and Southwell in Nottinghamshire, the home of the first ever (and still living!) Bramley tree.

Celia-san, descendant of Henry Merryweather

Greeting the attendees, Celia gave a beautiful speech in Japanese and went on to talk about how warmly she and her family had been received in Japan, by Obuse town, various Bramley friends and even strangers in the street. It was very evident, she said, that the Bramley was very well loved in Japan by people such as the attendees of the lunch who had already encountered it, and that how it is used in all kinds of dishes here demonstrates its versatility and uniqueness as a fruit.

She was eager to take back to the UK and British schools stories of Obuse and Japan’s growing affection for the Bramley apple, to share some of the novel ways it is being used here, and to use the Bramley to strengthen the bond between the UK and Japan through things like activities with schools and cultural festivals.

Arai-san, the man who helped bring Bramleys to Japan

Another guest of honour at the event was Seiko Hirota a director at the RHSJ, who lead the toast resplendent in a Liberty apple patterned outfit. Hirota sensei was involved in the selection of the Bramley apple from among four possible cooking apple choices to be officially introduced to Japan for cultivation.

The toast was poetic, Hirota-sensei spoke of how the apple has been a powerful symbol in stories throughout history - Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the Judgement of Paris using a golden apple, the poisoned apple of Snow White, and now the Bramley with its unique charm and power to connect people.

Despite this power and ubiquity now in the UK much of the Bramley’s journey to-date feels almost serendipitous. Without the little girl Mary planting pips over 200 years ago, and without Henry Merryweather noticing the fruit they would not be around today in the UK, and without Arai-san wanting to bring the apple to Japan and the RHS selecting it above the competing fruit we would not be able to enjoy them here.

Our Bramley lunch menu, and recipe for the soup

Without further ado here are some of the dishes from the day's Bramley-packed lunch at Tokyo Station Hotel's Blanc Rouge restaurant. The menu was carefully designed so that fans of the Bramley could enjoy it in a variety of incarnations and so that Celia and family could try notes of Japanese cuisine and regional Shinshu produce from Nagano. (Incidentally Tokyo Station, rumoured to have been modeled after Amsterdam central station, has been beautifully renovated to celebrate it's 100th anniversary in 2014 and is well worth a look - and do look up!) :)

The starter was smoked salmon and grilled iwana from Shinshu (Nagano) with a Bramley sauce.

The chilled soup was from the recipe in the photo above, with both cooked and raw bramley prepared with yoghurt and white wine - an amazing taste, it was lovely. The main dish was Normandy style quail with dauphinoise potatoes and Bramley used in the sauce.

The dessert was gyuhi mochi forming a very delicate parcel containing Bramley, dainagon and chocolate, which was quite a unique flavour combination.

I was so excited to be there I'm ashamed to say that I forgot to take photos of the brioche amuse bouche and the wine. I talked so much in fact that I kept holding the waiters up..

After lunch those who wanted to hear more decamped to a small room for continued Bramley banter with Celia and Arai-san.

Decamped to a side room for a bit of post-lunch Bramley banter

Topics that came up included questions to Celia about how Bramleys are used in UK apart from pies and whether British men cook ("roast pork with apple sauce, apple crumble" and "some most definitely do" respectively). We also discussed the current 'Food is Great' campaign of the British Embassy in Japan which appears to be designed to address the troubled reputation of British food here.

Celia also gave top tips on how to judge an apple pie, having judged many competitions herself: "the apples are always great, judge the pastry. There are to be no soggy bottoms" It also became apparent that pie filling bubbling to the top of the pie or crumble is not necessarily seen as a baking failure in the UK as it might be in Japan, but rather gives the dish character.

When I first thrilled at my discovery of Bramley apples in Japan, I knew nothing of their fascinating history in the UK (despite having lived in Nottingham!) or their journey over here and who was involved. Imagine having to come all the way to Japan to learn about my own culture. :)

History, culture, and international relations are vibrantly alive in the Bramley story, and with such passionate advocates on its side we can look forward to see how the next chapter in the Bramley apple’s adventure will unfold (or unpeel? Sorry.. :) ).

Looking into the future... I mean, the ceiling of Tokyo station

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Field Trip! – Obuse Town, Nagano

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

As part of the 2013 Bramley Apple Tour I wrote about previously organised by the Japan branch of the Royal Horticultural Society we got to have a bit of a look around the atmospheric Obuse town centre and it was so pretty and interesting that I thought I’d do a bit of a write-up in case anyone else wanted to make a trip up there. There is also an excellent .pdf guide in English about Obuse here.

Bramley and a friend - the Obuse nasu

Going to Obuse can be a bit of a train geek’s dream – I didn’t think I was a train geek at all, but I was all 'wow!' and 'squee!’ on the way there, first on the shinkansen to Nagano, and then on a cute and dinky “romance car” style train with viewing cars at the front and back. It being during the week I got the whole observation car to myself. It was only a few hundred yen to get to Obuse from Nagano and quite bubble-era luxurious. There are regular trains on this line too, I was just lucky with timing. Oh, and no paying with suica cards on this line! Yes this was a proper field trip, with real tickets to be clipped by real station masters.

We were greeted by the tour leaders from Obuse-ya at the station and ferried by bus to a local restaurant called Hanaya (flower shop) which had a view onto a lush green English style garden, for the welcome greetings and a Bramley-themed lunch.

The food at Hanaya was outstanding, with innovative uses of Bramley apples and other local ingredients, such as a peculiarly rotund type of aubergine that is grown here. The meal started with a delicate salad with prosciutto and what seemed to be Bramley oroshi.

The soup was pumpkin potage with crab and Bramley.

I had chosen the fish course and it arrived as a pie that also contained Bramley apple and was served with a curry sauce and (partially concealed in this photo) a slice of Obuse aubergine painted with miso paste. This course was excellent.

Crepe with Bramley puree and ice cream.

After lunch we visited a miso factory and shop for our hands-on miso paste taiken! I had a vague notion that miso was a fermented bean product, and knew that I absolutely love it, particularly as soup, but I did not have a clue how it was made or that it was so easy.

We squished cooked soya beans into a paste, added lots of salt and malted rice / kome kouji / 米麹 along with some of the cooking water, and mixed well with our hands. We then took turns throwing big blobs of it into the base of a bucket until all our mixture was in the same pot, and this was to be stored for several months to ferment, at which point it will be posted to us.

Barrels and weights used in making miso

The gentleman from the miso shop who lead the activity explained that Japanese people are eating less traditional food than before and that the consumption of soy sauce (which the company also used to make) and miso is in decline. He mentioned various health benefits of miso including a study that suggested that it does not increase blood pressure, despite it being so salty (possibly due to the effect of fermentation with lactobacillus - this is unclear, or perhaps because salt might not actually lead to high blood pressure!). However the only conclusive study I was able to find about miso and blood pressure was done on rats rather than people. Either way it's tasty stuff and well worth eating regardless of possible special health benefits.

With many types of traditionally made miso taking months, even years to mature this is a real ‘slow food’, and with the koji fungus in the kome koji as a kind of 'starter' added to the mix, it struck me as being similar in some ways to sourdough bread. Fermented foods are enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the UK, perhaps miso will be part of the trend there too.

Buckets of different types of miso paste

The shop has excellent miso for sale (and online), indeed you can find Obuse miso all around the town. Speaking of which, in the afternoon after our trip to the Bramley orchard we had free time in the centre of the small town.

Miso shop near the factory

Aside from apples, chestnuts and miso, Obuse is famous for having the Hokusai-kan museum, which is home to many of Hokusai's famous prints and paintings and would be worth a trip on its own. The area around the museum is an extremely pretty and well-designed artistic impression of the historic town itself.

Many of the buildings are in fact new, but they have been made to have a traditional appearance. Some of the shops are a beautiful mix of old and new so it’s a lovely area to stroll about in, trying different flavours of ice cream, tasting sake and buying snacks to take home. I can imagine it would be quite busy during national holidays and certain times of the year. Another particularly nice area is around the sake brewery's 煙突 / entotsu  / chimney, which has a cute courtyard, entotsu cafe and some unique buildings.

We rounded off our whistle-stop tour of Obuse town with a visit to a well known patisserie, Rond-to, where we sampled a delicious French take on a Bramley apple cake. It’s an airy little cake shop with a café and a couple of seats outside in the European style. The property used to be a fish shop and so they had a lovely big kitchen where I could peak through at the staff having fun preparing items for the shop.

Other things in the area that I did not get chance to visit on this trip were the nearby winery, and a hospital with an interesting story connected to a bakery.

The story goes that there was a Canadian nurse working with tuberculosis patients at the Anglican Mission hospital here in Obuse in the 1930s. Apparently she liked English Chelsea buns, and missed being able to have them when she was in Japan. A local baker attempted to make the buns for her based on her description, but they weren't right. He tried many times without success before finally producing something so perfectly ‘Chelsea bun’ that it moved the nurse to tears. The hospital (still functioning) and the original bakery is still there to visit, and there is a lovely children’s book with the story that is written in English and Japanese.

International relations through baking, it's possible! :)

Bi-lingual story of Chelsea buns in Obuse

For even more information about Obuse and a local onsen listing have a look here.