Lead story June 2014

Brits lap up Tokyo treats

Japan fans buy quirky goods, services

  • Cat café launched in Shoreditch with crowdfunding campaign
  • Energy drink blends green tea with flavours of Britain such as rhubarb and pear
  • Cycle shop introduces practical, affordable mamachari in East London
  • Signature Japanese “cute” fashion and sweets sold online and at pop-up events
  • Culinary school teaches office workers about yuzu and miso

Japan is the source of so many bright ideas for products and services that it seems a downright waste not to share them with the rest of the world. This is precisely what British entrepreneurs who have been exposed to Japanese concepts are doing.

From cuisine through cycles and even animal cafés, bright ideas for a business premise that we take for granted here are gradually appearing across the UK as well.

Take Lauren Pears, for example.

Inspired by a visit to a cat café on a short trip to Tokyo in 2009, the feline-loving entrepreneur has transplanted the concept to London’s East End.

And the evidence, since the establishment opened in early March, suggests that she is on to a winner. Demand has been so high that Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium is booked solid through the end of October, and the online booking system has been overwhelmed.

Work on renovating the Shoreditch property that has become Britain’s first cat-themed café began in July last year—with more than 300 people quickly submitting job applications.

The positive initial response gave 30-year-old Pears confidence that the café would catch on with the public. That sentiment was further enhanced by a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign through the Indiegogo website. More than £108,000 was raised to launch the project.

“People are excited”, Pears told BCCJ ACUMEN. “There’s a lot of positivity and expectation”.

The proprietor, who was previously a developer of video games for the Sony Playstation, came up with the idea after returning from Tokyo. She noticed how frequently people petted cats on the streets of British towns.

“We chose Shoreditch because that is roughly where three of the top four most densely populated boroughs of London meet”, she said. “We figured that small housing means no pets.

“I’m not sure where the British tradition for loving their pets springs from, but I could speculate that in rural England, cats played a vital role in households, controlling rodents around livestock food supply”, she said. “Perhaps, in the course of time, they’ve become so integral to our lives that they now play a less functional and more emotional role, but one no less critical.

“The uncomplicated affection between an animal and a human can be very soothing”.
And the affection for cats does appear to be stronger than that for man’s traditional best friend, she pointed out, as a plan by another group to open a dog-themed café in Brixton flopped after failing to attract sufficient support.

The cat café charges £5 for a two-hour visit. It serves hot drinks and light snacks, including gluten-free, nut-free and vegan options. The 10 feline residents are abandoned cats and kittens that have been rescued.

“It is important to us to be a voice speaking out in favour of adoption”, Pears said. “It’s a core value of the business that we support animal rescue and animal welfare causes”.

And she is confident that a business which emerged in Japan, largely in response to the lack of space in an average urban home, will work in the UK.

“In London, the population is particularly transient, so people move frequently. A large proportion of city dwellers live in share-house arrangements, which makes keeping pets quite difficult. Also, many landlords don’t permit animals in their dwellings, and many dwellings are too small.

“Lastly, I think the people who really, really love animals can’t bear to keep one in their home if they know that they will be at work for long hours”, she added.

There is also evidence that petting animals is beneficial to human health. A study by the University of Hiroshima determined that looking at things that are appealing can help improve the performance of tasks that require careful attention. The report suggests this may be a result of a narrowed attention focus.

The animal café model appears to work in business terms, there being dozens of cat cafés operating across Japan as well as in Vienna and St. Petersburg.

Pears hopes to expand the business in the future and integrate the café with other elements of Japanese society.

“I admire the Japanese commitment to doing a job well”, she said. “When I visited, I never noticed a single person who did not appear to derive enjoyment from fulfilling their role, no matter how humble [it] may have been.

“If there’s another element of Japanese society I would like to incorporate into the Cat Emporium, it would be to demonstrate to my customers the kindness and solicitude that I experienced in Japan as a visitor”, she said.

Macha for the masses

Vivid Drinks founder James Shillcock

James Shillcock got his taste for one of Japan’s favourite beverages when he worked in a specialist teashop in London. The 26-year-old entrepreneur has blended macha tea with a range of equally traditional British flavours, including elderflower, pear, lime, honey and rhubarb. The brand is sold as Vivid Drinks.

“The reception when we first launched the range was just incredible, but I’m even more excited now that we’re coming into our first summer season”, Shillcock told BCCJ ACUMEN. “The rate of sales has been phenomenal—particularly because we have been working with a tiny budget and with virtually no promotion”.

Vivid Drinks’ products, which are made in Somerset with macha powder imported from southern Japan, are finding a firm following in Britain. The range is distributed in more than 200 shops across the UK, primarily independent health food outlets such as Planet Organic, as well as Waitrose supermarkets.

Green tea is winning over an international audience in part because of its reputation as a superfood that promotes energy—both physical and mental, thanks to its elevated levels of the amino-acid L-theanine. It also has more antioxidants than any other type of tea.

“What L-theanine does is release caffeine over a slightly longer period of time, which is why you get a sustained boost rather than the highs and lows that you can get with, say, coffee”, he said. “And that’s something we really want to focus on with our branding”.

Vivid Drinks’ products provide both health benefits and an energy boost, another aspect of the marketing message.

Studies have shown that green tea can help protect against heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well as help to shift the human body’s fat-fighting metabolism into a higher gear, Shillcock said.

The entrepreneur has high hopes for the brand and anticipates a release of additional flavours and products. He has planned his first trip to Japan for this summer.

“I want to go out and see the place where our tea comes from for myself”, he said.

Chariots of tyre

Mamachari are popular in London because they are rarely stolen.

Another long-time staple of Japan, the mamachari (mother’s chariot) bicycle, is now making inroads in the UK.

Renowned as being affordable, sturdy and suitable for anyone, Noah Fisher first gained an appreciation for the mamachari while teaching in Japan seven years ago.

A lifelong cycling enthusiast, 35-year-old Fisher opened Mamachari Bicycles in Dalston, East London, last year. His mission is to bring a different form of Japanese technology to Britain.

“I’ve worked in the bicycle industry on and off since 2001 and my wife, who is from China originally, grew up in Japan”, he said. “We lived in Japan in 2007 and, of course, I paid quite close attention to the bicycles and cycling culture”.

Back in London, he found himself lamenting the price of bikes in the UK with a customer of the bicycle store where he was working at the time, some years later. They were complaining about the lack of practical accessories on bikes, such as mudguards, a rear carrier, a front basket and so on.

“He casually suggested that someone ought to bring over a container load of £50 (at 2006 exchange-rate prices) mamachari”, Fisher said. “I realised that, compared with the same type of urban utility bicycle available here at the budget end of the market, the Japanese mamachari is built to a far higher standard than any British spec made-in-China model”.

Mamachari also incorporate all the features that make them perfect vehicles for doing the shopping, getting to the station, taking the children to nursery school and so on, Fisher said.

Yet another reason that they are popular for the mean streets of London is that mamachari are very rarely stolen, he added.

“We then went on a mission to find out more about them and approached several large Japanese manufacturers, but found that they had no interest in exporting their products to the UK.

“Determined to follow through with the idea, we began to research other sources of mamachari and found that there was a ready supply of used bikes which were sourced from local authorities,” he added. “All the bikes that are left attached to railings and at stations are confiscated, and end up at auction if the owners do not come to claim them”.

Fisher met with potential suppliers on a business trip to Japan at the end of 2012 and negotiated to buy up hundreds of abandoned bikes and ship them to the UK. All the bikes are then reconditioned and sold on from the shop.

Fisher chose to base his new business in East London after identifying a gap in the market for sturdy, reliable and practical bikes priced between £100 and £350.

“There are many shops and companies in East London selling cheap bikes, but most are either not fit for purpose—fashion fixies or refurbished racers—or are just poor quality machines”, he said.

“Those who know Japan and the mamachari are instantly nostalgic and start singing praise to beauty and practicality”, Fisher said. “The reaction of Japanese people is either of bemusement at the idea of importing mamachari or matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the sensibility of bringing them here”.

“People are often surprised that the bikes are Japanese”, he added. “The stereotypical view of Japan is that everything is super high-tech and modern. To learn that the Japanese have a tendency towards classic styling and ‘mid-tech’ functionality is surprising for most people who have not been to Japan”.

The average mamachari rider in London is 25 to 35 years old, cares about the environment, seeks out culture away from the mainstream, has probably had one or two bikes stolen previously and does not want to spend too much, said Fisher.

“People are amazed at the small innovations found on the bikes, such as fully automatic dynamo lights and self-locking stands”.

Cycling has become popular in London, helped in particular by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and a mayor, Boris Johnson, who is a huge advocate of cycling as a sustainable form of urban travel.

Demand for Fisher’s mamachari is consistently high and growing fast, he said, and there are plans to launch the company’s own brand of mamachari bikes next spring, as well as open a second store, perhaps in London or another bike-friendly city, such as Cambridge.

Harajuku girls, UK streets

Dreamy Bows customers are typically 16 to 25 years old.

Japanese cute (kawaii) is also chic in the UK, thanks in large part to Rosanna Mackney and her Dreamy Bows company.

Set up in April 2013, the Portsmouth-based firm imports fashion from Japan and sells the clothing through its website or pop-up shops at events around the UK and in Continental Europe, including the Hyper Japan convention in London and Japan Expo Paris.

“Our Dreamy Bows customers are typically 16 to 25 years old and almost solely female”, said Mackney, who previously created the parallel Tofu Cute website to market Japanese sweets.

“I believe these products appeal to British consumers because they are so hard to find in the UK”, she told BCCJ ACUMEN. “Most people with an interest in Japanese culture who have attempted to purchase products directly from Japan would have experienced the difficulties involved with this—high shipping costs, customs charges and so on.

The care and attention to detail lavished on products’ packaging and design make them instantly appealing to consumers who have never seen anything similar before.

“Online sales have been increasing and we are on the cusp of opening up our first physical store, in our hometown of Portsmouth”, Mackney said.

“We also intend to increase our brand portfolio and product range for both companies”, she added. “Importing in increasingly higher quantities allows us to increase our margins and, therefore, be able to offer a wider range of products at wholesale prices”.

Rob Fulton, import and export manager for Tofu Cute, agrees that “People in the UK are really excited about Japanese confectionary”.

“The way that packaging is designed in Japan is unique in the world”, Fulton said. “A lot of thought goes into the design process, with a focus on colour and character. In the West, the focus is more on brands and making sure that the name of the product is very clear. Japanese products have a very high focus on detail, which is important”.

He is convinced that Japanese pop culture has huge potential among consumers in Europe.

“Quite a few people I know have moved to Japan to start a new life for themselves and I think there is a growing desire to visit Japan, especially within the 16–25 age group.

“There are a lot more television programmes that feature aspects of Japanese life and more Japanese restaurants opening in the UK. I also think that the increase of social networking across the world means that pop culture that is interesting and different to us gets more coverage than ever before”, he said.

Washoku at home

The sushi-making class is a favourite among students.

It’s not just Brits who have recognised the virtues and values of Japanese culture back in the UK. Three Japanese businessmen have teamed up to launch London’s first Japanese culinary education venue.

The Sozai Cooking School opened in February of last year, close to Liverpool Street Station and the financial centre of the city.

“We all felt that the time had come to meet the desire of office workers to learn how to cook in the Japanese way”, said Tetsuro Hama, who opened one of Britain’s first Japanese restaurants, named So, in 1973.

“We realised that there are no cooking schools for Japanese food in London, but we really believed that this could become popular among businesspeople in the city”, Hama said.

He launched the concept with Akitoshi Handa, who has lived in London since 1985 and owns a PR and advertising agency close to Liverpool Street, and Takeru Kurihara, a self-confessed food fanatic, who takes on the day-to-day running of the school.

“We offer a variety of classes, most of them fairly straightforward meals that are easy to learn, even for people who have never cooked before”, Hama told BCCJ ACUMEN.

“People can pick and choose the areas they are interested in and we have found that demand is increasing constantly, especially for corporate team-building events”, he added.

Sadly, most Brits’ knowledge of Japanese cuisine is limited to sushi, but Hama, Kurihara and Handa are opening UK residents’ eyes to all the wondrous possibilities that exist in the Japanese kitchen.

“Interest in other dishes is increasing, especially when someone comes along to one of our classes and realises that there is a huge variety of dishes to learn about”, Hama said.

Demand is so high at Hama’s So Restaurant that the trio behind the project is looking for an additional venue. Bespoke cookery events for private and corporate clients are also booming.

“Japanese cuisine is understood to be very healthy and part of a good diet, but we have also been helped by the huge increase in Japanese restaurants. Washoku joining the United Nations’ Intangible Cultural Heritage list also helps”, Hama said.

More recently, ramen is beginning to find its feet in the UK market, and celebrity chefs are coming out in support of Japanese cuisine.

“We held a washoku event at the Japanese embassy in February and a number of famous chefs came over from Japan, along with Heston Blumenthal [of the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant]”, said Hama. “He talked a lot about his passion for Japanese food. We find that a lot of Michelin-starred chefs are very keen to use traditional Japanese ingredients, such as yuzu and miso”.