I like my soup like my laughter: canned

It’s gotten cold in Tokyo: not arctic cold, but enough to make everyone a little grumpy.

The perfect fix: hot tomato soup, just like Mama used to make!  I’m assuming your Mama made soup in a gigantic industrial vat, poured it into 200ml ring-pull cans and sold it to her children from vending machines.

For the princely sum of 120 yen, you can be quaffing a hot can of vended tomato soup in seconds.  And how is it?  Not too bad at all!

Sadly, while you can find hot corn soup in vending machines everywhere, I’ve only found this tomato soup in one vending machine in the whole of Tokyo, whose location I have promptly forgotten.

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Monkeys: snow edition

Snow monkeys!  I’ve been waiting to see them for the whole 3.75 years I’ve been in Japan.  It was worth the wait.

The “snow monkeys” are actually Japanese Macaque, famous for spending a good amount of their spare time in natural hot springs.  I believe there is a statutory requirement that any traveloge about Japan feature them, so likely you know what I’m talking about.  Interestingly, ask Japanese people about them, and chances are they won’t have heard of them at all.  For some reason, it’s chiefly foreigners who have this fascination.

The place to see these monkeys is Jikokutani (Hell Valley) in Nagano prefecture.  It was a very cold day in Hell Valley indeed:

When you get through the entrance and into the park proper, you’re instantly in the thick of a troop of 200 monkeys.  They live in a complex social hierarchy, having a strict pecking order…

Look, you can learn about how fascinating the Macaque monkeys are on Wikipedia.  It really is a delight, though, to be able to walk right into the middle of their society and have them go about their business, seemingly oblivious to all the foreigners with DSLR camera roaming around.  There are some highly complex simian interactions going on, obvious even to the least David Attenborough-like of us.

If you ever go there, some advice.  The monkeys are wild, but co-exist with the gawking humans around them extremely well. They ignore you for the most part, but don’t make eye contact too much – they’ll start hissing and generally being grumpy.  Strangely, they don’t seem to mind flashes.  If I was aggressively strobed by amateur photographers while trying to take a bath, I know I’d be one angry monkey. I tried to refrain from using flash in the following photos.

The next photo is what happens if you’re standing next to someone getting a little closer than a monkey likes it.  Not photographable: loud shrieking.

A highly recommended experience. The more snow, the more monkeys you’ll see in the hot spring, so time your trip well!

The cheap beef bowl of doom

As your correspondent has written on this blog before, Tokyo isn’t nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be. You can live largish here on the cheap.  One reason? Deflation.

“Deflation?” you interject for the sake of narrative. “Awesome! Everything is cheap!”.  Actually, it’s not quite so awesome as that.

The Economics 101 class you mostly slept through taught you about price/wage spirals. One version goes like this.  For some reason – say, the end of a massive Japanese bubble economy in the 80’s – demand for goods falls, so prices get cheaper to attract customers. Manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits, so the amount of labour they can support falls. Competition for fewer jobs among workers increases, so workers are prepared to accept lower wages. With lower wages, consumers can’t buy as many goods, so demand for goods falls. Prices get cheaper, so manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits… and so on.

So what does this mean? Cheap beef bowls! The prices at Yoshinoya, the ubiquitous beef bowl chain, are a sign of the times.  By way of introduction, Yoshinoya is a great after-work dining choice for the illiterate and terminally single. Buy a ticket from a vending machine, hand it wordlessly to the attendant.  Inside a minute, he sets a tray in front of you with a steaming bowl of fried beef on a heaping of rice, along with pickles and miso soup. You eat it under a blanket of silence broken only by the dreary muzak.  You finish your complementary water, sitting alongside the clientele of exclusively male salarymen mournfully eating beside you.  You leave after the ten minutes it takes you to bolt it all down.  Utility eating at its finest.

Back to economics. When I came to Japan almost four years ago, you could buy the lonely set meal described above in Yoshinoya for about 580 yen (about $7 AUD). Now, the same set goes for about 500 yen ($6 AUD).  In the menu below, one of the bowls by itself starts at a very cheap $3.30 AUD.

The set below – a spicy Korean beef bowl plus vegetable miso soup and water – costs a grand total of 400 yen.  That’s around $4.80 AUD for a complete, filling meal, which is cheaper and nutritionally superior to what you can get at McDonalds.

Using the staple beef bowl as a price index is widely used as an informal economic indicator in Japan. If you want to read more about this exact topic, the New York Times has a feature which likely involves actual research and editing.