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  New Moomin Valley and Chic Starbucks Riverside -
   Architecture, Art and Economic Views

The new Moomin Valley Park, part of the Metsa Village, that opens this week is nicely built addition to the already lovely site in Hanno, one hour from Ikebukuro. It's commercial - as it as it should be - but simple and stylish, discretely built and nicely painted small wooden houses to fit in the nature with lake and forest to catch Nordic atmosphere so close to our buzzling metropolis of millions. Facility names like Uimahuone, Venelaituri and Lettula add to the Finnish touch. Moomin Museum that tells the story of the special cartoon character and its remarkable creator Tove Jansson is impressively designed - better than what I have seen in Finland. Could have stayed there much longer than our host allowed us.

With all the shops and 300 staff it's the biggest Finland-related investment here and offers all the right ingredients to the Mooomin crazy Japanese. No wonder it created much attention already in advance: one morning-TV channel ranked it the No.2 news of the day, well ahead of Ghosn-san release from jail same day.


To explore further what's new in Tokyo, I took following day a walk to Nakameguro by the pretty Meguro riverside to see "Amu Inspiration Lounge" or new Starbucks "Reserve Roastery", that was opened the week before. It follows the new upmarket style set up by the company in New York, but the self-standing building in "Nakame" is discreet, not glitzy, as it is designed by Kengo Kuma, the hottest architect in Japan today. As expected, the outside was decorated with his signature wooden eves like his new National Stadium and they looked good. Cannot comment the inside decor of the spacious main room that rises up 3 floors as the waiting line was over 100 people long – a common phenomena in Tokyo always with hot new attractions. Maybe after 3-4 months it will be easier to get in for the JPY 1200 cup of freshly roasted coffee from hand selected beans at the spot. It's a price I've never paid for coffee, but seems just about everybody want to experience it.

In fact, the entire Nakameguro area has changed from hippy, half-rotten old buildings with cheap eateries to a leafy promenade with "village atmosphere" with chic boutiques, small restaurants and "village atmosphere" like the long fashionable Daikanyama near-by. In two weeks' time you can pack in there with big crowds to see the blooming lines of sakura trees on each side of the river and grab the obligatory plastic flute of cheap bubbly from one of the outside stands at same price you pay for a bottle in store.


Another ongoing project from Kuma-san is the new JR station in Takanawa next to Shinagawa. For an inside look there we have to wait until next year, but seen from passing train, it looks like wood is used there, too, to make the concrete and steel frame – necessary for quake safety - look softer. As well, you can think about what a huge task it will be for the railway company to change its multiple lines, at least half a dozen pairs of tracks, now all passing by, to divert to the new building overnight. Bet you it must be done in one night only as stopping trafffic for days would cause inconvenience affecting a million commuters.

Kuma-san is still in middle of his hottest creative period, so he has not yet won Pritzker price, often called the Nobel of architecture. During Pritzker's 40 years, 8 Japanese architects have won the prize with Arata Izozaki being the latest addition last week – the previous one was Shigeru Ban in 2014.

Izozaki-san, 87, likes to say he started his career in "ground zero" as his hometown Oita was entirely destructed by US bombing. He has excelled in big monumental buildings overseas: most well-known include Sant Jordi gymnastic hall for Barcelona olympics, Shenzen Cultural Center, Beijing Museum of Fine Arts and Allianz Tower in Milan. The first one is a reminder of his great teacher Kenzo Tange, Pritzker winner in 1987, whose Yoyogi Gymnastic Hall for the 1964 olympics is still to my mind the most exquisite piece of modern architecture in Tokyo.

If you are into architecture, there's two good exhibitions of past masters in town now: Le Corbusier in Ueno Museum of Western Art and our own Alvar Aalto at Tokyo Station Gallery. For other art, don't miss the last days of the Hokusai exhibition in Roppongi Hills, extended by popular demand. It gives you a totally new view of this past master of "ukiyo-e", probably the most well-known Japanese artist overseas. While Hokusaifs most well-known pieces have been worn out in calendars, coffee cups and other tourist souvenirs, the Roppongi exhibition shows a wide selection of different works from sumi graphics and paintings to book illustrations and manga series from this immensely productive creator. The total number of his works extend to thousands. Tove Jansson would have been impressed to see them, but wonder if she would have put up with the crowds there. Take this as warning.


The No.1 news on same day with Moomin was Seven-Eleven's announcement that it will allow its franchise manager to close their stores for the night – a big change that touches every consumer. The reason relates to the reality that many businesses are facing today: there simply is not enough work force to keep going. Now the ubiquitous konbini chain will be back to opening times set up in its original name.

Like back in the bubble time 30 years ago, Japanese workers are starting to chose where and when they want to work and hard work with low pay in uncomfortable hours are those that are off the list first. The average job availability is 1.62 jobs for every applicant, but in areas like retail, restaurants, construction, agriculture, fishing and child care it can be 3-5 available jobs for anybody willing to take them in in places like Tokyo. It is said that half a million people, espcially women, left their jobs in January to look for something nicer with better pay. The new law to allow non-professional foreigners to work in Japan - for the first time ever – in aforementioned specific industries will go into force next month. I have my doubts how much it will improve the situation – and how many problems it will create with language problems and mistreatment by "black companies".

Government corrected the Oct-Dec GDP growth figure up to 1.9% annual speed in line with analysts' calculations despite exports pointing down from China decline. The bright points were corporate investment rising to 2.7% up and saggy consumer demand recovering with December bonuses to 0.4% up for the full quarter. Consumers seemed to remain positive in January with spending rising 2% from a year ago.

Yet, there are dark clouds in the air with forward looking business expectations falling another 2.7% in January prompting Cabinet Office to admit that this could be "signal for possible turning point". The slow, but consistent recovery has prevailed since 2012, the longest consecutive time in entire post-war period.

Meanwhile, it seems "the deflation mindset" that BOJ has fought with its expansive monetary policy all that time is only gaining firmer hold. I wonder how much media impacts the consumer views: price increase announcements are still treated like rarities, almost criminal. Every price increase announced by companies in simple things like milk, soft drink, chocolade or canned fish is still Big News in NHK news followed by housemakers, who control the family purse.

Last week we got the news that sales at Torikizoku, chicken restaurant chain popular for its low prices, who dared to raise its prices just a little - for first time in 28 years! - has seen its sales literally collapse and will record an outright loss for FY2018. Salarymen, who must live on daily allowance from the ruler at home, have had to find even cheaper alternatives than Torizoku's average bill JPY 1000 (EUR 8) for full dinner.

BOJ's task to build up inflation expectations against such strong power has looked like the old story of Sisyphos doomed by the gods to try roll the heavy stone uphill without ever getting it there. Now the forward projections say that the tepid 0.9% rate achieved today might fall back to zero or outright deflation by summer as global oil prices are pointing down and Japan's super expensive mobile telephone bills will be cut by 30%.

It must be difficult for people living elsewhere to believe that consumers here have been paying average JPY 100,000 (EUR 800) per year for their mobile phone usage, something equivalent to 3% of average family spending. So it's good that the oligopoly of three big carriers finally takes another direction and I do not mind at all that the change does not come from increased competition – even if it would have been preferable – but from Cabinet Secretary Suga's angry public statement after hearing complaints from Hokkaido earthquake survivors, that they could not afford to use their mobile phones after losing their homes and jobs. I do not think that Suga-san could think ahead to understand that his strong words would ironically work against his own Prime Minister's official inflation policy.

Finally, if this comes out on March 11 as planned, give a thought today to East Japan's 2011 big tsunami victims, the 20,000 that died or disappeared as well as thousands, who still live in "kasetsu", the 30 sqm prefabricated huts that were built to last just 2-3 years.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, March 11, 2019  

Previous Columns

11 March 2019
" New Moomin Valley and Chic Starbucks Riverside - Architecture, Art and Economic Views"

28 February 2019
" Finland's onmarch continue, Japanese companies awash in cash but Prime Minister's headaches grow"

19 February 2019
"Europe attracts, Brexit bites - consumers rule Japan"

6 February 2019
" Celebrity Cheers Boost Sales, Olympic Fever Gets a "Dent" and Government Data Doubted"

28 January 2019
"Virus and snow in Japan - heavy turbulence outside"

16 January 2019
"New Year News Review"

19 December 2018
"Japan: The Only Safe Place From Global Turmoil?"

6 December 2018
"Political Theater at World Stage, Media Play in Nissan Case"

21 November 2018
"Different inroads into Japan: Finnish forest knowhow vs French corporate genius"

7 November 2018
"Moomin, Muji, Movies and Mobile Phone Fees"

29 October 2018
"Towards better world? Circular economy, collaboration with China"

15 October 2018
"Circular economy, fish market and construction boom"

2 October 2018
"Abe's "third reich": challenges abound"

17 September 2018
"From Osaka typhoon to Osaka fever - dark side and bright side of Japan"

6 September 2018
"Emperor: love, peace and reverence"

23 August 2018
"Summer heat, new scandals and export worries - but Tokyo is best"

8 August 2018
"Petty politicians, bungling bureaucrats and profitable business"

30 July 2018
"While we were on holiday"

17 June 2018
"From Singapore to soccer - wrapp up for summer"

11 June 2018
"Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo"

28 May 2018
"Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment"

17 May 2018
"Big Business in record results again, but consumer are not convinced - North Korea spectacle continues under Kim direction"

26 April 2018
"Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower"

17 April 2018
"Cruise missiles and cronyism, business boom, old people and sumo"

6 April 2018
"Mystery train and other unpredictable moves in geopolitics around Japan"

26 March 2018
"Trump Unchained and Abelympics – Can PM Make the Party?"

16 March 2018
"Anniversaries, updates, fallacies and deception"

5 March 2018

26 February 2018
"Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink"

14 February 2018
"Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle"

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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