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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006

WEEK 3

KAETHE WOLFAHRT

Go shop where it's Christmas every day of the year


Staff writer

As memories of festive fun fade and the world returns to its regular routine, spare a thought for the man behind the all-year-round Christmas shop in Takanawa, near JR Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.

News photo
Happy shoppers (left and far left) peruse Yuletide knick-knacks at Kaethe Wolfahrt, popularly known as ``The Christmas Shop'' in Tokyo's upmarket Takanawa district.

What kind of lunatic would set up a store devoted to peddling Christmas merchandise year-round in a non-Christian country? The answer is a professional classical music conductor named Yuki Miyagi, who discovered such a Christmas-themed store in Rothenburg, Germany, in the late 1980s and resolved to bring the idea back to Japan.

Though his friends and acquaintances were quick to pour scorn on his idea, and tell him in no uncertain terms that "yule regret it," there was no way Miyagi was going to let such trifling barbs prevent him from implementing his plan.

"When I opened in Kamakura back in 1988, people would ask me how on earth I could turn a profit selling things for just one day in the year," he says. "To be honest, I didn't even know myself."

The gamble, though, has definitely paid off -- Miyagi's Christmas empire now includes stores in Kamakura and Karuizawa as well as the Takanawa branch that's tucked away in a residential neighborhood adjacent to a European-style restaurant, which also serves as a wedding venue.

Built in 1991 with the help of a German architect, The Christmas Shop in Takanawa spans three floors with more than 180 sq. meters of shop space. With a crisp white Nehru-collar shirt, black suit and distinguished mop of gray hair, Miyagi, 61, looks every bit the conductor. He is proud to trumpet that sales at the Christmas Shop are up 15 percent year-on-year, but is quick to admit that visitor numbers dwindle in the months following the big day itself.

"We don't make a profit in most months of the year, but sales in November and December balance that out," he says, adding that the least busy months are February and August -- and that around half his stores' annual sales are generated in the last two months of the year.

Indeed, the business model starts to seem less crazy given the fact that from the end of November right up to Christmas there are long lines outside the Takanawa branch. Inside, the number of customers at any one time is limited to around 70, and an extra three part-timers augment the regular staff of three.

Visiting the store on a January weekday found half a dozen customers browsing the baubles, toys and decorations. Thirty-five-year-old Manami Nagai, a smartly dressed young mother descending the steps from the third floor with a purchase in one arm and her 2-year-old daughter in the other, said she had come to find decorations for next Christmas. Asked how she learned about the hard-to-find store, she gestured toward two similarly well-attired, child-toting young women, saying, "My friends told me about it."

Word of mouth is a key part of owner Miyagi's marketing strategy. "Placing ads in magazines is so expensive," he says. "And besides, this is the kind of place that people want to tell their friends about."

The store is indeed something special. With an interior of German-style gables made by a team of German craftsmen flown in specially for the purpose, Kaethe Wolfahrt -- the official name for what is almost universally know as The Christmas Shop -- carries over 6,000 items, almost all of which are hand crafted by German artisans. Although Christmas ornaments and decorations make up the vast majority of the merchandise, wooden toys, cuckoo clocks, bags, tableware and other domestic items are also available at the store.

Miyagi travels to Germany on buying trips twice a year, and buys his stock mostly from small family businesses. That way, he says, he is able to source authentic crafts that can't be found anywhere else in Japan -- and by cutting out distributors, he is able to offer customers a very fair deal.

"People from the German Embassy told me these prices are crazy, much lower than in Europe," he says. "But by cutting out the middleman, we can still take a reasonable margin and sell at these prices."

And certainly, 6,000 yen for a wooden doll, 20,000 yen for a cuckoo clock, 600 yen for a Christmas tree ornament and 4,000 yen for a basket do seem like fair prices, considering that these and almost all the other goods on offer have been lovingly hand finished by Teutonic artisans.

At least, that is the way The Christmas Shop's thousands of loyal customers see it all year round.



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