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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012

JAPAN LITE

Who can afford a day on the beach?


"We went to the beach on the mainland," said a foreign friend, "and it wasn't very nice."

News photo
To sit at a table with a plank of wood balanced on two milk crates for seats costs ¥500 per person. AMY CHAVEZ

Why not? I wondered. The Seto Inland Sea has some great beaches.

"Well," she said, "first of all we had to pay ¥1,000 just to park the car. Then another ¥1,000 for a one-tatami mat size shade structure that would have protected us from the sun for only an hour or two before the afternoon rays would have come in anyway. The whole experience made going to the beach more like a business. We just wanted to hang out at the beach for a day!"

To Westerners, the beach is a place to go to enjoy the water, the sunshine, the sand between our toes. The last thing we think about is making sure we have enough money with us. Only if you wanted a lounge chair with an umbrella, or to eat in a seaside restaurant, would you consider taking money at all.

While the people on my island lament that the number of beachgoers declines each year, it's not all that surprising in the current economy. Going to the beach is not a cheap way to spend a day with the family.

On our island, there are no trees on the beach to use for shade and no one rents out lounge chairs with umbrellas. What they do rent out is shade structures.

If you haven't brought your own umbrella, you're likely to be paying for a spot under a huge tarp under which some ramshackle tables have been set up with bench chairs made from a beam of lumber balanced on top of a couple milk crates. No kidding. And you'll be among 50 other people under the same tarp. And for this, they'll charge you ¥500 per person. If you bring your own food and drinks, they'll charge you another ¥500 per person for mochikomi (BYO). So a family of five has just paid ¥5,000 to go sit under a tarp by the sea for a day and eat their own packed lunch. That's one expensive picnic. And even then you'll have to take your garbage home with you. Even the ants. But no, wait, there's more!

Surely the beach businesses can sell you something else. Want to rent a BBQ to grill your meat on? A homemade, half oil-barrel BBQ with charcoal for ¥2,500. Didn't bring a blow-up swimming ring? They'll rent you one for ¥500. Forgot to bring a changing room with you? No problem, you can use theirs. For ¥100. Need a shower after swimming in the salt water? You can take a cold one in a tiny cement block shower for ¥200 or a hot one in a tiny cement block for ¥300.

In Japan's benri de ii (convenient) society, you're paying for convenience more than services.

So it wasn't surprising that some Japanese beachgoers complained the other day that one of the businesses "wanted to charge us ¥1,000 to use their air compressor to inflate our banana boat!" They were taking turns, furiously working a hand pump they had brought with them. These people had already paid for space, for bringing their own food and for renting a BBQ. They had been pushed to the point of bursting.

It's no wonder fewer and fewer people come to the beach each year — who can afford it? The only thing free is the public toilet. Whoops — I hope I haven't given someone any ideas.

The beach businesses are, quite frankly, living in the past when people had plenty of money to spend. But these days what they are doing is "nickel and diming," a term coined in American English that refers to 5-cent and 10-cent pieces, which, while not worth much individually, can add up to a lot.

It seems to me that as an island, we should try to make things more affordable for our regular customers to encourage them to come back. Repeat customers are the backbone of any business. Throw in the changing room or shower for free to those who have paid for your shade structure, for example. Or throw in an extra swimming ring if they've already rented one.

Whereas Westerners tend to work on the principle of gaining a following one by one, the Japanese want groups. It's an all or nothing strategy. The truth is that there is far more money in groups: school groups, bonenkai (end of the year parties), shinenkai (beginning of the year parties), reunions, enkai (drinking parties), etc. It's big money, fast. Compared to group business, individuals are mendokusai (a hassle).

On the beach, the businesses prefer BBQ parties, company outings, student groups, or weekend clubs who will rent out an entire minshuku or ryokan for a night. What these businesses make on individuals seems like a mere pittance. So when things get tough, the businesses charge individuals more, rather than less.

One thing I've learned over the years is that the Japanese don't just want make money — they want to make lots of it.

That's why we can buy boat parts over the Internet from the U.S. for half the price it would cost us in Japan, even after we've paid the customs duty, Japanese sales tax, the shipping to have it delivered to our doorstep here. And these are boat parts that were originally made in Japan!

That's why you pay ¥200,000 to go to driving school in Japan to get your license, why you pay ¥240,000 to get a boat license, and why you pay ¥4,000 per person for a meal (drinks extra) in an aging minshuku while sitting in their dining room that looks and feels more like a cafeteria.

"I had a sign made for my English school," laments a foreign friend, "and they wanted ¥30,000 just for the design, which ended up featuring some stupid character that looked like Pac-Man."

Needless to say, he was not a return customer.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite


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