A Rail Taste of Japan
The Noriyo Ozawa Basket Collection carries baskets in lightweight natural materials like wild vine and bamboo, crafted by highly-skilled Japanese artisans. The collection is curated by Ozawa, a celebrated stylist and writer on the Japanese art form of basketry.
Just like your typical handbag, the baskets are actually hardy enough for daily use and given the unique textures and shapes, may even serve as the perfect foil to your casual outfit.
Form and function aside, however, the exclusivity of the series may make one think twice about using it as an accessory for grocery shopping. JR-East Singapore marketing manager Lin Yi Xiu explained: “If you know about basket bags, they’re not just baskets. They get seasoned with use the way leather does. Although for such an expensive bag, you probably won’t use it to carry your groceries. Those who buy it will probably not bear to use it, but see it as more of a collector’s item.”
Other retailers would be hesitant at carrying such a bag, but not JR-East, which prides itself on immersing its visitors in all facets of Japanese culture. This explains why the basket collection was selected to kick off its retail selection despite its high price point, as it served as an exclusive introduction to Japanese artistry.
And the baskets do have their admirers. Lin shared that a lady in her 40s had recently purchased a basket, not because she knew of the Collection, but because she appreciated the craftsmanship that went into it.
Indeed, this same taste for the exquisiteness of Japanese art and living carries through in many aspects of the Japan Rail Cafe. Walking through the glass door brings one into a uniquely Japanese retail space, marked with an assortment of minimalist fashion clothing and neat rows of assorted beverages and snacks, most of which cannot be found anywhere else in Singapore.
The items are curated from JR East’s own retail outlets and shopping malls set within their train stations in Japan, giving locals here a taste of eki naka, which is a rising consumer phenomenon in Japan known as “in-station shopping”.
More commonly known for operating bullet trains in the east of Japan, the cafe is JR-East’s first foray overseas and also has a counter where visitors can conveniently book their train tickets for their next sojourn to Japan. It is easy to see why they chose Singapore, and Guoco Tower, as their maiden foreign venture. Given the perennial popularity of Japan as a holiday destination among Singaporeans, the space is an opportunity to give locals an authentic taste of Japan – something that the Japan Rail Cafe delivers with gusto.
Even the choice of location was intentional, with Guoco Tower being easily accessible for Singapore’s working crowd, who make up a large segment of Singaporean tourists to Japan.
While Japanese brands entering into foreign territories may try to cater to local tastes, Japan Rail Cafe delivers a full-bodied experience that is unapologetically Japanese. Signatures include an indulgent The Ultimate Burger with a premier wagyu beef patty, and the Kaisen Avocado Don which delivers umami heaven with its mix of salmon, scallops and avocado. Menus are imported from Japan subsidiaries and adhered to strictly instead of trying to accommodate local palettes. And certainly, precision is key.
“When our staff prepare a matcha latte, they are taught to use a measuring scale to weigh how much of each ingredient to add. Even the amount of ice and syrup are measured to the exact gram.”
As a one-stop service for its visitors to learn more about the country, the Japan Rail Cafe holds a monthly talkshow by local celebrity Hossan Leong that spotlights a different region of Japan each month, with a special emphasis on lesser-known undiscovered gems.
Comparing Singaporean travellers to their Korean or Hong Kong counterparts, Lin observed: “Singaporeans visiting Japan travel a longer distance to get there and pay more for their airfare. So they often go for longer trips, which is why we encourage them to explore more different places other than the usual Hokkaido or Osaka.”
So instead of the Tokyo Disneyland or Niseko ski trip itineraries, events held at Japan Rail Cafe uncover another side of the country for savvy travellers looking to go off the beaten track. In partnership with several Japanese prefectures, one such unique experience includes going fruits-picking in selected regions for an unconventional experience of country living.
This is right up the alley of Singapore’s growing ranks of savvy solo travellers who see their trips to Japan as much more than just an opportunity to take selfies at famed photo spots or to indulge in retail therapy.
“We introduce to them places they can’t easily find on website, and these are ulu places or activities that only the local Japanese would know,” said Lin on the gap that JR-East is looking to fill in the travel planning needs of Japan-loving Singaporeans.
“So when they travel to these places, they actually feel a sense of achievement.”