Bloomberg on mechanical tomb operator Nichiryoku


Bloomberg has an interesting article on Nichiryoku, a business offering “mechanical tombs” in Japan (and possibly Hong Kong in the near future):

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow was in Japan last week to visit Tokyo-based Nichiryoku Co.’s mechanized columbarium, as facilities used to store urns are known. Families swipe a smart card and the ashes of the deceased are lifted mechanically within 60 seconds from an underground vault, with 8,545 tomb spaces, to one of 10 viewing areas.

The seven-story building in central Yokohama, a port city 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Tokyo, uses less space per urn than a facility where all are on permanent display. Each tomb can hold as many as three urns and 95 percent are taken.

The Yokohama columbarium, built by Shimizu Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Murata Machinery Ltd., was the first of its kind, according to Nichiryoku. Since then, the company has built three more in Japan, and rival companies are doing the same, according to employees who guided York’s tour.

“Usually these things are handled by local priests and temples, and in our case we also cooperated with a local temple to open this facility,” said Hisayoshi Teramura, the company’s president. “It’s been a very successful venture for us and we’re getting interest from other cities.” A delegation from Shanghai visited last year and this year, he said.

Nichiryoku’s shares have gained 17 percent this year, against a 3.4 percent rise in the benchmark Topix index. Shares in the only Hong Kong-listed provider of funeral services, Sino- Life Group Ltd., have more than doubled since their debut Sept. 9. The company operates in Taiwan and is expanding into China, where growing wealth is fueling demand for traditional funerals.

At the Nichiryoku’s 24-hour Yokohama columbarium, urns are stored in a “tomb” box that slots into one of the designated viewing areas, decorated with a backdrop of floral designs including cherry blossoms, snowdrops, cosmos and roses. People can bring food and flowers, which must be removed when they leave — in contrast to the tradition of graveyards in China.

If people are supposed to bring offerings back home with them when they leave the columbarium, that’s not just different from the Chinese tradition, it’s a lot different from the typical Japanese graveyard as well.

But I quibble. I’ve never heard of anyone using such a facility, but I did just see an ad for Nichiryoku this morning. It’s a cheaper option than getting a family plot at a graveyard, so I can see why some would go for it.

I am kind of amazed that a tomb operator is listed on the stock market, though. Maybe as Japan gets older the death business will get more and more lucrative.

Muslim cemetery in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong over New Year’s, I hopped on board one of the island’s incredibly cheap streetcars and randomly rode from Central, the bustling business center of the city, to the quieter but still absurdly developed alcove of Happy Valley. The district is best known for its racecourse, which (not being a fan of equestrian sports) I first learned about from James Clavell’s very fun novel Noble House.

The name “Happy Valley” comes from the area’s use as a burial ground during the early days of the colony. As was the case in many tropical colonies (see Guns, Germs and Steel), the hot climate and marshy terrain of the island were quite incompatible with the Europeans moving in, and the resulting waves of diseases made Happy Valley one of the most populous areas of Hong Kong (if you’re counting corpses).

Even today, the cemeteries of Happy Valley are its most prominent and unique feature, next to the famous racecourse which is literally right across the street.

One of the more fascinating parts of the cemetery is the Muslim section, which happened to be open as I walked past. The headstones, dating from throughout Hong Kong’s history, are written in varying combinations of Arabic, Chinese and English.

The Muslim cemetery occupies a number of slopes wrapped around a hill, which makes it an excellent vantage point for viewing the lower, flatter Catholic cemetery below. Another case of awesome real estate wasted on dead people.

Hong Kong taxis and their Japan connection

During my New Year’s trip to Hong Kong, I managed to ride in a taxi only once. I was at Hong Kong International Airport and I needed to get to Mui Wo on the other side of the island of Lantau, where I was spending the night. This required a fairly expensive ride up and down a giant mountain in the middle of the island, but fortunately I got to split the fare with a friendly Cathay Pacific pilot who didn’t want to wait for the next elusive blue taxi.

You see, in Hong Kong, there are three kinds of taxis. In central Hong Kong and Kowloon, the most developed parts, you mostly see “red taxis” which are licensed to serve the urban center. In the New Territories to the north, you see “green taxis” which are limited to the New Territories. Lantau likewise has its own fleet of “blue taxis.” If you are traveling solely on Lantau, your only option is the blue taxi: a red or green taxi is not allowed to carry you. Which is a shame because there are a LOT of red taxis at the airport.


I ended up calling a dispatcher (after waiting for a few minutes to see if a blue taxi would show up at random). Ten minutes later, a blue taxi showed up, and the pilot and I began a long trek across Lantau.

Most of the island is undeveloped mountains and hills, and the road crossing through the middle is in a never-ending process of being widened to two lanes. I learned from my traveling companion that driving is tightly restricted on Lantau, and even if you have a car there (which requires a special permit) you can’t drive it around during the day–only at night. The poor throughput on the mountain road was enough to convince me that said policy was justified.

Our journey gave me plenty of time to notice something odd about the cab. It used to be Japanese, and in fact it still had a few Japanese stickers in the window, including a peeling and somewhat outdated fare quote in yen.


It turns out that, at least according to Wikipedia, “almost all taxis in Hong Kong are Toyota Comfort“–the same model as the boxy taxis and police cars found all over Japan. After spotting this example, I spent quite some time getting intensely interested in Hong Kong taxis, and I noticed that this was not a one-off: many other Hong Kong taxis carry Japanese markings here and there. In some taxi windows, I could see spots where the stickers had been removed.

What led to this practice? I can’t say for sure, although I can give some plausible reasons.

  • One is that cars lose value pretty quickly in Japan because of stringent roadworthiness testing (“shaken“) requirements which make older cars prohibitively expensive to keep. As a result, exporting is a big business: a person who doesn’t want to pay for the inspection is often happy to sell their car to an exporter for a bargain price. Then the exporter can ship it to Australia, Russia, Hong Kong or elsewhere, sell it to a local and collect a tidy profit.
  • Hong Kong is also the closest left-hand drive territory to Japan, which makes it a natural market for used Japanese cars: they fit right in, much moreso than they would in Korea, Taiwan or mainland China (where people drive on the right).
  • Hong Kong shares the crowdedness and hilly terrain which Japanese taxis are (I assume) well designed to handle.

I’m sure there’s some funky tax or regulatory reason for this as well, which some friendly commenter will point out.

Anyway, Mui Wo, my final destination, was an odd corner of civilization, and it served to show me that even Hong Kong, the most modern and developed part of China, still has its little pockets of Third Worldliness.


Sociopolitical progress goes “moo”

The world explained by cows. A classic. My favorites:

CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.

HONG KONG CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax deduction for keeping five cows. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via a Panamanian intermediary to a Cayman Islands company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the right to all seven cows’ milk back to the listed company. The annual report says that the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. Meanwhile, you kill the two cows because of bad feng shui.

Shorter, and therefore less awesome, versions have floated around the ‘net for a while. What can I say, I’m a late adopter.

Japan Tourist Visa News

The Taipei Times is reporting that Japan is granting

visa-free privileges for Taiwanese tourists between March 25 and Sept. 25 will not be subject to any change despite protests from China.

Although currently only planned as a temporary measure, it may develop into a permanent policy of visa-free entry as citizens of many countries enjoy. As a US passport holder I can enter Japan for I believe 90 days (although I have only been there with a longer term visa), and Hong Kong citizens were granted a permanent exemption just last year. Both Taiwan and Korea currently allow Japanese tourists to enter without visas for a limited time, but the policy is not reciprocal. This may not be very fair, but I would imagine it is because those two countries are more interested in the economic benefits of tourists from Japan than vice-versa, something which is gradually changing.

Although a significant minority of Japanese citizens are opposed to an increase in foreign tourism (mainly due to incredibly misleading media reports on foreign crime), it seems that the government policy is strongly in favor of it.

When asked whether these visa exemptions might be extended to Chinese mainlanders, a Diet member replied “Due to a difference in the requirements for visas from Taiwan and China, we are unable to allow that.” What this really means is that they would be worried about illegal immigration from Chinese nationals overstaying visas but not particularly worried about visa overstayers from Taiwan or Korea, both countries whose standard of living is now close enough to that of Japan to lessen the temptation significantly.

Taiwanese and South Koreans form the two largest groups of tourists to Japan and rarely overstay visas, the paper said. [Taipei Times]

The article also mentions that

The Japanese government has to amend its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to implement a new visa policy for Taiwanese tourists.

The law stipulates that visa-exempt entry is only available to Japan’s diplomatic allies. Although a significant number of foreign tourists arriving in Japan are from Taiwan and South Korea, Japan cannot lift the present visa restrictions because of the law.

I imagine that the big problem with Taiwan is their quasi-statehood coming back to bite them in the ass again. As for Korea, I just realized I don’t know if they’re an official diplomatic ally of Japan. Does anyone out there have an idea?

Hong Kong City

Various photos of urban Hong Kong. The HSBC photo was discovered on my previous blog by a Hong Kong based PR firm that offered to buy it from me for use on some kind of promotional postcard, possibly for HSBC themselves.

Fortune Teller’s Tools
Taken February 28th 2004.

Temple Street is one of the main market areas in HK, with everything from fake name brand clothing to old fashioned Chinese fortune tellers like this. There are maybe a dozen fortune tellers clustered together where Temple Street passes by a small public park. Most of them have a sign advertising their services in six different languages.
In this picture, the sign in the background is written in Japanese – clearly for the benefit of tourists. Translated it says “Can speak Japanese. Palm-reading, Face Physiognomy{Divination by form, I’ve never heard of that before}, Fortune-telling, House Physiognomy {according to my dictionary, determining whether a house is lucky or unlucky based on it’s location, position and architectural plan using methods derived from the five classical Chinese elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water}.

Hong Kong Food

Snake Soup

After SARS came out a year ago newspapers worldwide were filled with stories about the eating habits of Southern China, particularly in Guangdong province (Canton), which is the area that Hong Kong was part of before it was split off into a British colony, and still has many cultural links to. I read a lot of stories about horrific semi-underground markets where one can purchase for consumption a whole range of animals from the most mundane such as chickens or pigs to exotic and often highly endangered animals, possibly stopping just short of the very well protected pandas. Well, with the relatively tight customs controls between the Hong Kong Semi Autonomous Region and the mainland no markets like that could possibly exist. While eating a large variety of animals has been part of Cantonese culture for a long time, in Hong Kong their options are very restricted and this snake soup is one of the few mildly outlandish things readily avaliable.
Continue reading Hong Kong Food