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Tag: "featured"

Google+ and Digital Trends

Google+ and digital trends for marketing, PR, advertising and salesGoogle built it and people are coming, well coming to create profiles anyway.

Google+ still feels pretty empty and only full of those who particularly like the sound of their own voices, but so far so good. The stats are reassuring so far and ‘everyone’ is talking about it. But will the ‘the people’ come, will they use it, and most importantly will they end up staying on it?

It remains an open question at the moment despite the huge amount of column inches written and an even greater amount of media speculation in the weeks since launch. Most of which, it’s fair to say, has been written by men and a great deal of it by the early adopters, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s ie Generation X, who appear to make up the bulk of the GooglePlusers so far.

Now forgive me for being unduly commercial here, but unfortunately the Gen X’s might make a lot of noise but there has never there been a more cash-starved generation in recent history – they are the true Squeeze Generation. Many are wrestling with high debt, high mortgages, high-maintenance offspring, rising cost of living (and the cost of educating said offspring in the UK), aging parents and a very difficult personal economic situation whereby most don’t have any savings or pensions.

Boomers and Seniors are in a much better state, generally, with more disposable income per head – in the US in 2011 the biggest age group is 50 and the 50+ age groups have $2.4 trillion in annual income, which accounts for 42% of all after-tax income. The Millennials aren’t doing so badly either if they are living with their parents ie the Boomerang generation, or being bank rolled by them, which seems to be a growing percentage, certainly in the UK.

So what do these top and tail generations all think about Google+?

If you ask your average CEO, teen or grandma about Google+ and she (she because 85% of brand buyers are women) will look at you blankly. All of the ones I asked are on Facebook, and they still looked at me blankly. Most haven’t even registered the furor and to be honest, none of them seemed that bothered. Now, I hate to get commercial and pedantic about this, and I know it was hardly a large sample and this was the general reaction to Facebook and Twitter in the early days, but this isn’t the early days of social media and so if we accept that they might just be representative, where does that leave us?

As a digital Consultant I spend a lot of time reading, researching and looking into the future at how things might pan out. At the moment I think there are a number of issues at play and no one can predict the way it’ll pan out with any confidence given Google’s weight and ability to influence users, but the strongest issues I have noted already are:

1. Mobile Creating Social Silo’s – most Millennials don’t use email except for sign ups and they bypass Search unless they are doing a school, uni or research project. They are surprisingly slow to adapt to new networks and most stick with what they know. Just because they ‘grew up with’ social media doesn’t mean they are quick to adapt or comfortable being early adopters. The way they use social media is also interesting – they frequently seem to adapt the way they use the site to do what they want it to do, so there is no added incentive for them to leave.

2. Habit. Most peeps haven’t the time to use more than two or three social networks and most are entrenched in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and struggle to keep up to date with those. Most ordinary people “CBA” (“can’t be arsed”; it’s a Millennial term apparently) it would appear, especially Boomers (who are surprisingly techno phobic or Millennials (who are surprisingly techno lazy). That leaves the smaller pool of generation X peeps, who are – hardly surprising – the ones rushing to use Google+. They like shiny new tools and tend to be mavericks – perfect for early adoption. Whether they will stick it out or whether it’ll be like Wave, Buzz, FriendFeed, Quora and all the rest that they have played with and abandoned, well that remains to be seen.

3. Gimmicks. So what if Google+ has Circles? Facebook has lists, as does Twitter. Few people use them. Trying to force people to use circles isn’t go to work outside of the uber-organized and geeks amongst us (and that does include me, yes). Why? CBA, mate. Especially Millennials. Don’t want your grandma or boss to see your drunk pictures? Unfriend them. Job done. Don’t want the boss or your parents to read your bitching? Use chat or IM. And ignore the fall out. Like wearing tights with holes in them, it really doesn’t seem to bother them what people think. Don’t like it? Tough.

4. Late to the Party. Google are, sorry, but they just are. Social Media is no longer the Wild West, it is accepted, integrated, corporate. People don’t like change but having adopted something they are then unwilling to give it up or change again, there’s just too much history. It’ll have to be forced down their throats, and if Google do that, they may just see most people start to avoid Search and anything ‘Google’ completely. Can they do that? On either side? Oh yes, they really can.

5. Marketplace. Google is obviously after advertising revenue (have you SEEN the vast expanse space it has built in everywhere on Google+?). They want brands in there selling and the people to come and buy from them. They also want to be able to sell advertising space. But to do that they need an audience that has disposable income. I refer you to the points above.

6. Impact on Marketing. Well it’s a game changer, that’s for sure. Demoting search for Twitter and Facebook is one thing, but it won’t stop people using them, just make marketers job more difficult unless they can persuade brands to completely buy into Facebook and Twitter… which they will have to do if that is where people are socializing and sharing and ultimately buying. So in a way Google’s actions may actually backfire because it’s going to be difficult to persuade brands to invest in a network when the actual people who buy are happily socializing elsewhere….Yep, welcome to silo world.

7. Impact on organic SEO. I think the temptation for Google to swing Search towards brands on Google+ is going to be nigh on impossible for them to resist. The trend we already see towards Social Shopping whereby you see what your friends recommend on Facebook is only going to accelerate and that’ll distort SEO as well. The business of SEO is going to get very messy and people may just give up on trying to make content or sites SEO friendly and just pay for social-site specific advertising instead.

So maybe advertising will be the game winner in all this, after all. Just not, perhaps, in the way Google are hoping. I am sure Google have done their research, but whether they have researched the right things or reached the right conclusions is another matter, and whether people (and businesses) will behave in the way Google wants them to is yet another matter altogether.


Ripe For The Picking

Country walks with the dog collecting wild foodFood for free is a passion of mine – I never walk the dog without a bag or two in my pocket in which to stash bounty. Whether it’s berries to make into jam, mushrooms for breakfast or nettle tips for soup, it all finds its way home.

It’s a hobby with a long legacy – my grandmother took me to collect cowslips and elderflower to make wine, blackberries to add to apple crumble, windfall plums for jam, and when she died I inherited her recipe book, a cornucopia of the delightful and, it has to said, the gruesome. For example, I’ve never quite had the courage to try her recipe for pig cheeks – the memory of half a pig’s head floating in a bucket in my grandma’s pantry and my sister’s resulting screams are more than enough to put me off!

However, when my husband and I got married we wanted an ‘old fashioned country wedding’, complete with ‘elderflower champagne’ for the guest cup (see below), and so out came Grandma’s little red book. The wedding was on August Bank Holiday Monday, giving us plenty of time to collect baskets and baskets of elderflowers through May and June, and allow it to ferment over the summer.

The weather was so hot, however, that the wine became what is known as ‘lively’ in the trade; it didn’t pour out of the bottles as much as leap, much to my husband-to-be’s increasing anxiety. Eventually he rang the venue, which advised him to bring the bottles in and let them chill down in their walk-in fridges. He reports that he never felt so worried in his life as he did driving 70 bottles of volatile home-made ‘elderflower champagne’ over road bumps through the middle of town in our convertible Triumph Herald – he was worried that he’d get arrested if one exploded!

Luckily all was well – on the day the corks flew over the nearby 10 foot hedge as soon as they were opened while the wine itself behaved perfectly and stayed in the bottle until it was poured, much to the delight of the guests, who couldn’t believe it was barely 1% alcohol, such was the bonhomie of the atmosphere. Magical stuff.

CrayfishOur daughters seem to have inherited, or perhaps just acquired, our liking for nature’s free treats – top of their summer weekend activities is crayfishing in the local (very clean) river. The ones that they are after are the large imported American crayfish, which are a pest, so the children are actually doing the environment a favour, as well as well as catching dinner. With bacon on the end of a weighted string, up to a couple of dozen of these beauties can be pulled out in a couple of hours with patience – some are no bigger than a robust tiger prawn, but others are as big as young lobster and just as ferocious! Best plunged in to a pan of boiling water or barbequed, and served warm with mayonnaise dip.

Spring and summer also bring free wild ratatouille ingredients, such as young dandelion leaves, nettle tips, deadnettle shoots, broom buds, and hawthorn buds (the fan shapes are so pretty). Many of these can also be eaten raw in a salad, especially tasty when mixed with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, clover and marigold petals.

Elderflowers are delicious in fritters (use the lightest of tempura batter) served with vanilla ice cream, while my children enjoy crystallising other edible flowers, such as violets (wonderful on white chocolate mousse), rose buds and petals, lilacs, apple blossom, and primroses, to add to the top of cakes and puddings, give away as gifts in fairy-sized boxes – or to just eat in one decadent picnic in the sunshine! We are blessed with a large rose garden and I use the deepest red rose petals to make a sumptious confiture de petal de rose recipe given to me by a French relative (see below).

But of all the seasons, autumn has got to be top of the list in sheer choice and abundance. Blackberrying is, of course, the staple activity, and tends to turn into a social gathering, with assorted uncles, aunts, friends and godmothers thrown in for good measure.

I still make Grandma’s apple and blackberry cake as a first choice, but over the years we have perfected our blackberry wine, discovered that pickled blackberries are delicious with Cheddar, and blackberry vodka a lovely (and very pretty) addition to the Christmas drink’s cabinet or gift boxes for special friends. I also sometimes mix blackberries with Japonica quince gathered from the bush at my parent’s house if it has a good year – it makes a glorious jelly with an exquisite perfume, simply moreish on hot buttered wholemeal toast.

We are lucky in that we are usually given a brace of pheasants each week during the season, and blackberry syrup is a wonderful accompaniment to the roasted bird, although rowan jelly is a nice alternative. The rowan tree is often the first to bear fruit in the autumn and is surprisingly common in towns as well as hedgerows – its clusters of orange berries can be skimmed off with a fork in the same way that you would tackle elderberries. The jelly is jewel red and quite sharp – perfect with rich meat or cheese of any sort.

Crab apple also makes a lovely jelly, especially as a Christmas gift when spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, while hedgerow jelly makes the best of any wild fruit you can find, including blackberries, hawthorns, bullaces (wild plums) crab apples, hips, and sloes.

Squashes are not always free but are usually available in such abundance that it feels criminal not to do something with them, especially after making Hallowe’en lanterns when all that pumpkin puree is on the verge of being thrown away.  My favourites here are pumpkin pie, made the American way and served with ice cream – people have been known to write from the other side of the world for my recipe – and pumpkin preserve, which is so pretty it seems almost criminal to eat it.

Chutneys are the other great harvest time bounty, and the choice can be almost overwhelming between what you can gather from free in the hedgerows and the surplus you will receive from neighbours and friends. One of our favourites is Irish Whiskey marrow chutney, a great way of using the ‘ones that got away’ in the courgette patch and apple orchard and, as it says on the label, mixed with a little Irish whiskey so it’s a great keeper that matures to a rich mellow finish perfect with cheese on Boxing Day.

Later in the autumn the nuts start to ripen, and we collect hazel nuts and sweet chestnuts when we walk home after school just as the dusk gathers in. Mostly these get eaten straight from the shell or husk, or roasted on the fire, but surplus might find its way into crunchy harvest butter made with wild plums or apples, later to be added to pies and tarts throughout the winter, and served with thick custard or crème fraiche.

And finally we come to mushrooms, an early morning treat these, gathered while walking the dog in the morning mist. My grandfather would put a bucket over favoured areas where horse mushrooms grew – he believed it made them grow sweeter and larger. They are certainly delicious fried straight up with bacon for a proper breakfast, as are spotted ink caps, which must be used almost immediately they are gathered (and obviously it’s important to know your mushrooms before you pick them).

Food for free is nature’s bounty, despite parts of our countryside having become so sterile and chemically-overloaded as a result of intensive farming and rationalisation – and it hardly needs saying to avoid areas of high pollution and chemicals when you are gathering your harvest. But with care you can still find a huge amount of food for free still thriving in the hedgerows, along abandoned railway cuttings and beside canals, and let’s face it, it only adds to the pleasure of the table to know that what you are about to eat didn’t have to be bought or grown.

Red roses make the best rose petal confitureJosette’s Confiture de Petal de Rose

Based on a kilo of petals (adjust as necessary)

• Non-chemically treated red rose petals – for preference use ones that are just about to drop as they are softer

• Place petals in the preserving pan

• Add a small amount of water – for a kilo for petals, use 300ml of water

Pectin sugar to your taste

• Bring to the boil for 7 minutes so they form a setting consistency, and then bottle in sterilised jars.

Elderflowers make a great prosecco type wineGrandma’s Elderflower Champagne

1 gallon cold water

1 ½ lb sugar

7 heads of elderflowers – make sure they are the really fragrant ones; some smell a little of cats, which isn’t nice. They are also better at the end of a hot sunny day.

2 lemons, sliced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

• Bring the water to the boil and pour over the sugar; when cold add the flowerheads, lemon slices and the white wine vinegar.

• Cover and leave to stand 24 hours.

• Syphon off and bottle, using strong bottles (ideally champagne bottles).

• Cork well as this wine is very fizzy, hence its name.

• Drink young, ideally within 6 months.

© Claire Burdett. First published in Woman’s World, January 2010.


Sevillian Festivals – The Holy and The Wild

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Festivals in Seville set the bar for Spanish festivals generally – they are intense and unforgettable. Just make sure you book your travel and hotel or accommodation well in advance, as they get really really packed.

Semana Santa

Important throughout Spain, Semana Santa, or Holy Week (Palm Sunday – Good Friday), is celebrated in intensely passionate and flamboyant style in Seville. Over a 100 incredibly intricate canopied pasos, or religious floats, each decorated with swathes of silver, candles and white flowers and bearing the figure of the Virgin, are carried through the city by hooded penitents. Many Sevillianos, especially the men, are visibly overcome, and the cries of guapa! (beautiful) echo through the early hours of Good Friday, when the final procession travels towards the Cathedral.

Feria de Abril

And two weeks later they’re at in again, but this time in celebration of dancing, drinking and having a wild time…yes, it’s the Seville fair, when flamenco dresses are worn by every local woman (and some visitors), the local men get to show off on their horses and carriages as Sevilliano society parades around the city each afternoon, and everyone stays up all night drinking rebujitos and dancing..and what dancing! If you thought you knew what dancing was since Brucie bought it back to our screens, think again! This is a revelation.

The Feria de Abril runs from 24-30 April and is centred on the barrio of Los Remedios on the far bank of the river. Book your hotel well in advance as the city gets packed!


Going Japanese: Trends in Consumerism

Japanese shopping street

Japanese shopping street

What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Probably a diverse mix of images: traditional Geishas, cherry blossom and tea ceremonies alongside humanoid robots, Anime and Manga, ultra-trendy urbanites, high-speed trains and high-tech consumerism, obviously.

No? Just the Tsunami? Time to look more closely.

History is an interesting phenomena, especially when you use it to track and predict future trends, whether financial, economic or cultural. One of the long established patterns in global history is that of the culture and developments of one part of human culture leading the other. One of these is the pattern of west leading east for 900 years and then it changing over so east leads west. At the moment the balance has just shifted and east is beginning to lead west.

So whatever is the latest must-have in Japan now, you can expect to find it, or a Europeanised variant, in a shop near you soon. And this isn’t just about the products, it’s also true of retail experiences and technology trends. Consequently a quick glance at Japan today could well offer us a window into our own future, so let’s take a peek…

Addicted to mobile

The mobile phone has become ubiquitous across the western world and we are all familiar with the incessant arrival of new functions and features: picture messaging, 3G, mobile Internet and mobile gaming, to name a few. But are you aware that these new advances typically start in Japan, where the youth are very responsive to mobile advances, enabling the operators to test and embed them here first.

Taking pictures of cherry blossom on mobile phones in JapanFor example, picture messaging became a standard part of life for Japanese teenagers back in 2003, well in advance of it taking off in Europe, and they continue to be one step ahead of us in terms of mobile phone design and function. And sticking with texting for a moment, the range of icons are mind blowing and many have crossed into general text language usage.

For example, the symbol for the astrological sign, Aquarius, which is two wavy lines one above the other, has become the symbol for ‘sea’. It’s a whole new world, especially when you consider that while we were getting excited about the 3G network a couple of years ago, Japan was already moving towards 4G.

Basically, in Japan, the mobile phone hasn’t been just a phone with address book and camera attached for years – it’s pretty much everything in one handy packet, from your TV to using it as debit or credit card to go shopping with, right through to playing Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.

Japanese mobiles make the iPhone look like something from the 20th century – in Japan you can use your phone as a train season ticket or plane ticket, pay on the internet with e-money or operate a vending machine. And in Japan, a vending machine is not just for crisps, chocolate and cans, but for products as diverse as eggs, umbrellas, fishing line and bait, toilet paper, kid’s toys, fresh noodles or flowers, fresh fried food, newspapers, flight insurance, alcohol of all types, porn, condoms and energy drinks, batteries, ice cream, and dry ice.

Egg vending machine in Japan

Egg vending machine

Japanese phones scan your fingerprints for automatic recognition, offer hard disc drives, pedometers, and read-aloud systems. In Japan you use your phone as standard to scan the barcode of any item in a retail store to find it on the Amazon site for less and order it instantly, use it to pay your bills, and even read mobile-phone books.

How are you reading today?

Teenagers in Japan are hooked on mobile-phone novels, with books being written specially for the small screen and sent in 1,600 character instalments. Sort of like Kindle, though not, Japanese cell phone novels phenomenon, known as keitai, has spawned its own mini genre and a clutch of keitai authors, of whom one, a 15-year-old from Tokyo who writes under the nom de plume Bunny, has sold over 110,000 paperback copies of her three-volume novel ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’, which was originally typed 1,000 characters at a time on the tiny cellular screen of her mobile phone. ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’ has so far grossed over $116,000.

Robots and Gadgets

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Futuristic electronic gadgets are synonymous with Japan and they continue to set the pace for the rest of the world, with no shortage of new robotic ideas coming through, including robotic vending machines.

Already popular are the talking translators, which go one step further than electronic translators to speak out the text for you. And a new addition to the Japanese iPod community is the ‘Miuro’, an iPod docking station that twists and rolls to iPod tunes and can also be programmed to roll into your bedroom and blast out tunes as your wakeup call.

The HRP-3 Promet Mk-II from Kawada Industries is very similar to Honda’s Asimo, both in appearance and in its ability to carry out a wide range of domestic tasks although far less cute and more scary-looking. However, its $3million price tag means it is probably reserved for the seriously rich gadget addict.

A mere $7,000 will buy you a Nuvo, which is aimed at the same niche as the ifBot and is billed by its manufacturer as ‘the humanoid robot for everyone’, and given Japan’s determination to create a new robotic world, we’re pretty sure that one day they really will become mainstream.

And with web 2.0 transforming our lives, robotic gadgets are also coming online to make our internet experience easier and more enjoyable, such as PaPeRo. This colourful little parrot-inspired robot sits on your desk and dictates everything you say before transforming it into internet content, a totally cute and original way of creating a truly dynamic virtual blog.
And then there is Lovotics, which builds n tehe advances with the cute and cuddly ‘gadgets’ to make love robots:

And have you seen the internet umbrella, Pileus?

Enjoy the rain

Pileus - internet umbrella

Pileus - internet umbrella

Developed by two students, the Pileus is not your everyday umbrella. It has a large screen on the top surface, a built-in camera, a motion sensor, GPS, and a digital compass, and it provides two main functions: social photo-sharing and a 3D map navigation.

The photo function is connected to Flickr.com, and enables the user to take photo with a camera on the umbrella, and upload the pictures to Flickr via a wifi connection. You can also watch photo-streams downloaded from Flickr, and video-stream from YouTube… so while boredom may not be a problem, walking in front of a bus might be. However, even if you do walk in front of a bus, at least you won’t be lost because the inbuilt 3D map navigation is powered by Google Earth. Detecting a location data from GPS, your umbrella will show you a 3D bird’s eye view of your surroundings so you can walk through a city comparing the 3D views and real sights, while navigating using your digital compass.

Ring ring baby

And another truly odd gadget is the ‘Ubi-Wa’. Its name has two meanings in Japanese: “finger ring” or “speak by finger”, and this is precisely what it allows you to do because, yep, it’s a ring that is a phone. Cleverly, the ‘Ubi-Wa’ converts vibrations, which travel down your hand and arm bones into your ear canal, into speech you can understand. It may be a bizarre gadget now, but given the rise and rise of girl power in Japan, it can only be a short amount of time before it becomes one of the must-have accessories.

Girl-power, Japanese style

In fact, girl-power is having a big impact in Japan, in particular schoolgirls and teenagers, who are the true arbiters of cool, and the Arasa, who are the 30-something single girls with spending power.

There are even shopping malls, such as Yurakucho Marui and Marronnier Gate in Tokyo, targeted exclusively at Arasa, and there is a rapid rise in brands directly appealing to this affluent market because they are all about fashion and luxury, which equals a lot more spending.

One retail experience in particular is focused on women – cosmetic sampling salons. Whether online or on the high street, Japanese women now have the opportunity to try before they buy. There are online clubs where women can sign-up to receive regular free samples in return for feedback; exclusive membership-only salons where members can test a wide range of products in luxurious surroundings; and high street testing shops without onsite sales counters or sales assistants, which just goes to prove what a technology-savvy generation this is.

The whole retail experience is, in fact, increasingly virtual. Japanese women have been quick to embrace mobile phone shopping enthusiastically, purchasing products ranging from CDs and DVDs to clothing and shoes from specially-targeted mobile browsing internet stores.

Anime and Manga

And it’s not just girl power in Japan, Okatu are also having an impact on retail trends. These are geeks who are devoted to the grown-up Japanese animated films and comic strips (think Hiro in ‘Heroes’). Many of them are hitting the silver-surfer zone and bringing some serious spending power with them. While many of the younger ones, who still live at home with their parents and so also have a lot of disposable income, are also joining the craze, with the biggest phenomenon at the moment being moe, which is basically an obsession with a particular type or character. Retailers are pandering to the moe as the consumers are willing to spend big bucks on their obsession. While alongside the inevitable rise of memorabilia is the growth of ‘maid-cafés’, where the waitresses are dressed in Anime- or Manga-inspired uniforms. While you may think this is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, experts are predicting that as Anime and Manga increase in popularity globally, so too moe will eventually go global too.

LOHAS: Going green

And just as here, so too in Japan, where ‘green’ is having an impact on retail habits and has even become fashionable. In fact, it’s so popular that the term LOHAS had entered common vernacular. Originally coined in the US, as an acronym for Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability, today in Japan LOHAS identifies anything that has an environmental or health benefit.

The Japanese car manufacturers are well known for leading the way, not least with the global fame of the Toyota Prius hybrid car. But what is probably less well known is their work on green materials for body shells, with a prototype car shown at the Aichi World Exposition in 2008, which has a body made out of kenaf, a plant-based material, also known as or Hibiscus Cannabinus. Toyota has been researching the use of kenaf in automotive applications for almost a decade now and currently kenaf is being used for components in a total of 27 car models, mainly high-end cars. While it may be a long way from total mass production, it’s a neat twist on eco-friendly car development.

While in the EU the green trend is to reduce, reuse, recycle, it should come as no surprise that in Japan, which is widely considered the ultimate consumer society, the general approach is consumerism with a bit of ecological conscience. Add to that their high-density living in big urban areas, which has led to a wealth of creativity when it comes to utilising small spaces and being economical with energy and natural sources, and you get some impressive solutions. For example, a current Japanese trend is for ‘Green Curtains’: growing plants on nets strung across the outside of buildings to provide natural air conditioning.

This has a double benefit: it increases the amount of plant-life in the urban area and also reduces the air-conditioning bill – saving both Yen and energy. Continuing the eco theme, there are vending machines where you can put your empty cans back in and get paid to do so, while Sanyo have brought out a washing machine that works without water. And then there’s the tankless toilet…

Flushing for Japan

In fact, toilets of all kinds are a Japanese obsession, probably because of their national focus on clean versus unclean and the conviction that clean is beautiful (one word can mean both). And they come in all types and size, although mostly small, owing to the compact apartments that most Japanese urban dwellers call home. As a solution to this there’s a popular model that enables you to wash your hands in the water that will be used for the next flush (totally hygienic, it simply fills into a basin in the top of the tank; it’s just cold) and then there’s the washlet, which is a near obsession in Japan, with more people owing one than a computer…er…what’s a washlet?

The king of toilets, the washlet is a bidet (two jets, one for women only, the other for everyone) in a toilet and much, much more… it also warms the seat for you (based on historical usage i.e. it monitors when you mostly go to the toilet and warms the seat at these times…), lifts the seat when you approach (one or both seats, depending on whether you are facing towards it or away from it), offers you music or sound effects while you perform your business (don’t forget how thin the walls are in Japanese apartments), self cleans, shuts the lids down again after flushing, and even monitors your pee and sends the data to your doctor for analysis…they really have thought of everything!

Into the West

So what do you think will make the leap from east to west? I’m not sure if it gets hot enough anywhere in the UK for ‘Green Curtains’ to take off, and I’m not sold on the tankless toilet either and think the washlet is more likely to make me feel nervous than reassured and pampered, but I reckon the mobile phone advances are a given, the water-free washing machine is a winner and I was totally wowed by the internet brolly. And I’m sure there’s much more still to come…

Love the future, love Japan.

© Claire Burdett 2008, updated 2011. First published in What’s the Future (WTF) Magazine.


White Hot and Cool

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

As technological advances push the boundaries of what is possible, our ability to enjoy the winter cold wherever we are increases apace. We now have the largest igloos ever known, carved from the ice and erected anew every year, machines that blast out snow where there isn’t any so we can ski whenever we want, and a London bar totally built and furnished from ice transported from Lapland.

Surreal? Yes, but very hot and very cool. See you there…

Would you like ice with that…?
The world’s first ice hotel, and still the most famous, is the one near the village of Jukkasjärvi in Sweden, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. In the winter of 1989, Japanese ice artists visited the area and created an exhibition of ice art and that spring, French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo in the area. One night there were no rooms available in the town, so some of the visitors asked for permission to spend the night in the exhibition hall. They slept in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skin – the first guests of the ‘hotel’.

The entire hotel only exists between December and April and is made completely out of ice blocks taken from the Torne River – even the glasses in the bar are made of ice, something that is replicated in the Absolute IceBar in London, see ‘Chill Out Zone’. The river is covered with an exceptionally clear meter-thick ice layer in winter, and it is this that is used to build and sculpt the ice hotel and the chapel anew every autumn. The latest incarnation has more than 80 rooms and suites, a bar, reception area, and church, and each room is unique, having been designed by a different designer.

Although the hotel itself has become very famous, it stands in what is still pristine wilderness. Around Jukkasjärvi there are vast forests and unclimbed mountains and in winter the white blanket of snow show the footprints from wild reindeer, moose, and wolves. Lapland stretches across four countries and is still the ancestral home of the Sami people, the original inhabitants. In the area around the Icehotel their traditional way of life continues relatively undisturbed by the amazing feat of engineering and technology that rises on the banks of the River Torne each autumn.

The experience of actually staying at the Icehotel is a surreal one, and pretty uncomfortable, truth be known. The hotel is never warmer than -5°C to -8°C inside, which actually feels warm compared with outside. The unique rooms are decorated with ice art and sculptures, and since it is a museum during the day (between 10am and 6pm) the rooms don’t feel ‘yours’ like they do in other hotels, especially as you can’t take your luggage in as it will freeze (the porter takes it to a special heated luggage area) and, apart from in the deluxe rooms, there are no doors, simply curtains. Thermal sleeping bags are provided, and you actually sleep on a bed made of a giant ice block topped with a thick mattress covered in reindeer skins.

Staff wake you in the morning with a mug of hot lingonberry juice, and there are heated washrooms and changing facilities, as well as morning sauna facilities, in the adjoining buildings, all of which is included in the package. The hotel has permanent chalets as well as the Icehotel, so you can stay for longer than a single night (trust us, one night in the Icehotel itself will probably be sufficient), and the hotel specializes in organizing winter adventures for their visitors, such as dog and reindeer sled trips, ice fishing, moose tracking, and the legendary winter ptarmigan hunt, which is conducted entirely on skis.

The ephemeral chapel has become a popular place for children to be baptized and couples to renew their wedding vows, and you can even choose to get married here if you want a wedding day that is truly memorable.

Chill Out Zone

Fancy that, but want a taste of it without having to pack up and travel to Lapland? Then you’re in luck, because the recently opened Absolute IceBar in Mayfair in London offers just that. A collaboration between Absolut and Icehotel, the IceBar is a -5°c vodka bar where everything from the bar stools to the glasses is carved entirely of crystal clear ice imported from the Torne River in Sweden. The £12 cover charge gets you entrance, one drink and 40 minutes in the bar. And there’s no need to wear your skiing gear because thermal parkas with attached gloves are provided. Fashionable they are not, but essential if you don’t want to be shivering within minutes of being allowed in through the air-locked entrance, which is specially designed to maintain the -5°C environment inside the bar.

The bar area is rather small, but that’s not an issue since the number of people inside at any one time is regulated (you’ll need to book in advance). The walls are all made of ice, as is the furniture including the telephone booth, and there are photo-opportunities galore, from kissing the statue of a man carved out of ice to toasting the bar staff in their Russian fur hats. The vodka-only menu (there are some alcohol-free drinks) is short, but all the drinks are quite complex (mine had blueberry liquor among other things) and are served in a hollowed-out cube of ice. While the allocated time span might seem short, it is actually quite generous because by the time you’ve finished your first drink (and no, the ice glass doesn’t melt when you hold it), the cold starts to set in and  you need to decide whether to grab a second (iced) drink or move on, perhaps next door to the more chic and warm Below Zero, the lounge and restaurant adjacent to the IceBar.

And yes, it is a bit gimmicky, but let’s face it, where else can you drink perfectly chilled vodka out if an ice goblet while wearing a giant thermal poncho and entombed in ice from Lapland while standing in the middle of London? Hats off to technology and go and experience it at least once.

The White Stuff

Whether you are a seasoned snow-bunny, have baby bunnies in tow, or are strictly aprés, we have rounded up 10 of the very best places to indulge your passion for the white stuff. You can go for black-run thrills, beginner’s lessons, a bespoke chalet party, or just about whatever takes your fancy so long as it involves snow. Santè!

1. Borovets, Bulgaria
Best for families on a budget

Situated in venerable pinewoods of the Rila mountains and the oldest Bulgarian winter resort, with a history dating from 1896, today Borovets is the biggest and most modern resort in Bulgaria. Brilliant for families on a budget, Borovets offers crèches and kindergartens, ski schools, and free lift passes for children aged 8-12, as well English-speaking instructors, traditional folk music and ‘horo’ dancing, barbeques, wine tasting, oh, and good value, very good, skiing for all levels and tastes, including a World Cup run behind the village, night-skiing and ski jumping. See www.inghams.com for more details.

2. Chalet La Sonnaille, Chatel Portes du Soleil, France
Best for a family house party

The Chalet La Sonnaille is a small, owner-run chalet in Chatel, an unspoilt village on the French/Swiss border that still has its Savoyarde farming village charm in shovel loads, with pretty, rustic looking chalets and hotels. The Chalet La Sonnaille is a favourite destination with families in the know, who describe it as “fabulous ‘bespoke’ skiing in a house party atmosphere”. Sleeping up to 12 adults and 12 children, if you go with just your immediate family the owners will make sure you are sharing with other families with kids of similar age, although it’s obviously much better fun if you fill the place with all your mates, especially as there is an outdoor jacuzzi, indoor sauna, adults-only lounge, and separate children’s playroom.

Childcare is provided in the chalet for young children and on the slopes with qualified instructors for older kids, with a flexible mix between the two. Book direct at www.snowfocus.com.

3. Bacqueira-Beret, Spain
Best for chilling out

Famous as the resort where the Spanish king and his family come to ski, the resort takes its name from the neighbouring traditional Spanish villages of Baqueira and Beret, and is hidden in a secluded Pyrenean valley some 160km from the nearest main airport. Once you’ve survived the hair-raising drive along narrow mountain roads amid spectacular scenery complete with shaggy ponies and cattle, you find a perfect gem of a skiing village. Stunningly beautiful and renowned for the wildlife and sunshine, it’s small, but perfectly formed, with intermediates having the best of the skiing – although for true snow bunnies there’s the infamous Escornacrabes run from the top of Cap Baqueira, a steep and narrow downhill plunge with a name that translates rather ominously as ‘the place where the goats die’! Once there, there’s a range of top class hotels to choose from, including one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, La Pleta, where you can relax in the on-site Spa Occitania. See www.exsus.com for details.

4. Krvavec, Slovenia
Best for snow bunnies

If short transfer times and maximum time on the slopes are the only things that really matter to you for a skiing break, then Krvavec in Slovenia beats other resorts standing. It has one of the world’s shortest transfer times from any city airport, at around 15 minutes from Ljubljana by taxi, followed by a seven minute gondola ride right on to the mountain. The wide open, varied alpine meadows at the edge of the Kalška mountain range, do not require a deep blanket of snow to create ideal skiing conditions, and with snow guns to ‘assist’ nature covering up to 90% of the trails, the season normally lasts 150 days and 100 days are guaranteed. See www.inghams.com for more details.

5. Banff, Canada
Best for sheer luxury

Pure unadulterated luxury seems strangely out of sync with the bustling and friendly little town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Set in the beautiful Banff National Park it’s not unusual to see elk and the occasional moose wandering the streets. However, luxury is provided in no small measure by top flight hotels including the five star Fairmont Banff Springs and the five star Rimrock Luxury Hotel, both offering spa treatments, steaming outdoor pools and hot tubs, and relaxing chill-out lounges. See www.igluski.com for more details.

6. Seefeld, Austria
Best for cross-country skiing

Seefeld is the home of cross-country skiing (“langlauf”) and is Austria’s leading cross-country resort, with an impressive 250kms of marked trails including the course designed for the 1976 Olympics and the 1985 world championships. The gentle incline to the slopes of Seefeld also make it a superb place to learn to ski. Seefeld’s position above the Inn Valley, close to Innsbruck, means you can get there is about half an hour from the airport, and there are excellent après facilities, including a huge selection of restaurants and the casino. See www.innsbruk-tourismus.com for more details.

7. Ischgl, Austria
Best for après ski

Set high up in the stunning Silvretta mountains, Ischgl has become the Alps’ party central. Concerts in the resort routinely feature A list performers, the nightclubs and bars are excellent, and it is true to say that the aprés-ski here is probably the best you’ll find anywhere – once you find out they have their very own Pacha nightclub, you know exactly what to expect! Top spots include the nightclub at the five star Trofana Royal and, obviously, Pacha at the exclusive designer hotel, Madlei, a mere 100m from the skiing track. See www.crystalski.co.uk for more details.

8. Soll, Austria
Best for beginners

Söll forms part of Austria’s large 250km linked ski and snowboard area, known as the Ski Welt, in the Wilder Kaiser mountain range, and is one of the best places to go to learn to ski, although experts find thrills hard to come by. Many good UK ski operators include it in their ‘Learn to Ski’ tuition and equipment-hire packages. A lively and good-value former Tyrolean farming village, it has an abundance of things to do when ski legs tire, including a large sports centre, tobogganing, squash courts, sleigh rides. See www.igluski.com for more details.

9. Chamonix, France
Best for snowboarding

Chamonix is legendary amongst the snowboarding community. A traditional Alpine town set against breathtakingly spectacular scenery at the foot of the majestic Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak), Chamonix’s long-standing reputation with skiers has been enhanced over the last couple of decades by the growing band of dedicated Chamonix snowboarders, many of whom just went there on holiday and never wanted to go home again. The amenities in Chamonix are excellent, the après ski very good, and you can book yourself into the snowboarding school if you want to learn or improve. See www.alpinelements.com for further details.

10. Sainte Foy, France
Best for style

Exquisitely pretty, traditionally-built French ski resort, Sainte Foy is currently the in-place to go if you want to ski with the in-crowd. Rather lacking on the apres ski front, it more than makes up for it in sheer attractiveness, with charming vistas and sweeping runs, not to mention the style and luxury of the accommodation. Here you will find log fires, saunas, jacuzzis, and every luxury you can imagine, regardless of whether you choose to stay at one of the internationally-recognised hotels or a catered chalet.

There is a concierge service that will help you organise everything you need for the perfect break, from a qualified nanny to reflexology and husky rides, and the restaurants are also superb. See www.saintefoy.net for further details.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you

First published in WTF magazine, 2008


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