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Cash-strapped Chiba railway tastes success with 'foul-flavored sticks'

Corn potage (left) and cheese flavored "foul-flavored sticks" are seen on sale in a Choshi Electric Railway Co. store in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, on June 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Takashi Kondo)

CHOSHI, Chiba -- The awful state of a local railway operator's finances has left such a foul taste in the company's mouth that it has started to sell "disgusting flavored sticks" in a bid to stop the rot.

Based on the nationally popular corn cylinder snack "Umaibo," or "delicious stick," Choshi Electric Railway Co. in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, has started selling its own "Mazuibo," or "foul-flavored stick," so named to make light of its economic woes. The company announced sales crossed the 1 million stick milestone in late May, just nine months after bringing the product to market. Railway president Katsunori Takemoto hailed the result with some relief, "Thanks to this we've managed to get through the 2018 financial year."

The "foul-flavored sticks" were first sold in corn potage flavor and retail at 600 yen for a package of 15 cylinders, or 50 yen for one. After receiving agreement from a company that manufactures and sells the original snacks, the railway company's take on the popular foodstuff hit stands on Aug. 3, 2018.

Even before they were available to buy, the unsavory sticks had already garnered a reputation for their idiosyncratic name. Immediately after going on sale, a line of around 200 people formed outside the railway's Inuboh Station. The products continue to sell out for short periods and with sales of around 180,000 sticks a month, they've become a popular snack.

With sales remaining robust after the initial launch, a cheese-flavored version was introduced in March. Choshi Electric Railway plans to release a variant based on local specialty soft rice crackers, "nure senbei" in Japanese, in August. The operator has already been selling the local specialty crackers to support its business for some time. As individual "foul-flavored sticks" are cheap, their sales alone have totaled around 40 million yen, but the operator says combining their signature products will have a great synergizing effect on sales.

The railway has fallen on hard times due to a drop in population numbers along its route. Amid a financial crisis in 2005, postings on its official website including, "We need to make money for train repairs," helped the company avoid disaster by encouraging customers to buy its side-business soft rice crackers. But in another blow, tourist numbers to the area declined following the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunamis in March 2011. At present the operator is recording losses of around 100 million yen a year. Attempts to bring the company back into the black through sales of products like the crackers and sticks are continuing.

But under these strained circumstances, their "foul-flavored sticks" have been an unexpected hit. President Takemoto says "With this breakthrough, I want to fix our economic situation through the development of yet new self-deprecating products."

(Japanese original by Takashi Kondo, Choshi Local Bureau)

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