Archive for the 'Otaku' Category

Japan, Day 10: Final Oddities

Jan 13 2014 Published by under Otaku

Shibuya

Shibuya

Today, I awoke comfortable. I felt used to Japan now. It wasn’t home, by any stretch, but it felt familiar.

My plan for today was simple: visit the Imperial Palace, then head over to the fashion disticts of Shibuya and Harajuku. And they were all on the same Yamanote Line.

First, the Imperial Palace. I had already visited a week prior, to discover the Palace was closed on that day. Today, I knew it would be open, and I already knew the way. So I stepped out of Tokyo Station, walked through the financial district, and walked through one of the gates.

I discovered that the Imperial Palace isn’t really there any more. Almost all of the buildings have burned down over the centuries. Only a few guard houses remain, plus the massive stone walls; the rest is acres of gardens and lawn. It’s beautiful, and historical, and well worth an hour or two of walking, but definitely not as striking as I expected.

So I headed back to Tokyo Station and took the train over to Shibuya. This is one of the two biggest fashion districts in Tokyo, and it turns out this is more the formal shopping area. Right outside the station is Shibuya Crossing, a massive intersection where all the pedestrian traffic gets a green light at once. (serial experiments lain fans will recognize it as the place where Mika, Lain’s sister, freaks out).

Shibuya is an experience. Imagine hundreds of people crowding the streets, all showing off their fashion sense. Imagine if about 10% of them have no fashion sense. It’s a carnival of trendy style.

It is also, however, exhausting. If you want to shop for fashion–and there are dozens of large and small stores nearby–it’s heaven. Otherwise, it gets old quickly.

So I walked back to Shibuya Station–passing the statue of Hachiko, a dog who waited patiently for his master at this station every day, even after his master passed away–and took the next stop. I wondered how it would be different.

Gothic Lolita

Gothic Lolita

Harajuku is absurd and insane and wonderful. This is the home of Japanese street fashion, of wild outfits and poofy hair and layers of makeup. Just outside the station, one long street provides two blocks that are absolutely chock full of outlandish fashion, from hot pink sweaters to six-inch platform shoes.

It’s also full of young men who proposition girls for “a little modelling work.” About a dozen of these guys prowled just this two-block stretch of streets.

Further down, the streets turn into quiet shopping districts, still offering the latest fashion but without quite the high pressure.

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Japan, Day 9: Ueno Park

Jan 06 2014 Published by under Otaku

Black and white roof

Black and white roof

I awoke early today, before my alarm went off. my mind full of the events of the week. I had only a few days left in Japan.

I’d spent about 45 minutes the night before looking over my plans for Tokyo. Now that I was spending a full day there (tomorrow), plus half the day after before catching my 5:30pm flight, I had options. I would visit the temple and museum complex at Ueno, the Imperial Palace (now that it would be open), and the fashion districts at Shibuya today and tomorrow. I’d spend my final half-day in Akihabara, buying a few final gifts for myself and friends.

Thanks to my early awakening, I arrived at Kyoto Station at 8:15am, over an hour before my train was scheduled to depart. Huge crowds of school students lined the platforms waiting forlornly for their buses, despite the pouring rain.

Unfortunately, most of the shops hadn’t opened yet, so I contented myself with perusing a book shop. I recognized only a few of the manga and light novel titles.

I then wandered into a nearby miniature grocery store and bought a few snacks and a Pocari Sweat for the train ride. Japan truly is a convenient country.

Then up to the platform to wait for my train. A group of the mentally disabled stood nearby, waiting for a train. I looked around to see how they were treated. Most people ignored them, a few stared, and one guy actually took video of them.

However, when their train came, the local train station attendants leapt into action. One checked the cabin to ensure nobody was getting off. Another laid down a small ramp so the wheelchairs could enter the train easily. It was lovely.

My train came about 10 minutes later, and within minutes it was speeding me towards Tokyo. The train ride was uneventful, though I learned a wonderful fact: while the north side of the train faces Mount Fuji, the south side faces the ocean.

I arrived in Tokyo, hopped on the train to Ueno (which was surprisingly full, despite the early hour; only about 12:30pm), and exited the station to find my hotel.

And I was almost immediately lost. I had written down the hotel’s name and address, and had found its approximate location on one of my printed maps. But I didn’t have step-by-step directions. Thankfully, a large map stood outside Ueno Station, which I approached and oriented myself.

About twenty feet away, a man stood on a car, talking into a microphone attached to loudspeakers on the car. I caught the words “America” and “Nihon” and realized it was a political speech. Apparently, they still do them that way. He had a crowd of about three.

I found out where the hotel was supposed to be, a few blocks away, turned, and started walking. It took me a few minutes, but eventually I turned a corner and there it was. Half a block away from the adult video store. Hmmm.

I entered, hoping the guy at the counter could speak passable English. Turns out he was a black guy from Namibia. Not a problem. I was a bit early for checkin, so I left my bag and headed back outside.

GroundUeno Station sits next to a large park complex that includes several museums and temples. I spent all afternoon there taking pictures of the temples and exploring the museums, which included artifacts from all over East Asia. One pot, for example, is dated to about 10,000 B.C. Wow. Welcome to Asia.

I also threw up in a museum bathroom! Yay for foreign food!

In fact, there’s a story. My stomach was so upset that, when I had my fill of museums and walked around the nearby neighborhoods looking for dinner, I walked right in to a TGI Fridays. I craved normalcy. I ordered a Jack Daniels Burger from a server–who was the only person I talked to during my entire trip who couldn’t speak a word of English–and when it arrived, my stomach practically got on its knees and thanked me. I wolfed it down along with the fries and an iced tea, and my stomach was calm as could be the rest of the night.

I then returned to the hotel to check in. The neighborhood was a bit worrisome, but the hotel lobby was well-furnished. My key came with an eight-inch block of lucite. I got onto the elevator with a hotel staff member who lurched to one side and wheezed the whole way up. We both got off on the same floor, and he turned to me, stared with his good eye, and gargled something in my general direction. I blinked, then he asked where I was going. I showed him my pink block of lucite, and he pointed with his good arm down the hallway. I murmured, “Arigatou,” turned, and saw that he had indeed pointed me to my room.

I entered. It was larger than my room in Kyoto, at least. Though this one had unidentifiable stains on the duvet. And two ads for porn next to the TV. And the window looked out on a giant AC unit that grumbled the whole time I was there.

But you know what? This is part of the adventure. I have only one more full day in Japan. I’m going to make the most of it. Tomorrow: the Imperial Palace and the fashion district.

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Japan, Day 8: Kyoto and Japanese TV

Dec 30 2013 Published by under Otaku

Today was, in some ways, a bust.

Kyoto

Kyoto

I explored Kyoto, but found little of interest. I ended up wandering Kyoto Station, which is itself a marvel of engineering. To give you an idea of its scale: the extreme west end of the station consists of a department store that’s 13 floors high. Not just 13 floors up; it goes from floor 1 to floor 13. And that doesn’t even reach the top of the station.

No, at the very top of the station is a sky walk. I ascended, huffing and puffing, and crossed a walk that’s 230 feet above the ground, walking 1,500 feet from one side of the station to the next.

I then wandered the two adjoining shopping malls for gifts. Found some fun things I won’t spoil here.

Honestly, I felt down. I was ready to get home. It’s not that I disliked Japan; I actually felt like I had a handle on it. I only had a few more days before leaving the country. I frankly wanted it to be over with.

So I watched some Japanese television. Hotel TVs only get standard broadcast channels, so I was limited to 7 or 8 channels. Mornings are filled with programs for young children: equivalents of Sesame Street or Blue’s Clues. Even these are, of course, distinctly Japanese. The stories focus on characters making mistakes, then apologizing and re-integrating with their peers.

Afternoons see shows that have no exact American or European equivalent. A few hosts will produce short segments, usually travel-related. They’ll visit a restaurant or a temple or a workplace and see what it’s like. The other hosts are filmed while they watch these segments, and we get to see their reactions (laughing, surprise, etc.).

It shows off Japanese culture very effectively.

Kyoto Station

Kyoto Station

Evenings are filled with news shows and talk shows. These talk shows are also different. Each episode usually includes either a large number of guests, 10 or 15, or many hosts and a few guests (the one I saw had 7 hosts and 2 guests). Like in the afternoon shows, the guests will watch pre-taped segments and we see their reactions, then the group will discuss it for a few minutes.

These shows usually also include a game show segment, though it’s all for fun. One asked each guest a trivia question with a numerical answer (“How much did the Atlas V rocket cost?”), which the guest had to answer to the correct order of magnitude using buttons that controlled a big display of numbers.

The guests are all celebrities of various degrees. But here’s the interesting effect: because celebrities are already on television so much, they aren’t much in the news. News shows focus on actual news.

There’s a lot of news, too. I’d estimate every channel broadcasts news every 2 hours, plus a full nightly news program lasting an hour or two.

Of course, there are also occasional dramas, comedies, and (occasionally in the afternoon and late at night) anime episodes. But most of the airwaves are full of talk shows.

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Japan, Day 7: Kyoto’s Temples and Gardens

Dec 23 2013 Published by under Otaku

As I mentioned yesterday, I took a quick walk up to a nearby temple to verify its location. Today, I woke up early and decided to head right up.

For breakfast, I didn’t want to waste time, so I crossed the street to Kyoto Station and popped into the 7–11. I polished off an energy bar and a bottle of milk, then headed north.

Nishi-Honganji

Nishi-Honganji

I soon arrived at Nishi-Honganji. It’s hard to get across just how huge it is. According to the placard outside, it’s one of the largest wooden structures in the world. It’s simply tough to build anything this big out of wood. But there it stands, housing a beautiful inner shrine full of gold.

I left to find this temple’s brother. I found the appropriate location, but something was wrong. All I could find was two big warehouses surrounded by a large traditional stone wall.

I explored the wall’s perimeter, turned the ocrner, and found the temple entrance. Those weren’t warehouses. I had found the temple Higashi-Honganji, which is the biggest wooden structure in the world. It was under restoration, so the workers had built a larger building around it.

Fortunately, the adjoining temple was still open to the public, though one had to take off one’s shoes before climbing the giant wooden stairs. This included a new trick: plastic bags were provided, into which you put your shoes, then you carried them around with you, so you couldn’t accidentally put on somebody else’s shoes when you left.

And now I faced the most difficult challenge of the day. My stomach was growing increasingly upset, and I headed to the nearest bathroom. A dozen pairs of public slippers sat at the entrance to the bathroom, which was nice, so I went in and found a (blessedly Western-style) toilet. I sat, and nothing happened. But my stomach grew increasingly upset.

A few minutes later, I stood, turned around, and began throwing up.

I’ve no idea what caused it. I have a sensitive stomach anyway, and as usual, I threw up just a little saliva and bile. Thankfully, nobody else was in the bathroom to hear. I was mortified, but at least it ended quickly.

I headed back outside and sat down on the temple steps for about half an hour. The weather had turned warm but breezy, so I simply luxuriated in the breeze as my stomach settled.

I was determined to enjoy the rest of the day anyway. Maps are posted strategically around the streets of Kyoto, and I saw a few more places to try.

First, Kyoto Aquarium. On the one hand, it was…an aquarium. Fish in tanks. On the other hand, it had lots of weird sea creatures, and the staff happened to be feeding all the animals when I visited. I watched sea lions and dolphins swim and jump for nearly half an hour.

As I mentioned during my Mexican cruise report: a dog looks at you and asks, “What’s next, boss?” A dolphin looks at you and asks, “What’ve you got, human?” They’re friendly, but they treat you as an equal to be indulged.

Shousei-en Garden

Shousei-en Garden

I then headed east. Just wandered the city. I saw another traditional wall, went in, and discovered my favorite find in Kyoto: Shousei-en Garden. It’s a samurai mansion and garden, the mansion still maintained but closed to the public, with the garden open for anyone to walk through (with a suggested donation).

Shouse-ein is the classic Japanese garden experience: koi pond, stone bridges, tea house; you name it. Perfectly maintained and easy to explore (though the covered bridge is designed for the Japanese of a hundred years ago, so you’ll have to duck).

Satisfied, I returned to 7–11 for a packaged dinner and bed, figuring I’d wind down.

I switched on the TV and flicked over to the weather. I’d be leaving Japan in a few days, so I wanted to see what to expect. That’s when I saw news of the typhoon scheduled to wrap around Japan for the next few days.

Some rather frantic web surfing later, I discovered an odd fact. Japan’s affect by many typhoons, but few of them do much other than batter a few cities on the extreme coasts. Indeed, the forecast called for only 20%-50% chance of rain in Tokyo for the next few days. The typhoon would brush the west edge of Japan’s main island of Honshu, then head north-east as it calmed into a tropical storm.

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Japan, Day 6: Bullet Train Travel

Dec 16 2013 Published by under Otaku

Kakunodate Ryokan Sign

Kakunodate Ryokan Sign

I awoke early, at 6:15am, and I’m glad I did. I had plenty of time to stretch, dress, and walk around Kakunodate with my camera before leaving.

Low clouds hung over Kakunodate, and the air held the cool promise of autumn. I returned to the river walk and took more photos, though the diffused light did the river no justice.

Back to the hotel, where I reluctantly gathered my belongings and checked out. I told the staff that this was my first stay at a ryokan, and that it was perfect. Their faces lit up in delight, and one replied, “Please come again!” I answered that I would very much like to.

I strolled back to the Japan Rail station, and encountered a bit of trouble finding the entrance. That’s one disadvantage of these small towns: the signage is meant to blend in, not stand out. I eventually found it, sat for a few minutes, then walked out to the platform to catch the bullet train to Tokyo, whence I would go to Kyoto.

I boarded, and once on the train I checked my ticket for the second leg of my journey, and realized something. The ticket listed the train’s name, not the rail line, and the signs in Tokyo Station list rail lines (once you get to the line, signs list the next few trains). And I only had 20 minutes to make my transfer.

My heart palpitating, I checked my printed records. Bless my printed records, they listed the Tokaido line. The train is at once exciting and dull. I sat there for 4 hours just to get to Tokyo, after all. However, quiet, rural Japanese scenery flashes by all the time.

I arrived in Tokyo station and looked for the Tokaido line. I found it, entered the area, looked up…and my train wasn’t listed. Cue more heart palpitations. I exited and walked up to a JR attendant, which fortunately stand next to every turnstile. I showed her my ticket and asked, in Japanese, where the train was. She said, and suddenly all was clear, “Ah, go down that hall, on the left to the Tokaido Express.”

So. Different line. I headed there and huffed my way up the stairs to the platform, still with 12 minutes to spare. There was the sign proclaiming my train.

With an unclenching gut, I got on board. I’ll skip the description of the rude guy.

I kept my camera on my lap, as I knew the train would pass through some beautiful Japanese countryside. I was right. More than that, after about half an hour, we passed by Mount Fuji. I whipped out my camera, and checked that off my list. Hurrah!

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji

I arrived in Kyoto very much ready to find my hotel. I arrived to find that Kyoto Station is huge, vertically as well as horizontally. I felt like I was in a cathedral.

Fortunately, I turned a corner towards an exit, looked out the plate glass window, and saw the name of my hotel on the building across the street. Hallelujah! A short walk over, and a quick query of a local driver because the lobby looked nothing like a lobby, and I was checking in to the Hotel Vista.

My room was the first room I’d had so far that felt truly cramped. The entire room was three feet wider than the bed. The window was a Vista, all right: a vista of the fire escape.

But it was a room with a soft bed and a bathroom. I rested for a few moments, then headed back out to find Nishi-Honganji Temple.

This nicely illustrates one difficulty of Kyoto. Dozens of shrines and temples dot the city. This complicates any attempt to visit more than one; they aren’t clustered.

My printed map indiciated that one, Nishi-Honganji, was two streets away: down one street, then take a right and it was a few blocks away. I decided to prove this, by just finding the temple complex, then returning to my hotel room. I’d fully visit the following day.

To my delight, the map was right. Ten minutes after exiting my hotel, I was snapping pictures of a massive temple complex. Success!

As I walked back to my hotel, I drank in Kyoto. I really like this city. Tokyo has an Eastern US feel: busy, stressed people bustle from one hot spot to another. Kyoto feels more like the American Midwest; it’s more casual and neighborly somehow.

In any event, I had just spent 7 hours on two trains, then explored a foreign city. I needed dinner.

The ground floor of Kyoto Station contains dozens of shops, mainly for tourists who need a last-minute gift or want a traditional meal. Lots of noodles on display.

It also holds a McDonald’s, and I decided to try that out. I ordered a “Chicken Filet’O,” fries, and an iced tea. The tea was green tea, of course. I bit into the sandwich, and my eyes widened. Two reasons: one, it was all dark meat, so more flavorful than ours. Two, it was juicy. Our chicken sandwiches tend towards the dry side; this was positively dripping with juices. Delicious.

I ended up sitting for ten minutes, sipping my drink while slipping surreptitious glances at nearby patrons, willing them to get up and show me how to dispose of my trash. I didn’t see a place for trays, and two employees were wandering around cleaning, but they weren’t disposing of trays. What to do?

Finally the four tweens sitting next to me put away their Nintendo DS’s and took their trays to a hidden platform. Ah-ha! I played the responsible citizen, disposed of my trash and trays, and returned triumphant to my hotel room to get some much-needed sleep.

Tomorrow: my first full day in Kyoto!

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Japan, Day 5: Kakunodate, the Town of Samurai

Dec 09 2013 Published by under Otaku

Today worried me. (Worry is a theme of this trip.) This was my last day in Tokyo; I had to get up to Kakunodate, about 3 hours north of Tokyo. I knew I had to take a single bullet train from Tokyo Station, but I wanted to get to Kakunodate by lunch, which meant a fairly early start.

To get to Kakunodate by lunch time, I’d have to leave Tokyo around 9:00am. This meant facing the legendary Tokyo rush hour, with “pushers” shoving riders onto packed trains.

I didn’t relish it, but I decided to risk it anyway so I could get there at a reasonable time. I got on the subway, which was almost empty. That’s when I remembered the day. It was Saturday.

Now, most workers in Japan worked six days a week until recently, so this might not have changed things much.

I arrived at Ueno Station to head down to Tokyo, and thanks be to God, the train was…full, but not packed. At least a few inches separated each rider.

At Tokyo Station, I made a tactical error. While I had planned to reserve a seat, when I arrived I saw a sign for the train I wanted (Akita Shinkansen), leaving in 10 minutes, so I just headed up there, flashing my JR Pass as I went. And it was there that I experienced the thoughtful design of the Japanese train system.

Tile floor, Japanese train station

This is where the train doors will arrive

First off: embedded tiles in the floor show you where to stand for the train doors. That’s the precision of the system: the train always stops at exactly the same spot, every time.

Because of this, signs hang above the platform for each car, telling you where to stand if you have a reservation.

Thank goodness all the signs are in English. The sign above the train said, “Reserved Seats Only.” I ran down the platform to the next car. Same sign. Same with the next, and the next.

So. Back donwstairs, flashing my JR Pass again, to find the JR Information Desk. Found, I stood in line for a few minutes–realizing, of course, that the train had just left the station–and asked for the next Akita Shinkansen.

The next one left in 15 minutes. Wow.

Back upstairs, I boarded my first bullet train. On one hand, it’s like any train: nice seats on a vehicle that gets you from point A to point B. It’s the efficiency and cleanliness of the Japanese trains that get to you. It’s the fact that everything is done right.

Let me explain with the bathrooms. There are several toilets in the back of each car, and one shared sink. The sink provides water from a spigot in the center, soap from a spigot on the left, and hot air drying from a fan on the right. All of it touchless, of course, and all of it working flawlessly. So you place your hand in the middle to wet your hands, slide to the left for soap, slide back to the middle to rinse, and slide further to the right to dry your hands. And the door to the sink? Just happens to be on the right side.

Okay, one more example: a fold-down cup holder sits on the back of every seat. And it remains out of the way of the folding tray.

Oh, and of course, a young woman pushes a cart of food and drink down the aisle. Snacks come to you; you don’t have to traipse down to a dining car.

Anyway. This took longer than my original train, about 4 hours. I watched the Japanese countryside slide past me, and that was the fun. I’d spent so much time in Tokyo’s concrete jungle I’d almost forgotten that Japan had a countryside.

It’s everything I’ve seen in anime and read in manga. Tiny villages of a dozen buildings surrounded by rice paddies. Forest-covered hills. Trucks trundling along tiny country lanes.

Kakunodate Station

Kakunodate Station

The train arrived in Kakunodate, and honestly, my heart sank. The station was tiny, with just one attendant and (as far as I could tell) one track. I’d arrived in the back woods of Japan. The country. Arkansas.

Now, I knew that Kakunodate was settled by samurai, and has been kept as a traditional town. I didn’t expect the big city. But when I stepped onto the platform and looked around, I realized that this was kept Japanese. This is where old Japanese folks go to have a traditional Japanese experience. It’s really not meant for foreigners.

But before anything else, I realized I needed to reserve my ticket for the next day. Better to handle that now, than find out tomorrow that a bunch of trains are booked. I walked up to the window, and while the clerk said he only knew a few words of English, between the two of us we managed very well to get my tickets.

I’d printed out a map that showed the way to my hotel: a five-minute walk straight down the main road, then a left at guidepost “C,” and another five minutes to the hotel. One small problem: I knew the name of the hotel in English, not Japanese. All the writing here was in Japanese.

I walked, and I walked, and I had no idea where my hotel was. I couldn’t tell whether most of the buildings were hotels or not; this was a traditional ryokan, after all, in a town of traditional buildings.

I found one place that looked about right, poked my head in, and watched women in yukata busily serving a meal. Nobody paid me any attention. So I left.

I headed back to the station and the taxi stand. I peeked in at the cabs. The cabbies glanced at me, then looked away.

I started to dislike Kakunodate.

A hotel stood next to the train station. I contemplated just walking in and asking for a room, and chalk up the expense of the other hotel to fate. But finally I screwed up my courage and returned to the taxi stand. I leaned in close to the first taxi, arching an eyebrow, trying to take up as much space as possible. The driver rolled down the window and I named the hotel. He nodded and smiled and opened the door, and I had no further problems.

He drove back around the way I came and stopped at a non-descript building that I had walked past twice.

I went inside to find two surprised maids. (Traditional maids, not French ones.) I couldn’t figure out what they meant, then one ran to the back room and returned with a sign saying “RESERVED.” I replied, “Checkin”? Question marks nearly appeared over their heads. Then one grasped what I meant and started opening doors for me. I had entered the restaurant side.

I finally made it to the front desk of my hotel. The lovely clerk bowed and apologized and explained that checkin wasn’t for another hour.

Sigh.

So I had them hold my bag and I went back outside to explore the town. That was easy: several streets perfectly preserve traditional Japanese architecture, including big black beams, gravel courtyards, and overhanging pines and maples.

Kakunodate street

Kakunodate

After overcoming my fear of taking pictures–nobody else did, and these were Japanese people not taking pictures–I entered one residence that others streamed in and out from. Several folks were giving people 5-minute tours of the house, and the man who approached me asked if I understood Japanese. I waved “no,” and he said, “I speak broken English.” It was actually quite good.

Turns out this was one of only six houses in the town that are still owned by the original family, which live in the house (in rooms in the back of the house, of course).

He took me around several of the rooms, showcasing the significance of the direction of the tatami mats, the different uses of each of the 4 entrances to the house, the significance of the designs carved in the panels separating each room, and the uses of each room.

“This room was for important business, usually involving guests,” he said. “So my grandfather would have used this room a lot.”

Yep, my guide was a member of the samurai family who owned the house.

I didn’t hear much more of the tour.

I walked around the rest of the town, peeking in to the other houses. Sure enough, on closer inspection, I saw racks of wooden shoes and fans. Most were converted into shops. Beautiful shops, at least.

I entered one shop that sold all wooden laquered goods. This became the samurai’s specialty: making objects out of the local cherry. A craftsman worked in one corner, and he gave me a short speech (in truly broken English) about this. He even showed me a piece of cherry bark to touch, and invited me to touch the merchandise. “This shop is a hands-on experience,” he explained.

I was so impressed I bought a pair of chopsticks, plus a few gifts.

I then wandered more of the town, and out to the river walk. The trees would undoubtedly be gorgeous in a few weeks when they turned autumn colors, but now they remained all green.

Unfortunately, at this point I needed a bathroom break. I rejoiced at the sight of a “W.C.” sign and entered a small public toilet. Which only had traditional Japanese toilets. Ah well; this was a good time for this experience. Nobody else was around, so I could take all the time I wanted. I dropped trou and squatted.

Nothing happened. My body said, “Nope, this is not the way we do this. I refuse to cooperate.” I squatted there for several minutes, fruitlessly, before standing up and leaving in defeat.

Oddly, I felt better for at least caring for myself. I now felt hunger, which presented another dilemma. I had not paid for dinner at the hotel, meaning I had to find something in the town. But again, this was a Japanese town; nothing in English. Even if I entered a restaurant, I’d have no idea how or what to order.

It was just at that point that I noticed a shop sign that showed a man with a French chef hat. My eybrow arched and I looked further. One English word stood out on the sign: Patisserie.

Hallelujah! I entered. Plastic-wrapped sweets lined the room, while the glass counter held cakes of all description. Sighing in contement, I bought a dinner’s worth of pastries.

I retraced my steps to the hotel, checked in, and the clerk guided me down the hall to the last door, where I entered my room. Of course, they’d already placed my suitcase in my room.

Me in my Ryokan in Kakunodate

Me in my Ryokan in Kakunodate

My room was everything I’d dreamed of. Completely traditional: tatami mats, low table, cushions, low writing desk, etc. With a Western toilet.

I laid out my pastries and snacked, trying to screw up my courage for the big issue of the night: the communal hot bath. This had freaked me out for weeks. I knew it was normal, I knew nothing bad or weird would happen, and I’m pretty comfortable with my body. I feared the rules and expectations. You wash before getting into the tub. You bring soap with you, unless you’re at a certain kind of inn which provides soap. You leave your clothes in a basket (but where do you put the basket?).

These thoughts whirled through my mind as I explored my room a bit more, at which point I made a wondrous discovery. My room included an en-suite bath, laid out in the traditional manner. Private to me.

So I compromised. I had my traditional Japanese hot bath experience, complete with stripping and bathing and soaking with a special towel, but in privacy. I’m not ready yet.

The bath relaxed me to an extent I didn’t expect. I’ve had hot baths as an adult, of course, but this felt different. The heat seeped into my joints. I felt healed.

I watched a bit of TV. Saturday night was filled with game shows, news programs, a lot of singing shows (some similar to America’s Got Talent and others simply featuring middle-aged singers singing), and bizarrely, shows for very young children (including one entirely in English, teaching kids where to find alphabet shapes in photographs).

And then to bed, so I could start fresh the next morning for my train ride to the ancient city of Kyoto.

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Japan, Day 4: Imperial Palace and Akihabara

Dec 02 2013 Published by under Otaku

Today would be my day of culture and errands. I wanted to visit the Imperial Palace, and find a few things I needed: an AC adapter for my laptop (it was just too convenient to check the weather and change reservations from the laptop), and an extra SD card (I’d already burned through most of a 16 GB and all of a 2 GB card). I also needed extra cash; I’m used to operating mostly with cash and had already spent most of my initial $100 on tickets, meals, etc.

So I went downstairs, had my breakfast, and headed into Tokyo to visit the Imperial Palace.

Fortunately, Tokyo Station is right next to the Palace. Before I exited the station, I asked around for an ATM. I found it, but it didn’t accept VISA. Blast. I exited the station, and out of the corner of my eye noticed a currency exchange area. My heart full of hope, I entered, saw an ATM, walked up…and saw the VISA logo! Huzzah! Even better, this one let me withdraw up to $500. I took $300, figuring I’d be back in Tokyo in 4 days anyway and could fill back up if absolutely necessary.

Imperial Palace 1Then it was off to the Imperial Palace. Thanks to the maps posted everywhere in the station, I oriented myself and headed out.

I didn’t realize just how big the Imperial Palace is. I walked and walked and reached just one of the gates. Then I walked and walked to find an open entrance. The ones I could find were closed. Odd.

It took me far longer to figure out than you probably have. I got halfway around the palace before I found a sign informing me that the Imperial Palace was closed Mondays and Fridays. This was a Friday.

Well. By this point, I was close to the various cultural buildings near the palace, so I headed in that direction. Unfortunately, when I arrived I found zero English (other than the names of the buildings). So that was a bust. Fortunately, they’re all situated in a lovely area of cultivated forest full of quiet, well-manicured paths, so I wandered there for a while before heading back to Tokyo Station.

I’d been walking for hours; it was now noon. Tokyo Station is near the financial district, so I figured there had to be some good restaurants nearby. I walked parallel to the station for a while, and found an Italian restaurant. I figured the Japanese passion for noodles would combine well with this cuisine, so I went in, and was seated by a waiter who spoke excellent English. I ordered the special, and was rewarded with pumpkin soup that had a delicate flavor, a slice of bread that was so soft it was practically sponge cake, and spaghetti with broccoli and shrimp.

Only one problem: the shrimp were whole. They still had their tails, bodies, and heads.

So, er, I ate around the shrimp as they stared back at me, paid up, and left.

I decided to head up to Akihabara, buy the SD card and the power adapter, then head further north to Ueno to explore the culture there.

I hopped on the train, disembarked in Akihabara, and headed into the nearest electronics shop. Getting the SD card was easy, and the price was incredible: a 32 GB SD card for $14. The adapter was harder; I had to go to another shop, but found what I was looking for on the rack. I took it to the clerk, who asked if it was okay that it was an “exchange.” I said yes, then paused and replied, “exchange?” He held up a hand, then his hands flew over the keyboard. He turned the monitor towards me to show that he was using the keyboard on the register to type a question to me in English. I love geeks some times. I confirmed that it was what I wanted, and it was mine (again, cheap: $6).

Akihabara 2

Akihabara 2

I then wandered Akihabara. I discovered several legendary stores: Gamers (all 7 floors!) and Mandarake (6 floors). I wound up spending all afternoon poking through various shops and buying a few CDs. We’re talking whole floors devoted just to manga, or to figurines. I even poked my head into an adults-only floor, though it wasn’t exciting: cases of porn magazines, adult video games, and pillows printed with nude anime girls.

As I explored Akihabara and walked past the AKB48 cafe, I noticed a line forming. I stopped, took a few pictures, and waited to see what was going on. Unfortunately, it looked like the sort of thing geeks were standing in line for hours to attend, so after a while I wandered away. Good to know that stuff is true, too.

I also found Tokyo Anime Center. This is a small gallery devoted to showcasing art from various shows, and studios use it to promote upcoming shows. Hanging from the walls was art from Gundam Wing and the upcoming Gundam Gunpla series, plus a few Gundam models. Clips from various shows played on video monitors throughout the place. Nice, but maybe 10 minutes’ worth of material.

Next door was the Tokyo Anime Center shop, and this was actually more fun. It was stuffed with merchandise from all sorts of shows, modern and classic: Nadia, Totoro, Evangelion, Tiger & Bunny, etc.

By dinner time, I looked up at the station platform, and saw the the trains were packed. I started looking for dinner. After rejecting McDonald’s and KFC, I found a department store with lunch counters, where I bought an awesome little box containing half an egg sandwich, half a chicken salad sandwich, and…other things.

I took my meal to a small row of tables in the department store and sat down next to an older Japanese couple. It was here that I had my most uncomfortable experience so far. The woman kept staring at me. When I looked over at her, she’d look away, but as soon as I looked away she’d look back at me, slightly frowning the whole time. Maybe the frown was my imagination, but I felt judged the whole time.

The food tasted great, at least.

I headed back outside and up to the station, where it was now 5:30pm and the trains weren’t packed. Ueno was out of the question; my feet already complained. So I went back to my hotel, plugged in my laptop to charge, put my feet up, and prepared to rest for my next day: leaving Tokyo for northern Japan and the samurai town of Kakunodate.

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Japan, Day 3: The Life-Size Gundam

Nov 25 2013 Published by under Otaku

This was my only sunny day in Tokyo, according to weather reports, so I awoke with a dilemma in my mind. I had originally planned to visit Mount Fuji this day. More internet research revealed that Mount Fuji is 2.5 to 3 hours from my hotel, and is a bit of a tourist trap. You arrive, snap a photo, and get back on the bus. Also, no JR Pass trains go there, so you have to really schedule it (or take a bus tour).

Leiji Matsumoto boat, the HimikoThe Himiko arrived and out we went. It’s a beautiful craft, all curves and metal, with gull-wing doors. The onboard loudspeaker tour was pre-recorded by the characters from Galaxy Express 999, which felt right.

I decided to instead take the Leiji Matsumoto boats to Odaiba. I wandered down to the waterfront, taking photos as I did, to find the ticket office.

Travel trip: if you want to find something in a foreign country where the written language doesn’t use Latin characters, write down the URL of their website. This is inevitably on a poster or other sign on the building you’re trying to find.

I had written down the name of the boat and route I wanted to take, so I just said to the clerk “Odaiba, Himiko” and she procured my ticket. That secured, I waited and read handouts about various Leiji Matsumoto projects.

An hour later, we arrived at Odaiba. Odaiba is almost unthinkably huge. Imagine a 6-story shopping mall, then put 4 of them side by side. And that’s one corner of the island.

I knew roughly where the Gundam statue was supposed to be on the island, but when I actually stepped off the boat onto the shore and walked past the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty (no joke), I couldn’t be sure where to go. However, I figured if i walked far enough, I’d eventually find the 50-foot giant robot. And after about 15 minutes, I rounded a corner, and there it was.

The life-size Gundam statue

The life-size Gundam statue

The Gundam statue is strange because your brain tells you it shouldn’t exist. I felt huge cognitive dissonance during the whole time I stared at it. A piece of anime extruded into real life. I, of course, took plenty of pictures.

Next door sat a small hobby store selling model kits, posters, and such. Near that was a smaller Gundam Cafe, which sold mugs, glasses, etc. I was amazed to see Gundam Wing-themed OZ glasses.

By then it was lunch time, so I entered a nearby mall. One noodle shop had English on its overhead menu, so I ordered there. I managed it, though I was flummoxed when the cashier asked which size I wanted. I eventually got it, and received excellent noodles with chicken.

Satisfied, I returned my dishes to the noodle shop (you don’t leave your tray out for someone to pick up; that would be uncivilized) and explored a Japanese mall. It wasn’t totally unlike the American experience; it’s just that the bar is higher. Imagine the most elegant shop in an American mall, with the most pleasant service. All the shops are like that.

THe top floor held an arcade, and what a blinking, flashing, beeping experience that was. I saw many claw machines, a few standard video games (mostly shooters), and quite a few mini-pachinko machines. Many of the pachinko machines were anime-themed, each with a small video window playing original animations for Evangelion, Macross (original), Macross Frontier, and the like. There was even a K-ON! rhythm game.

But at the back sat 8 Gundam pods. I had to try them. I got in, but sadly, I couldn’t get it to work. It rejected my coins, and when I bought a card, it rejected that, too. Ah well.

I went back to to explore Odaiba some more, including Sega Joypolis and a miniature Legoland. Unfortunately, both required payment to get in, and looked to be Japanese-only, so I abstained.

I marvelled again at the immensity of Odaiba. One whole building was apparently devoted to a single department store.

Then I returned to the dock, where I took the other Leiji Matsumoto-designed boat, the Hotaluna, back to Asakusa. Sadly, while the Hotaluna sported a top observation deck open to the sky, an employee closed it as we disembarked.

By this point my feet cried out for rest, so I spent the rest of the night watching Japanese television. A few anime episodes came on, and I learned a few interesting things:

The typical shonen titles like Naruto airs at the same time slot as Pokemon, late afternoon and early evening. The ads that air during those shows are aimed at younger boys than I expected: maybe 8 years old at the oldest.

Pokemon is even more huge than I thought. The episode of Pokemon XY ended with two Japanese men coming on to explain the basic concept behind Pokemon XY (that each Pokemon has one variant in X and a different variant in Y).

I soon fell into a blessed sleep.

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Japan, Day 2: Senno-ji Temple and the Gundam Cafe

Nov 18 2013 Published by under Otaku

I awoke today at 4:00am, to my lack of surprise. Even that gave me 8 hours of sleep.

Still, I dozed and watched TV for another 3 hours. I was thrilled to catch an episode of Pythagoras Switch, a Japanese equivalent of Sesame Street that’s far more smart, entertaining, and heart-warming to my taste. I even caught their special dance, an Otosan Switch segment, and one of their wonderful Rube Goldberg segments where a ball rolled down a ramp to hit a cylinder that rolled and hit dominos, etc. It finished by activating an agitator underneath a bowl of popcorn, which caused a submerged foam ball to rise to the top, revealing the show’s name. Brilliant.

Early morning Japanese TV is much like the American version: ads for beauty cream, early morning news shows, etc. Except they also show TED talks. Followed by commentary. I’m not joking.

The news brought an unwelcome surprise. I swear the first words from the weatherperson’s mouth were “Typhoon wa….” Not only that, there were two typhoons. Fortunately, the nearer was paralleling the coast and the other was scheduled to veer off towards the west. Unfortunately, the first dumped rain on Tokyo all day and the second would do the same in a couple of days.

Nothing to be done about it, so I took the elevator downstairs for breakfast. I’d pre-paid for an “American-style” breakfast, which was mostly -style: A sandwich of hard-boiled egg slices and shredded beef, corn and broccoli, three potato wedges, and a bun. But oh, that bun. It was practically cake.

Senno-ji Temple

Senno-ji Temple

Then I headed outside to find a shrine that, according to the laminated card on my desk, was nearby. I sure found it; only a few blocks away I found a huge gate (at least 2 stories tall), which led me down to a massive shrine. This was Senso-ji Temple, one of the more famous ones in Tokyo.

I followed a few side streets in search of good photographs, and generally explored the environment. This was good, as the shrine quickly filled with school kids, despite the downpour. it was fun being an object of attention. More than once a wide-eyed grade schooler passed and a few seconds later I heard a whispered “Amerika-jin!”

The shrine complex seemed to go on forever. Not only did I walk down a massive approach, at least a block long, but gardens and other, smaller shrine buildingss sat nearby. The shrine itself stood at least three stories tall.

Satiated, I bought a melon pan–a type of sweet bread–to tide over my hunger. Then I decided to try a trip to Akihabara, the Electric Town. Fortunately, I passed through Akihabara Station on the way here yesterday, so I just took the same route backwards.

Akihabara is impossible to describe. Imagine a bunch of electronics and anime shops crammed together like commuters on a Tokyo train, and the only place to go is up. The first place I stopped in sold models. Six floors of them. Their selection ranged from the latest characters to kits actually produced in the 1980’s.

And then, of course, there are shops selling anime, manga, light novels, posters, and the rest. Unfortunately, it’s all in Japanese. Sure, I could buy a toy, but I’d have to carry it back the whole way.

My stomach began growling again by this point, so I looked for a thing I’d very much wanted to see: the Gundam Cafe. After realizing it’s not actually in Akihabara Station but beside it, I found it and hovered outside in amazement that such a thing actually exists. Two wet young men came along, similarly marvelled, then laughed and went in. I screwed up my courage and followed.

Akihabara

Akihabara

The Cafe looks like the inside of a ship. In fact, the first thing I heard upon entering was “Welcome to the Archangel!” (one of the carrier ships from a Gundam series). A giant screen plays clips from various Gundam series–which also discreetly advertise items for sale in the adjoining store or upcoming box set releases.

The cafe changes its cuisine occasionally to theme around one Gundam timeline. I happened to be there for the SEED universe; the drinks were named after characters from that timeline (I had the Athrun Zala, a surprisingly sweet cherry drink) and the food looked like the meals served on board the Archangel in the anime. I checked the screenshots, and sure enough, I ordered and ate a meal that Kira ate in the show.

And, of course, you could order Andrew Waldfeld’s special blend of coffee.

Satisfied, I re-entered Akihabara Station and headed back to my hotel, though I stopped at Ueno to explroe one of its endless shopping arcades. These are old streets converted to walking malls, and they seem to go on forever. In this case, it mostly sold produce, fresh meat, and shoes, so it wasn’t really tourist-friendly.

All of this was done in the pouring rain, I should add. So I returned to my hotel in the late afternoon, and put my feet up to dry.

And the sun came out.

I sighed and walked out onto my tiny private deck. Looking out over the glittering water of the river, my gaze fell down to a cruise boat nearing me. My brow furrowed as my eyes took in its strange shape, all sleek curves like a Jules Verne ship.

And then I realized: I was looking at the boats designed by legendary manga artist Leiji Matsumoto. I had hoped to at least see them while in Japan. In fact, they docked right outside my hotel.

I ran back inside, opened my laptop, connected to the hotel internet, and researched those boats. They go from there down to Odaiba, a natural island built as a shopping district that also houses the full-size Gundam statue.

My plans for the next day immediately changed.

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