Field Trip: Tokyo, Japan
It is accomplished.
[Yeah, you’re actually writing a damn article…what the hell man? – Ed.]
I have finally, after many years of dreaming, made the trip that goes by many names: The Crossing, The Nerd’s Hajj…well…okay, I can only come up with those two, besides, I can’t really build it up any further, you know, given that the title already spoils the reveal…so I might as well just get it out of the way.
Yes, I’ve finally gone to Tokyo.
And yes, if you’re into Anime, Kaiju, giant freaking robots, toys, video games and so forth…you know, all the major nerd food groups that we cover here…you need to go. And hopefully, this little travelogue will give you some ideas on how to plan, survive and enjoy your trip. Pack your virtual bags as we start with…
Get ready for the only time travel humans have managed…as you’re going to be jumping one day into the future, via crossing the international date line. This is important, because when you’re booking your hotel room, you don’t want to give them a date you’re not going to be there. For example, I left the States on 9/17 and arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 18th. Thus, I booked my hotel starting on the 18th. Now, unless you’ve got some serious buckaroos, you’re likely flying economy…the way I did. And if you’re planning on getting any sleep on the flight, well…good luck with that. Hell, I took a trazadone and an Ambien and was only able to intermittently nap. To be fair though, they do make the cabin pretty damn dark…so if you can kipper off in a seat with not a lot of room, you’ll be okay. If you choose to stay awake, then welcome back to the days where they actually fed you for free on the airplane. And I’m talking full course meals here…good ones too. Now, granted, I flew via Singapore Airlines and it’s a pretty top-notch experience (aside from the close quarters that comes from flying economy!). You get a meal about an hour into the flight and a second meal about an hour and a half before landing. On the seat back in front of you, there’s a touch screen monitor for selecting your in-flight entertainment. Now, I phrase it that way because you’re not just limited to TV shows or movies…nope, just under the monitor, there’s also a game pad because you can opt for a limited selection of video games. Mind you, there’s no Call of Duty or Fortnite or anything like that…but you can’t go wrong with some Tetris or Pac-Man, heck there was even a pretty challenging little shooter on there.
One thing I’d like to point out as we bring this flight in…when taking off from the US and looking out over our side of the Pacific Ocean, well…it was a little disheartening. I don’t want to sound like the environmentalist hippies that I find myself surrounded by these days, but at the same time…when you see the amount of garbage and debris a little ways out from our coastline and then compare it, as you’re landing, to the almost pristine waters off Japan…well, it’s downright embarrassing. Sure, I know that currents play a factor here and I’m definitely not an oceanographer (although it is a brother science) but still. It certainly made me think and revisit how I dispose of things. I will not take this opportunity to get up on any soapbox or anything like that, because, really, it’s the personal exposure and experience that lends weight to anything like this…all I’ll do is simply say that should you also undertake this pilgrimage, look out your window.
Day 1 – Shinjuku
You’ve landed…now what?
Well, thankfully, I did manage to grab a few hours of sleep on the flight. Not that it was going to help. Because once you get past customs and you get your passport stamped, you step out into the airport proper…AND YOU ARE IN JAPAN. The best way I can describe the feeling is the cinematic trick, usually employed by Zack Snyder, where you go from slow motion…and then speed up to super-fast motion in the span of a second. Yes, some signage is in English, but it’s very clear that…I hate to fall back on cliché…you’re not in Kansas, or Seattle, or the US any more Toto. You may also notice that your phone isn’t going to be a lot of help…yet. If you’ve prepared properly, like I tried to, then you’ve already managed to arrange to have a wi-fi device waiting for you at the airport. Once you get it and connect your phone to it, then you’re back in touch with the world but I’ll warn you, Google and Google Maps are going to do just as much to confound you as they will to help you. Thankfully, yes, there are information people there that do speak some English and will help you to get on your way. This will also be your first experience with catching a train. Now, the train from Narita (where I flew in) is a special case, you have to get a special ticket for it with an assigned seat. While you’re here though, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and get yourself a Suica card…this’ll give you access to most of the railways in Tokyo, both above ground and subways. As these will be vital to your trip and will practically take you ANYWHERE you need to go, it’s best to front-load the card. I managed to put around 4,500 yen on mine initially and it lasted me throughout the entire trip. Maps of the railway system are available at the airport, which is cool…but to Google’s credit, when looking for directions on where you want to go, it’s actually pretty good about telling you what trains you need to catch, what times they leave, how many stops, so on and so forth. But enough blathering, let’s get to the good stuff.
This would serve as my home base, so, obviously my first day was to get a feel for my surroundings. I checked into the hotel and made my way out on the city streets. The feeling was both overwhelming and intoxicating. Let’s be clear, especially if you don’t know the language (as I don’t), you ARE a stranger in a strange land. Most signage is going to mean nothing to you, most of what you overhear is going to mean nothing to you and a lot of what anyone might say or shout to you is going to mean nothing to you. This is about as close to deaf and mute as you’re probably going to get. And yet, there’s a life to the city that draws you in. I have to admit, some of that is due to all the lights and sounds…hell, to hear music from various anime while walking the city streets is both weird and awesome. Anyway, I went about looking to hit my Shinjuku checklist: The Godzilla Store, the Hotel Gracery and the giant Godzilla atop it and the Samurai Museum. As I walked past Shinjuku Station, there was a pretty sizeable shopping center attached to it so I went inside, mainly for the Tower Records within. I remembered the Tower Records I went to back in my college spring break days out in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas and wanted to see if it was comparable…plus, yeah, I had some stuff I wanted to look for…particularly a Blu-ray copy of Mazinger Z: Infinity. [See our review HERE! – Ed.] The store itself was spread out over several floors…four or five I think…but the reason I included this trip here is because here’s where I had my first ‘alien culture’ experience.
It’s not that the tray is confusing…in all actuality, it’s pretty simple. It’s just…weird. It adds 2 to 3 more steps to what should be a fairly straightforward thing.
See, here’s the thing…when you’re buying something in Japan, you don’t hand your payment directly to the cashier. Instead, there is The Tray. You put your payment inside The Tray and present The Tray to them. This isn’t just handing The Tray to them…no, no, no. Put some ceremony in it. Use both hands, palms up and present The Tray as if you were presenting an award or a family heirloom. They will then accept The Tray as you have presented it, then either swipe your credit card (you’ve got about a 50/50 shot as to whether or not the shop you’re in will accept them…just FYI there) or take your cash (and by that I mean Yen). Once finished with your card or they’ve made change for your purchase, they will then present The Tray to you and now it’s your turn to accept it as it was offered. Set it down, grab your card/change, grab your merch…and you’re on your way.
It took me a couple of stores to get used to this. I could understand why they were doing it…given Japanese culture, it just made a kinda sense…but my more practical brain railed against the elongation of what should be a much shorter process.
Leaving the store, my copy of Mazinger Z: Infinity in hand, I took to the streets to find the Godzilla Store. In my mind, I had something akin to the old Warner Bros. Studio Stores in my mind…a spread out store covering all eras of the franchise packed to the gills with exclusive merchandise.
Not even close.
No, the Godzilla store is a tiny little corner department within a much bigger store. Now, there IS exclusive merch there and it does cover the entire franchise but its distinct lack of floor space limits what can be on hand. To the store’s credit, what they do have is really cool and they do their best with what limited space they do have…but I couldn’t help feeling that there should be more to it. Still, the t-shirts there are really cool and of particular note are these small behind the scenes booklets they have for most of the films. They reminded me of some of the more old school magazines like Cinefantastique or Cinefex wherein they’re almost more photo essays about the making of the film. Sure, there are some captions and brief bits of text (in both Japanese and English) but these booklets believe more in showing than telling.
By this point, it was definitely time to see the big man himself…but first…I was working up a Godzilla-like hunger, which brings us to our next segment:
Russian Roulette Dining!
Remember when I said none of the signage is going to do you any good? That definitely applies here! Sure, it’s easy to tell a restaurant from, say, a bookstore, but you’re not gonna have much clue as to what TYPE of restaurant you’re going into. Okay, that’s not entirely true…as most places have either a menu out front for you to look at or some signage with pictures to show you what type of food they serve. And that’s where the Russian Roulette comes into play: you have to go on solely what LOOKS good. If you’ve got any sort of allergy...ugh…I couldn’t imagine. Since I don’t…I wasn’t too worried about that. However, I did opt to stay away from sushi to be on the safe side. Last thing I want to do is get tricked into another run in with sea anemone sushi. [We’re looking at you, Shawn…you bastard. – Ed.] Now, to be fair, yes, there are places that have English menus and OF COURSE you’ll find larger chains like McDonalds, Wendy’s, Subway, Starbucks and such there…but come on man, where’s your sense of adventure?!? (Okay, fine, I caved in and got a hot dog once and McDonalds on my last night there!) Granted, that’s easy for me to say given that everything I had was very good…not a bad stop in the bunch! We’ll cover more food a bit later, but I will say this…this kind of handicap does impact how much you eat. I stuck to about 2 meals a day while over there: my first meal (typically lunch) and dinner which I only really ate at the end of the day’s activities…when I was REALLY starving. But for as negative as this might all sound, I have to admit that it was actually one of the more fun parts of the trip. So often we can fall into ruts with our food, be it a favorite dish or a favorite restaurant...thus, to be severed from almost all of what I knew and having to actually seek out food made for a cool adventure each day.
Most streets in Japan aren’t named. Godzilla St. is an exception. From one end of the street you can look up…and there he is…tearing through the Hotel Gracery as he rampages Tokyo for the umpteenth time. Now, the hotel itself is located on top of a Toho movie theater…hence the Godzilla. Thankfully, the hotel is gracious enough to let people not staying there into the lobby to experience their mini Godzilla museum, including a timeline of all the films…but the main attraction is the big G himself. Yes, there’s a balcony you can go out on to stand alongside the giant Godzilla head, read some of the history of the monster and take in a few bas relief sculptures too. Like my experiences to this point, it’s a touch disappointing with how small the display is…but the giant head definitely makes it all worthwhile. Did I mention he roars every hour? [Until 10 PM, you know, so they don’t think it’s a REAL Godzilla rampage. – Ed.] I was certainly glad that I did this right after my visit to the Godzilla store…if only it were closer or actually co-located.
For as good as all this sounds, well, I’m not sure if you HAVE to do this…but I opted to cover my bases just in case. You see…in order to get out on the balcony to mix it up with the King of the Monsters, you’ve gotta buy something from the hotel’s restaurant which, I gotta admit, is a little pricey. I opted for one of the cheaper deserts (which still ran me the equivalent of about $14…grrr…) then, once I finished, made my way outside. And…sure enough, I didn’t have to wait long for my presence to rile the big lug. Sure, it was cheesy and it was touristy…but damn was it fun.
At this point, as much as I wanted to hit the Samurai Museum, I’d spent so much time figuring out Google Maps’ inability to guide me without confusing either me or just basking in the feeling of life throughout the city that my body was telling me it was time to head home and crash. Besides, there was more of this stuff to do tomorrow.
Day 2 – Did you know Ultraman is a racist?
Day 2 had a lot of ground to cover…literally…as I’d be bouncing around a lot of the different districts of Tokyo starting at the Snoopy Museum and ending my day at Diver City, right on the water, to pay my respects to the Life-Sized Gundam there.
Yeah, that sentence was full of things you weren’t expecting, wasn’t it? Who knew Snoopy has his own museum in Tokyo? Yet he does. Not only that, but it’s pretty damn popular. Here’s what I mean…and mind you, I only found this out after my perplexing and not all together fruitful visit. As it turns out, the Snoopy Museum, while I was there, was in its last week at its then-current location. Turns out they were moving to a larger place that will not open until later in 2019. As such, for this last hurrah, they were selling tickets for 2 hour time blocks to visit the museum one last time. And they were completely sold out. So there was no way in hell I was getting in. Still, there was enough neat stuff on the outside of the building…some Snoopy statues and such…for me to grab some pics, show people that yes, apparently Peanuts is big in Japan and move along on my way to my next stop…Tokyo Tower.
On my way there, which is not that far of a walk, I passed by a Ferrari dealership which would have ordinarily surprised me except for the fact that as I was exiting my hotel that morning, I was greeted with the sight of someone passing by in a Lamborghini Diablo. Apparently such things are not that difficult to come by in Tokyo! It’s about here where I also started noticing the abundance of cigarette vending machines. Walking past the Russian Consulate was an interesting experience, given that there were PLENTY of armed guards…and for any conspiracy theory buffs [Ben? I know you’re around here somewhere… - Ed.] I have to admit I was a touch surprised to pass by a Masonic Lodge. Weird.
But it wasn’t long before I found myself before Tokyo Tower…the structure that tells you whether or not you’re an actual kaiju or not. If you’ve taken it down, then you’ve got your monster credentials in check, if you haven’t…get out of here you poser! Once you get inside, well, honestly, the first three floors really are just a shopping center. The anime One Piece had taken over the entire second floor with some sort of Halloween thing…and I must admit that one of the anime shops there had merch for both Neon Genesis Evangellion and Ghost in the Shell…which I certainly wasn’t expecting! The first floor shops had more of a flea market feeling to them for the most part…yes, including many Asian knock off toys which were certainly tempting to pick up. Still, I was here for the view and so it was up to the observation deck.
While it’s certainly not the tallest structure in Tokyo…nor even the tallest structure with the purpose of viewing the entirety of the city (that’s the Tokyo Skytree…which I didn’t have time for)…the views from just the observation deck are impressive. It’s amazing to see the city spread out in all directions…stopped only by the waters of various harbors or the Pacific herself. My initial plan was to only go to the observation deck but at this point, I couldn’t help myself…I had to go to the top. This is where it gets touristy. They give you a headset and MP3 device that walks you through the story of how the Tower was built as well as how it embodies the spirit of Tokyo (which strangely makes Godzilla seem more…ahem…rapey) with all the prerequisite cheese that one would expect but to be honest, it’s kinda worth it. Once at the top, it’s pretty cramped but it’s definitely worth the view. To provide a pertinent example, well, it just so happened that I could see my western-most destination from there: Diver City, home of the Gundam.
But before that, I had another Godzilla themed stop to make: Ginza, home of a new Godzilla statue commemorating the release of Shin Godzilla in 2016…one of my favorite films in the series. [That you STILL haven’t reviewed, by the way. – Ed.] This is where Google and I got into a fight…which means this might be the paragraph to talk about travelling in Tokyo. Let me say, first and foremost, that I would give ANYTHING…whether it’s my left arm, my left testicle or my immortal soul…to have a train system like theirs over here…especially in Seattle. Their train system is quick, efficient and gives you access to the ENTIRE city. ALL. OF. IT. Heck, even Google couldn’t fuck that up. That’s one positive I’ll give ‘em…Google is great at telling you what train you need to be on to get to where you want to go. Once you get off that train though…you’re fucked. I’ll get back to that in a bit though…let me finish my verbal blow job to the train system first. The stations, while hectic, have plenty of helpful signs and arrows and, much to their credit, staff there are incredibly helpful and can spot a confused face from at least 5 yards away and are always ready to spring into action. That confused face, yeah, that’s likely Google’s fault. On the surface, you would think ‘yeah, Google maps should be able to guide me to anyplace I want to go’…but the reality is far more bastardized…and EXTREMELY confusing. Google maps can tell you where you are and show you where you need to be but to actually navigate from point A to point B is an infuriating ride. My personal experience was that Google never had me facing the right direction. As such, I’d either have to turn the map around (and there were times where my phone wasn’t exactly keen on letting me do that) or mentally have to reverse the directions in my head. More often than not, this usually resulted in any of my walks starting out with travelling in the wrong direction for a couple of blocks before figuring out which direction I SHOULD be going in. Oh…and if your phone gets any sort of interruption at all, be it a phone call, text message or hell even just the screen dimming…then you have to start all over again in having to figuring everything out. My reactions to this ran the gamut with regard to emotional responses: from mild annoyance to a level of tearful frustration that nearly saw the death of my phone on foreign soil at least twice.
Why the segue? Well, because thanks to Google, I was trapped in Ginza maybe a little longer than I wanted to be.
My next stop was one of the main reasons I made the trip: the life-sized Gundam statue at Diver City. Initially, this was a statue of the original RX-78-2 Gundam from the very first series but a few years ago it was replaced by the more recent Unicorn Gundam. For me, it didn’t matter…a life-sized Gundam was a thing I needed to behold. Upon reaching my destination, the sun was already well into setting and, given that this part of Tokyo is situated right on the water, the cool sea breeze was in full swing taking a bite out of the day’s heat. So already I was in a happy place but adding to that was the park right there by the train station. After what was feeling like a busy day of sightseeing and traveling, this was a refreshing moment that put the wind back in my sails.
And then I saw it. And the show had already begun.
I can’t remember the time intervals, but the Gundam…like Shinjuku’s Godzilla…has a show to go with it: lights, music…and armor plating that shifts revealing the mobile suit’s hyper-mode. If there’s any moment in my trip to Japan that I can point to and say “Yeah, that right there? That was perfect,” this would be it. The weather, my surroundings and a giant mobile suit…it was a small moment but it was amazing. Sure, there were some tourists there like me but most of everyone there (as I suppose you’d expect, given that the Gundam is in front of a shopping mall) were locals. Still, everyone stopped to take in the grandeur of the statue, even if just for a little bit. To go full-blown nerd for a moment, this moment was very much what Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Picard was trying to tell Data in First Contact as the elder starship captain reached out to touch the vessel that would make the first warp flight: suddenly all of the Gundam series I’ve watched became that much more real to me. To suddenly feel and know the scale of these mecha when compared to me, a tiny human…well, I won’t say I burst into tears like Guillermo del Toro when he stood before it while he was doing publicity for the first Pacific Rim but I TOTALLY get why he did. For me, it was a total Zen moment and, in retrospect, my favorite moment from the entire trip.
This might be the reason why I have such a fondness for the Diver City mall itself. Naturally, my first stop was to the outdoor Gundam shop at the foot of the statue to buy some prerequisite tourist swag. Once inside the mall though, I experienced something that’s becoming less and less common here in the States: a healthy mall full of shops and patrons, those shops as diverse in nature as the malls of my youth. And if I was going to be vulnerable to a hit of nostalgia…well, this was probably the best time for it. Alas, I was blissfully unaware of the time while I was there…because I emerged from the mall 5 minutes before the Toys R Us in the next building closed. A missed opportunity…but perhaps for the best given what my destination was for the next day. So, it’s with this calm and peaceful feeling that I made my way back to the train station for my last destination for the night before returning to the hotel.
One last interlude which will give away my last experience of the day but it’s worth its own paragraph…because if you’re thinking of going to Japan, this needs to be in the back of your mind. You see, before I starting putting together my trip, a friend of mine who’s been over there several times gave me a bit of a warning. “90% of the places you go to, there won’t be any issue but there’s a small number of places that you’ll want to go to that just won’t let you in, simply because you’re American.” And he was right, nearly everyplace I went to was totally fine with me being…well…me. But now, unfortunately I have to tell you about Kaiju Sakaba in the Shimbashi train station.
The moment I heard about Kaiju Sakaba, I KNEW it had to factor into any trip to Japan I would take. A theme bar based off the giant monsters of the various Ultraman series? FUCK. YES. I needed to go. Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign that Google was pulling its usual shenanigans…leading me so close to the place and then, like a dog distracted by a squirrel, going completely bonkers almost ensuring I’d never find the place. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a sign pointing the way and found myself at their doorstep. In front of me were two Japanese guys, laughing and basking in the nostalgia that the place may have provided them with…or maybe they were laughing at the whole idea of the place, I can’t really say. The greeter came out to meet them, all smiles, made them swear an oath against Ultraman and to the kaiju that opposed him and then took them back to be seated. When said greeter came back to me, his expression had altered drastically. It was a face of stone. Now, it should be pointed out that I arrived there at around 9:30 PM their time and their regular hours had them closing at 11:00 PM…so I had an hour and a half to grab dinner, have some drinks and buy some swag. Easy peasy. By the time the greeter made it to me, he reached behind a podium to pull out a sign that informed me that my table wouldn’t be ready for TWO HOURS. Now, sure, I don’t speak Japanese but I pointed out that “you guys are only open for another hour and a half”…in some ways kind of as a test…and sure enough, he pointed directly back to the TWO HOURS part of the sign. I might be wrong, but it certainly felt like he knew EXACTLY what I’d said. And that’s when it hit me…and I heard my friend’s words echo in my head. “Okay, I know what this is,” I said to him as I left. Sure, I could’ve tried to buy some merchandise anyway…and yeah, I could’ve tried their other location down in Kawasaki but I figured there was no point. No place or franchise that was going to treat me like that was worth my money. Now, I’m not going to do what most internet travelers and bloggers would do and bemoan how I was a victim of racism or claim that I even remotely understand what people who’ve dealt with this all their lives feel…but just this little taste was an eye-opener. And while I’ve never been a racist, I now even take a little more time to evaluate what I do and how I do it…because I never want to make anyone feel the way I did in that moment.
Day 3 – The Akihabara Marathon
[Next day edit...totally forgot to tell you how I spent the start of day 3!] During the early summer, I caught word of an animation museum opening highlighting the span of Toei's various Anime series. Naturally, this climbed quickly onto my to-do list! As neither my memory nor my patience allow me to cover ALL of their more famous series, I'll highlight the ones that I love: Mazinger Z and its various spin-offs, Captain Harlock, the individual series that would later become Voltron in the US and the three Japan exclusive Transformers series...and the well-known ones...it hurts to type these by the way: Dragon Ball Z (and all subsequent...sigh...outings) and Sailor Moon. [You fought back the impulse to say excrement. I'm proud of you. - Ed.] So, hoping to get a look behind the scenes of some of my favorite series, I set my sights on the museum in Nerima.
Now, don't get me wrong, what was there was cool: a huge screen where you can pull up the various series that the studio had worked on, a wall showing the animation process...from paper drawings to cells to finished product (neither of these were visitors allowed to take pictures of) and finally some stand-ups from some of their more recent popular shows and a tiny gift shop that's geared more toward the feminine...but my feeling here was similar to what I felt in the Godzilla Store, underwhelming. It would have been cooler if there was...more. But who knows? Maybe I missed something.
From here...it was time. At long last, it was time to go to Akihabara.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Everything you’ve EVER heard about Akihabara?
All of it.
If your mission in going to Japan is to score all sorts of toys, comics, manga, anime or anything associated with the Otaku culture, then Japan’s Electric City MUST factor into your travel plans. And even then…you’re likely not prepared for what lies in store for you. You see, my plan was to put my outing to Akihabara in the middle of my trip that way I could spend some money elsewhere before falling into the trap that I knew this stop would be for my bank account. In some ways, this part of the plan was pretty good…as I was able to score souvenirs from most of my other stops. In one way though…well…let’s just say that had I gone to Akihabara first, sure, I wouldn’t have had any money to spend for the remainder of my trip, but I’d have scored one of my personal holy grails. Part 2 of where my plan failed was only allotting one day for Akihabara. No. No way. You need two.
Why? I went into a total of 6 stores before I finally had to head back home as my feet, legs and back had formed an armed resistance against my brain. And not without reason, as the number of bags I was carrying certainly had to be a factor. By the end of my day, I was using my umbrella as a cane and walking VERY much like I expect to when I’m 70-something.
“Seriously…only SIX stores?” I hear you asking, oh voice of the interwebs. Yeah, only six…and I’ll tell you why: Each store has anywhere from SIX TO EIGHT floors full of things you’re going to want to check out aisle by aisle, floor by floor. Collectible card games? Yup, there’s a whole floor for that. Video games? Yup. Same. Action figures? Yup. Whole floor. Sometimes two. Various mecha (Transformers, Gundam, Mazinger and so forth)? Oh yeah, same as action figures…one, sometimes two floors. And if there’s a hit anime you’re into? There may just be an entire floor devoted to that too…depending on how the popularity of that series is doing in Japan. It was a toy shopping experience like no other and, if I’m totally honest…one I still kinda dream about. Oh, remember I mentioned a whole floor devoted to video games? I should point out that if you’re planning to do some shopping for new games, you’re not going to be very successful if you’re looking for anything for the Xbox consoles. Like anyone in the west, you hear stories of how the Xbox has never really found footing in Japan and that PlayStation and Nintendo are king in the Land of the Rising Sun…but to actually SEE the COMPLETE AND UTTER absence of ANY Xbox merch on store shelves was just…wow. To illustrate my point, of the 6 stores I went to, they all had video game floors…but in only one of those stores I found a small block of five…FIVE…Xbox One games. That’s it. It was almost like Thanos’ finger-snap wiped anything Xbox out of existence over there.
Now, there’s a special paragraph here set aside for Mandarake…and there’s only been a handful of times where I’ve ever felt this kind of shopping bliss…convinced that everything I ever wanted could exist under one roof. And yes, sadly, that does include my holy grail…which I was forced to let slip through my fingers once again. [Wimp. Eating is overrated…toys are forever! – Ed.] When I was in college, I found a store called Media Play…a bookstore, movie store, toy store and video game store all in one. They went out of business shortly after the turn of the millennium. When I moved to Tucson, there was Bookmans…mostly like the aforementioned Media Play…but most of what was for sale was used. Upon moving here to Seattle, that honor goes to BobaKhan Toys [Sorry Everett Comics…but you’re a solid #2 in my book! Wait…not like that. Not the poop kind of #2, the second place but still very awesome kind! – Ed.]. But Mandarake has them all beat…if for no other reason than the fact that they too abide by the standard Akihabara floor plan: one floor for manga, one floor for video games, one floor for anime…so on and so forth…well, except for the fact that it was two floors for many of the genres: 2 for manga, 2 for action figures and I lost count after a while. Hell, I never made it to the ground floor…I came in the side entrance that started me on level 3! And there’s even a floor devoted to not only the most recent video games, but old school Famicom (NES), Super Famicom (SNES), Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) and more. As much as I wanted to plumb the depths, the way it was set up, you’d either have to pull every game from the shelf to look at its front or know Japanese to be able to read the names on the side…and I was way too tired for that. For any likeminded nerds or collectors, it’s a place you have to see to believe. Sure, the presentation isn’t all there…hell, there are some aisles you’ll be walking down and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a thrift shop of some sort (and in a way, you are) oh…and the aisles are EXTREMELY NARROW! So, if you’ve got a bit of girth to you, you might want to think about slimming up before braving the store.
Volk’s is also worth a mention here, not only for their friendly English-speaking staff but also for having Power of the Primes Optimal Optimus for me to buy before I’d even seen it in the States!
And that’s the thing about Akihabara: I just went into 6 stores. Sega has FOUR arcades there, at least two of them with classic machines inside. But I just didn’t have the stamina. Heaven only knows what else is there…because it REALLY feels like I only saw the tip of the iceberg. So…seriously, if you’re thinking of going…TWO DAYS!
Day 4 – A day for rest, mourning and UTTER MADNESS!
The fourth day of my trip was September 21st…the birthday of my late sister and all the depression that comes with it. So, combining that with the residual aching in my legs and the showery weather of the day, it seemed like the perfect day to just keep my butt in the hotel room.
Okay, that and I was slightly hungover.
Wait…what? At no point did I mention alcohol consumption.
Let’s rewind to the close of Day 3. I hurt all over and, given my fatigue, I didn’t exactly want to play culinary Russian roulette. As such, there was a McDonalds on the way home and…yeah, I totally caved. Extra value meal in hand, I returned to my room where…upon looking to my left, I saw the vending machine room. Now, I’ve already mentioned vending machines at least once…I think. (I’ve been writing this over several days and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the cigarette machines already.) But here, I hit the jackpot…and NO, I’m not referring to the ones with the women’s panties. Nope. Before me stood the booze vending machine…beer and whiskey and scotch, OH MY! And here’s where I realized the trap and the beauty of Japan’s mostly coin-based currency. Seriously…their smallest bill is 1000 yen…which is roughly $10. Anyway, back to my point, it’s SOOOOOOOO much easier to spend at a vending machine. You’re not thinking ‘Hey, I’m spending about $1.25 for a beer’, you’re thinking ‘For one 500 yen coin I’m getting FOUR beers?!? JACKPOT!!!’ Or, you know, two beers if you’re opting for the tallboys. And you SHOULD be opting for the tallboys. The moral of the story? SOOOOOOO easy to get knackered on a simple vending machine. My poisons of choice were the little half-cans of Suntory whiskey diluted down to 9% ABV mixed with Pepsi. That’s what I was drinking while indulging my grief and, as such, what had me feeling hungover.
Now…let’s talk about Robot Restaurant.
By evening, the rain had subsided. I had bought my tickets via the website Voyagin.com and I’d recommend doing something similar. The tickets for the show can run up to $90 while you can find web deals like on Voyagin for 25-35% off.
Walking to the show was very much like my first day in Shinjuku…making my way in the general direction of the giant Godzilla. And if you look on the map, sure enough, Robot Restaurant is very close to the big G. But if you look closely at the map…you’ll soon see that Robot Restaurant is in a different neighborhood: Kabukijo. In other words…Toykyo’s Red Light District. Now, Robot Restaurant is just on the border between Kabukijo and Shinjuku…so depending on when you go may depend on your experience while waiting to get inside the show. I went to the last show…9 PM…and it was a Friday night…and fortunately, I had no problems: no one trying to get me in a strip club, no one trying to proposition me (if you know what I mean and I think you do), no shady characters that looked like they might have some thievery on their mind…nothing of the sort. However, in hearing from my friend that’s been to Japan many times as well as some of the online reviews, all of the above are possible. I can tell you only my own experience…and my experience was essentially ‘what if Tokyo put Mardi Gras and Blade Runner in a blender’.
Okay, so you’ve got your ticket and you’re getting ready to go into the show. Well, first thing’s first…you’re not heading to the show right away, you’re first heading into the lounge where you can purchase food and drinks, including alcohol…and you’re gonna be here for about a half hour, give or take. If you read up on the place before going, most reviews of the food are…ahem…lukewarm at best. Many of them will tell you to eat beforehand…never a good sign. I took this advice, so I can’t tell you how the food was…but I can tell you it did smell pretty good, so I’m uncertain as to whether or not the reviews are warranted. Now, I didn’t eat, but yeah, I had three beers and let me tell you, you’re gonna need something to grease up the mental gears because once it’s showtime, your brain will never be the same again.
When talking about his failed attempt to create a Dune film, Alejandro Jodorowski says, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted to create for the audience a film that would simulate taking LSD although the audience would not have taken the substance. When descending the staircase down to the show floor, you understand EXACTLY what he was trying to do. The walls of the staircase are lined with insane colors and, as you go deeper, then wall-mounted sculptures such as salamanders and devils’ heads start popping out of the mosaic. All of this while your descent is lit by flashing colorful lights…each light rendering some colors invisible while magnifying others. Just by the bottom of the staircase, mind you, the show hasn’t even thought about starting yet, I’m pretty convinced that I now know what it’s like to trip balls.
I had no idea what lay in store for me.
What follows is four “acts” with three intermissions. It is loud. It is gaudy. It is extremely tourist-trappy. It is every Japanese stereotype you can think of wrapped up into an hour and 30 minutes.
And it is the most amazing thing you will ever see.
Don’t believe me? Fine, I’ll tell you how the show starts: First, there are giant rotating traditional Japanese drum sets moving back and forth on the show floor, percussionists in full costume while the sets themselves rest on animatronic robots. And these guys are going to fucking town on those drums. I mean, like a boss. If I’m even using that right. Then enter the ninjas with electric guitars.
Seriously. If you’re not interested by now, check your pulse…you might be dead. Or on the wrong website.
The best way for me to move forward is to simply retype the text message I sent my brother-in-law after I got out of the show:
“It was AMAZING! And soooo many knock offs. I’m surprised the copyright police have not descended on this place! There was knock-off Raphael with a flamethrower, knock-off Terminators, a knock-off xenomorph from Alien, an awesome laser show with knock-off Darth Maul, knock-off Michael Jackson (he’s STILL big in Japan!) tons of dancing tiny Japanese girls, dragons, robots, Gatling guns…oh, and knock-off Kung Fu Panda. Did I mention knock-off Mothra? Yeah, knock-off Mothra. And there’s not a lick of coherence to ANY of it! Thank god I had those beers…a sober mind would’ve exploded by now!”
As you can see from that message, the lack of coherence was contagious. Initially, I thought about taking pictures throughout the show but by a minute in…no. No, no, no, no. When you go to something like this, you don’t try to document. There are videos on YouTube, look them up if you’re curious. When you’re there though, you let the experience flood over you. Don’t struggle against it…like I said, your head will explode if you do…simply ride the wave and let it take you where it will.
Enjoy the trip…because, like Crazy Uncle Jodo tried to do so many years ago…you just tripped the light fantastic…and you didn’t have to take a thing.
On the way home, it was time to eat…and there was one thing I hadn’t done yet: actual Japanese Ramen. And luckily, there was a 24 hour joint on the way home.
Ichiran Ramen in Shinjuku manages to do two things: illustrate some of my favorite features of eating out in Japan and display how Japan can be EXTREMELY serious about the strangest things. When eating out in Japan, especially as someone that doesn’t speak the language, in the more traditional restaurants you’re going to end up pointing at what you want from a menu, saying it in English and hope they understand or trying not to butcher the Japanese name of the item. However, Ichiran was like a few of the other restaurants that I’d eaten at…and it was a unique experience well suited to the international traveler suffering from a language barrier. When you first enter the restaurant, you’re greeted by what looks to be a vending machine with large buttons…each button displaying a menu item…and like any vending machine, you put your coins or bills in and make your selection. This results in a ticket being printed out. You take the ticket and hand it to your greeter or maître‘d or whatever…hell, sometimes it’s the cook him(or her)self. In this instance, it was a greeter who then hands you another menu asking for your input: how firm or soft do you want your noodles? How spicy? So on and so forth. And, to help first time visitors like myself, there are dotted circles around the normal options…how most people order it. As you’re being seated, the greeter will take this from you…leaving you with one last menu: extras. Do you want extra meat? Extra noodles? Dessert? From here, you’re led to your seat, which is practically an isolation booth. I’m not joking. You have a stool to sit on and to your left and right there are dividers that keep you from making any contact from those beside you. In front of you, there’s a retractable blind where your food comes from and a rectangular button to summon a member of the kitchen staff to take your extras menu from you. As said extras menu requires additional funds, yup, you guessed it, the tray returns. Toward the front, on your left, there’s a stack of ceramic mugs and a tap for you to get your own water. [Holy hell that’s an ingenious idea! Imagine if it were soda…OR BEER!!! – Ed.] Essentially, it’s set up like you’re either studying for your exams or you’re getting ready to sit down for a peepshow. Regardless…not your typical eating setup. The signs, some of which are in English, explain that the restaurant is set up with way so that you can focus on the flavors of your ramen. And, like me, right now you’re likely thinking “Dammit Japan, they’re noodles! Not the cure for cancer!”
Still, they are damn good noodles. Cheap too. And…truth be told, places like this should be MANDATORY for college campuses, pub crawls and bar hops or anywhere there are people working round the clock because even now, given my rotating shift work, it would totally be worth it to hit a joint like this after the bars close or after a swing shift at the office.
Well…minus the isolation booths of course. Unless I’m gonna be winning a million dollars if I answer a trivia question correctly…then yeah, keep the isolation booths.
Day 5 – Tokyo Game Show
Any blogger or YouTuber you read or watch will tell you to look into what’s going on in Tokyo when you go…because all sorts of things pop up with little to no advance warning.
Because imagine my surprise when, in the week before I made my flight out, I realized two events would be going on while I was there. The first was a week-long sumo wrestling tournament…and holy crap that would’ve been awesome. But once again my good buddy Johnny came to the rescue, in forming me that if I didn’t make it to the ticket counter by 6 AM for that day’s matches, I could forget it. And there’s one thing I learned from this trip, it doesn’t matter what hemisphere, what time zone I can be in, I’m just not someone that will wake up before noon no matter where I am. So, the sumo tournament wasn’t going to happen for me. However, there was also Tokyo Game Show going on. This is their equivalent of E3, where game developers gather and present the games that are currently under development or getting ready to hit the shelves. Here in the States, E3 is open to the public, but tickets will run you anywhere from $150-250…or upwards if you get them on the secondary market.
Imagine how I felt when I found out I could get into Tokyo Game Show for 1000 yen.
And it was everything you’d want in a video games expo, plenty of booths, lots of impressive games and demos, booth babes, sooooo many cosplayers and yet another instance where I was a kid in a candy store. Especially since my favorite video game series was there showing off not only one, but TWO games. Sure, Earth Defense Force 5 has been available in Japan for over a year now…and yes, I do have a Japanese copy…but here they were demoing the English version…and since it was going to be the only game here I could understand, OF COURSE I had to play it! The best thing though was being able to play the NEXT installment: EDF – Heavy Rain. Sure, it was in Japanese and yeah, it’s made by different developers but…c’mon, it’s EDF…of course it was AWESOME! I also managed to get looks at Sega’s booth where they’re focusing on getting their retro catalog out there, Kingdom Hearts had plenty of concept art on display and Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 redux had a large footprint at the show with actual zombies present. In fact, my lack of pictures mainly comes from sheer sensory overload in a week full of sensory overload! There were gaming competitions there too…Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds was there…and I even got to see someone in a medical tent recovering from a tournament…which, I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or if I needed to tell the kid to get a life.
The location of the show was on the opposite side of Tokyo from where I was staying. Hell, Diver City could’ve been the halfway point! Had I planned a bit better, a couple of stops prior to the show was Tokyo Disney…and prior to that stop was another amusement park. Ah well, stuff for me to discover next time.
At this point, my feet were tired and, with it being my last full day in Japan, I opted to return to the hotel a little early to prep for my trip home.
Some last thoughts…
If you’ve ever thought about going to Japan, I have one single word of advice:
There are some things to keep in mind though. Do your homework. You don’t need to book yourself any sort of tour…but make a list of places that you want to see and make some maps. Google will help you out, especially with the trains, but you certainly don’t want to rely on it! Speaking of Google, be sure to either talk to your cellular provider about getting cell coverage there or do what I did and hop online and have a Wi-Fi device waiting for you at the airport for pick-up, taking care of all your connectivity issues in one fell swoop. Knowing the language isn’t necessary, as you’ll get along mostly fine without it…but the more you do know, the richer your experience will likely be. (And the more helpful locals will be.) I’m certainly not planning on returning until I have some basic phrases under my belt for next time. Circling back to places you want to go, remember that while most places are going to be happy to see you and your money, there are going to be some isolated places that will simply want nothing to do with you…for no other reason than you are not Japanese. This is CERTAINLY in the minority…as I can’t tell you how many individual shops, restaurants, museums and so forth that I visited and only ONE turned me away. [Seriously, fuck Kaiju Sakaba. – Ed.] Still, you need to keep it in the back of your head…just in case.
For the most part though, Japan is everything a geek, nerd or otaku could ever hope for, anime music in the streets, adverts for video games and anime everywhere and shops devoted to some of the craziest themes you could imagine. It’s not cheap to go…and it’s even more expensive when you get there (simply due to the amount of everything you’re gonna want to buy…ESPECIALLY in Akihabara), but it’s a trip you’ll never forget.
And it’ll make your friends INSANELY jealous. Isn’t that reason enough?