Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Japan '08: Shinjuku

Shinjuku looking southeast (Tokyo Tower is the orangish spire at center on the horizon).

Shinjuku, in west-central Tokyo, is the place with all the giant skyscrapers familiar from travel brochures. The most recognizable structure in the area is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, with its twin towers. You can take the elevator to an observation deck on the 45th floor for free, for superb views of the greater Tokyo area.

This is the view out to the northeast, towards Hongou and my home base at Homeikan Ryokan. It's too far away to see much detail in that part of the city--Tokyo is mind-bogglingly huge--but I'm pretty sure you can make out Tokyo Dome a little right of center, which is fairly close to where I was staying.

Shinjuku is a high-powered business and government oriented place, with attendant upscale and semi-upscale restaurants where we wound up eating dinner on several occasions. We tried Toriyoshi on our first full day in Japan, on the recommendation of Ray's friends Manami and Hiromi. Toriyoshi is a small chain of restaurants that specializes in yakitori and other chicken-oriented dishes, and was good, if not exactly my thing. Ootoya, a nationwide chain, is highly recommended for tasty food, including many seasonal items, at reasonable prices.

The one significant failure of the trip occured in Shinjuku: we tried to catch Biohazard: Degeneration (A.K.A. Resident Evil: Degeneration) in the theater on its opening day, but it was sold out by the time we tried to get tickets. As setbacks go, that was pretty minor; Biohazard was relatively low on my list of movies to see in Japan.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Japan '08: Akiba Fun

Nanoha-themed itasha on a Sunday in Akiba.

In some ways it's easier to deal with Akihabara on week days, but to get the full effect it is necessary to visit on a weekend, when the sidewalks and streets are crammed with otaku weirdos (and I mean otaku weirdos in the best possible sense: good people, salt of the earth). The crowd in the background of this photo isn't lined up for anything; there are just a lot of people everywhere on a Saturday or Sunday in Akiba. Supposedly, the crowds have thinned out a bit since a violent incident this past summer, but when I was there in October it wasn't exactly obvious how more people could have been fit into the place.

The anime and game-themed cars in the photo are known as itasha, and are owned by dedicated fans, not created as some kind of advertising gimmick. I saw about half a dozen different itasha around Akiba on various visits, plus an Aria Company car in Hongou near my ryokan (probably heading to Akiba).

Kannagi display outside of Tora no Ana, with suspicious foreigner.

Kannagi posters and ads were all over the place in Akihabara, but since the anime had just started, there weren't any Kannagi-related goods for sale except the original manga. That's probably just as well, because I probably would have feverishly snapped up anything that was available. This photo was taken mid-morning, while it was still possible to find some elbow room in front of Tora no Ana. The shops in Akiba keep otaku hours--meaning almost nothing opens before 10 or 11:00 AM--which was generally inconvenient but allowed for some unhurried early photography.

Evangelion coin lockers in Akiba.

Good ol' Evangelion is still popular, and probably experiencing a resurgence with the new movies now being produced. I should have taken a photo of the wall of lockers labeled with takeoffs on Eva jargon and episode titles, too ("Luggage Instrumentality Project," etc.). There are also new Evangelion pachinko machines, and pachinko parlors everywhere, not just in Akihabara, were heavily advertising them. I tried pachinko once, and couldn't wait for the game to finish, so I didn't actually feel the need to blow 2000 yen this time, even with the lure of an Eva theme.

Higurashi related ads inside of the Akihabara Animate.

I was happy to see that the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni franchise is still going strong, though I was in Japan a little too early to pick up a copy of Higurashi Daybreak Portable (the Higurashi fighting game(!)) for the PSP, advertised in the center poster. I did get some DVDs, fake Furude Shrine charms and other cool Higurashi swag.

Aso Tarou billboard along Chuo Street in Akihabara.

One of the stranger sights around Akiba this fall was the cartoon visage of Japan's Prime Minister as of September, Tarou Aso, on signs and packaged snacks, coupled with slogans like "Oretachi no Tarou" ("Our Tarou"). Aso has the reputation of being an avid manga reader, and friendly to otaku interests, if not exactly an otaku himself.

Signs outside of Maid Cafe Pinafore.

Just outside of the station on our first trip to Akihabara, the gang and I were approached by a cameraman and an interpreter working for Nihon TV, who were filming a special on otaku for News REALTIME, a national news magazine-type show. We talked for a while, and while the NTV crew seemed mainly interested in the subject of gravure idols--about which none of us (except maybe Ray) knows anything--we wound up taking a mini-tour of Akiba with the cameraman and then heading for lunch at Maid Cafe Pinafore, with the drinks on NTV. For the ordinary civilians reading this, maid cafes are mainly an Akiba phenomenon, sort of like Hooters but with French maid-ish outfits instead of short shorts for the waitresses.

So, we had lunch, did some interviewing, and hammed it up for the camera with the maids. Our hosts said that they would contact one of my Japanese friends before the segment aired, but nothing happened for quite a while, and I thought that was the end of it. But just last week, I found out that the RealTime otaku show had been broadcast on Thanksgiving, after being postponed three times, and that my friend Ryoko had recorded it (thanks, R.-san!). I received a DVD the other day, and while I think that our segment wasn't as embarrassing as most of the other extended interviews, we were clearly playing the role of crazy foreigners with an excessive interest in goofy Japanese pop culture. It's a fair cop, but society's to blame.

The News RealTime otaku show.

After Cafe Pinafore and the end of our Japanese TV career, Sujith was done with maid cafes, but Ray and I checked out other establishments on subsequent Akiba runs. The @home cafe is probably the best known maid cafe, to the point where it can be hard to get a seat, but it clearly deserves its solid reputation. Cafe With Cat, which occupies a floor at Tora no Ana ("The Tiger's Den"), was also quite nice.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Japan '08: Akihabara Introduction

The Akihabara district has been known since the post-war period as Tokyo's "Electric Town," and there are still plenty of places to buy consumer electronics, and even a few claustrophobic shopping arcades with tiny shops selling diodes and resistors. But in the past decade, "Akiba" has become the center of 2-dimensional culture in Japan, steadily overtaken by waves of anime shops, arcades, visual novel stalls, maid cafes and doujinshi (fan-produced work) stores. No doubt the transition from open air home appliance outlet mall to moe Märchenland has been upsetting for some, but it's made things vastly more interesting to otaku like me: I didn't even bother visiting Akihabara when I was in Tokyo ten years ago (instead doing anime shopping in Shibuya and Nakano), but I practically lived in the place this time around.

Radio Kaikan; note the billboard for Toaru Majutsu no Index, one of the better new TV anime for the autumn season.

Akiba is completely overwhelming at first, but it's easy enough to start exploring. Akihabara Channel has a nice annotated map for planning ahead of time. Take the Electric Town exit from the JR Akihabara Station, and you'll find yourself on a closed off side street. Just across the way is yellow neon sign, marking the Radio Kaikan building, which is not only a good landmark for meetings with friends, but also hosts critical shopping locations K-Books and Kotobukiya. Kotobukiya offers a relatively non-threatening mainstream anime character-goods shopping experience, while K-Books is deep otaku territory. Radio Kaikan is also the meeting place for free Akiba tours, which are offered on a somewhat irregular basis and must be booked in advance. I wanted to try the tour, but the timing never worked out.
Looking towards the Akiba Electric Town Exit, across Chuo Street; Gamers on the left and the Radio Kaikan sign peeking out on the lower right.

Just up the street and opposite Radio Kaikan is the Akihabara branch of Gamers, one of two nationwide chains specializing in official anime character-goods (their competition is Animate). There is usually an information table on the sidewalk outside of Gamers, which offers free maps in English or Japanese. Past Gamers is the main drag through Akiba, Chuo Street, along which are located doujinshi emporium Tora no Ana, Animate, and several branches of electronics/DVD/game retailer Sofmap. On the far side of Chuo Street, to the northwest of the train station, is a warren of minor streets where the bulk of the remaining Akiba attractions are located, including Mandarake, Geestore Akiba (COSPA), and dozens and dozens of smaller independent shops and maid cafes.

More Akiba fun later...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Japan '08: Odaiba

Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo, from the Decks Tokyo Beach shopping mall.

One afternoon, my friends and I trekked out to Odaiba, an area of modern developments on artificial land in Tokyo Bay. First stop was the Decks shopping mall, where we had lunch buffet (baikingu, or viking style as they say in Japan) at an Indian restaurant, Khazana. The food was pretty good, and the place had an outdoor terrace with a fantastic view over the bay to Tokyo. There was hardly anyone else around; presumably Decks would be a lot more crowded on a weekend.

Sujith and Initial D Arcade Stage 4 Limited.

We visited Tokyo Joypolis at Decks, mainly to check out some new video games. Joypolis is either a very large arcade, or an ultracompact amusement park, depending on how you look at it. Sujith waited in a short line (an advantage of coming on a weekday) to play Initial D 4, on a special setup with real cars on actuators. He didn't win his race, but he chose a tough course and the strongest opponent, against the recommendation of the attendant. And, he did get to use the tofu shop car. The guys also tried out House of the Dead 4 Special, while I found an old Puyo Puyo SUN machine in a corner.

Tokyo Big Sight

On the other side of the island, we made a stop at Tokyo Big Sight, known to us fanboys as the venue for Comiket, but in use the day we were there for some sort of business convention. Some people are apparently so impressed by the craftsmanship of the pyramids in Egypt that they wonder if mere humans could have built the things; it seems to me you'd have to be pretty hopeless as an architect to fail to design a workable pyramid. But constructing a building out of upside down pyramids: that is impressive.

Public art outside of Tokyo Big Sight.

Odaiba is a strange place, like a combination theme park and city-sized corporate campus. It's all empty public space, studded with eccentric modern architecture; the atmosphere struck me as downright surreal. Even the train line that services the area is like something out of a scifi dystopia: the trains are automated, with no driver on board. It was fun to see it once, but Odaiba would be pretty low on my list of priorities for a return visit, unless there was a chance to catch a Comiket.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Japan '08: Asakusa

Kaminari Mon, the main gate leading into the temple complex and shopping arcade at Asakusa.

Probably the most famous temple and associated cultural sites in Tokyo are located in Asakusa, in the northeastern part of the city, not far from where we stayed in Hongou. The main attraction, Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, was destroyed in World War II, but rebuilt in the 1950s. Throughout October and up to November 25, they are having special celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the re-dedication of the temple.

Larger temples and shrines in Japan tend to have touristy commercial districts associated with them. The Nakamise shopping arcade inside of Kaminari Mon, along the street leading to Senso-ji, is especially extravagant. You can get a pretty decent lunch by hitting the food stalls, then shop for o-miyage (souvenirs). I bought some reproduction old fashioned money from the Nakamise Association booth, which technically could have been used like cash at Association businesses, though it seemed a shame to spend it.

Nakamise money and my fortune from Senso-ji.

Omikuji at Senso-ji Temple yielded kichi (good fortune), which is almost the best outcome. It seems to me that omikuji has a strong bias towards more or less happy fortunes; I've done it a bunch of times and never gotten one of the variations on kyou (curse or bad luck). It's too bad, because if you get kyou, you can engage in another odd little temple/shrine activity: folding up the paper and tying it to a branch or wire frame on the temple grounds, in order to undo the fortune.

Alter inside of the main hall at Senso-ji.

We visited Asakusa on a weekday, but things were still incredibly busy; the crowd was 10 people deep around the main devotional area in Senso-ji.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Japan '08: Washinomiya Shrine

On our first full day in Japan, we decided to visit Washinomiya Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, which is probably the oldest shrine in the Kanto region, having supposedly been founded by the god Amenohohi prior to 660 BCE. Rather more recently, Washinomiya has gained fame as the inspiration for some of the settings in the 2007 anime version of Lucky Star.

Washinomiya is located pretty far out in the sticks, relatively speaking, and getting there from home base in Hongou involved a couple of transfers, so the outing served as our baptism by fire into the Tokyo train system. We took it slowly, and didn't get lost. Actually, we never once got turned around on the trains the whole trip, which is partly due to preparation (Ray in particular gets props for figuring things out ahead of time), and partly due to the fact that the train system has gotten a whole lot more user friendly than it was when I was last in Tokyo, about 10 years ago. The signage in the stations and on the trains themselves is really thorough, and mostly includes romanized place names, and the stations on a line are now given consecutive numbers, which makes it easy to tell if you're going in the right direction.

Ueno Station in Tokyo, relatively quiet after rush hour.

The biggest improvement to the train system has been the introduction of prepaid fare cards that you just swipe at the gates at your starting point and destination, as opposed the old system (still available if you're a masochist) of trying to figure out what your fare is going to be from a map and buying tickets for the right amount at a vending machine. You don't even have to take the card out; it has an RFID chip that generally works if you nonchalantly wave your wallet over the reader. Probably the most important single piece of advice that I can give to prospective visitors to Tokyo is: buy a Suica or Pasmo card (the two competing card types are equivalent, so just pick one at random) as soon as you arrive at the airport. We got a special deal for tourists, that included a Suica card with some money on it and a ticket on the Narita Express from the airport to Tokyo Station at a discount price.

Washinomiya Station, with Sujith (L) and Ray (R).

Washimiya--the town--where Washinomiya--the shrine--is located, was about an hour and a half from Ueno Station, though we were taking our time and being cautious about catching the right trains. kc_komicer provides good directions. Basically, you take the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line to Kita-Senju Station. There, catch the Tobu-Isesaki Line (the main train line through Saitama). We took a rapid train to Kuki Station, then got on a local train for a one station hop to Washinomiya. There might have been other options--it looked like there was a limited express from Kita-Senju that stopped at Washinomiya--but this route seemed like it would be quick and certain.

Garden in Washimiya with orange trees, persimmons, figs, etc.

Washimiya is a pleasant, quiet place, at least late morning on a Friday; my neighborhood in rural Connecticut is noisy in comparison. Use the East exit from the station, walk up the main drag and work your way over to the wooded area visible to the left, which is Washinomiya.

Washinomiya Shrine main gate, live action and anime versions.

Sadly, neither my friends nor the old guy sitting in front of the tea shop in the photo of the actual gate were much inclined to do the dance. The Washinomiya expedition was on October 10th (Moe Day, coincidentally) but it was pretty hot, especially out in the sun. According to the natives, the weather was unusually warm for that time of year; I wished I had brought more short sleeved shirts.

Walkway inside of the gates, 3-D and Lucky Star modes.

If I was really hardcore, I would have had some printouts of key Lucky Star scenes with me, in order to search for good photos. This shot of the entryway to the shrine was just an interesting view; I noticed it was present in the anime only after my return to the U.S. It's probably just as well my preparations didn't go that far; I received enough ribbing from my Japanese friends just for visiting Saitama to see anime locales ("Uwaa, mania sugiru!" or something along those lines). Much of the shrubbery to the right in the background is Osmanthus aurantiaca, (Kinmokusei, Orange Fragrant Olive), which was in bloom and gave the whole area a citrusy smell.

A cherry tree (sakura).

Cherry trees were planted all along the main walkway; it must be nice in spring. This was a particularly gnarled old specimen that must have an associated spirit or some such in order to warrant the shimenawa (ceremonial ropes) with shide (folded paper wards) around it. If years of watching anime have taught me anything, something interesting would happen if you tripped and broke the rope. Nobody tripped. The grassy green leaves growing on the side of the trunk are an epiphytic fern, probably Lepisorus thunbergianus, that was pretty widespread on old trees in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Washinomiya Ema stand.

Shinto shrines sell wooden plaques (ema) on which visitors can write their wishes and hopes (and sometimes just random chatty observations), and provide a place to hang the finished work. Washinomiya has been getting a good amount of otaku traffic since Lucky Star aired, so there are lots of funky ema, and even a few from foreign visitors.

Before you get to the main shrine plaza, there's a washing station, where you are meant to purify yourself before entering. Ray demonstrates: you wash your left hand, then the right, then take a sip from your left hand and rinse your mouth. Most people seem to drink the water, though you should read the signs (or watch what other people do if your Nihongo is shaky), because the hand washing areas at some shrines and temples are marked as being non-potable. At right there's a really impressive female Ginkgo tree, which was just starting to shed seed. I snagged a few fallen seeds and brought them back to the US, and will have to see if I can grow some Washinomiya Ginkgos.

Sujith and me at the shop.

Shrines and temples include stores where you can buy omamori (charms for protection in various endeavors: studying, childbirth, traffic safety, etc.), ofuda (paper wards with writing and seals), or get your fortune told via omikuji lottery. I picked up some shrine goods, and did omikuji. To get your fortune, you pay the cute miko (shrine maiden) 100 yen, shake up a container and draw a stick, tell the miko the number on the stick, and receive a slip of paper. At Washinomiya, I got shou-kichi (small fortune), which is so-so.

Shou-kichi or no, things seemed to work out well on this trip. For example, by dumb luck we happened to visit Washinomiya Shrine on one of its seven annual festival days. When we first arrived, around 10:00, the staff seemed to be doing something with relics in the inner part of the shrine, but the area was closed off to the general public and it was hard to see what was going on. Later on, the action moved to a public area, with music and much ceremony, all picturesque if more or less incomprehensible for us gaikokujin.

Ootori Tea Shop bulletin board.

After we were all matsuri-ed out, we headed back to the ancient-looking tea shop, Ootori Chaya, just outside of the gate. Ootori is a traditional eatery in most respects, but the local youth group that operates the place [ref.] has taken up the Lucky Star theme with a vengeance.

Their menu, for instance, lists the usual tempura, udon, soba and dango, but many items have been given names that are puns or references from Lucky Star or other anime. For better or worse, I did not sample Tsukasa's Balsamic Vinegar Parfait, though I sort of wish that I had. It's easy to say things like that, now that I'm safely thousands of miles away from Japan.

The interior of Ootori Tea Shop is decorated with Lucky Star memorabilia, including signatures from voice actors and anime staff who have visited Washimiya.

Ray, Sujith and lunch at Ootori.

The food was ordinary light fare, but tasty. After lunch, I snagged a few more souvenirs, including a Sacred Land Washinomiya t-shirt (visible behind the guys) and we made our way back to the city. That evening I caught a movie (Gurren Lagann) on my own, and then we all went out to dinner in Shinjuku with some of Ray's Tokyoite friends. All in all, it was a really satisfying day: a bit laid back, but with enough challenges to get us into the swing of things, and enough excitement and outdoor activity to keep 13 hours of jet lag from overwhelming us.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

From the M.J. Political Desk

I'm feeling pretty good about the election. No mistake, the problems that Obama will face come January are formidable, and all of us here in the U.S. should be prepared to hold the president elect's feet to the fire about bringing Bush's various wars to swift and humane conclusions, effectively re-regulating the economy, restoring eroded civil liberties, bringing balance, transparency and accountability back to the federal government, enforcing environmental regulations, awarding political and judicial appointments based on the merits of the candidates, ending government use of torture and secret offshore prisons, and fixing a thousand other things that have gone to hell in the past eight years. The really broad scale, long term problems that the world is staring down--environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources--might be beyond the ability of any leader to address, no matter how capable and well-intentioned they are.

Still, and cheesy as it sounds, I felt something while watching the results last night that I haven't felt convincingly in a while: hope for the future of the country, hope that progress is possible, hope that something, besides video games and moe character designs, might have been getting better amidst 30 years of creeping neoconservative cultural rot. At one point after Obama's victory was certain, a reporter talked to some grizzled old civil rights activists, and the hardened veterans of a decades long and still ongoing struggle had to choke back tears of joy: the country had achieved something that they had never imagined could happen in their lifetimes. It may just be for a few hours or a few days, but I can't maintain a drop of cynicism in the face of a scene like that.

I'll continue with Japan trip reports next week; election aside, this week is impossibly busy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Japan '08: Lodging

During the planning phases for our Japan trip, expedition members Sujith, Ray, and I quickly came to the conclusion that while staying in western-style hotels near major train stations would be convenient, it would also be relatively expensive and boring. So, we decided to reserve rooms at ryokans, or traditional Japanese inns.

Our first and longest stay was at Homeikan Morikawa Annex [Homeikan main site], in the Hongou area of Tokyo. It's about a 10 minute walk from the Hongou San-choume subway station, which is a little off of the beaten path, but convenient to Akihabara (two stops away, with a short walk to a JR station at Ochanomizu). Actually, you can just walk to Akihabara from Hongou; it took me half an hour, at a moderately brisk pace.

Hongou is an interesting place in its own right; the residential area where the various Homeikan branches are located is just across the street from what is possibly Japan's most respected institute of higher learning, Tokyo Daigaku (The University of Tokyo, or "Todai"). That's me in front of the famous clock tower, which actually seems to be the entryway to the cafeteria. Eat your heart out, Keitarou Urashima. The campus is a nice place to take a stroll, and I didn't have any difficulties entering, just marching by the security guards. The locals apparently take advantage of the open space for dog walking.

This is the alley in back of Homeikan Morikawa Annex. I thought the wall with spikes was interesting; I would vaguely imagine that it's a legacy of leaner, meaner times in Japan when the building was constructed, and can't imagine they serve any pressing security needs today.

Upon entering a ryokan, you take off your shoes and stow them in a cubby, and put on the provided indoor slippers. Homeikan Morikawa provides a computer for guest use is in an alcove at the right. The Morikawa Annex has a really pretty little garden at the entryway. That's Ray in picture, by the way.

Rooms at a ryokan have tatami mat floors and a table with cushions around it for lounging (hot water and tea making materials are provided, as well as a few snacks). Futons are put out at night, and rolled up during the day. At most places you can get breakfast and possibly dinner (no dinners at Homeikan) served in your room by exceedingly polite hotel staff, which is a good experience, though probably not very cost effective. This photo was taken the first day, before we unpacked and started shopping, which kind of wrecked the spare aesthetics of the place.

Facilities at a ryokan are all public; it's sort of like being in a college dorm. In the hallways there are sinks for washing up and brushing teeth, Maison Ikkoku style. All the places we stayed had western toilets, as well as the dreaded Japanese no-seat variety. As in private homes in Japan, there are special slippers to wear inside of the toilet room: you take off your normal indoor slippers as you enter, and put on the bathroom-only slippers.

Baths (ofuro) at ryokans are often communal, too, which is a bit awkward for us New Englanders. Actually, all the places we stayed had foreigner-friendly private bath options, with lockable doors. Whether you brave the public area or not, the general idea at a Japanese bath is to rinse off outside the tub, briefly enter the tub, scrub thoroughly while sitting at the faucets outside of the tub, and only when clean and rinsed enter the tub for a good soak.

At the end of our trip, we stayed for a couple of days at the Homeikan Daimachi Annex, which is a couple of blocks from Morikawa (which sort of felt like our home in Nippon). Daimachi was a larger, busier place, with perhaps a bit more room to spread out. We had the balcony pictured here off of our tatami area, for instance.

Homeikan Daimachi also had a lovely courtyard garden. The octagonal building sticking out into the garden is the private bath. Naturally, you take off your indoor slippers and put on a pair of garden sandals if you want to go out and contemplate the Podocarpus.

While we spent most of our vacation in Tokyo, we also made it out southwest to the Kansai area, where we had a ryokan in the old capital, Kyoto. Hanakiya Ryokan [official site] is located in the hills on the eastern edge of the city, very close to Kiyomizu-dera (Kiyomizu Temple). It was an amazing place to stay, right in the middle of one of the city's major tourist destinations, though not exactly convenient to Kyoto Station. We used taxis to get back and forth between Hanakiya and downtown; there's a major taxi and bus stop for Kiyomizu just up the street from the ryokan. The neighborhood got really quiet at night; everything but the vending machines closed down by dinnertime. It was quite a change from Tokyo!

We stayed in the Hanakiya annex building, which only has a couple of rooms, and had more of a bed & breakfast feel about it than Homeikan. There was a small common area, with a fridge and computer, where we hung out a bit with some guests from Poland and Austria.

Here's the neighborhood around the Hanakiya Annex building. Behind a retaining wall in back of the house there's a sprawling cemetery called Nishi Otani, and Kiyomizu-dera is maybe half a kilometer uphill. On the larger streets, there are a lot of gift shops and ceramics stores. Kiyomizu is famous for ceramics, and I bought some tea cups. The proprietress tried to tell me something about the form of the lip of the cups that is distinctive to Kiyomizu, but the adjective she kept using was beyond me.