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...