The thing about Japan is, it’s where I’ve always wanted to go, and having been there, part of me thinks that it’s where I want to be. That’s not to say that I’m blind to the socio-economic realities of what that means; I’m aware that even the most acclimatized westerner is still gaijin, and that it would never really be my home the way Canada is. But Japan is, in many ways, the realization of many of my dreams about comics and culture, and about society as a whole. I can’t say that a day has gone by since I got back that I haven’t thought about returning. I feel like I only scratched the surface of the country during my last visit there, and despite frequently being hot, sweaty, tired, and wet (typhoon!), I was never, ever bored.
This is my last Japan Travelogue post, bringing us right to the end of my trip. The last two days marked a significant downturn in the lack of pictures taken, owing partly to the novelty of picture-taking wearing off a little, and partly due to the fact I lost the camera. Well, heh, I actually left it in the Ramen Museum overnight and had to rush back to Yokohama on the day of our flight out of Japan to pick it up.
Incidentally, I’d like to thank everyone for reading and enjoying these posts, particularly the people who’ve told me that they never had any interest in visiting Japan until visiting my blog. That means an awful lot to me, that’s why I’m here really: To Share The Joy. 🙂
With that, click “continue reading” to find out about my last two days in Japan.
We set out reasonably early (for us) because we had a lot to fit into our last day! I decided that we couldn’t do Tokyo without putting in at least a cursory visit to Shibuya, to the famous 6-way crosswalk most recently caught on film in “Lost In Translation” I believe.
The train station at Shibuya had an elaborate newsstand/bookstore, with plenty of advertising for forthcoming and recently released manga. It’s kind of shocking to think that popular shonen series Fullmetal Alchemist was up to volume 17 last August, with volume 17 set to be released in North America less than a year later… It was also neat to see advertising for comics, and retailers savvy enough to make a living off them.
Shibuya station had a number of neat statues, but somehow we couldn’t find the most famous one of Hachiko the dog, even though it was broad daylight. The space in front of Shibuya JR Station is an incredibly popular meeting spot, filled with pedestrians of all stripes. I felt we fit in reasonably well here, which is kind of a rarity for two hulking white dudes in Japan.
Later that evening we ended up back in Shibuya, so we decided to take another crack at finding the mythical dog, and look, he was right in front of the station (just like the real Hachiko). If you’re not familiar with Hachiko, it’s a very cute story about a dog who came to wait for his owner at the station every day at the same time. The owner, a professor at Tokyo University, eventually passed away but the dog would still come every day in the hopes that his master would be there. Bittersweet…
Meanwhile, back in the daylight… The square in front of the station was host to a large political protest! Apparently North Korea is abducting a lot of fucking Japanese, while the government is accused of being too afraid to do anything about it. Lots of faces being held up, I wonder why this isn’t more of an international issue? At any rate, this was our second or third brush with politics in the two weeks we were visiting, which was kind of interesting.
This is the big Shibuya crossing from the thick of it. We were there in a non rush-hour setting so it wasn’t as busy as normal. I was kind of hoping to be crused by a throng of people, but no dice. We did want to get a good photo of the crossing, so we went into the store with the Starbucks.
EDIT: I forgot that we took a photo of the crosswalk later that night with our cell-phone camera! Here’s a pic.
I just remembered that there was some sort of holiday some that day (you can see that the streets are blocked off in Ginza as well) so it really isn’t as busy/cool as it could be.
It turns out that store is Tsutaya, a cool-ass retailer of music and DVDs and video games… and because this is Japan, manga as well! Shown above is the large promotional effort for the soon-to-be-released (then) new Final Fantasy video game, Crisis Core. The game will be out in English later this year.
The Japanese LOVE 24, apparently. Or someone expects that they will anyway.
The best-seller wall in the music section. I can’t believe it’s been like 15 of these posts and I haven’t mentioned this, but do you know what the number-one, bestselling CD and single for our time in Japan was?
Beautiful World, by Utada Hikaru. Which just happens to be the theme song to the new Neon Genesis Evangelion theatrical films, released while I was in Japan. This song put a near-surreal Otaku stamp on almost my entire trip; it was omnipresent, playing in every store and every video screen that featured music videos. The ‘cool’ stores, the otaku stores (where you could buy the single with a limited edition Rei Ayanami slipcase), it was everywhere. Even stranger? Way bay in the late 90s, Utada Hikaru was the first J-Pop singer I ever really heard, or could identify by name (the second was Namie Amuro). We even had one of her import singles in my house (my brother owned it: he was kind of in lust with her…). Full circle.
Edit: My brother told me that I was wrong, and in fact, he was completely in love with Namie Amuro before he was in love with Hikaru Utada… I really disliked Namie Amuro’s music though, so I apparently blocked that right out of my mind. Let’s go with: Utada Hikaru was the first J-Pop music I heard that I actually liked…
So we went to the second floor to get a picture, but a hundred other people had the same idea as me (not to mention the huge lineup of folks coming to buy coffee) so we decided to skip the photo and head to the basement… for manga! A ton of manga! Coming off the escalator we walking through a section dominated by shojuo (and yaoi) material.
At this point, it’s important to note that Tsutaya had my favourite manga selection and layout of anywhere on the trip. The tightly-packed used book emporium Mandarake was absolutely amazing for a hardcore fan and I could have spent a long time digging through their collection of stuff. But the thing that really makes Tsutaya work is their merchandising, they have it down pat and the whole manga section looks like it was maintained by someone who really cared about the work… And who liked great stuff! For example:
The Taiyo Matsumoto display.
Notice the hearts. Heh, anyway, by the end of the trip I owned more-or-less everything on this display, but the one thing I had never seen before was this:
A special smaller, 4-volume edition of Matsumoto’s Sci-fi adventure series No.5 (Number Five). You can see the regular-sized editions just to the right there. Apparently the larger album-sized work was collected in a size a little bit more… digestable to Japanese manga fans, collecting two of the previous-format editions at a time (with a spiffy prisma-foil logo!). No. 5 has the dubious distinction of being “the lowest selling Viz manga of all time” but it’s really outstanding stuff, at least what I’ve read of it. I hope (hope) that it’s eventually continued here in North America… maybe a physically smaller format with fewer total volumes in the series will aid that…? Maybe? Anybody?
Another great artist-oriented display was dedicated to Naoki Urasawa, creator of Monster. This display featured everything you might want to buy from Urasawa, including every volume of his popular 20th Century Boys and its continuation (not a sequel) 21st Century Boys, so-titled to mark the passing of the millennium. I ended up picking that book on the middle-left, simply titled Urasawa, as it was a 568 page tome that collected all of his early short stories in one place for about 10 bucks. It’s really neat watching his work develop over the course of the series, and I was amazed that even though I can’t “read” the work, it’s actually pretty easy to “read” the work and follow along with what’s going on thanks to his strong storytelling skills. I can’t see this ever making it to North America, and I’m glad I picked it up while I was there!
Tsutaya also had an outstanding selection of independent and “alternative” manga, with lots of beautiful little signs recommending books to check out. I bought a few things at random here just cuz, which is a sign that your merchandising is working. Collecting all of the more unique and interesting work in one (prominently located) space? Makes a lot of sense.
More indy/alt manga, including the new edition of Hell Babies, the artbook collecting work from Junko Mizuno. I bought that one. Just to the right of Junko’s artbook is a new(ish) three volume manga series by Mizuno that I picked up as well, and it’s just as strange and cute as her other stuff… I think I read somewhere that it’s been picked up for release in North America? Maybe by JAPress. Anyway. I spent as long as I physically could flipping through these and deciding on stuff to buy, but Andrew was getting a little impatient, and rightfully so: We had to get to the Kabuki!
Goodbye Tsutaya, you’ll live in my heart forever.
Fun-fact: The JR trains have screens that show where you are on your train line, and how many minutes it is to all of the other stations near you.
These maps flip between Japanese (both Kanji and Hiragana), and English (romanji). It is fantastically easy to navigate the Tokyo train system.
It also shows you all of the connections to all of the other lines, which (helpfully) have their own colours too. Tokyo has the best goddamned transit I have ever witnessed.
We pulled into the fashionable high-end Ginza district of Tokyo. There was a giant video screen with various computer generated bodies doing aerobics, but they all had the head of a creepy old man. It was very “Creepy Richard”.
There’s a lot of money in Ginza, with the area nearest the JR station being very office- and business-oriented. We decided that we’d walk from the JR Train Station down to the Kabuki theatre to see the sights along the way. One the one hand I’m glad we did, as it really is a beautiful, and relatively “old” area of town…
…on the other hand, it was like 90 degrees outside and even in the shade, I couldn’t help sweating. Uggggh. If you just want to get to the Kabuki theatre, my recommendation is to hop on the subway from the Train Station, pay the dollar or whatever it is, and arrive quickly and coolly. But the pictures would have been much less interesting to you, I suppose.
Apparently it was some sort of holiday so many of the shops and businesses were closed for the day. This was the window display in the lobby of a high end boutique… It was absolutely incredible.
We stopped for a drink along the way, and found what I think might have been my favourite drink of the whole trip: Kirin Lemon Black. It’s like a slightly sweet carbonated lemonade with a real undertaste of ginger to give it a kick. Plus it was branded with Pirates of the Caribbean, which is something I guess? Anyway, my opinion of the drink may have been artificially inflated as I was so incredibly thirsty.
Outside one of the more exclusive-looking restaurants was this picture, of Ginza’s glamourous past. The writing on the sign says “Lunch: 7,350 yen, Dinner: 10,500 yen”. Or between 70 dollars and 100 dollars. Or so.
This little guy (used in my Valentine’s post) is one of the icons for Tenshodo, a model train and high-end jewelry maker.
So: Kabuki. Long story short, we got there and there was a two hour wait to get a chance to buy tickets. I kind of freaked out a little at the idea of waiting 2 hours to get a chance to buy tickets, to wait an hour for the show, for something I didn’t really want to see in the first place? So although we had planned to see Kabuki that day… We did not. Sorry Japan! Perhaps in the future!
We took the subway to the train station. The subway had a barber shop in it.
We went to Ramen Town! The Ramen Museum! It’s in Shin Yokohama, which is far enough away from Tokyo that it’s actually considered it’s own city (and not a suburb), but still only about 35-45 minutes away by JR train. Of course, if you’re like us and had a JR pass that let us use any train we wanted for one low price, you take the Shinkansen (bullet train) and you get there in like 8 minutes. It’s a little like taking a flight from JFK to Newark, rather than taking the subway… It’s quicker, but the locals will think you’re retarded…
On the top floor is the Raumen Museum (I’m just gonna spell it “ramen” from now on, since that’s how we spell it in North America…). Thrill to different balls of ramen!
See the different textures of Ramen!
Look! It’s cones… FILLED WITH GRAIN!
The Ramen Museum!
Heh, seriously though, the ramen museum IS really cool, because in the basement of the building is Ramen Town, a recreation of old-timey Japan that sells the best ramen you will ever eat.
So you enter ramen town and there’s one floor of old-timey buildings, a bar, games, etc. Then you descend into the lower level, and you’re surrounded by top notch ramen! The best ramen shops in Japan are invited to open up a sattellite restaurant here in Shin-Yokohama (new Yokohama) and serve their own local style of ramen. It was pretty cool.
The lamp-shades on the way down to Ramen Town were made of ramen.
It’s seriously like being in M*A*S*H* a little. You’re in these tight winding streets, there’s Japanese Enka (country) music playing over tinny speakers, and everything is perfectly recreated (except for the Japanese families wearing jeans and golf shirts). THis is the outside of a candy store, selling old-timey candy.
I really liked how they weren’t afraid to embrace the somewhat seedier aspects of the past alongside the more family-friendly ones. Gentlemen’s clubs, bars, police boxes, all of them were included in the re-creation.
That’s “Club Noa Noa” in Japanese… This was particularly neat because our hosts’ son is named Noa.
So you’re exploring and then you walk around a corner and…
It opens into the first floor, complete with painted twilight-sky.
Our friend David joined us for dinner, because even when you’re living in Japan, you can’t resist going to eat the best ramen in all of Japan.
The actual ramen restaurants were quite modest after everything we’d seen outside, but the food was pretty spectacular I have to say. I’d go back in a heartbeat, even if we had to take the regular train.
And as I mentioned, this is the point at which I forgot the camera in the ramen restaurant. Sigh. Sorry Nathalie! But I got it back in one piece, which was nice.
This took us to our last day. We needed to be at the airport by 4pm, which meant that we needed to sprint down to Shin Yokohama to pick up the camera, and then maybe poke around and find something to do for a few hours before heading to the airport. Unfortunately, we were kind of exhausted at the end of our trip, and slept in a little later than intended. We made it down to Shin Yokohama just after lunch, where our camera was waiting at the admission booth of the Ramen Museum for us. We were very happy to see it again, and the people at the museum were super cool.
So basically, we didn’t really have time to go anywhere, but we had too much time to just sit around the airport. And we hadn’t had lunch. So I decided that I would spend some of my remaining yen trying every single McDonald’s food item that was not available in North America. As a public service. Because I am willing to go to the very depths of gastronomy for you, my readers.
Clockwise from the Coke, that’s a) fries (for Andrew), b) McPork burger, c) Teriyaki McBurger, d) Tsukehime Burger (with cheese), e) Ebi Filet-O. Grand total: about $12.
The McPork Burger was actually surprisingly alright. It’s very peppery burger (made of pork rather than beef) with a peppery sweet sauce. It tasted exactly like McDonald’s food.
The Teriyaki McBurger was… pretty fucking gross. Apparently this is one of the most popular burgers at McDonald’s, but it’s just dripping with teriyaki sauce. It didn’t taste bad or anything, but I couldn’t see myself ordering this ever again… It had a reconstituted feeling to it. Tastes exactly like McDonald’s food.
Oh, the Ebi Filet-O. Ebi is Japanese for shrimp. This is basically a croquette with baby shrimp floating in it, with a flavoured mayonaise on top… or tartar sauce, or something… This is incredibly unnatural, if for no other reason than the fact that you can’t filet a shrimp, shrimp have no bones. That and there are weird texture things, where you’re eating the burger and it’s got a deep-fried croquette flavour (sort of like a less-fishy filet-o-fish), but then you encounter a whole baby shrimp and it’s differently chewy and slightly strange. The overall flavour is okay though… It tastes like McDonald’s food.
As mentioned previously on this upate, the Tsukihime Burger features a poached egg, cheese, poorly-cooked bacon, and a weird flavoured mayo… It’s only available once per year in honour of the moon festival (autumn solstice) and features an awesome package. As for how it tastes? Say it with me now… Like McDonald’s Food. I mean, sure, it all comes together in an interesting way, and it’s less offensive in texture than the Teriyaki McBurger. But it’s still not something I would want to eat all year round… or say, any other time than on a special trip to Japan…
I had already made three or four posts about my trip to Japan by the time this little McDonald’s visit rolled around, and I knew this would make for a great entry… but I still don’t recommend eating this much McDonald’s food ever. Still, when in Rome eh? And luckily I didn’t end up “paying the price” for this at all, which was great… my last meal in Japan was, fittingly, fresh sushi, which was a much better note to go out on.
So this was the end of Japan, for me, the very last photo in the camera is a smiling shot in a ShinYokohama McDonalds, just before the batteries died. I think it sums up the trip: happy, tired, slightly glassy-eyed, and full.
So, in short: best time of my life. I’d go back in a second.
Thanks to David, Kiko, Noa, and especially Andrew for a great trip.
Hope you enjoyed everything guys!