(This will be a multi-part post on my vacation in Tokyo. It got very long very fast and for everybody's benefit I've split it up.)
Okay, so I'm starting to recover from the jetlag, and even though I've gotten a little sick I have to start talking about my Japan vacation. Most of the vacation was spent meeting people, eating and drinking, but all the time in between was obviously otaku-out time.
I stayed in Akihabara. Pain is power, no shame in my game. A week was not enough time, because it was really more like five and a half days. The thing I thought the most was “I can't wait to come back here with more time!”. I got a lot done, in any case. Next time I go, I'll do so with twice the time and three times the money. If you're thinking about Japan, plan well and save up as much as you reasonably can.
This is the first international trip I've ever gone on. I've barely even been around the US. It was that much more exciting for being such!
When you do your scheduling, don't forget how much time you will lose to the flight. We left Wednesday evening and, delayed a bit by the bad weather on the East Coast after Christmas, got into town around 11 PM Thursday night Japan time. All that was possible that late was a little walking about town and an early bedtime.
My ANA flight was relatively comfy, the food was decent (huh?!), and there was a self-contained entertainment unit in there that gave me such delights as Wolf Children, weird variety TV, and even the same in-flight MJ that Carl played. A 14-hour flight is terrible no matter what you do-- it will wear on you-- and ANA alleviated that pain in any way they could. Even in Economy class.
I'm not gonna exactly review Wolf Children here, but I know most folks haven't seen it yet and will want to get an opinion. It's a beautiful film. Don't expect the spectacle of Summer Wars: it is a very muted and heartfelt family drama. Some points at the end don't make logical sense, but then it wouldn't be as beautiful. I'd go so far as to call it real moe anime.
Going back, on the other hand, was a miserable 24 solid hours of travel. I will make sure to always get nonstop flights in the future, lesson definitely learned there. I flew two United flights on the way back: on the first I was actually too tall for the badly-shaped seat and couldn't manage to fall asleep in it despite being desperately tired. I was squirming in pain pretty much for ten hours straight. Lesson learned: pay for extra leg room next time because I'm really tall. The second, my flight was cancelled. I was laid over for 4 hours, then I was delayed for three more, then told to turn around and go away over a small issue that was easily resolved. At this point I've been awake for a day and waiting in a lobby for six hours; I'm practically delirious and then panicked! The people at O'Hare were huge dicks to me, is what I'm saying. The folks on the first United flight were very nice, though. O'Hare is also a terrible place to be trapped for seven hours. By the time I was home I was a dead man walking.
Narita airport has an arcade! Guess what kind of games they have? Sega's airline sim, Taito's airline sim, and the in-house version, which looks significantly more realistic!
My first hotel was the Via Inn in Akiba. This place is built in kind of a donut shape: you get out of your room and you're on a circular balcony, and the wind comes up the middle. I thought this was really cool, even in the winter, but you may not feel the same. The room was a nice, typical Japanese hotel room, which is to say our amenities were extremely densely packed, the bathroom was magical (as I said to people more than once, the real Cool Japan that advertisers should go international with is “godlike hotel bathrooms”), and there was only enough room for our two beds and our luggage. No complaints with this place.
Second hotel was R&B in Okachimachi (about 15 minutes walking from the main Akiba strip), which was a lot like my room at the Via Inn except if everything was fifteen years older. I would have been able to live with that, given the low cost, but the major issue was that my mattress was a god damn rock. I barely slept here, and when I woke up in the morning I got up not because I didn't need any more sleep (I very needed it more than ever at this stage in the vacation), but because it was useless to try and go back to sleep on that mattress. Obviously, on this point alone I can't recommend the place.
I generally slept early, woke early, and made sure I was out and about all day. This (and getting stuck in a rainstorm sans umbrella, and a Yebisu-soaked New Year's celebration) got me sick by the end of the vacation. I don't really regret it, but take it easy, okay?
The biggest thing that struck me about Japan is how easy it is to spend your change there. It's all coinage from 1 to 500 yen, and there are vending machines on every street corner willing to take all your coins from 10y up. Here in the States, change is dead money, baggage that everybody wants to be rid of, but that's not at all the case over in Japan. Nobody will get pissed off if you pay with your change: in fact once I accidentally paid for a 500y magazine with a 10000y bill and the nice lady at the newsstand counted out all that change without so much as an awkward look. At home they'd hang you for that mistake. So money feels really different over there.
The value of the 100y coin and the $1 bill is similar... but the former is much easier to spend, either in the vending machine or at the arcade. There is a reason there are so many coin-operated devices on the streets.
Taking the train is expensive. It is also fast and on time... but it is expensive. You get what you pay for, so you pay 200-400y depending on distance ($2.50-5?) for a one-way trip on the JR, the most popular line. I definitely had forgotten to account for it in my vacation budget and I'd estimate that I was paying 1500y a day since we were running around so much. If you're around for a long time, look into a rail pass, but I wasn't there long enough to justify that.
I pretty much got lost every time I had to get back to the hotel on my own, no matter how well I thought I knew what I was doing. A map is a good thing to have (my phone kept dying!), but it seems to me that the way you learn your way around in a neighborhood in Japan is to actually spend a lot of time there, learn the landmarks and figure it out. The address system is not like our own and you will not be able to just count up and down streets like we do here in NYC. I asked my friends to explain Japanese addresses to me a couple times and I definitely never quite figured it out.
On the other hand I found Tokyo a fun place to just wander around. Very old world, lots of side streets, always something new to see that's hidden away somewhere. Shinjuku was especially twisty!
I did not have any weird foreigner-in-Japan experiences. The people I met, from cashiers to pedestrians to people in lines to new-found drinking buddies, were all extremely accommodating and polite. The weirdest it got was walking down a few cars on the Skyliner train from Narita airport and causing about half of the heads on the train to turn and stare at me by my existence. Nobody at the otaku shops betrays any surprise to see a foreign tourist, especially not during Comiket season. At peak post-Comiket hours in Akiba there were a huge amount of foreigners on the streets.
I loved it out there! What you need to know about Akiba is that it is a touristy shopping district. It's not a promised land or Anime IRL or any of those trumped-up stories, but it is pretty amazing. People come here, they get what they need-- whether that is a rare item or dinner with maids-- and they leave. It's not really a place you stick around at. But I'm a tourist, right? So obviously it's my job to take my tourist money and enjoy all this stuff as hard as I can.
Especially because it was Comiket weekend, all these places were overflowing with otaku. Comiket ends at 4 every day, and many of the hardcore otaku are long done by morning. Their quest for the items they missed often takes them all the way back here. And other folks just want to be in Akiba after Comiket, to celebrate among their peers.
My favorite group were the guys who cruised around town in their itasha (cars painted all over with anime characters, sha means “car” and ita means “ouch” because it hurts to look at them) all night. I took a ton of pictures of the block where they meet up, but I'd feel like a dick putting them out there because of how Japanese folks are about photography. These guys are super cool, no irony about it. It takes balls of steel to put yourself out on the line like that, even in Akiba. Is it silly? Yeah, but they know it too.
Because Akiba's notoriety has blown up in the past few years, there's often the question of how much is otaku and how much is otaku explotation, and if there's truly a line between the two. At Don Quixote, the megamart and single tackiest place in the universe-- they're so tacky that their Akiba location is also home base of AKB48-- there's a section called “moemiyage”. Omiyage – souvenirs. Moemiyage – figure it out. They sell tsundere cookies and sake voiced by Rie Tanaka, and other sake with character designs by Aoki Ume-- not making any of this up, okay? That's on one shelf at Donki. You'll start saying Donki too; it's because of the theme song.
Maybe it was seasonal, but maids lined the streets with flyers in hand. Everybody's trying to get you into their cafes, and these poor girls are on the street all day. I took the same flyer from one maid three times because I saw her once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and again at 9 PM... basically in the same spot. The places they want you to go into vary in sketchiness, from the big chain maidreamin to a “refresh” place whose entire flyer was just pictures of schoolgirls' thighs. I threw that one out before I got to the airport. (Azusa and Chris gave them to me.)
The maid cafe I actually walked into was Schatzkiste, which I hope is where I go when I die. It is a truly special place, where the maids ask you what your favorite Gundam titles are and care very much about your answer. They built all the furniture! They sell 4-panel comics about themselves! So moe! I would like to sincerely thank the Schatzkiste staff for the lovely experience. I would have stayed there for hours if I could have.
A Guinness ice cream float at T.Y. Harbor in Shinagawa. Was not delivered by maids.
(More to come: all the rest of the otaku stops I made, my shopping, and of course all about the arcades.)