Sunday, December 31, 2006

Japan Scans! Part 3

Yep, they're still coming. I'll probably be taking a break now and then to post about other subjects, but this scanning project will get done. Here's the next batch.

A surprising number of people are finding my blog in searches for Kyoto, kokeshi or Nakayama dolls. So, here's one for all of you that fit that description - the Nakayama Doll Manufacturing Company brochure (multi-page PDF):

They told us specifically not to pay any attention to that brochure, because most of what's in there is no longer sold by the company. The nature of their business is that pretty much everything is a limited run, so they have a lot of dolls similar to what's in here, but not many that are exactly the same.

Here's the English version of the Tokyo Tower brochure - I also have (or had) a Japanese version but I may have given it away already. (Multi-page PDF):

Tons of cool stuff in there. Tokyo Tower's a happenin' place.

When we first got to Tokyo, we went to the restaurant owned and run by the "King of Iron Chefs", Hiroyuki Sakai. Anyone who's seen the original Japanese version of Iron Chef knows that while yeah, the show was always intended to be campy fun, the food really was taken seriously and the chefs on the show really are among the top chefs in Japan. So, we took a couple souvenirs from Sakai's restaurant. This is the card they have at the table for you, front and back (and no, I don't know what the back says):

This was our check! Sorry for the wrinkles, it went through a wash!

Yeah, pretty expensive, but not outrageous by "nice restaurant" standards. About $100 per person. It's a prix fixe menu, which is nice at a place like this - no worrying about wasting money on a course you don't like, or trying to save by ordering the cheapest entree. All of the courses were fabulous too, and this is not "nouveaux" French - we were stuffed by the time we left. On the other hand, it is the kind of restaurant that does not put salt or pepper on the table. You're expected to eat your food as it's prepared.

I promised a shinkansen ticket in an earlier post, and here it is - top is the base transport fare, bottom is the express fare/reserved seat ticket. (Not front and back; these are two separate tickets, and you need both to ride on any shinkansen, reserved seat or not):

Here's one of the many Tokyo subway maps we picked up. This one's all Japanese; there are other ones that are about half and half. Still others were also all Japanese but slightly different. It's pretty confusing. Note that the Tokyo subway is now officially the "Tokyo Metro", but nobody actually calls it that (perhaps just not yet):

And just for fun, here's my Sega Joypolis ticket (front and back). It's interesting - hard to tell by the scan, but it's actually silver with white text, and whenever you add money or use it somewhere, you put it in a machine that gives your card back with a new transaction history on it. Everything you do with the card in Joypolis is written on it. Obviously, you can see we didn't do much:

I've got a huge brochure/map from Joypolis scanned to post later also... I just need to organize it. It's like 20 separate pages.

Well, more to come soon!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

DVD Review - PUFFY (AmiYumi) - Tour! PUFFY! Tour! 10 Final (import)

Post Moved!

This post now resides at my Puffy-dedicated blog amiyumidas. Please click here to be taken directly to the post. If you're interested in Puffy, you may want to browse around a bit while you're there - I've got a lot of cool stuff.

Please update your bookmarks.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Japan Scans! Part 2

Continuing on from my earlier post, the scans just keep on comin'.

Here's a ticket to Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto (jpg):

Back of the same ticket - this basically lists out some of the rules you have to follow, like no food, no photography, you may need to show this ticket, and follow the posted rules inside. (jpg)

The Sanjusangendo Temple brochure (multi-page PDF):

Here's a ticket to Kiyomizu Temple (jpg):

Back of the same ticket - poetic! (jpg)

Unfortunately, I didn't see any brochures at Kiyomizu.

On to Kyoto Tower. This tower offers both a day and a night ticket - since we were a pair, the clerk gave us one of each even though we visited during the day. Here's the day ticket, with Tawawa-chan in full effect (jpg):

Night ticket (jpg):

Like a lot of tourist areas in Japan, Kyoto Tower also has brochures in both Japanese and English - and it's not just a difference in the language. Often the actual content and imagery is different too. Here's the Japanese brochure (multi-page PDF):

And here's the English version (multi-page PDF):

Yeah, I've got one or two brochures for Tokyo Tower too, and it's pretty slickly produced. A big contrast to the almost down-home feel of the Kyoto Tower brochures.

That's it for today - we're about 1/4 the way through!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Japan Scans! Part 1

Ok, I've promised to post scans of all the various brochures, tickets and other interesting documents I picked up while in Japan this past October. You want to see what a shinkansen ticket looks like? It's coming. The Studio Ghibli brochure? Scroll down. The Gion Corner program? It's here. Lots of stuff is on the way, and this is just the first round.

I'm going a little further than I'd originally planned, creating fancy PDF's and all (these are not just for you; I'm also creating backup archives for myself). So some of them are going to be large files, and I'll have to post them over several separate entries. I'll also be updating my earlier Japan trip posts with links to these scans as appropriate to the subject matter, the better for you guys and girls coming in direct through Google.

This is just gonna be a smattering of random stuff. If you want it organized and with context, wait until I plug them into the appropriate existing posts. Bear in mind the thumbnail images are just that - the linked PDF's are multi-page and have more stuff. They're also pretty big files (up to 2MB), so take that into consideration before downloading. The smaller tickets and whatnot are just image files.

Here we have an official Akihabara map, given out near the train station (click for multi-page PDF):

Gion Corner English program (multi-page PDF):

Gion Corner Japanese program (multi-page PDF):

Instructions on how the Studio Ghibli Museum ticketing system works - yeah, only in Japanese (PDF):

Studio Ghibli Museum ticket from Lawson (jpg):

Studio Ghibli Museum bus ticket (jpg)

Studio Ghibli Museum brochure (multi-page PDF):

Much more to come!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas Decorating - TO THE XXXXXTREME!!!!

This is our first year in our new neighborhood, and we're learning it's got some quirks. Mostly endearing quirks, but quirks nevertheless.

One of these quirks is that there's a particular street, right off of ours, that goes entirely insane every holiday. It's collective; it's not one person, but neither is it any sort of homeowners' association or anything like that. It's just a block full of really dedicated, apparently really bored people who get together and do stuff to their houses in the way I always thought suburbanites only did in bad Hollywood movies.

A couple of examples:

Apparently, this street makes the local newspapers more often than not each year, not only for the Disneyland decorations, but also for the fact that they hire a Santa Claus and hand out free hot chocolate to everybody in the neighborhood every December 16th.

Personally, I think it's kind of neat to live near a street like this. But I'm glad I don't live on it - that's just too much pressure every year. Our house at the moment has just one pathetic little string of icicle lights hanging from the gutter - that's about all we've got the time, energy and money for at the moment.

We do also have a real Christmas tree (our first ever), with presents underneath and everything, which I may as well post up - it's a little thin this year, but we're just getting started:

By the way, the Japan scanning project is still happening - just taking longer than I expected. The office room is now in full effect, though, and my scanner's chugging along eating its way through all the brochures, pamphlets, tickets, maps and whatever else I picked up in Japan. Hopefully I'll finish this weekend.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Yeah, it's been a week or two since my last post, and I know I promised a bunch of scans and whatnot. I'm getting to it... I'm on the one hand kind of just taking a much-needed break after 20 epic posts in a row, and on the other hand I'm dealing with a house that's in flux and a desktop computer that's in several different rooms right now. We're getting a new floor installed in one of our bedrooms this week, and that'll let us permanently set up the rest of our rooms (since basically everywhere is being used as storage right now). At that point, I'll finally have my desktop computer and scanner set up properly and it'll be a lot easier for me to get stuff done.

So keep the faith! Stay tuned and check back - I haven't given up writing and posting, just taking a little time off.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Japan - Odaiba, Sega Joypolis, Trip End

I'm up to the end of the trip; this might be my last "real" post. (I might still sandwich one on Tokyo transportation in the middle somewhere at some point, and my brochure scans are still coming.) I haven't written about everything we did - some things involved family or friends and either wouldn't be interesting to anyone else or should just remain private. But I've written a lot, and it's been good to get my memories down in print. I almost feel a little wistful - just as I did at the end of the trip itself - reaching the last chronological post of this report. Now the trip for me is truly over and committed to the past.

On our last evening in Japan, we went to Odaiba. Odaiba is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that has only recently been developed. Over the past decade, there's been a concerted effort on the part of the government to build and make it a place that people want to live in, work in and visit. One of its benefits is the fantastic views of Tokyo from just across the bay (see above), so apartments there are pretty expensive.

The downside is a comparative lack of transportation - the Wangan highway runs through Odaiba, but until recently there was no train service to the island. That has now changed with the opening of the Yurikamome line, a pseudo-monorail that runs from Shinbashi to Toyosu, and the JR Rinkai line, which also makes stops in Odaiba.

We took the subway from Asakusa to Shinbashi, then took Yurikamome line to Odaiba. I've taken this line once before, on my first trip to Japan six years ago. It snakes a bit around Tokyo at about 8 stories up, then winds around and over Rainbow Bridge on its way to Odaiba. It's a nice trip if you're a tourist, giving you a perspective on the city that you can't really get any other way. It's kind of like taking the tram out to Roosevelt Island in New York City - although with a lot less danger involved!

Odaiba has changed a lot since my first visit - the Joypolis didn't exist then, for one thing (though there was one in Shinjuku, now closed), nor did the mall that contains it. The mall itself is called DECKS Tokyo Beach:

It's in the model of Pier 17 at South Street Seaport in NYC - the interior and waterfront exterior are styled as a beachfront boardwalk, albeit an urban one with multiple levels of shops, restaurants and other attractions.

What is the Sega Joypolis? Honestly, I wasn't sure before visiting either - I'd heard about it, and I'm a big gamer so obviously I know Sega. I was half-expecting it to just be a giant arcade, of which there are still many in Japan. But the Joypolis bills itself as an "amusement park", despite being contained inside a waterfront mall. I was curious to see what this meant.

When you first enter the Joypolis, you're greeted by a girl in uniform who hands you a pamphlet (in either English or Japanese) showing the attractions and "rides". You then pass through what I can only assume is an airlock. It is very odd. Coming out the other side, it's like you're in a totally different, self-contained little world that was obviously designed to make a small space look as large as possible. It's really pretty amazingly effective. The room itself can't be more than 100 yards across and 3 stories high, but it's completely hollowed out inside, with staircases added at odd, irregular angles and each story built as a ledge against the inner walls - leaving a high ceiling and a lot of open space. The room is then lit darkly so it's not really clear where anything is. The total effect makes the place look huge in person, and like there is a lot to explore, even though in reality you know you're looking at one small corner of a mid-size mall. (It is probably the size of an average mall anchor store.)

There are various themed areas inside containing either virtual-reality or full-on real rides. All of these involve some sort of user participation - my favorite kind of ride. They are basically games. There's a car racing "ride". There's a flying "ride". There's a tube snowboarding ride that really is a ride, and an amazing one to watch indoors. There's a lot to do, and I really wished we'd gone earlier or on a different day so we could have had the full experience. (You can pay per ride or one flat fee for everything; since it was late, we had decided to pay per ride.)

That's the airlock on the bottom left. I believe that's some sort of couples photo booth on the bottom right, but it appears to be out of order.

In the end, we walked around a bit, had some crepes, watched the tube ride, and finally went on a hang-gliding race VR ride - which was really fun! I've never been on a VR ride before, and have always been skeptical - but I was a believer afterwards. They strapped us into a contraption that looked like a real hang-glider, slid us into a small room, dimmed the lights and presented us with a giant screen showing the virtual world. A powerful fan blew wind at us as we flew, and the glider itself provided some pretty awesome force feedback, including the effects of turbulence and wind gusts. We really had to put some muscle into it! The race was really fast and frenetic, and we were laughing all the way through it - and at the end, for finishing in the top 60, we got some free tickets for the UFO Catcher games they had near the ride. (Unfortunately, we didn't manage to pick anything up.)

It was a great date ride, and I noticed that probably 80% of all the visitors there that day looked to be couples. It's actually kind of a romantic place, as most of the rides involve two people working together in tandem, and they're obviously a lot of fun. It's dark inside the Joypolis, so pretty much everybody looks good too, and there are plenty of little areas where you can sit and be basically alone. The overall atmosphere is kind of nightclub-ish, with rides. (There's even a nice looking cafe on the top floor with private booths overlooking the city - though it was closed when we were there.) Unfortunately for Sega, there weren't a whole lot of people there in general, but that may have just been because it was a weekday evening. It's probably pretty packed on weekends. I will say it was more crowded than it looks in the photos above - I didn't realize how 100% empty all my photos turned out. There were people there, just not large crowds. We actually had to wait about 30 minutes to get on the one ride we tried.

This is definitely at the top of my list for the next trip to Tokyo. The Joypolis is a fun place, and our only regret was not going earlier and enjoying more of it.

After the Joypolis, we'd really just planned to head back to the hotel, get some cheap food and call it a night. But it was our last day in Japan and we didn't want to waste it. It also happened to be a beautiful night - about 70 degrees, no smog, clear skies - so we found a little outdoor cafe on the boardwalk and sat down to eat.

Odaiba's really quiet, and with the great view and the crystal-clear evening, I started getting pretty depressed about leaving Japan and coming back to New York (and work) at this point. It was definitely a time and place conducive to reflection, and I felt like I had a lot of things to think about as we sat and ate. I took the time to enjoy the friendly Japanese service one more time (not to mention the lack of a tip requirement!), to enjoy some people-watching, and to take some photos...

Yep, that's me trying my best to wipe the melancholy off my face. I'm sure my wife said "smile" and this was the best I could come up with under the circumstances - this was right before we left, and I didn't want to go. This is the only photo you're going to see of me here - though I obviously have plenty of clearer ones than this from the trip.

Afterwards, it really was off to the hotel and then to the airport early the next morning. But it was the perfect end to a great trip. Over my four long visits to Japan, I've come to think of it as a second home, and in many ways I feel more comfortable there than I do in the United States. I can't wait to go back.

Japan - Asakusa, Tokyo

For our last day, after visiting the Studio Ghibli museum we had planned to visit Asakusa, take a water cruise around Tokyo on the Leiji Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat, then visit the Sega Joypolis in Odaiba. The Himiko is a really cool boat designed to look like a spaceship, and on night cruises it lights up inside like a giant disco. Like a lot of our days in Japan, it was going to be a day mixed with modern pop culture and Japanese traditions - and it was jam packed full of events.

We hadn't planned originally on visiting Asakusa, but it is coincidentally where the Himiko is launched from, and that was really going to be the big event of the day (Leiji Matsumoto and Hayao Miyazaki back to back - it was an anime day, alright). You've seen Asakusa even if you don't know it - it's a huge tourist spot, and the part of Tokyo most often shown in stock photos whenever anybody wants to show off traditional Japan. It's home to a temple and a lot of the same type of souvenir shops I mentioned in earlier posts - that area with the gate that flanks a giant lantern. We figured we may as well check it out as long as we would be in the area on the way to the Himiko cruise.

So we regrouped at our hotel after the Ghibli museum, then headed out for Asakusa. We arrived about 4PM, having checked the cruise times online - the last one was scheduled for 6:30PM. Unfortunately for us, we had looked at the weekend schedule - by the time we got to the ticket office, we had missed the last cruise by 30 minutes.

This was one of the main events I was looking forward to on this trip, and being that it was the last day, I was pretty bummed. I was so depressed about it that I didn't even care to see Asakusa - we walked through the gate, saw that it was pretty much like every other temple we'd seen so far, and left. Even if I hadn't been so depressed, I don't think we would have gotten much out of Asakusa by that point - we'd been to temples in Kyoto and we'd been to one more temple and the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and by comparison Asakusa almost seems fake. It's just a complete tourist trap.

I almost didn't even feel like going to Odaiba anymore - we'd planned on riding the Himiko there, but without it running, we weren't even sure how to get there from Asakusa. It seemed like too much time and energy, as tired as we were by that point, and as irritated as I was to have missed my chance completely to ride the Himiko.

But my wife convinced me to find the train to Odaiba and at least salvage the Joypolis out of the deal. We still had time.

Up next (and soon!) - Odaiba and the Sega Joypolis! End of trip!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Japan - Studio Ghibli Museum

My wife and I are big Hayao Miyazaki fans - pretty much all Japanese people are, and he's definitely gained popularity in the United States over the past few years too. So we had the Studio Ghibli museum on our itinerary pretty much from day one, though we waited until the last day to make the trip. It's not easy to get tickets, so we had to pretty much take what we could get.

The Studio Ghibli museum is not like any other museum, in that you can't just walk in and pay and be on your way to browsing. You need to buy tickets in advance, and as near as I can tell, there is only one way for individuals to do that: purchase over the phone, pick up at a Lawson's convenience store. Tickets normally sell out well ahead too, so if you're going to go, you'd better decide early. I'm talking months in advance, although there are probably times of the year (the middle of the schoolyear on a weekday non-holiday, for example) that might be less busy.

We actually went through the process as a normal Japanese person would, which is not something most non-Japanese speaking westerners are going to be able to do by themselves. There are really no provisions for helping foreigners through the process. For example, here's a scan of the instructions telling you how it all works:

Got it? Yeah, me neither.

I understand that some travel agents and tour groups can arrange tickets as well, so definitely talk to yours if you want to go. If you're traveling to Japan on your own, though, good luck. Maybe you can scalp off someone.

Here's an official ticket from Lawson's (the museum gives you a souvenir ticket when you get there, which I'll scan soon):

The museum itself is pretty small, which is why they can (and need to) make it such a production to get tickets for specific times and dates. It's located in Mitaka, which is a quiet suburb just outside Tokyo - about 20 minutes from Shinjuku on the Chuo line. We were a little worried about making it there on time - if you're a minute late, you're locked out. But this is Japan, where the trains (generally) run on time down to the second, so we got there with time to spare. From the train station, there's a little shuttle bus that runs the mile or so to the museum - and I point out the size of the bus because it was too short for me to even stand! These buses are pretty crowded, so seating is at a premium - and at 6'4", I was forced to hunch down lest my head smash against the ceiling over bumps.

Here's the little-bus ticket:

Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the museum - but you can buy a museum program in English or Japanese at the information desk that includes a lot of interior shots. I'll be scanning that along with some other stuff after I've written up my remaining posts, so check back for that. (I'll also be adding some of those scans to this post.)

I did take a lot of exterior shots, though there are only so many angles of this building that you can get:

Every inch of this place is crammed full of Ghibli-esque details:

The museum interior is designed to be like one of the buildings or houses you'd expect to see in a Miyazaki film. There is no set path to guide you, and in fact signs invite you to explore on your own and get "lost". It's pretty hard to do so, and despite the "whimsical" design of the building, there's definitely an implied path that most visitors seem to follow.

Check out the information brochure if you want some of the official details (PDF):

Entering the building, you're immediately drawn to the first room on the right - a sort of retrospective on animation in general with exhibits showing how the illusion works. There's actually some cool stuff here, from regular old rotoscopes to a large rotating sculpture display lit by a strobe that makes it look as if the figures are animated. I'm a film school graduate so I know about all of the concepts on display here, but the exhibits themselves are done in that signature Ghibli style, and the sheer size of the strobe display - with a lot going on inside - makes it really fun to watch.

The only other major area on the first floor is a theater, which we saved for later. On the second floor are a series of rooms jam-packed with original Miyazaki artwork - from character sketches to airship designs to storyboards - all designed to look like rooms he would have worked in. (I'm not clear on whether they're modeled on actual rooms he did work in - the signs simply call them "an animator's room"). They're also crammed with books that he's apparently taken inspiration from - again, the overall cluttered, nostalgic effect looking a lot like a character's room you might see in a film like Porco Rosso.

The second floor also houses two shops - one where you can buy some of these books, and the second for general Studio Ghibli merchandise. We had planned on buying a ton of stuff here, but it's pretty shockingly expensive - so we didn't. We did buy a few little trinkets and souvenirs both for ourselves and as gifts, but the overall haul was a little disappointing.

I'm writing this from memory and clearly, based on my photos, my memory is already becoming muddled as to what's on the second and what's on the third floor. But go upstairs from the top floor and you'll end up on the roof - a big garden with a statue of the robot in Laputa. Unfortunately, we did not realize this until it was too late and we had left the museum!

We did go to the theater downstairs, though, which I initially was hesitant to do. When you first go inside the museum, they give you a little souvenir ticket made from a print of one of Ghibli's films. I had read elsewhere that when you go to the theater, they take your ticket - that's how they keep it to one visit per customer. (Quick tip: don't believe everything you read on the internet.) My wife asked one of the staffers about this, and she explained that they simply stamp it instead - so we not only got to keep our tickets, but now we have proof that we saw a Ghibli film that's unavailable for viewing anywhere but at the Ghibli museum.

The film they were showing this time was a new short film continuing the story from My Neighbor Totoro - still at least among the most popular of Miyazaki's films in Japan. It focused on Mei and and her meeting with the grandfather of the "cat bus" from the original film - though this time, it became apparent that there's not only one cat bus but many, and in fact cat trains, cat airplanes and more. It actually was slightly disturbing, as some of these cat vehicles more resembled centipedes - with thousands of legs - than cats.

It's always amazing to me how quiet and well-behaved Japanese kids are in these types of situations. There was some crying and yelling while we were all waiting to get inside, but once everybody sat down, there wasn't a peep out of anyone until the show was over. This is the same experience I had seeing Spirited Away in Japan on its release - I'm not sure exactly why it is, but the behavior of even the youngest Japanese kids is almost ridiculously polite. (The Japanese themselves don't necessarily agree - I know this first-hand. But most of them don't have experience with western kids - and especially not New York City kids! - for comparison.)

After the film, we walked around a bit more outside, where there's some faux-European landscaping typical of the nostalgic look of Miyazaki's films, along with a cafe/snack bar (partially indoors, partially out).

The snack bar was again overpriced, and anyway this was our MOS Burger day so we left it alone. Feeling we'd exhausted all the museum had to offer, we left - only to immediately realize we'd missed the rooftop garden. Oh well.

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting from this museum, so I can't say if my expectations were fulfilled or not. Certainly, if I'd gone to a Disney museum in the United States, I'd have expected something a lot bigger and with a lot more flash. But despite Miyazaki often being called Japan's Walt Disney, there's a big difference between Miyazaki the man and Disney the company as it currently exists. The Studio Ghibli museum seems to be a reflection of Miyazaki the man and his work, and in that, I think his personality and style are probably captured pretty accurately.

And as with anything else on any vacation, it always ends up being a matter of whether or not we're happy we went, and we definitely were.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Japan - Random Thoughts and Pictures

As I near the end of my trip report (still a few more posts to go!), I thought I'd round up a few of the random photos I took that don't really fit in anywhere else and don't have stories of their own and throw them up here. There are always these little moments whenever I go to Japan where I'll notice some tiny little detail around the fringes of my day that stands out for whatever reason... here are a few of them.

You know, sometimes I worry that the term "Engrish" might be offensive to some people. But there's really no other way to describe this:

The Japanese love to use English whenever they can. It's part fad (there's a "cool factor" to it if you can speak English), part government encouragement to promote business and industry, part the Japanese educational system that forces learning English at an early age.

The problem is, this means most Japanese speak a little English. A little. So you get random English words thrown around the Japanese language, their meanings altered and the grammar mangled. And you get these little, almost poetically funny English phrases in various odd places like public restrooms.

I don't mind most of what's generally called Engrish, because a lot of it isn't really trying to be English - it's Japanese. It's a fourth alphabet for them, and they've just incorporated whatever they can from our language into theirs, and so what if they change some things up in the process? When Americans stop pronouncing "karaoke" as "carry-oh-kee" then we can complain about English words in Japanese. But the sign posted above that urinal is definitely not that. It's trying to be real English, and failing hilariously.

Words aren't the only thing the Japanese have borrowed from us:

Click on that photo and open up the big version so you can see what's for sale.

Now, you can take my pancakes and do whatever you want with them. But I'm a New Yorker, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stand idly by while someone in the world is eating a pizza with hard-boiled eggs on it!

That's pretty tame, actually - I have actually eaten soba noodle pizza and it is not really an experience I'd like to repeat. You can get pretty good New York style pizza in Japan these days (and I mean real New York style, not "New York Style" [or "Brooklyn Style", whatever that means]), but more common is squid pizza, soba noodle pizza, egg and mayonnaise pizza. The Japanese can never just take a foreign food and serve it up authentic... they at least have to give you the choice of Japanifying it up completely.

This works better with some foods than others. Some western foods actually benefit from the Japan treatment - the crepe, for example:

You can buy crepes almost anywhere in Japan these days, and rather than being some sort of highbrow breakfast or dessert treat, they're basically treated like carnival food. They're made to order, but the experience is kind of like buying a funnel cake on Coney Island.

So many flavors!

You buy one and they make it right there in front of you and serve it up like an ice cream cone:

So fresh and so good! Available in sweet and savory varieties. That one right there is bananas and cream - it's actually smaller than most. We got it at our hotel. (Not at the same place as the selection shown above.)

Switching gears now. (How's that for a segue?)

Open that one up. Note how the bicycles continue literally as far as the eye can see. You want to see something even more amazing?

This was the view from the same spot in the other direction. This has to be a mile of parked bicycles, in two rows, all packed within inches of each other. And people wonder why the Japanese are in better shape than we are!

This was in Urayasu, near the train station, where my wife lived for a while. According to her, "the trick is remembering where you parked."

When we were in Ginza, we happened to be passing by the Sony building and I noticed a PlayStation 3 in the window. I decided to go inside just to check it out, and lo and behold, the systems were playable!

I got some hands-on time with Minna no Golf 5 and Gran Turismo HD. To play a PlayStation 3 is to want one - I don't care about the high price, I'll be buying one of these as soon as they're easily attainable. (No, I don't plan to wait in line or anything - I've been down that road before, and it's a road to heartache.)

Food again. Japan is known as a tea nation - and rightly so. Tea is really the only no-calorie drink you can get most places, and green tea is still pretty much the national drink. But coffee is huge too, and Japan has two categories of coffee that I wish were bigger here. The first is the gigantic variety of canned cold coffee:

...including some being marketed by American celebrities:

Any vending machine in Japan - and you can't walk a block without stumbling over four or five - will have at least ten different varieties of canned and/or bottled coffee. It is impossible to ever find yourself wanting for caffeine in Japan. Not every variety tastes very good - as averse to overly sweet things as the Japanese are, their coffees are usually way over-sugared. But a few varieties are both smooth and bold, and not too sweet. (The less-sweet versions are labeled as such.) You'll pick your favorites soon enough after being there for a few days.

There's also this:

At any convenience store or supermarket, you can buy single, self-contained filter packs that fit over any standard cup and will give you real, freshly-brewed hot coffee wherever you happen to be. (Provided you're near a water source and potentially something to heat it, of course.) This is pure genius, and so ridiculously convenient that it amazes me we haven't latched on to the idea in America. Do we even have this product here? I've never seen it.

A lot of Americans seem to think of Japan as xenophobic, which I think is just bizarre. The Japanese, at least those in the big, modern cities like Tokyo, are probably more westernized than any other country in Asia. Call it a byproduct of the post-WWII reconstruction. They also love to buy our products, though most of them are just a little bit different to suit Japan's tastes:

What? You knew Haagen-Dazs was American, didn't you? Yep, from the good ol' Bronx, New York!

Anyway, what's wrong with that picture? Blueberry ice cream, that's what. Japan's got some crazy Haagen-Dazs flavors that I really wish I'd tried, like "Azuki" (red bean), "Rich Milk", and "Black Sesame". (I actually tried some great home-made ice cream right off a farm in that "Milk" flavor - it's basically like vanilla but a lot lighter. Apparently very popular in Japan.) Haagen-Dazs also has an excellent Green Tea flavor in Japan that doesn't seem to be available here - I would guess that someday it will be. This is a flavor that's gaining a lot of popularity in general in urban areas of the United States.

As some of you might know, I'm a huge PUFFY fan - I was hoping to see and hear a lot of them in Japan, but I oddly enough saw them only twice, on both the first day and the last day. This was actually at JFK airport:

On the last day, I saw them in a Lipton commercial - they've been enlisted to help Lipton celebrate 100 years in Japan. The first time I went to Japan, everybody was dressed like them and they were all over TV. This time... not so much. It was kind of depressing, especially as their music has actually really improved over the years. This time, rather than Amis and Yumis everywhere, it was little miniature Kumi Kodas - that's the popular style now. But I did still see a few obvious Puffy fans here and there. The Japanese, even moreso than Americans, love to dress up just like their favorite bands and artists - down to individual articles of clothing they've seen them wear. They'll go far and wide searching for that one particular armband or shoe or whatever. So it's easy to tell who's a fan of what.

Coming soon: the Studio Ghibli museum!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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