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.

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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