Sunday, September 30, 2007

Random Japan - Why They Drive Small Cars

If you ever wondered why the Japanese drive tiny little automobiles that wouldn't even fit two decent-size westerners, here's your answer:

Yes, that's actually a two-way road. There are many throughout Japan like this. And it's the reason why Japanese cars are small, boxy (so you can see all four corners of the car), and have really precise steering. Otherwise you'd have an epidemic of head-on collisions throughout the country. I'm amazed it doesn't happen regardless.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tokyo Day 5 - Beer Museum Yebisu

I'm jumping around a bit in the timeline here now that I'm home, but I'm just writing about whatever I happen to be thinking of at any given time. Today, I happen to be wearing my Yebisu t-shirt, so I'm thinking about the Yebisu Beer Museum.

Day five was our last day in Tokyo, and we had a couple things planned. The first was a visit to Harajuku to take some pictures of the gothloli and cosplay fashion on display (a post on that's coming soon), and the last was dinner at a garlic restaurant my wife knew from her days in Tokyo. It happened to be in the neighborhood of Ebisu, and since we had some time to kill in between activities, we decided to hit the Beer Museum Yebisu that's in the same neighborhood. (In fact, the neighborhood of Ebisu is named after the beer! Both spellings are pronounced "ebisu"; "Yebisu" is just the old way of writing it.)

What is Yebisu Beer? I'm not an expert on Japanese beer, but here's what I know. Yebisu Beer is made by Sapporo and is considered their "premium" brand. It is almost as old as Sapporo itself, dating to 1887, and was originally a Tokyo alternative to the Hokkaido-brewed Sapporo - I can imagine beer probably didn't travel too well back in those days. Both Sapporo and Yebisu were dormant brands in mid-century as Sapporo and Asahi had merged operations, but were revived after the two companies later split again. Yebisu has been back on the market since 1971 and is now extremely popular in Japan as a premium malt beer. It's at least as common as Sapporo itself, especially in Tokyo.

Sapporo, in fact, now has its company headquarters in Ebisu, at the former brewery of Yebisu beer. (Both Yebisu and Sapporo are now brewed in various places throughout Japan - but not actually in Ebisu or Sapporo!) And they've also created a little city-within-a-city around the former brewery that includes a shopping mall, several restaurants, and the Beer Museum Yebisu. The great thing about this beer museum? You guessed it: cheap beer on tap!

The museum itself is actually pretty dry (no pun intended), with some really basic exhibits showing how beer is made and the history of Yebisu and Sapporo - all in Japanese only. As you make your way around to the end of the museum, though, you'll come across the main attraction - the beer garden.

The Yebisu beer garden is fashioned like a modern version of beer halls across Europe - with long granite tables and benches in a large, open room. It's meant for "tasting", but of course everybody seems to go just to get drunk. The beer is not free, but it is cheap - 200 yen per glass for most varieties, and there's a tasting "set" of four beers that you can buy for 400 yen. That wasn't actually available when we got there, though - there are vending machines (what else?) that dispense tokens for the various beers that you then take up to the bar, and these tokens do sell out. I guess this way they can regulate and predict how much beer they're going to need every day. Every other option was still available, though, just not the 400 yen/4 beer deal.

Both Yebisu and Sapporo are offered for "tasting", and pretty much every variety they make - including some that are only offered at the beer garden.

We initially bought three beers - a stout, an ale and a weiss. Yebisu and Sapporo are both based on German beers originally, so they take the same nomenclature. The weiss, if I remember right, is not sold anywhere else - only at the beer garden. Now, I'm not a beer snob, but I gotta say that the ale and weiss definitely tasted better to me than pretty much any beer I've ever had of either type. Maybe it was the freshness, maybe it was just because we were damn thirsty (another hot day), but they were mighty tasty. The weiss was obviously a lot lighter, but not too light - it was still more flavorful than most American beers, and without any bitterness or aftertaste whatsoever.

The stout was not as good - and I do like stout - but two out of three ain't bad. It had kind of a burnt coffee flavor to it, whereas the stouts I like (like Guinness) have more of a licorice taste.

Little sidenote: they give you a package of "beer crackers" for each beer you buy. I've never even heard of these before, but they're supposed to taste like beer - they're made with hops. They're definitely interesting, and they do match the taste of beer really well.

We ended up buying two more of the ale and weiss and got pretty tipsy before our trip to the garlic restaurant.

I do really like Japanese beer, and especially Sapporo brands. It's what American beer wishes it was - a good copy of German beer. It tastes similar to American beer, but just better - more flavor and no aftertaste. You can get "Japanese" beer in America, but look closely at the label - I guarantee you that the can or bottle you're drinking is brewed in Canada by either Anheuser-Busch or Molson. It's not the same stuff you can get in Japan. It's basically Budweiser and Molson Canadian. The only exception to this right now is the 22oz. cans of Sapporo, if you can find them - they don't make this size in Canada, so these are still brewed in Japan.

Still, even real canned or bottled Japanese beer doesn't taste as good as beer that was brewed probably that day and then served on draft. This was some seriously good beer, and for not much money, so I'd highly recommend checking this place out on your next trip to Tokyo. Get there either early or late, though (they close at 5:30), because the crowds do gather and as you can imagine, they seem to stay a while.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Random Japan - Black Sesame Ice Cream (and other desserts)

One thing that most American companies operating successfully in Japan have learned to do is cater specifically to Japanese tastes. That usually means some products that we in the west would probably find pretty wacky, maybe even unappetizing. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Haagen Dazs black sesame ice cream:

Let me tell you, I was skeptical too at first. I saw this stuff on previous trips to Japan and never even had a thought to want to try it. It was actually at a Japanese restaurant in New York (Saka Gura) where I got my first taste of a black sesame dessert, in creme brulée form. That dessert is now my favorite of all time, and I go to Saka Gura specifically for it.

Saka Gura's black sesame creme brulée actually comes with a dollop of homemade black sesame ice cream and a black sesame cookie. It's difficult to describe the taste of black sesame if you've never had it, but it's definitely "nutty" - it does taste like regular sesame, but almost as if it's been roasted. Somehow, its bitterness matches really well with sugar and milk - probably the best analogy for a westerner would be coffee.

Haagen Dazs' black sesame ice cream is not the best - it's not as good as Saka Gura's, and theirs is not even the main point of the dish - but I'd think it's probably the only way a lot of people will ever get to taste this kind of thing. You can get it at any Haagen Dazs store in Japan. My problem with it is that it's not mixed well, apparently on purpose; there are areas in the ice cream that are just nothing but black sesame paste, and there's too much of it. Every once in a while you just get a mouthful of bitter coffee ground-like nastiness. But once you learn to mix each spoonful a bit yourself beforehand, it gets pretty tasty.

Haagen Dazs actually has a whole bunch of flavors in Japan not commonly available here - blueberry, green tea (available in some areas of the US), "bitter caramel" and "rich milk" are some of the others. But black sesame is definitely the most exotic and the most acquired of tastes, and probably the most satisfying once you've mastered it.

Tokyo Game Show 2007 - Overall Experience and Impressions

I'm a little late with this, and I'd originally planned on writing a bit more about the Tokyo Game Show (it was the main reason we went to Japan at this time, after all), but I'm going to close out my "coverage" of this year's show with an overview post giving some general impressions and views of the show floor.

First, if you haven't already, you might want to read my 7-year belated show report from TGS 2000. Then remember that I also have reports from this year about the campaign girls and the line wait - yes, the line is worthy of its own post!

For those who have never been to the show, a short primer is in order. The Tokyo Game Show is not actually held in Tokyo - it's held in Makuhari, itself a city of 800,000 people just a bit further down Tokyo Bay. It's a fairly large but otherwise quiet city - sort of the San Jose, CA of Japan. For some reason that I'm not aware of, it was chosen as the home to the Tokyo area's largest (though not only) convention center, a truly mammoth complex known as the Makuhari Messe. A sort of virtual city of hotels and shopping centers has now sprung up around the convention center and the neighboring Chiba Marine Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team and also host to various major concerts and other events.

The show itself used to be twice yearly, but the attendance levels weren't high enough to justify that. Around 5 or so years ago, the organizers cut the show to once a year. Since then, attendance has risen pretty dramatically.

It's a two day event, with now two extra days for the press. TGS is and always has been a show for the public - the press days were instituted only after the media complained that they couldn't cover the games properly having to compete with the public for play time. So the CESA (the event's organizers) initially opened the doors a day early for the press - but when I did this seven years ago (hard to believe it's been that long), it literally was like walking into a building still under construction. There's no actual show, and half the booths were still being built. These days it may be different, but still, the show proper does not actually begin until the public days. That's when all the game stations are turned on, all the events are scheduled and things really start hopping.

We got to the show at around 9:45 on Saturday and made our way into the convention center right around 10AM. By that point, there were probably already about 60,000 people inside, and we decided to just take a few minutes to survey the floor. For some reason, the table nearest us when we walked in was not stocked with the official TGS info guide, so we were sort of walking around blindly for a while. Luckily, I did at least remember the layout of the convention center, so I knew basically where I was going - just not the location of any of the actual booths I wanted to visit.

This is 1/3 of the Tokyo Game Show

We wandered through halls 1-9 - the entire building - and then just decided to have something to eat before the little cafe corner got too crowded. By then, it was around 11AM and we'd done exactly nothing and played exactly no games. I think we were both feeling a little overwhelmed already.

We wandered back through, passing a huge line at the Squaresoft merchandise booth (this was a theme of the show; massive lines for god-even-knows-what) and then huge and still-growing lines for all the games I wanted to play - NiGHTS for the Wii, basically any Squaresoft game, Metal Gear Solid 4, etc. We did stop on the outer edge of the Sony booth to play some Heavenly Sword - basically the only game Sony had that wasn't jam packed with people. We took most of our campaign girl photos on this pass through the convention center before ending up back at hall #1. We sat down, already worn out and sweaty, but still having played no games. My wife finally asked a woman sitting near us where she had gotten her floor guidebook, and she just gave hers to us. Gotta love that about Japan - this is not uncommon there.

I read through the guide and mapped out some games I specifically wanted to play - including the new Bangai-O for the Nintendo DS, several PS3 games in the Sony booth, and another try for NiGHTS. We first headed over to the D3 Publishing booth for Bangai-O, where I managed to get some playtime without really any wait at all. Not a big surprise, I guess - this is a niche shooter, but from one of my favorite developers (Treasure), and a sequel to one of my favorite Dreamcast games. It seemed fun, but I couldn't get much of a sense of it from the small amount of time I had. I remember the Dreamcast game being similar - it's not until the later levels that it starts getting into some mindblowing destructive action.

Along the way to the Sony booth, I noticed Namco-Bandai was showing both a new Space Invaders game (the annoyingly titled Space Invaders "Extreme") and a new Arkanoid for the DS. There didn't seem to be much of a wait, so I got in line for Space Invaders. It turned out to be really fun! There have been numerous updates to the original Space Invaders over the years, so it's not as if it was an entirely new experience, but there were a lot more features and just a lot more going on in this new game than any other Space Invaders I've played - and it makes good use of the system's dual screens. For completing a level, I won a prize that turned out to be some sort of cheap Space Invaders tapestry.

We finally made our way to the Sony booth and literally got stuck in a foot traffic jam. The booth was packed - it couldn't have been any more full, literally. Elbow to elbow people. We couldn't even tell where the lines for the games ended. It took us about 15 minutes just to make it from one side of the booth to the other, and I didn't even try getting in line for any of the games. My wife told me later that she was actually getting scared she was going to pass out. It was pretty ridiculous.

The Sony booth
We got the hell out of there and then took stock of the situation. By this time, it was around 1:15 and things seemed only to be getting worse. I had no confidence that I was going to be able to try any of the games I wanted to try, and there weren't all that many I wanted to try anyway. My wife actually looked sick, and I wasn't feeling all that well either - a combination of dehydration, feeling dirty from the sweat, the moist, stagnant air and noise inside the convention center, and the crowds. We decided to just take a few more general photos and then go. And when we did, it felt like being liberated from some sort of sadistic prison.

Some overall impressions:

* TGS is much, much more crowded than it used to be. In 2000, I went on both the press and public days - neither were anything like what I experienced this year. Something's going to need to be done about this if this show wants to continue expanding. Maybe add another public day - even a weekday. That way, people who really want to avoid the crowds can just take a day off from work. Either that, or rent out the second convention hall building and expand physically. There is just not enough room for this show as it exists now, even in the massive main hall.

* The most crowded booths were Sony, Squaresoft and Sega.

Level 5 also had a large line. Microsoft's booth was almost completely empty when we first arrived (other booths were already full), but the spillover from the other booths filled it up eventually. It seemed like a reluctant crowd in their booth, though - like they just had nowhere else to go. It's no secret that the Xbox 360 has not been doing well in Japan, and that was reflected at their booth.

* Every large exhibitor had some sort of stage show this year. In 2000, this was the exception, but it was a big hit for the exhibitors that did it and now everybody does something similar. Most of them are just dumb little song-and-dance routines by the campaign girls, but a few are larger productions.

In addition to the publisher-sponsored shows, there were larger shows too - one of them by idol group AKB48, whose main claim to fame is that they represent the Akihabara otaku contingent. Perfect for a game show. We missed that - I actually kinda wanted to see it, just for the novelty factor - but we didn't want to wait around.

* The Makuhari Messe really needs to invest in a decent air conditioning system.

This was going to be the centerpiece of our trip, but it actually turned out to be a pretty minor event for us and not one of the most fun things we did. I'm glad I went, though mostly just to be able to say I did. I didn't really get a whole lot out of the show itself. Luckily, we left pretty early, which left us most of the day to do other fun things. Watch for more posts coming soon!

Monday, September 24, 2007

We're Home

After a somewhat harrowing flight from Tokyo, we're now back home on Long Island. We flew JAL again, and I'm probably not going to write up a flight report this time because it was basically no different than our last trip. The only exception was the turbulence, which I really can't deal with. I'm a nervous flier - I know it's the safest form of travel, but I need something solid under my feet. So any turbulence and I just sit there clutching my arm rest until it's over. And this flight was bumpy pretty much from start to finish, with one bout that forced the captain to call the flight attendants and sit them down during the second meal service.

We also made the somewhat crazy "Canarsie Approach" into JFK. Any frequent JFK fliers probably know this approach, where you follow along the Belt Parkway for a couple miles before making a hard right turn at about 500 feet to land on runway 13L. Some people probably find it exciting, but it's not good for someone who's afraid of flying! Especially flying JAL, where they turn on a nosewheel camera for landing - it looks like you're flying right into the ground.

Anyway, more Japan updates are coming soon!

Random Japan: Melon Cream Soda

This is the first in what's probably going to be a series of little random observations about Japan. One of the things I discovered on our just-ended trip was this:

Yeah, I'd already drunk a little bit of it before taking the shot; no self control, I guess. Anyway, this is a melon cream soda. And it's the Japanese version of a root beer float.

Fanta sells melon flavored soda; you can get it at any convenience or grocery store, and even fast food chains like MOS Burger offer it. It's actually usually a disturbing day-glo green - my soda above is already mixed a bit. I love this stuff even straight; I don't know that it really tastes much like melon, but it's definitely got a light, crisp sweetness that's not like any soda we've got here.

Add in a scoop of ice cream and you've got a melon cream soda. And that's two great tastes that taste great together right there.

Try one the next time you're in Japan - you can get them at many restaurants, especially any that specialize in desserts.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Travel Day Tomorrow...

Tomorrow's a travel day and we'll be getting an early start, so no more trip report posts for a day or two. Don't think it's over, though! I've officially got a backlog at this point. I'll be going back through and talking about all the things we did that I haven't gotten to yet (and it's a lot of stuff - this was a "cram" vacation), and I've also got a bunch of stuff to scan just like I did last year. I've also got a lot of random thoughts and observations, complete with pictures, that aren't going to fit in anywhere else - so I'll be doing several little one-off posts about little cultural things I noticed this time.

I'm going to try to kill some time writing some posts on the plane, so hopefully I'll be able to post some updates in about 24 hours or so.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tokyo Game Show 2007 - The Line

At my last Tokyo Game Show in 2000, I was working on press credentials and could therefore come and go as I pleased. It was really quite nice watching the crowds line up at 9AM from my hotel window, knowing I could just wander in whenever I felt like it.

Today, I was one of those in the crowd lining up at 9AM. And let me tell you, it was brutal! As we made our way from the train station to the Makuhari Messe convention center, we were ushered into these little pens in the middle of what seemed to be a parking lot.

They filled up quickly.

Eventually, it was just people as far as the eye could see.

Keep in mind two things:

1. This was the back of the line! The rest of the line stretched all the way around the building, like this (taken in 2000):

2. It was hot out there, and with no shade. It's really impossible to convey to someone who hasn't been here how much different the heat feels in Japan. The country's closer to the equator than most of the United States, so the sun is a lot more intense. At the same time, it's extremely humid. Imagine Texas heat with Hawaii humidity. Everybody in the line was absolutely drenched by the time we started moving.

When we did start moving, we literally had to walk all the way around the building to get in. That's probably close to a mile. I think this show has to be in contention for the world record for "longest line". The first day of TGS always draws close to 100,000 people, and most of them are there at opening.

Wasn't really a fun start to the day. But it got better. More coming later!

Tokyo Game Show 2007 - Campaign Girls

Here's my shameless play for Google hits - Tokyo Game Show 2007 campaign girls (aka "booth babes").

A little update: I've noticed this year that some American web sites are calling these girls "booth companions", which in my opinion is kind of creepy. I think that might just be something one publisher did in a translated press release. Most Japanese call them "kyangeru", which is short for "campaign girls". Call them "booth companions" in Japan and most people are gonna think you're talking about something entirely different.

Anyway... the pics!

My wife's favorite:

Got one of them looking at my camera above, the other below:

And a cosplayer for good measure:

She looks like a pro to me - she probably does this competitively. (Yeah, cosplay is actually a competitive industry in Japan.)

If you've never been to TGS and are wondering how easy it is to get photos like these, the answer is very. It's part of the campaign girls' job. Just ask, or just show them your camera. As for cosplayers, it's what they're there for, after all. (They're really trying to get into magazines.)

Anyway, more from TGS coming soon! Although I gotta say, it was too crowded to really do much. I'm just among the public rabble these days, so I can't just come and go whenever I want. But I've still got some stories...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Tokyo Day 3 - Maid Cafe!

Japan's got a reputation in America as being a pretty crazy, weird, sometimes kinky place. In certain ways both innocent and sinister, that's true. In other ways, maybe not so much - a lot of things that seem strange to us on the surface feel really pretty normal once you've been here a couple of times. One of the things Japan's gotten some underground word of mouth about lately is the "maid cafe" - a distinctly Japanese phenomenon that goes to the heart of "otaku" culture. My wife and I - yes, both of us! - wanted to see what this was really all about.

We actually had planned to try a maid cafe last year but chickened out at the last minute. It's one of those things that may or may not carry a stigma - sort of like walking into an adult video store. This time around, we finally grew a pair and did it.

What is a maid cafe? Simply put, it's a cafe staffed exclusively by cute girls dressed in French maid outfits. Nothing much more to it than that. I'm not sure how it started, but I think the "maids" that these outfits are modeled after were originally animation characters - they're not copying real maids. Some of the cafes have a reputation for catering to your every whim, providing extra service beyond what a regular restaurant waitress would do (not anything dirty, just more attention - like your own personal server). A few of them do offer extra services beyond just the cafe, like foot and back massages and even "virtual dates", where they'll walk around Akihabara with you for a set amount of time in exchange for money. That's all a little too creepy for me; I wanted to just stick to the cafe experience.

There are maid cafes everywhere now, but the largest concentration by far is still in Akihabara, the main otaku hangout in Tokyo. The word "otaku" is a subject in itself... the easiest translation would be "nerd", but that doesn't quite capture it. These are guys who are obsessed with certain types of things - almost fetishists for their chosen hobbies. Read the wikipedia article on the word for more info. These are the maid cafes' main (or at least original) audience.

We picked up an Akihabara map from one of the maids standing outside the train station and just chose a cafe from one of the ads on the back. The one we picked is called "Maid Station", and they have a web site you can check out here. You can also check out the pdf I made of the Akihabara map last year here (we have a new one but I haven't scanned it yet) - it's got an older ad for the same cafe. It turned out to be pretty nice, and not at all intimidating. Inside, it's like a regular trendy restaurant, and in a nod to the area's demographic, they've even got an area set up where you can play Nintendo Famicom games on a large plasma display. Unfortunately, no picture taking is allowed inside - I'll get to that in a minute.

It was actually pretty crowded when we got there, and completely full by the time we left. Strangely enough, the crowd was an almost equal mix of girls and guys, including several girls not in the company of men. Most of them even looked fashionable enough for Shibuya or Roppongi. Maybe we just happened to pick the trendiest maid cafe in Akihabara, I don't know.

They don't allow you to take pictures inside because they want to sell you their own. For 500 yen, they will sell you a personalized photo of one of the maids that looks like this:

I've blurred her face just out of common courtesy to her; I don't know if she wants me plastering her identity across the internet. I've also blurred her name. If you're wondering, the rest of the text just says stuff like "thank you for coming to the maid cafe". And yeah, she wrote it.

For 1,000 yen, they will actually take a picture with you:

That's me, my wife Catherine Zeta Jones and the same maid as in the other pic. Somehow I look like a total dork even with my face obscured. (I don't really care about obscuring my face - see my profile pic - but I didn't want my wife to feel like the odd one out.) We're supposed to be making hearts with our hands there; I look like I'm making two ducks sniffing each others' butts or something. Anyway, we actually did this photo first, then realized we couldn't see all of the maid's outfit! She was really nice, though, and totally happy to take another photo. It is her job, after all.

They'll also sell you the little "I heart maid" badge pictured up at the top for 300 yen. Of course I bought one.

Not that anyone probably cares, but the food was kinda... not that good. Didn't surprise me because that's not why people go to maid cafes, but still, it's really overpriced for the level of quality. I did see two girls sitting across from us getting some pretty hearty looking full meals - we only got dessert - and their food looked better than ours. So it probably depends on what you get. But I still definitely wouldn't go to a maid cafe for the food.

This was definitely one of those weird things about Japan that didn't seem so weird anymore once we'd done it. Yeah, it's definitely kinda different, but it's so harmless and innocent - it's just a restaurant with waitresses in a sexy costume. They all seem perfectly happy to be there, the customers we saw were all totally normal, and it's just a fun little thing to do if you're hungry.

Tokyo Game Show - One More Day

It's coming...

I know the press has been all over this event already, but tomorrow the doors are thrown open to the public. A lot of the press guys that hang around over the weekend aren't going to know what hit them. The public show is the real Tokyo Game Show. And I can't wait.

Also! Today was "maid cafe day" for us in Akihabara. Watch for that post soon!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tokyo Day 2 - Himiko Boat, Asakusa Redux

Today was sort of a "makeup" day from our last trip. On every vacation, you mess up a few things, days don't go quite as planned, or you discover things that you hadn't budgeted time for but wish you had. For us last October, all those things happened on Odaiba, and on the last day of our trip. So today, it was back to Odaiba to finish what we'd started.

Of course, that meant finally taking the Leiji Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat on a cruise down the Sumida River from Asakusa to Odaiba. We missed the last boat on our last day in 2006, so this time we did it early. I really wanted to go at night - they light the boat up in neon from floor to ceiling - but there isn't a trip to Odaiba after 3:30 or so. So we decided to just take the first ride we could get by the time we made it to the terminal.

Unfortunately for us - or fortunately, depending on your point of view - our leisurely pace in getting to the terminal meant we missed the earliest boat, leaving us with a 2 hour wait for the next trip at 1:20PM. So we decided to kill some time by visiting Akasuka Temple, which we only sort of did in 2006.

I still think this particular temple's an overrated tourist trap, but it gave us something to do, at least. It was really hot again, though, and I was again drenched by the time we ate lunch. If there's one thing I really have a hard time with in Japan, it's the tropical weather that seems to last through November.

The Himiko itself was way cool, and obviously unlike any other boat I've ever sailed on. If you don't know who Leiji Matsumoto is, here's his wikipedia link. He's responsible for some of the most enduring animated titles in Japan, and he's pretty much a household name among both kids and adults - he's been around forever, so by now most adults have grown up with him. The Himiko really does look like a spaceship straight out of one of his anime titles.

Underneath the skin, though, the Himiko is basically a run-of-the-mill water taxi. It's slow and smelly, although the interior is done up special and characters from the Galaxy Express series act as tour guides. It's actually kind of weird hearing Maetel wax on about Tokyo Tower. The Himiko also has a glass roof, so it gets pretty hot inside, even with the air conditioning on full blast. It's like a greenhouse.

The trip from Asakusa to Odaiba takes about 55 minutes. The sightseeing is really not all that incredible, honestly - Tokyo's skyline just isn't much to get excited about, at least until you get near Odaiba. Odaiba itself is pretty interesting, as is Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo Tower. But the main attraction is the boat, and if you're a Leiji Matsumoto fan, sailing on the Himiko is like experiencing his world first-hand.

Tokyo Day 2 - Sega Joypolis

Our main reason for going back to Odaiba tonight was the Sega Joypolis. If you're not familiar with this place, read a bit about it in my last trip report here. To sum it up, it's a small amusement park that specializes in virtual reality rides. We went for about an hour last year, and that was barely enough to sample it. Today, we bought a day pass and basically did everything that looked interesting.

I really can't recommend this place highly enough! I love it. I don't know if I'd call it a substitute for a real amusement park, but it's pretty close, and in some ways it's actually better. For example, there were more people there today than the last time we were there, but still, the line waits for rides only ever reached about 20 minutes. I've been to real amusement parks where I've only actually managed to go on three rides all day because of the crowds. Today, we did about ten rides in five hours.

Some of the highlights:

* Spin Bullet - a real (not VR) "wild mouse" style spinning roller coaster. It was closed last time we were there, but it was open tonight. My wife almost got sick on this ride, but I loved it. It's one of those roller coasters that looks like a kiddie ride from outside (well, except for the fact that it's enclosed in a completely darkened room), but gets really pretty scary once you're on it. I'll put it this way: they make you empty your pockets before you get on this ride, because your possessions otherwise will end up being flung out of the car.

* The "Wild" series of VR rides - Wild River Splash, Wild Jungle Brothers, and Wild Wings. These all follow basically the same template - put a bunch of people in a VR vehicle of some sort and give them a "wild" experience centered around a theme. In Wild River Splash, you're in a raft that's being thrown down waterfalls, into the middle of a raging, stormy ocean, and finally off a cliff. In Wild Jungle Brothers, you get a similar experience but in an off-road vehicle. And in Wild Wings, the theme is flight. The realism is pretty amazing, especially in Wild River Splash, and there's a lot of humor in the presentation (the "Wild" theme is intentionally cheesy).

* Half-Pipe Canyon - check out this video:

The idea is to score points by collectively (you and your partner) pressing a foot switch at the right time, which spins your board around as you reach the top of the half-pipe climb. It sounds simple but it's really hard in practice! And too much fun! It's not that the timing is difficult or anything, it's that the G-forces are such that it is just physically really hard to actually press that switch when you need to, and especially to do it at the same time as the person you're with. The most points we managed tonight was 34 - the top scorer of the evening had 55.

* Sky Cruising - this was the one ride we made it on in our earlier trip, and I still think it's one of the best at Joypolis. It really gives you a workout! We did better in the race this time, too - 43rd place!

There are a lot of other attractions that we enjoyed, but those are the best ones. Here are a few photos of some of the rest:

I really never saw the appeal in VR rides before visiting Joypolis the first time, and especially the second time. The best of them really do give you a pretty full experience, not to mention a physical workout. The "Wild" rides really toss you around pretty good, and at least the first time through, they're realistic enough that they're sometimes genuinely scary. With real water being splashed on you, a cold wind being blown at you and high-res, high-def graphics surrounding you as your vehicle twists and turns on a gimbal, it's easier than you'd think for your mind to get tricked on some instinctual level into believing you're going over a real cliff.

There were a lot more people at Joypolis this time than last, which was nice to see. It was still mostly young couples - this really is a great date place! Almost every ride basically requires you to work with or at least have a partner. And there are no gender-specific attractions anywhere - every single attraction in Joypolis seems like it could be equally well enjoyed by both men and women.

The weird thing is that the way the place is designed, it almost always looks deserted in pictures. Trust me, there were thousands of people there tonight. Most of the lines are behind facades, and most of the common gathering areas are hidden behind things like UFO catcher setups, so it's almost impossible to capture more than a few people in any given photo.

There is some wasted space in the small arena that I hope they address. The "Medal Zone", which consists mostly of gambling table games, only ever had one or two people in it while we were there. And there are several VR attractions that are clearly duds. Never saw anybody in line at the Aquarena, for example, which is no surprise considering it's described in the brochure as a virtual aquarium. I felt a yawn coming on even as I wrote that sentence. There's also a cafe on the top floor that looks visually interesting but has had a real hard time attracting anyone to eat both times we were there. The idea makes sense - give people a themed cafe so they don't need to leave Joypolis if they're hungry - but maybe it's the placement, or the food, or the design, but we never saw one person in there. We thought about trying it ourselves at one point, but then felt a little strange about being the only people to do so.

But it's still pretty amazing to see what can be done in such a compact space. I'd love to see this idea tried in the United States. Any investors ready to take a chance?

Tokyo Day 2 - Noodle Shop!

Tonight, we finally checked out a real Japanese noodle shop. We had planned to see Evangelion 1.0 after visiting Sega Joypolis, but we pushed it back until tomorrow because of the late hour. All we had time to do was eat, and we've wanted to try a real, authentic noodle shop for a while now. We found one in the same building as Joypolis, and figured it'd be worth a shot. If you want to look for it yourself after reading this, it's called "Yo! Teko-ya" and it's in the DECKS Tokyo Beach building, 1st floor. Here's a link to their official site.

My wife's obviously been to plenty of noodle shops in Tokyo, but not for a long while now. I never have had the privilege.

One thing I didn't know is that there are actually two separate kinds of noodle shop: ramen and udon. They're never mixed. Well, not in a "real" noodle shop, anyway. Tonight, we ate at a ramen shop - they're more common than udon shops, although there's also an udon shop in this same building (and it was packed).

Here's what I got:

It's a spicy pork ramen. It had an egg on it too, but I gave it to my wife. Here it is! (Broken, in the top left. Yeah, it's brown.)

Hers was some sort of vegetable and mushroom ramen with kimchi.

We both agreed that it was pretty frikkin' awesome. I have never had ramen like that. Even my wife, who's a ramen shop veteran, was impressed - she said ramen is usually not this good, even in Tokyo. I mean this ain't no "Top Ramen" or even "Cup Noodle". This is the real thing. Fresh, real ingredients and a lot of them. Perfectly balanced soup. And of course, a lot of noodles. This is a real meal. I don't think I can eat the instant stuff anymore.

The atmosphere was also appropriately dingy and cramped, although not dirty - just that sort of "urban rustic" feel that tells you that a place has been both designed for maximum efficiency and is also well-worn. Pretty much what I'd expect from a noodle shop. So I was pretty satisfied.

I gotta mention too that I may have also experienced my first bit of xenophobia from our waiter, although it's tough to say for sure. Every time he was dealing with us and heard my wife start to talk to me in English, he'd leave. It was actually a little strange. He was nice and all, but he'd just leave whenever he heard English. Some people might get pissed off and indignant about this (my wife kinda did), but you know what? I didn't care. It's not my country, and he didn't invite me here. If he wants to feel that way, it's his right. I got my food and it was good, and that's all I care about.

I leave you with this disturbing image:

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

We're in Tokyo!

Comin' at ya live from Japan this time! We've actually been here since Monday, but we've been doing the proverbial "family stuff" since then, and not much of it's really worth writing about. I'll probably break out the few things you might find interesting in a later post. This is going to be a shorter trip report than the last one, though, if only because we're only here for half the time.

Tonight's our first night in Tokyo, and also our first night with internet access. We're staying at the Grand Prince Akasaka this time, which is a new hotel for us, and it's pretty cool so far. The location is great - it's walking distance to Roppongi, notorious Roppongi, which I'd never been to before tonight. Of course, it's also near all there is to do in Akasaka, which itself has a lot of nightlife. This is a great area for young people.

It's also a really nice hotel. The other Prince hotels that we've stayed at before have been nice, but not in any really spectacular way. But the Akasaka Prince is really nice. Every room has panoramic windows with a corner view. The rooms are big, with enough space for a built-in sofa along the windows. Of course, everything is ultra-modern, but with that weird, stark pseudo-80's decor that all Prince Hotels have - you either love that or you hate it. I think it's really neat. The lobby of this hotel looks totally Kubrick-esque - white and minimalist and riddled with marble. I'll take a picture of it and post it later.

We don't really know much about Akasaka and we got here pretty late, so the first thing we did tonight was just go out wandering around. Of course, like jerks we ended up eating at Dennys. Not that Dennys in Japan has any relation whatsoever to Dennys in the USA - it's a completely, 100% Japanese menu - but still.

We both agreed afterwards that it was a mistake; it wasn't even very good for chain diner food. We'll be a little more adventurous from now on.

We walked to Roppongi - a neighborhood I've managed to avoid in all my previous trips, amusingly referred to officially as "High Touch Town" - and wandered around a bit more.

The humidity is still pretty stifling here and I was pretty drenched by the time we got there, so I was actually almost embarrassed to go in to any bars or clubs. Roppongi is infamous for its "piano bars", which probably doesn't mean what you think it does - whatever your perspective. These are neither dens of prostitution nor are they innocent Billy Joel-inspired clubs where downtrodden piano men play. No, these are bars where stressed-out salarymen go to talk to beautiful girls. That's all they do; talk, for money. I know it's a difficult concept to understand, but it's a fact. Oh, I'm sure there are places where more goes on than that. But that's not a piano bar, that's something else, and that's a rarity even in Roppongi. In piano bars, as you see in most of Roppongi (and to a lesser extent in a lot of other places), the girls just sit there and talk.

Roppongi is also where a lot of the foreigners in Tokyo like to hang out at night, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Honestly, we saw some foreigners there, but most of them were obviously tourists just like us... not ex-pats. Ex-pats don't walk around in large groups with cameras hanging around their necks. I didn't really see any more resident foreigners there tonight than I have in any other neighborhood; most of the people hanging out seemed to be Japanese businessmen or couples just getting off from work. I think this ex-pat rep is probably pretty overblown, though I could believe that things might be different on different nights of the week.

Roppongi's also got a probably undeserved rep for being "dangerous". Now, I admit, I've spent one night there. But I'm from New York; I was born there, and I lived there through the bad old days when there were more than 2,000 murders per year. I know dangerous. And Roppongi is not dangerous. In fact, I didn't see anything that would make it any more dangerous than any other Tokyo neighborhood. Lots of tourists, lots of young Japanese out having a good time. Where's the danger? This is not the Tokyo equivalent of Tijuana, which is what Roppongi's made out to be so much of the time. (Yes, I've done Tijuana too.)

After hanging out a bit in Roppongi itself, we headed on over to Roppongi Hills, a fairly new, upscale development that mixes high-end residential along with commercial and retail space in a pretty gigantic complex. I've always wanted to see it, and I wasn't disappointed - in fact, we decided to go back in a couple days while the stores are all still open, and when I'll have my own camera with me (these shots were taken with my wife's pocket cam). It's really huge! And with a lot to do. The architecture is really fantastic, too; it's very organic, and makes you feel like you need to explore every little nook and cranny.

There's no real rhyme or reason to the layout; it's a maze. Sometimes it feels like walking through natural caves. There's also an observation deck at the top of one of the buildings, and some sort of "skyline aquarium" that's got us interested, so I'll make another Roppongi Hills post in a few days.

That's about it for our first night in Tokyo. Tomorrow, we're finally going to take the Himiko cruise that I was so disappointed about missing last time, and we're going to spend a full day at the Sega Joypolis. Then, we're hoping to catch Evangelion 1.0, which you either already know the name of or it's not worth me explaining it to you. I'll hopefully have time for another update tomorrow night!

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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