Saturday, March 31, 2012

SC MAGLEV & Railway Park: Japan 3/2012 Day 3

Who loves bullet trains? Everyone loves bullet trains! Japan is one of the most mobile countries on Earth, and trains are everywhere. So there are a lot of rail museums and other related exhibits spread around the country. The SC MAGLEV and Railway Park is one of the newest, owned and operated by JR themselves (imagine Amtrak opening their own railway museum). We'd already gone to Haneda Airport as tourists, so now it was rail's turn.

This museum sits in an industrial town outside of Nagoya - I can't say why they picked that location, as it's kind of a trek to get there (but mostly "free" if you have a Japan Rail Pass!) and as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in a city like this. From Nagoya station, you need to take the Aonomi line to the last stop, and as this is not a JR line, you can't use your rail pass on it. Better eat beforehand - more on this in a minute!

Aonomi line train

There is a pretty amazing bridge right by the museum; this is actually only half of it:

The railway park has a bunch of old and recently-retired trains - from the steam and early electric eras to modern shinkansen/bullet trains. I was pretty interested in seeing some of the more recent shinkansens that were running the first time I went to Japan - my first ride was on a 100 series from Tokyo to Yokohama, about a 15 minute ride! These were the last shinkansen trains to run with dining cars, and I had never seen inside one before.

Overview of the main hall

100 and 0 series shinkansen trains

300 series shinkansen

From my second trip to Japan - 0, 200, 100 and 300 series shinkansen, 
all (mostly) retired now

The "MAGLEV" part of the museum basically consists of a single test vehicle that's sitting in the "experimental" section leading in to the main hall. There's also a steam engine here and a 300X series shinkansen test car. The rest of the museum is just that - a museum, dedicated mostly to the past, with some information on current technology as well.

The experimental hall

The nice thing is you can actually go into most of the trains at the museum (there are a few at the end of the hall that are just for show). All of them are just immaculate inside, practically like new. Even the ancient wooden cars look like they were just built.

100 series dining/restaurant car

0 series buffet car

Not sure what this is - a very old all wood car! Looks new!

The big negative about the whole experience is the crowds, and the lack of crowd management. We went on a Monday - not a day you'd expect to be particularly busy - and the place was just overrun with people. (My photos don't really convey this well.) Worse, the museum literally ran out of food. We went up to the little cafe they have (which is far too small - there was spillover of people eating all throughout the second floor) at around 1PM and there was a long line of people waiting for an emergency delivery of lunch food. We ended up deciding to just wait and get food somewhere else.

The last thing I really wanted to see was this supposedly amazing model railroad that's either the biggest in Japan or the world (I know there's one in Germany that is/was the biggest, but this museum's very new so maybe it's now bigger). The problem, again, was the crowd management. There was a line to get in to this area so long that it was totally maxed out - and they were giving every group of people *30 minutes* inside. Again, we decided it wasn't worth waiting 30 minutes just to get in the line, then 30 more in the line itself.

Apparently this museum has been a lot more popular than JR anticipated - they expected 500,000 people last year and got 1.1 million. Still, I got that info from their own press release - they should be expecting the crowds now. Get some more food, add some more tables and chairs, cut down the time allowed in the model railroad area to 10 or 15 minutes, raise the price of entry. It doesn't seem like rocket science to me, just simple supply and demand.

We went outside hoping for some food, but no dice - there's literally nothing around. I remembered seeing a McDonald's two stops back on the Aonomi line, so we actually got off there and finally ate. At the same stop, there is the biggest Book Off I have ever seen - they have everything, even used guitars - and I picked up a Nintendo Game & Watch reissue there for 1950 yen, so the day was a success after all!

Overall, I'd really only recommend the SC MAGLEV and Railway Park for real diehards right now. Hopefully JR will get their act together at some point and manage the crowds a little better. If you do go, try to manage the day and time - Monday was bad already, but I can't even imagine what it would be like on a weekend.

@home cafe: Japan 3/2012 Day 4

A few years back, my wife and I went to our first maid cafe in Akihabara. We were kind of embarrassed at that point, though we both really did want to go (my wife's pretty liberal, she likes stuff like this). We ended up at Maid Station (now closed), which was a neat place catering to video game nerds, but I always wanted to go back and try one that was just completely over the top with the maid experience. So this time, we went to the @home cafe, which is one of the oldest and definitely the most famous maid cafe in Akihabara. (Their web site claims "2 million served.")

There is an @home cafe at Don Quijote, the same building housing the AKB48 theater, but we went to the main location nearer to Akihabara station, ironically because it's a little quieter. @home takes up four floors of the Mitsuwa building, a couple with different themes but a couple just regular, with spillover space. Supposedly it does get very crowded on nights and weekends. We found a guy inside who was a regular and recommended the sixth floor to us, because he said it had the cutest girls.

Unfortunately they don't allow photos inside (they want to sell them to you), so I didn't take any of the cafe, the food or the girls. But we did get photos with the girls that we paid for (further down).

Since it was opening time on a weekday, there weren't many people there yet and we had no problem getting in right away. About eight or nine girls work a room that seats maybe 25 people, so they give really personal service. Our maid went through everything on the menu with us and explained all the things they would do depending on what we order. For example, order the "PIPIYOPIYOPIYO♪HIYOKOSAN RICE" and they will make a cute design in ketchup on it for you. Order the "MAZEMAZE MOMOIRO SPAGETTI" (I really wish they gave souvenir menus), and they will stir it while chanting "moe moe moe KYUN!" You need to chant this with them while doing a little choreography that they teach you, and they'll bring another girl over to help out so it ends up being three or four people chanting and doing a little dance. It's funny.

They sell a set meal that comes with two courses, a drink and a souvenir photo for something like 3,000 yen, so we ordered that.

While we waited for our food, a different girl came over to talk to us and pass the time. This is part of their job - to stand there and talk to you while looking cute. She just happened to have visited New York a few weeks earlier and had seen a bunch of Broadway shows, so we actually had some stuff we could talk about.

You only get an hour to eat, then they supposedly kick you out if you haven't left on your own. Every hour, they do a little skit on the stage in front, which is just a janken (rock/paper/scissors) game with the customers set to cute music and with a lot of over the top squeals and laughter. Whoever wins gets a free photo with one of the girls. They take all of the photos on the stage in front of everyone. So the whole thing is kind of a shared experience with all the people there.

Of course they personalize the photos with cute little sayings and other writing.

I blur my wife out because she values her privacy. I blur myself out because I look like an idiot.

Before we left, another girl came over with a souvenir bag that included a set of @home candies, a sticker, the photo we had each bought and a point card. I'm not really sure what you get with higher levels on the point card, but the cards themselves are pretty funny.

Feel free to embiggen that so you can read it.

The sticker and candies:

Because there was no line (though it was pretty full by the time we left), they were pretty relaxed about our "hour" - they didn't bring our dessert until about 55 minutes in and they never tried to kick us out. When we did leave, though, all the girls lined up to literally yell thank you and goodbye at us. It was very cute!

Oh, and about the food - honestly, I've learned you don't go to a maid cafe for the food but ours was really not bad. Omelette rice is a simple dish that's hard to mess up, and mine was fine. My wife said her spaghetti was actually pretty good. Our desserts were above average - I got a chocolate cake and my wife got a *huge* parfait that was also really tasty. It was a lot better than the corn flake tiramisu at Maid Station!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

SCANDAL vs. BUDOKAN show report: Japan 3/2012 Day 5

I'm jumping around a bit here with my trip report, but one thing I've learned with show reviews is you've gotta do them while you still feel it. Otherwise it's like a dream; it's fleeting, and you forget too much. Also, a warning: you are about to read a report from a fanboy. It is incredibly detailed and quite long. Feel free to skip it if this does not sound appealing.

Tonight was the SCANDAL show at Nippon Budokan! This was the centerpiece of this trip for me, and I'd been looking forward to it for a long time. How often does a person from overseas get to see one of their favorite Japanese bands at Budokan? It's rare for most bands to even get the chance to play there, and then for me to just happen to be here at the same time and be able to actually get tickets from the United States, well, it's almost impossible. Everything had to line up perfectly, and it did.

I've actually been following Scandal since probably 2009, just after their major label debut. They were a different band back then; really young and raw and I thought of them as more of a curiosity - these Japanese girls dressed up in school uniforms playing hard rock music. What's not to like about that?? But I didn't really take them seriously, and their music - while good - was basically stuff high school kids make with Garage Band.

Today they're a real professional rock band, with all that that entails - actual competence at playing their instruments, glossy production, hair and makeup stylists, custom clothing designers and all that jazz. They're also pretty confident on stage. They've lost some of their edge but it's not embarrassing anymore to admit that I like them - they look, sound and play like a band that should be filling arenas. And now they are.

This was my first concert in Japan, and as I expected, it was a different kind of experience vs. an American show!

We arrived at about 4:45PM for a 5:30PM door opening. I didn't really know why we even needed to get there early at all since we had assigned seats, but I knew the Japanese like to line up, so I figured we may as well get in it. I was glad we got there at least a bit early, because they had the merchandise tables set up outside the arena and had started selling some time before - they were already sold out of various things, including several items I wanted. I did manage to get a t-shirt in large (which I doubt will fit me), a photo book and obviously the bag to put everything in - which you had to buy for 500 yen. Picked up a few gifts too.

This is a stitched together panorama photo of Budokan when we got there - the main merchandise tables were on the left. On the right was a smaller booth selling their CD's and DVD's, plus a table where you could sign up to join their official fan club. (I almost did it! But it's 5,000 yen, and the main benefit you get is early access to show tickets. It's doubtful I'll ever have the chance to use that again.)

Incidentally, if you're wondering what kind of fans Scandal has in Japan, it was a pretty even mix between guys and girls, and even young and old (definitely more young than old, but I saw more than a few middle aged people there - and not all of them were with their kids!). It wasn't just a bunch of nerdy anime fans or perverted guys or alternately a bunch of girly girls. It was just regular people, most a bit cooler and more fashionable than average. It was like walking through Harajuku at any given moment. A lot of the girls there were obviously trying to look like the band.

We finally lined up for the opening - as always in Japan, the lines were completely organized and snaked around without any sort of line management system. People just know how to line up here. We ended up near the front anyway - here's the view of the front of the line (I actually think this is kind of a crazy pic - imagine somebody falling backwards!):

As my ticket was taken, a guy came up to me and asked if I had a camera. I said yes and was forced to check it. They weren't asking everyone - someone must have seen me snap the pic of the line. Japan is still really strict with pictures at concerts, so I didn't get any during the show itself. I really didn't see anyone trying to buck this rule either, so I wasn't going to chance it even though I still had my cell phone (which I can't be without!). There will be a DVD of this show soon enough (update: yup)... my original clip that I posted here died, but that's ok, because here's a better one from the show itself - imagine being in the crowd during this:

Haruna's wearing circle lenses! They all look very, very cute, don't you think? It's almost too much! Haruna's a badass no matter how she's styled, though.

I'll try to describe the stage setup. It was actually a pretty standard Japanese arena stage. The north side seats (including NE and NW) were completely blocked/draped over because the stage was either in front of or directly to the side of them. The stage itself had a standard full-width front stage and (if I remember right) a slightly smaller raised back section with staircases leading up. In front of the main stage was a smaller platform connected by an elevated "runway". The girls' positions were marked with large orange stars that glowed under certain types of light. Two large monitors allowed those on the upper floors to see what was going on at ground-level, and four large connected monitors backed the rear stage as well.

We were seated on the East side, row K, seats 22 and 23. Middle quality seats - not great, but there were a lot of people further away than we were. I can't complain given that we paid regular price and managed to buy our tickets from the US. We did have to watch the monitors a lot; I couldn't really make out anyone's face from where we were. The arena was full - it was a sellout (in 15 minutes!) - though oddly enough, the people next to us never showed up. They were the only empty seats I could see in the entire arena.

The show started nearly on time, at 6:35PM. No opening band. I appreciate this - there's just way too much waiting at American shows. At Japanese shows (this one plus others I've read about), you get there, you sit down, the show starts.

Here's the set list for the show (aped from Scandal Heaven, who aped it from Scandal Mania):

1. SCANDAL no Theme
2. Shunkan Sentimental
4. BEAUTeen!!
5. Shoujo S
7. Hi-Hi-Hi
~RINA drum solo
8. SCANDAL Nanka Buttobase (dance)
~MC(Candid Timo)
9. Pride
10. Haruka
11. BURN
12. Switch
13. Aitai
15. SAKURA Goodbye
16. Hello! Hello!
17. Taiyou to kimi ga Egaku STORY

1. Space Ranger
2. Kagerou

The show actually opened with a "SCANDAL vs. BUDOKAN Title Match" video, that was intended to be funny and kind of was but I really just wanted them to get on with it. The first real song, Shunkan Sentimental, opened with a bang - literally. So much pyrotechnics that we could feel the heat on the second level! The band was wearing some very Harajuku-ish pop punk fashion - I've never seen them dressed like that before; they looked very cute, although some of their fans (including me, sometimes) probably wish they still just wore the uniforms. They were all wearing wireless headset mics so they could move around - also unusual for them (and Tomomi seemed uncomfortable with hers all night).

The entire first set (up to Rina's drum solo) just totally rocked, and I've never seen an arena crowd so into a show before. Japanese crowds are amazing in exactly the way I thought they might be. They go totally nuts in a completely organized way. They will come up with a collective action totally spontaneously. It's like being in an unrehearsed line dance, but somehow everybody knows what to do. I just tried to keep up, and I think I did a pretty good job of it. But it was amazing to look around the arena and see everyone doing the same thing, at the same time, whether it was pumping their fists in the air, waving their arms back and forth, chanting (that's the one thing I had trouble with), or whatever. Absolutely no one just stood there and watched, or did their own little individual dance. Everybody went with the crowd.

During Shoujo S, the band used the raised rear stage to show off their choreography - I was so happy they did this, because the choreography for that song is just such a perfect match for it and that video is one of the first things I ever saw from them. They didn't do a lot of choreography tonight but there seem to be a few songs with choreography that they must just like, and they did do it for those songs. They were dancers first before they were a band, so they must just enjoy it sometimes.

Rina's drum solo allowed for a wardrobe change for the other three members. It was a long drum solo that she used to rile up the crowd with some audience participation, while throwing in some of the cuteness that she's known for - several times she'd stop and just toss in a few randomly cute facial expressions to get the crowd on her side. She's a better drummer than I thought she was, but honestly her solo went on a little too long.

She followed this up with a pretty lengthy monologue by herself. When the other girls returned, they had changed into some faux-Yanqui outfits, which somehow sort of suits them and their tough Osaka street image, though it's not the sexy look they're known for and that most of the crowd was probably hoping to see. Now it was Rina's turn to take a break while the rest of the band did a full-on dance number; rather than playing "SCANDAL Nanka Buttobase", they instead just did all the choreography from the video as it played on the screens in the background. It was fun to just watch them dance for one song.

When Rina returned, there was a long MC section as the girls bantered back and forth about some pyrotechnics Rina had set off at the end of her drum solo, with the joke being that the rest of the band had tricked Tomomi into paying for it. Eh. Long setup, not a big payoff. By the end of this, it had literally been about 30 minutes since the band had played a single note of music together. And what followed was a series of songs that, while all good mid-tempo songs, were obviously intended to give the girls kind of a break and help them make it through a long set. And the audience calmed down a lot too.

Luckily, things did build again towards the end, as the crowd sensed the end was coming and the band started throwing in some more up-tempo songs to bring the energy back up. By the time they started up "SCANDAL BABY", everyone was back in frenzy mode. From what I remember - and it's now the next night as I finish writing this - they brought up the arena lights completely during this song so the audience and band could feel closer together. Definitely one of the highlights of the night.

Of course there were encores, with the girls having changed into their tour t-shirts (as Japanese bands generally do during encores). They played three of their oldest songs, and they all moved to the little sub-stage in front of the main stage. They said that while this was a special night and it was great playing a big arena, they wanted to bring back the feeling of playing some of their early club shows. So they set up a small stage in the middle of the crowd and simplified the light show. It was just them out there jumping around in a very small space. I'm sure this was great if you were on the floor but for us up on the second level, it didn't really translate well. The cool part about it was hearing them play these really early songs, though. Like going to see Pink Floyd and hearing them play "Bike" or something.

And, that was that. The show overall lasted about 2 1/2 hours, but I was sad when it was over - I wanted more! I don't know when I'll ever be able to see them again, though I did get some nice souvenirs and of course, the memories. There will be a DVD and I'm actually pretty confident I'll be pretty easy to pick out in some of the crowd shots (I am a big, goofy American guy in a sea of Japanese.) Here are some pics of the swag I picked up:

T-shirt front and back, bag and photo book.

Some random shots from after the show - flowers people had sent them, and then the nearly-empty merchandise tables:

This is my first of several SCANDAL live reports - read them all!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Haneda Airport: Japan 3/2012 Day 2

Yep, it's day 4 for me now, but I'm still writing about day 2 - I'll get caught up eventually!

Tokyo International Airport - aka Haneda - may seem an odd choice for a tourist attraction, but truthfully we've done all the "normal" stuff in years past. You can read about things like Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, Asakusa and whatever else in my other Japan trip reports. (I've also done a bunch of even touristier stuff I apparently never got around to writing about - Imperial Palace, National Museum and such.) I really do probably have enough material to write a book on things to do in Tokyo at this point. But airports are the megastructures of the modern age, and as with anything else, the Japanese always go way over the top with them. I'd never been to Haneda before (it's still mainly a domestic airport) and my wife had heard there was good food there(?!) So we decided to check it out.

It's pretty cool even just getting there, because the easiest way is via the Tokyo Monorail. This is a neat little attraction on its own - like the Yurikamome Line, it snakes its way through Tokyo at about 10 stories off the ground. You can get some good sightseeing in just sitting on the monorail. And seriously, other than Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, how many cities really have monorails these days?

This is the monorail in action, as it pulls into the airport. It's quite hard to see but if you look closely, you can actually just make out Mount Fuji in the far background. (Look for the outline of a snow-capped mountain in the right half of the photo.)

A view from the monorail - not the best view, but the only photo I took:

By the way, the tip of Tokyo Tower is still bent.

Haneda's now got three terminals - Terminal 1, Terminal 2, and the brand new International Terminal. We went to all three.

This is the entrance from the monorail into the International Terminal.

This terminal's got a little "town" inside that's styled after traditional Japan. The town has shops and restaurants.

Not just typical airport shops and restaurants either - actual real stuff. I guess this is what my wife had heard about - we ended up eating in this area.

This is pork katsu - which is really just Japanglish for "cutlet". It was so freakin' good. This is one of those places where they cook right in front of you, and you can see exactly what they're doing. Everything was very fresh tasting, and the breading was so crispy and light. And the pork was just beautiful; very tender and flavorful. This was not an expensive lunch, either (well, relatively speaking); about $20 per person, I think. I don't remember the name of this place but like everywhere in Japan, all the restaurants in this area put pictures of their food outside, so it's pretty easy to find by just looking for something like this. I remember it was on the left side of this little town, if you decide to check it out.

Haneda has at least two terminals with outdoor observation decks - they haven't gone absolutely batshit crazy with fear like we have. (American airports used to have observation decks too; now you're lucky if you don't get arrested for taking pictures of airplanes from the parking lot.) These are no joke either; they're huge, spanning the entire width of the terminal, and set up specifically for people to be able to take pictures and video, with little holes in the wire fencing to stick your camera lens through.

Both of these were taken from the Terminal 2 observation deck. I actually saw three 787's in a one hour span, including one landing and one taking off! The great thing about outdoor observation decks is the sound - I actually took some video too, which I'll post later.

This is one half of the International Terminal observation deck. This deck looks inward towards the other terminals and control tower, and I actually liked it better than T2's deck (despite the photos above).

This is Terminal 2's deck, which is located above ANA's international gates and has a view of one runway and the city of Tokyo behind it (it's to the left, out of this photo).

Anyone can just walk into the airport and out onto these observation decks. No security checks needed.

Terminal 2's got a lot of shops inside too - basically an entire upscale mall - and a lot of interesting architectural details.

Terminal 1 was not quite as cool - though it is huge and impressive in that way.

That's half of Terminal 1's check-in area. I was standing near the middle when I took this - there's kind of a divider just behind me here and then another half that looks just like this going in the other direction.

T1 doesn't have as much stuff for non-fliers to do - I couldn't find an observation deck and there aren't as many shops on the pre-security side. So we didn't spend much time there, and you could probably even skip it.

But overall, it was a pretty fun and surprising little trip! We thought we'd be there an hour or so but we ended up spending 4 hours at the airport. Great views, impressive architecture, great photo opportunities, great food and shopping... not much more a tourist could really ask for.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Guitar shopping in Ochanomizu: Japan 3/2012 Day 2

On my second day here my wife and I went guitar shopping in Ochanomizu, which has clearly become Tokyo's guitar store area. If that sounds oddly specific, well, this area's apparently used to that - a few years back, the same neighborhood was known as Tokyo's ski shop area. Some of those same shops are now guitar stores. My wife says there are a couple universities around so it's always been a very fad-based neighborhood, and right now a lot of Japanese want to learn to play guitar because of various pop bands that have started featuring instruments and made it seem like anybody can do it. (Almost every store had giant AKB48 displays, for example, which is ridiculous!)

Which is not to say that all of these stores are new or that nobody ever wanted to seriously learn to play here before. But playing guitar here is now trendy again and that's allowed a few new shops to open up, which makes it feel like the area's just been overrun by cheap guitars and budding musicians.

About a dozen guitar stores line the street just outside the Ochanomizu train station - you can't miss them.

Open that up if you want to see better. There are some stores off the beaten path but about 90% of them are on these few blocks of this one street. Practically every store on these few blocks is a guitar or music store.

I went looking for one specific guitar, which I knew I'd buy on sight if I found one:

Graffiti yellow Fender Cyclone. I figured I had a shot since Kimura Kaela used to play one, so these would have been very popular here a few years back. I've wanted one for a long time.

Unfortunately, no dice. Though I did see various cheap copies of it. (And it's already a cheap guitar!)

Here are a few photos of the outside of some of the stores we went in:

Different stores focus on different things. All of them have way more variety than any American guitar store. Greco, Tokai, Fernandes, Ibanez, plus super-cheap brands that just make copies of famous guitars like Edwards and G.I.G. are given pretty much equal billing with the "big two". Gretsch and Rickenbacker are also a lot more prominent than in the US.

Incidentally, those of you who know Ishibashi Music from their Ebay store, U-Box used outlet or just their English web site, their main shop and head office is on this street (though the Shibuya store is bigger).

There is one particular store - and sorry, I don't remember which one - that has a large selection of Japanese Fender offset guitars. Mustangs (actually popular in every shop), Jazzmasters and Jaguars, including a discounted Jazzmaster in Seafoam Green with matching headstock that I came very close to buying (and I might go back!). It has a tiny, tiny chip in the finish on top of the headstock - the kind of thing anyone would do themselves the first day they got the thing home - and for that reason they had taken about $150 off the price!

The big problem with buying a guitar at one of these stores is obviously how to get it home. You can bring it, but that's dangerous (to the guitar) and inconvenient, or you can ship it, but that's expensive. If not for that, I'd probably have bought that SFG Jazzmaster. The Cyclone is cheaper, smaller and lighter and uncommon enough that I'd have just figured it out, but I already have a Jazzmaster so spending the money on one and lugging it around just because it's a different color than the one I have just seemed a little too much. But it was tempting!

A little tip: if you buy a guitar with a bolt-on neck, you can take it apart, wrap it in bubble wrap and just stick it in a suitcase. If you pack it well, it should be fine, and you don't need a flight case.

One side note. One of the best used guitar stores we found was not actually a guitar store and it was not even in Tokyo - it was the Book Off "Super Bazaar" in a little town outside of Nagoya (more on that later). They had a bunch of old American guitars mixed in with newer Japanese ones, all in what amounts to a big thrift store.

I also almost bought this 1978 Mustang:

And this was a little funny - some of the tags attached to some of the guitars were labeled like this:

According to the text in the top right, this guitar, along with a bunch of others they sell, is apparently "junk".

A little update on this - Book*Off now has moved most of their guitars to their "Hard*Off" stores - look for them, they're great.

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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