Retro Otaku’s Japan travel tips

Soba noodles

I don’t claim to be a guru about traveling over to Japan having only had the opportunity to visit last year for the first time, but figured I’d add something to the sea of information out there based on our experiences last year.

Language

Do not bark at people in English. While English is widely taught in school, it doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly completely fluent in it. In Australia most high school children learn a language, but that in no way guarantees they’ll be able to use it outside the classroom. If you’re traveling to Japan, read up on at least some useful phrases and grab an app for your smartphone/tablet or a pocket phrasebook so that you can express how amazing the ramen you just ate in a tiny neighbourhood eat-in really was. Japanese is built on phonetic patterns of vowels, and pay attention to softening said-vowels. Probably influenced by North American pronounciation, too many people seem inclined to harden their vowels when they speak the language – listen closely to when native speakers fire out the language and take some inspiration.

It probably won’t hurt to learn some hiragana and katakana as well (and if you’re feeling adventurous, add some kanji into the mix). Even if it’s just some basics – being able to read references to your choices of travel (100-yen shops, arcades [Game Centres], anime or manga stores, book shops, budo shops, ramen, takoyaki, okonomiyaki) will make it easier finding the places you always wanted to go visit and stumbling along other opportunities!

You’ll also find language will vary from location to location – Tokyo has a fair whack of English translations against its signage to make it easier to get around, though the further out you go it starts getting a bit more sparse (Ohta, where we visited the Sega building, didn’t have much English signage and both Miitaka and Takao were a bit limited in parts as well). We found that Kyoto needed a bit more attention when getting around in comparison, same with Hiroshima and Osaka. Don’t stress if you get lost though – the locals were always amazing when we asked for help, but just make an effort to meet them half-way by speaking a bit of Japanese ?

Food

Get adventurous when you go to Japan! Ramen, udon, sushi, takoyaki, izakaya fare, okonomiyaki – these are just scratching the surface of all the amazing food over there! While it’s fun to take some time to check out the Japanese take on Western cuisine and take-out food, don’t chicken out and miss out on the fun stuff. One of the most memorable meals while we were away was hitting the neighbourhood soba place near Sega in Ohta – the meals were less than $3 each and it was absolutely delicious! Beer is also delicious off the tap in Japanese pubs despite being dirt cheap, and keep in mind that a number of places will actually have a vending machine out the front you use to select and purchase your meals (including note and coin slots), then you take a seat and wait for your meal to be finished up, collect and then return to your table to tuck in (or they’ll bring it out to you). Feel free to try some unusual gear from the armies of vending machines dotted around cityscapes too, and indulge in Japanese iced tea (hint: they’re not loaded with sugar).

Crime and safety

Don’t be an arsehole and you’ll probably be fine in Japan. The place was incredibly safe compared to home – people would leave handbags and shopping on tables in food courts when they went off to grab food from one of the outlets, prams were left loaded with personal goods outside stores and in amusement parks without the need for supervision. It was a nice change from back home. While we didn’t push any buttons while we were over there and can’t speak from experience about getting out of trouble, if you find yourself in a bad situation be nice and polite. Do not be a tool and get drunk, pick a fight with the locals while being filmed and getting it uploaded into YouTube.

Appearance

Gaijin could do a bit better in Japan. I’m not saying you need to set the pace when visiting the likes of Shibuya or Harajuku, but don’t dress like you’ve just woken up and walked out the door in a pair of baggy trackies (sweat pants to those not used to the Australian vernacular) and a t-shirt that’s seen better days, or making your way around the Tokyo train system dressed like you’re heading out to climb a mountain in a third world country (I’m not kidding – spotted a guy in the Shinjuku Station cranking a small backpack with several water bottles and hiking boots dressed in khaki like he was about to leave civilisation). I certainly didn’t set any precedents over there so it might seem a bit hypocritical, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to take some pride in your appearance ?

Mind, I’m doing this from my perspective as a guy – my gender limits me to being in the thick of things with the same appreciation for social norms as the opposite sex, but the etiquette research beforehand and what we noticed over there suggests that legs are fine to show off and crazy heels are an amazing idea, but perhaps be a touch conservative with your chest for the daily grind. Mind, a plunging v-neck on a guy sporting a hairy hipster chest won’t exactly win you any awards (you might be able to get away with it if you’re making a statement in Yoyogi Park on a Sunday with a crepe though!).

The art of walking

Did you know that we don’t know how to walk in public? I guess when you have that level of population density it comes part of the routine. It doesn’t mean that everyone walks fast, it’s just everyone knows how to bob, duck and weave through the human sea and be comfortable with cramming into the subway in sardine-like conditions (which, to be honest, isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be). Just be prepared to go with the flow – it’s a pretty interesting experience and when you get home (assuming you don’t live in a super high-density city, which we haven’t noticed in little old Australia), it adds some perspective!

Inside voice

My speaking voice is loud. In Japan, you don’t speak loudly, so be considerate of others, and if I can get into the habit of not being a noisy pain in the arse, anyone can. This is especially prominent on trains – even when they’re packed, they’re quiet, at least in most cases (they were a bit noisier in Osaka!). By extension, note the decorum in public when it comes to your phone as well – don’t speak on your mobile phone when on public transport, but texting, listening to music and gaming’s okay as long as you’re wearing earphones or headphones. At least that’s what we noticed in our travels and from all the stuff plastered around the place.

Arcades

Here’s a tip – if you find yourself playing a round of Street Fighter, BlazBlue or Virtua Fighter against a fellow gamer and find yourself getting your arse handed to you on round 1, winning round 2, then getting torn apart in round 3, you actually weren’t amazing in round 2, you were being treated to some local hospitality (thanks Steve at Super Gaijin Ultra Gamer for the tip!). In addition, it’s a bit of a faux pas to take photos or videos in arcades over there (though Wifey took some photos and videos while I was gaming without incident). Just be subtle about it and be aware you’ll be asked to leave if staff catch you. The same goes for video game stores – I would have loved to have taken some video footage and recorded my nerdisms when wandering around Super Potato or Mandarake, but IIRC there are plenty of signs warning that photography is a no-no in shops as well.

Shopping

Customer service is pretty awesome in our experiences. Granted I didn’t understand everything at the checkout since my Japanese is a bit rubbish, but it was at least polite! The handy bit is that most cash registers will display the amount owing in Yen (I’m bad with numbers in Japanese!), but remember to use the little tray they provide to plonk your cash in. The operator will then take the cash, count it back, take the money and put the change in the plastic tray for you to take and you’re good to go.

This leads onto the next shopping bit – go with cash as your primary means of spending where possible. We found most of the 7-Elevens had ATMs that accepted foreign credit cards and we used our travel Visa cards to withdraw cash in chunks as we went through the trip. On a couple of occasions I was caught short (the one I remember most is in Mandarake in Akihabara on the second visit towards the end of the trip, who handily had credit card facilities), but most of the time cash sorted stuff out. The exception to this rule is with hotels (all accepted credit cards) and I’m pretty sure the big department stores will also take credit cards (well, Visa and MasterCards anyways).

Internet access

Wifi access was intermittent when we were over in Japan – some had free wifi, some had limited wifi access, some none. We didn’t have a lot of luck hopping onto hotspots while we wandered around the place, but at the same time internet access was a bit of an optional perk rather than a necessity when we were there.

However, if you want to get online in Japan, some of my friends (thanks Kate and Sly!) have suggested grabbing a pocket wifi device when you get into the country and use that. You’ll get access to Japan’s comparatively excellent (compared to Australia :P) mobile network speed/coverage and since it’s a pocket wifi device you can attach anything with a wifi connection (thus great for consoles, smartphones, tablets and laptops).

… well, that’s it for now. I’ve probably missed some stuff as I’ve gone back and added to this a couple of times already, but it’s been a while since I’ve written on the blog ? Hopefully this will mark a more sporadic blogging habit rather than the long awkward pauses over the last few months!

Share

Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 13

japan2012logo-day13

We intended to start Sunday’s shopping finale by getting away at 9am. Sadly, an amazingly comfy bed encouraged us to take it a bit easier and by the time we found our way to Harajuku it was closer to midday 😛

The Harajuku run started with a trip to the bargain store Daiso. We had been making a habit of dropping into ¥100 stores during the trip for bargain hunting/amusement, so a multi-story Daiso packed into Harajuku was, not surprisingly, amazingly good fun! We grabbed a few more goodies for ourselves and friends and family back home while we were there for a ridiculously cheap cost, including stacks of Japanese lollies and chocolates to enjoy when we got home!

From there we wandered to the tip of Otomesando-dori to grab a crepe and go cosplay hunting. Sadly we only found one pair of cosplayers (not sure if we were in the wrong spot in Harajuku or maybe we were too early in the day), so we headed over to Yoyogi Park to watch the locals relaxing on a Sunday and the rockers showing off their amazing pompadours.

It was really cool to spend a little bit of time chilling out and watching what the locals were up to on a Sunday – a guy was playing a guitar on a bench under some shade, groups of teens were playing badminton and soccer, and in the distance we saw a group of people dancing it up. Young families were out with their kids and dogs, but everyone was just relaxed and enjoying the sunshine and awesome weather.

After polishing off a bite to eat, it was time to jump back on the Yamanote Line to visit Shibuya. While there Wifey did some much-needed shopping and we also hopped down to the Bingo second hand clothing store located in the basement of the Shibuya Book Off we visited when we were in Tokyo previously to see if anything interesting had found their way to the shelves in our absence.

After dodging the hordes of gaijin and the impressive cache of locals (and getting some photos of some street art down one of the side alleys, JSR-style!), we were back on the Yamanote line for our last portion of the shopping day – Akihabara Mk. 2!

For this run I dropped Wifey off at the Caffe Excelsior opposite the UDX building (passing what looked like a group of protestors bearing cosplay outfits and someone who was wearing a Gundam mask) and started the final hunt.

First stop was Gamers, a place I’d wanted to visit since getting on the DiGi Charat train back in 2000. Sadly, the multi-floor building was a disappointment, catering to the creepy otaku with long pillows with arrays of moe (including selected pillows with squishy bits for the characters’ breasts), porn, DVDs and BRDs, more porn, cosplay, and a bit more porn. Bummer.

With a hasty exit I figured I’d visit Kotobukiya (we stumbled across it when running the maid gauntlet during our last trip – it’s close to Super Potato!) and then check out the Hard Off I missed next to Mandarake during the previous visit. Because I’m special, I promptly got lost for 15 minutes before finding my way back to Hard Off/Mandarake (should have listened to my initial instincts and walked where I thought I needed to go).

Kotobukiya proved to be great fun for this second round of shopping (picked up some anime stuff), but the trip to Hard Off wasn’t worth it, as it specialised in audio equipment and little else. While this wouldn’t be a bad thing in ordinary circumstances (while I don’t know a lot, I enjoy looking and learning about amplifiers and what-not), I was trying to go as fast as possible because I was conscious of not being too much of a pain in the rear since Wifey was at this stage getting to the end of the coffee/cake set at Excelsior.

So I jumped next door to Mandarake, this time appreciating the slight price increase in Akiba vs Nipponbashi. That being said, there was also plenty there I couldn’t find in Akihabara, and Mandarake is generally a very easy to use store for nerdy stuff. I ended up grabbing a handful of gear for the PSone, Saturn (including Street Fighter Zero 3!), Mega Drive, Mega CD and Super Famicom; SFZ3 was the most expensive at around ¥7,000, the rest of the gear was pretty reasonably priced, especially the PSone games. I managed to nab Keio Yugekitai for the Mega CD in great condition complete for around ¥1,300, so that was pretty cool too!

After finishing up there I texted Wifey and picked her up, then dropped past the Tokyo Anime Centre just up the escalators on the second level of the UDX building to see if we missed anything (picked up an awesome Macross t-shirt!), then off we went to have a look at Liberty and Traders 1, 3 and 4, all of which came up blanks for anything other than current gen systems of PS2/PSone, and at this stage I had crossed both of them off my to-get list owing to a lot of success grabbing titles for them in the wild.

This then led us back to Super Potato for some more nerding – I grabbed a couple of Dreamcast, Saturn and possibly also some Super Famicom gear (memory is a bit hazy!). With Super Potato sorted, we then went to the Sofmap wedged between the two Club Sega arcades on the main strip. The reason for the extra trek was to nab a cheap DS Lite (¥2000) as they were getting rid of them nice and cheaply (this one was in great shape physically, it just needs the fuses replaced which is pretty easy to do).

We finished up by heading into Club Sega where I played a round of Virtual On Oratario Tangram on a dedicated cab, then a couple of rounds of Super SF2: Hyper Anniversary Edition, where I got owned by someone using an M. Bison/Vega exploit by timing the psycho crusher to hit when I got up without the chance of blocking.

Normally this kind of play would piss me off, but I managed to get a few hits in before I got taken out in a succession of cheap shots, and playing against someone in an arcade in Japan was still a thrill at this stage so it didn’t really bother me 🙂 We left via the bottom floor where I failed to win a plushie from one of the crane games (got close though!) but took a couple of the Sega plushie bags as a souvenir from the trip 🙂

So with the shopping out of the way, we hit the subway and braved the rush to head back to Maihama and grabbed some delicious home-style pork and fried rice from one of the vendors before heading home.

The early night didn’t really happen, but it still made for an entertaining day 🙂

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

Share

Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 2

japan2012logo-day02

Wednesday was officially nerd day, where Wifey was happy to indulge the crazy nerd adventures I’ve been wanting to do in Japan for many years. After a slight sleep-in and a nice buffet brekky, we hit the subway station to make our way out to Mitaka to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum.

Being a long-time anime fan who jumped on the bandwagon around ’94 when Siren started distributing the classy Manga Entertainment label of anime locally, over the years I developed an incredible love of Studio Ghibli’s work. The first Ghibli movie I saw was Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, thanks to SBS screening it around ’96. In 2001 Princess Mononoke had a limited screen at the Palace Nova in July that year, and around the same time I bought my first DVD player (a multiregion Pioneer DV-344) and started importing all the Studio Ghibli releases direct from Japan.

The trip to the museum was amazing for two reasons. The obvious one is the museum itself – I had never contemplated that a physical structure could in any way capture the whimsy, charm and nostalgia typical of Studio Ghibli productions, but somehow it had. This is the kind of experience that is difficult to put into words, because it was at once tangible but yet ephemeral at the same time. There was a screening of a specially-produced short movie in the small theatre, a big Nekobus that the kids were going crazy over, rotating exhibitions (which I think was looking at the history of folk tales in the West), the giant from Laputa on the roof, a cafe, book store, gift store (named after the Mama Aiutto from Porco Rosso) and a recreation of the working space of Miyazaki or Ghibli staff (I believe), with some amazing memorabilia all over the place, including lots of sketches, cells and production gear from various Ghibli movies. There was a particularly big emphasis on Kiki’s Delivery Service, which being my favourite Ghibli movie, was great to see.

After making a modest deposit at the gift and book stores (I had to resist the temptation of spending around $500 on getting a framed cell from Princess Mononoke or Kiki’s Delivery Service), we jumped back on the shuttle bus that went from the museum to Mitaka Station. Now this is where the second part of this experience came into its own – whereas the original bus between the station and the museum was pretty direct, this time we wound through all the back streets on the way back to the train station. This was a mind-blowing experience – Mitaka is a really pretty city, with residential houses, busy main streets and bikes everywhere. It evokes the same qualities that many of the nostalgia-infused moments in Ghibli movies set in more contemporary circumstances, like Whisper of the Heart or From Up On Poppy Hill (despite the discrepancy in time periods).

Next up was the sacred pilgrimage that is, in many ways, one of the other important things from this journey – visiting the Sega headquarters in Ohta. To get there was an exercise in patience on behalf of Wifey, is it was a little convoluted! We took one of the JR lines to Shinagawa Station from Shinjuku, and from there we transferred to one of the private lines to get to Otorii. Things got tricky because we used the wrong entrance/exit (we should have exited out of the main JR gate using our JR pass, then used our Pasmo card to get to the Otorii line), and then we weren’t sure which train to catch to get to Otorii since there were a handful of options. We took one of the local lines on the Haneda route to get off at Otorii. After exiting Otorii we started walking the wrong way, then turned around and realised that if we looked both ways when we exited the station originally, we would have noticed the great big Sega logos on top of two buildings down the street.

We stopped at a neighbourhood soba place to eat an amazing (and cheap) meal of plain soba with dipping sauce and spring onion and wasabi paste (around ¥280 each!), then walked down to the Sega building, where I was finally, after years of obsessive fanboy passion, able to step on hallowed ground. And it was awesome 🙂

Unfortunately the building was closed for some reason, but Wifey indulged my nerd spirit by peering through the windows and trying to take picture of things, including some people who must have come out of a meeting and walked through the lobby.

At some stage I think we had started attracting the attention of the police nearby and we promptly left while trying to look unsuspicious (which probably didn’t work – a gaijin with a limp and a hat to protect his thinning ranga hair don’t exactly blend in over there). As we were walking down the street I saw the people from the lobby in front of us, and being excitable, took their picture while walking quickly down the street in a fit of nerdy giggles. In my mind I imagine they had just come out of an amazing meeting at Sega, but I lacked the Japanese skills (and balls) to ask them anything.

Once the pilgrimage was over, we grabbed a couple of yummy pastries from Peter’s Deli (I think that’s what it was called) at the entrance of the Otorii Station, then made the trek back to Shinagawa, then we hit one of the JR Lines to visit the final nerd stop for the day – Akihabara!

As much as it’s a clich&eaccend;, Akihabara still put an amazing smile on my face. The first stop was the Tokyo Anime Centre in the UDX building to grab an English language version of the Akihabara map (thanks to Orochinagi for the tip!), then off we went to explore.

Despite getting lost a few times, it was good fun – we hit up Super Potato, Trader 2, Mandarake and Sofmap before stopping off at Club Sega. I didn’t play stacks of games since it was getting late, but I had a whirl at Parodius: Fantastic Journey in honour of my brothers Miguel and Tank, and my mate McAdam in honour of the amount of hours we sunk into this game on the Saturn. I managed to get about three or four stages in on a single credit which I was pretty happy with, and Wifey noticed a couple of the locals stopped to watch me play, so maybe I wasn’t doing too badly 🙂

We then checked out the other floors, and the top floor showcased the most amazing Gundam team battle game I’d ever seen, resembling a fusion of Virtual On and the Gundam universe with an awesome team-based mechanic.

Part way up we came upon a floor of SSF4AE (Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition) machines, and I had the balls to Ken scrub on a machine against a Japanese player with a massive score card playing as Fei Long. I got owned without landing a hit on the first round, won the second round, then lost the subsequent rounds without being able to put up much of a fight.

We were about to exit when I noticed there was a basement floor, so down we went and I was greeted by one of the most amazing sights ever – a floor dedicated to only Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. Once again I plonked in ¥100 and took on another player with Sarah, the only character I’ve invested much time in over the years since getting hooked on the series since the VF2 days. The outcome was similar to SSF4AE – was annihilated in the first round as Akira juggled me with some amazing techniques, held my own in the second round, then lost the next two without being too much of a challenge. With my VF dreams complete (playing VF in Japanese arcade, regardless of winning or losing), I had a crack at a crane game (and lost!), then off we went to Book Off for some final nerding before finding a nearby place to grab a bite.

We found a place near the Akihabara Station that promised casual dining and enjoyed some awesome Japanese beer, edamame, an amazing pot of gyoza and a selection of skewered awesomeness (including vegetarian skewers, chicken thighs, chicken liver, tendons and gizzards – the kind of thing encouraged by Bourdain and Zimmern when traveling!). Bellies full, it was time to go home after a massive day.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

Share

Sponsored