It’s Snowing on Mount Fuji

March 23, 2019

It’s time to say goodbye to our first hotel in Japan! It’s always a little bittersweet – it’s your first home here, but now you get to experience something different. Don’t worry, you’ll always remember the first hotel. I still remember my first hotel down near Kanda station!

This was going to be Abbie’s first time on a Shinkansen, the famous Japanese bullet trains. These trains never cease to amaze me. The tentative plan was to jump on the Shinkansen and take a break at Shin-Yokohama to enjoy some noodles at the ramen museum. We’d just find a coin locker to keep our stuff in and make our way there before lunch time, then hop back on the train towards our Hakone Ryokan.

…This plan did not exactly work out like we wanted it to.

Shin-Yokohama

First off, the sunny and mild temperatures of the past couple days has been replaced by extreme cold, rain, and wind. It was pretty bitter while we walked around, but it might be pretty comfy once we get to the ryokan. Now we just need to find a coin locker to place our bags.

…You’d think a major train station like Shin-Yokohama would have more than just a few coin lockers for the thousands of people that go through there every day, but no. They were all sold out. We explored all over for more, but they too were all sold out. We decided to raincheck the ramen museum for now and visit it when we return to Tokyo. Brining all of our bags in there would just be a nightmare and we were going to have a massive dinner tonight anyways, so we settled for a little restaurant near the train station. But first, I wanted to visit my favorite 7/11 in Japan inside of the Prince Hotel (where I actually stayed last time!).

 

 

Why is this 7/11 so ornate? What ever, time to pick up a couple more bills and get something to eat.

Abbie got some salmon sashimi and tempura shrimp

I got a delicious fish bowl served over rice with a thermos of soup to sip on.

Okay, all full. Time to get to the trains to zip over to over to Odawara Station. A quick train ride later, and now was the hard part. See, using the trains in Japan is easy! Using the bus system (without an IC card) is slightly a pain. They’re crowded and a bit stressful to use when you’re transporting luggage. Also, when your stop has a name like Sengokuharabunka Center Mae, it’s a little tricky to know when to tell the driver to stop.

Before we left the train station, I stopped over to the Information center and inquired about some advice on which bus routes to use. The lady working the desk was supremely helpful and gave me a ton of maps that she highlighted all of the important information and routes on. That saves a lot of time and effort.

Hakone-Tozan line

First, we jumped on the Hakone-Tozan train a short ride up to its terminal station just up the mountain. Then we jumped on the Tozan bus line, marked with a “T” indicator. I remember riding this bus last time and getting off at the wrong stop, since it is named almost identically to the stop we’re supposed to get off. Not this time, bus.

We made it to the ryokan without much issue, but today was a long and cold day, so we were exhausted. Soon, we were checked in and we were able to relax.

Ryokans are always a treat, and since it was freezing outside (literally), sitting in our warm tatami room was wonderful.

Comfy

They even had a kotatsu (heated comforter table that you sit under) ready for us. These are supremely wonderful, why haven’t we brought these back to America yet? Abbie and I prepared some of the high-quality green-tea and enjoyed our welcoming snack under the warm kotatsu. Mmmm… relaxing…

Wait… is it.. snowing outside?

 

Yeah it is!

As if it could get any cozier.

Actually, yes, it could. Because it’s kaiseki dinner time.

Looking fly in the elevator going down to dinner

That’s me!

What a spread! More dishes just kept coming

Lovely sashimi and real wasabi

Plum sake and lots of little dishes

Wonderful tempura and sauces

A little salad, a bit of smoked fish, a squishy mochi, and an evil raw snail on a bed of salt

Desert

Now all that was left is to watch Japanese Spongebob and a show about cats (also a really amazing Rube-Goldberg machine show where they turned colored balls navigating the machine into characters, wow) and wait for our snowy onsen baths.

Ikebukuro – Sunshine City

March 22, 2019

Okay, this is going to be a fast paced-post with not a ton of writing since we need to get out of here quickly this morning and move on towards our next hotel!

Today, we were going to checkout one of the many premier shopping districts in Tokyo, Ikebukuro. In the center of Ikebukuro lies a MASSIVE shopping complex known as “Sunshine City.” Think of it as not just a “super-mall,” but a hyper-mega-supreme mall. The “City” in Sunshine City is not just for a colorful name.

Though, the name is literally colorful.

We set out to Tokyo station, this time a bit later in the morning in search of a meal. It was about 7:30AM this time, so surely more things had to be open. Yes, more shops were indeed open, but it almost seemed like overnight, each restaurant we were interested in moved their opening hours up ever so slightly – like they were messing with us or something. Oh well, let’s check Ikebukuro for something to eat when we get there.

A short trip on the Yamanote line later and we arrived. Ikebukuro is a very upscale, rich shopping district. If you’ve ever wanted to move beyond the cityscape hubworld in the video game Splatoon, this is probably what you’d see.

 

Do you think they know anything about Mahjong?

After walking around the train tracks (and noticing that the first few buds of the cherry trees were blossoming!), and a little bit of strolling around town, we arrived at Sunshine City. This massive complex houses hundreds of shops and restaurants. There’s even hotels, an aquarium, a planetarium, VR experiences, a MASSIVE display and water-feature, and most importantly, the Pokemon Mega Center.

 

This place is HUGE.

But before we dive into the shops, we were starving and needed to eat something. Last time I was here, I visited a KILLER sushi joint. Let’s find that!

Incredible

Abbie ordered the sashimi bowl while I got the same sushi assortment as I did last time.

Criminally Delicious

There simply is no use in comparing Japanese sushi to American Sushi. They are not even in the same universe. You’ve never tasted anything more tender and delicious. Especially the Salmon and the Eel – to die for.

On to the super fun stuff:

This place makes me happy

Abbie hangs out with her boi

*Side-B’s* “nothin personnel, kid”

Abbie look out you’re about to get hit by an Aura Sphere oh god she has airpods in oh god she can’t hear us.

Outside of the mall is a little rooftop relaxation area with a beautiful little miniature town display.

We even found a Toys R Us. Think of what a Japanese Toys R Us would be like: Yep, you’re exactly right.

Toys R Us actually still exists here.

Cityscape

コーヒーとココア! A wonderful Latte and iced cocoa desert for our break.

Abbie was in shopping heaven, so I let her shop around a little while I rested my feet. She ended up buying a cute, Japanese-style dress, but she had a different goal in mind. See, in Japan, English is often used as a stylistic choice. It’s seen as fashionable and trendy, and much like tacky foreign language tattoos you see in the states, their translations are often nonsensical. Abbie wanted to find an article of clothing with the best English nonsense that she could find. We found many examples of this, but this shirt was one of our favorites.

Assertive, yet philosophical

Okay, that was a TON of walking. Let’s head back to the hotel. Off we go on the Yamanote line back to our temporary home.

We were finally beginning to adjust to the jet lag, so we decided to stay up for dinner this time and head to the fancy Yakitori restaurant right down the road from us. This place was fun. Order raw meat and grill it yourself!

Devastatingly good. Look at that marbling.

Marinated shrimp

This kind of place was totally upscale and expensive, but since it was our first proper dinner, I think it was worth it. It’s the kind of place that “doesn’t have pictures on the menu,” so I was handed the Gajin-baby card with a limited amount of “safe” menu items and a couple photos to point towards. While I did use this menu to start off with (since a couple things did look pretty tasty on it), I was interested in the massive menu of interesting mystery meats. I knew how to read all of the characters on the menu, but I didn’t know what each menu item actually meant. A little bit of researching between orders, and wow. Thank goodness I knew how to read those characters. The quality of meat went from “really, really good” to “HOLY SHIT THIS IS INCREDIBLE.” Do your homework, kids. It’s worth it for the meat!

…After that wonderful dinner, we went back to our hotel and prepared to do a load of laundry. The washing machines work fine, but the dryers here actually suck so hard it’s not even funny. They run both the washer and dryer on a shared 100V circuit, and even with an HOUR dry time, my clothes were still soggy. Ughk. Guess I’ll just hang an outfit out to dry and pack away the rest for later.

You can’t not get a frog-ninja.

Art and Noodles

March 21, 2019

Today was going to be special. Deep within the folder of important documents required for this trip lies a single slip of standard computer printer paper with a couple highlighter marks on it. In order to obtain this single slip of paper, I had to call ahead months in advance (1st of December, 2018 to be exact), 10AM JST, right on the dot.

What was this slip of paper for? It was an admission voucher for the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Those who have tried to book reservations to this museum know that only a certain number of people are admitted per day, so tickets are extremely limited and sell out in mere minutes after they go on sale. I consider myself lucky to have gotten two of them for my sister and I.

This wasn’t my first trip to the museum. I visited it last time and it was absolutely spectacular. The Ghibli Museum has one major rule though: no photos of the interior. You have to visit the museum yourself in order to truly experience it. I love this rule, but sadly, I could only really attempt to describe the museum to my sister (who is an artist) with my memories and a little paper fold-out model that they sold in the gift shop. I told her that I would bring her to the real one someday so that we can share the experience together – today was that day.

The morning started off early, like usual. We’re still quite jet lagged, so I decided to grab a container of instant coffee from the kombini last night. I normally have a rule of “1-cup of coffee per day,” but with how messed-up our body-clocks are, that rule went straight out the window. After I finished my serving of extra extra dark coffee, Abbie and I got dressed and headed to Tokyo Station, where we bought even more coffee. ….It’s just so good here.

This time, we arrived to the station a little bit later, around 8AM. There were only a few places open serving quick bites. That’s all we really needed, so we settled for a little cafe within the deep web of underground retail catacombs. The Japanese do in-fact eat breakfast on occasion, but it’s really nothing like the USA where it’s practically an essential staple meal that you eat right after you get up. Japan normally fully “starts” at 10AM, which sometimes makes it tough for westerners to start the day. If you know where to look, however, you can usually find something to munch on in the morning.

In the cafe, I decided to order an iced Americano and get Abbie a chocolate milk, along with a number of little baked goods. I was complemented by the girl running the counter for my ability to order in Japanese. She said it was cute that I knew what to say (aw. >//<). Even if it is a struggle, attempting to speak in Japanese is always appreciated by the locals since it shows that you’re interested in the culture of this island nation where the language isn’t spoken anywhere else. I’m more motivated than ever to keep learning!

Once the order came out, I think something got a little mixed up. Abbie ended up with an Iced Americano, which she exclaimed to be “really” strong. A quick chat with the counter and oh, there’s the cocoa! That’s better. The coffee was brilliantly smooth and delicious. Abbie told me that the chocolate milk was the best she’s ever had. Good stuff.

By now, it was creeping up towards 8:40AM. We needed to be at the Ghibli Museum gates by 10AM sharp. If you miss that time – tough, you’re not getting in. Thankfully, since we were already inside of Tokyo station, it was really easy to flash our rail passes to the counter and hop on the orange Chuo line towards Mitaka. As more and more people began to head to work, the station began to roar to life. Hundreds and hundreds of people coming-and-going to all of the different lines connected to the master JR hallway. I looked around and saw the distinct orange color of the Chuo line upon a time table sign. Looks like there was a train waiting at the station already. Common! Let’s hurry!

As the artfully arranged musical departure warning chimes, Abbie and I step on to the train and take a seat. Mere moments later, the doors close and the train departed. Whew, made it.

Off to Mitaka. The ride from Tokyo Station was only about 30 minutes, even though Mitaka is actually a decent distance away. I always loved how fast and efficient these trains are. They’re a marvel of civil engineering that would simply never work in the USA. A shame for sure, but that’s what makes these train rides special here and now. Lots of Tokyo passed us by through the big train windows and soon:

Mitaka in the morning

The museum was about 15 minutes away and we arrived at 9:20AM. Perfect, we can walk there without any issue and won’t be late. Soon we left behind the busy central metropolitan hub of Mitaka and began our walk through the residential area. There are lots of interesting houses to see here, all tucked away in a clean and quiet neighborhood. Ah, I remember this street. At the end of it, we’ll see a big wall of trees, and to the right of those trees, a sign:

Here lies a wonderful world of whimsical welcoming winsomeness. (“winsomeness” means beauty, I guess. Shut up, I needed another W word). The museum houses room-after-room of stunning artistic demonstrations and animation techniques. Today’s special exhibit was on the various lighting techniques and color choices made to achieve said techniques. There was also a special Ghibli short film screening of 水グモもんもん (Water Spider). Lovely!

Always such a treat

After we exchanged our voucher for our actual film-strip tickets, we congregated in the main lobby and awaited the short film. It’s always such a surreal experience to walk through the Ghibli Museum. Hand-crafted, stunningly intricate detail everywhere. Keep looking at that seemingly mundane wall. Keep staring at it. Longer… Look.. bet you didn’t notice the sea shells and the little painted lizards. Attention to detail is the name of the game here. It’s all so lovely.

The ceiling of The Saturn Theater is painted to look much like the toy room from the movie Spirited Away.

A poster for the short film we watched.

The short was wonderful, of course. There was no dialogue at all, so it was really easy for anybody to appreciate. It was now time to get lost within the museum and wander about to all of the demonstrations. Ornate works are art are everywhere in this building. From the colorful, movie-themed stained-glass windows, all the way down to the marvelously intricate bathroom (real, not just prints!) paintings. This place truly is a treasure and I’m so very glad that I finally have someone that has experienced it with me. To know what it’s really like there.

Abbie and I wandered about the exhibits on each floor, climbing all sorts of different shaped stairways along the way. Ghibli movies are known for both for their love of nature, and for the detailed machinations of machinery, both fantasy and real. The museum makes this self-evident, as beautiful nature scenes and settings are paired with brilliant automata and wonderfully detailed drawings of machinery.

The lighting exhibit was also very special. Genuine animation cels from countless Ghibli movies, all up for display, along with character specifications, color maps, frustum plane charts, paint color walls, coloring techniques. Everything. Each and every cel is hand-crafted and painted on stunning background paintings. Detailed expressions of motion, the illusions of weight, the poise of each character, and all of the wonderful colors that bring the scenes to life. All on display for you to see and to be inspired by. The level of detail per cel was just insane – and you need 24 of these to make one second of film. Wow. Any artist will likely agree with the idea that lighting, and the techniques used to achieve that lighting, make for the most dramatic impact on the mood and aesthetic of your scene. Here, you can witness advanced traditional techniques that I can only describe as “color-magic” paired with expressive and detailed line-art that really puts that sentiment to the test.

Then there is a recreation of Miyazaki’s workshop. Every single wall is filled with original artwork and artistic reference material. From base sketches, to watercolors, to the actual genuine background paintings. There. On the wall. Not protected behind glass or anything, just… there. For you to see with your own eyes. These background paintings are seriously my favorite part about Ghibli movies since they are so stunningly complex and beautiful, yet you often only get to see them for mere moments. Here, you could take as much time as you’d like to sit and stare at them in their true glory. You get to see what these works of art look like in their true color – some of which had been lost or dulled after being photographed for the films. You have to see it for yourself.

Room after room of the original background paintings. All of them simply pinned to the wall behind no glass – they humbly trust that their guests won’t touch or destroy the works. Incredible.

After a few hours of appreciating the artwork, there was one last thing I wanted to visit. The rooftop garden. The forecast for today was predicted to be cold and rainy, which it was for a little while in the morning, but now, it was shaping up to be a beautiful 70°F sunny day. We climbed the bird-cage spiral stairway and… there he is!

Today, I do not stand alone

Last time I was here, there was a brief moment where I sat on a bench at the rear of the rooftop garden, right next to the obelisk from Castle in the Sky, and just appreciated the scenery… alone.

My previous visit

But today, I share the same bench with the person I grew up with. The one who appreciates art in the same way as me. The one that I think should be a part of my own personal Ghibli movie.

The very same bench. I had a feeling I’d be back.

On the rooftop garden

How could we make this day even better? Oh yeah, letting Abbie experience authentic Ramen for the first time.

Needless to say it was divine.

After the long trek home with our stomachs full of ramen and our minds full of inspiration, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the night. The ramen, while incredibly delicious, was super heavy, so we decided to just get a couple onigiri rice balls from the local store along with a couple of snacks to go with it. Yummy and simple. I’m sleepy.

A postcard print of one of my favorite backgrounds. It really captures the special kind of light the sun casts on buildings here in Japan.

Every Ghibli Museum ticket contains original strips of film. Which movies are these from?

A little Totoro pin & a water spider keychain

And Everything In between

March 20, 2019

2:50AM. If you see this on your clock in a foreign country, you’re likely experiencing the effects of jetlag. We too were not immune. Both Abbie and I decided that we desired sleep more than a meal last night, so we were both really hungry. We haven’t had our first meal in Japan yet! I didn’t really want to have our first meal be from a convenience store (even though the quality of those meals are still pretty good). I wanted it to be special.

Tokyo in the early AM

We decided to wander down towards Tokyo Station which lies about 1.5KM from our hotel. We’d get a nice morning walk in and see Tokyo wake up. By the time we were ready to leave, it was still only about 5AM. The sun had just barely scraped past the horizon line, basking Tokyo in a faint morning glow.

The idea was that Tokyo Station is filled to the brim with restaurants, so surely SOMETHING had to be open to serve breakfast to the few early risers. Soon, we arrived to the station’s gigantic south entrance and made our ways to the massive underground catacomb of shops & restaurants. Hundreds and hundreds of stalls… all closed. Maybe there’s something down here… no, all closed. Oh. It was still only about 6AM, so I decided to see what time most of the stores opened. Most were 10AM, some were 8AM, and a select few were open at 7AM. With our now ravenous hunger, we admit defeat. Let’s just get out of the station for now and make our way back to the hotel to wait for the world to wake up a little more. We’ll grab something from a kombini along the way. Not the best first meal, but we were so hungry.

Soba noodle breakfast. So good.

So, we made our way back out of Tokyo Station and began to walk towards the hotel. Be on the lookout for a kombini – there has to be a bunch around here. Hmm.. none over here, or over here… what? How could we have not found one by now? Wait, look across the street. YES! A soba noodle shop was open! That will make a perfect breakfast and first meal! Abbie and I wait for the crossing green signal and make our way over (see: practically sprint) to the noodle shop.

Like most noodle shops, this particular store operated with meal tickets dispensed from a vending machine out front. Take a look through the window and you will see plenty of detailed plastic example meals along with their names and numbers. You don’t have to know Japanese to use these machines – simply find the meal that looks the best to you and remember the number, then find that same number on the vending machine. Easy!

Abbie and I both pick our meals and head over to the machine sitting just outside the front of the store. This machine had seen better days. It rejected my cash several times before finally accepting it. At first, I thought I was doing something wrong, but no, the machine was just a little weathered. Soon we had our meal tickets. We stepped inside the warm noodle shop and instantly the smell of kombu broth and all the delicious toppings amplified from “subtle hint in the streets” to “omg it this smells so incredible I need it now.” Especially since it was still pretty cold outside. Warm, delicious soup for breakfast on a cold morning. Yes.

Within moments, our soups were ready. “Hai, Dozo!” says the woman operating the store. She hands me both of our bowls and we sat down to eat among the many other early rising salary men. Warm soba broth, a delicious poached egg, sea weed, a bit of crab, puffed rice, and of course, a squishy slice of aburaage (fried tofu). This seems to be a pretty loaded version of Kitsune soba, or “Fox-soba.” It was SO good. That was a proper first meal, stumbled upon by sheer luck. Once we finished, we gave our empty bowls back to the woman operating the shop and exclaimed “Dozo gochisosama deshita!” (It was wonderful!). Proud replies of gratitude rang back from the kitchen, and we were back out on to the chilly streets of downtown Tokyo.

With our hunger finally satiated, we decided to walk back to the hotel for a little longer while we wait for a bit more of the world to wake up. Along the way, Abbie and I discuss the pleasures of traveling without much of a plan. You simply go where you want, when you want. If you’re tired, go back to the hotel. Find something interesting? Go towards it. Your trip is not dictated by a schedule, or a guide telling you to ‘walk sharp!’

Of course, we just had to stop by a kombini to pick up a couple of staple treats and my beloved cheap, crappy Boss coffee. So good. I gather up a few cans of the stuff, as well as some mochi-choco-pan (squishy chocolate bread) and some melon-pan (melon bread). Soon, we arrived back at our hotel, where Abbie and I split our melon-pan. This was the first time Abbie got to experience the wonders of Japanese baked goods. Wonderfully soft and airy with a distinct subtle sweetness. Wonderful.

After-breakfast treat

After a little more relaxing at the hotel, and a little bit of early-morning Japanese TV (an entire show detailed miniature scenes accompanied by peaceful music, how lovely!), we looked up the weather for the day. Perfectly clear, sunny, and 21°C (~70ºF). A literal “perfect day” was ahead of us. We needed somewhere fun with a lot of walking around. I’m thinking: Akihabara. Yes. YES.

The Electric City of Everything. A tourist hot-spot for manga, anime, and video games for sure, but I had a different goal in mind in addition to all the other wonderful things you can do in Akiba. There was this one specific vendor there that I’ve heard so much about that specialized in something that I’m very, very fond of. Sometime today, we’ll seek him and is store out. At about 9:30AM, we decided to head out and just jump on the subway since the station right outside our hotel has trains that shoot straight to Akihabara. Convenient! I also used this as an opportunity to show Abbie how the seemingly complicated train maps worked. With a little help from Google Maps, it’s not so tough to order the correct ticket.

We quickly zoomed off underground and arrived at the Tokyo Metro station just south of Akihabara. Going to this metro station instead of the main JR Akiba station was actually pretty fun, since you must cross under a giant train bridge that served as a surprise-reveal gateway for the pure sensory overload that Akihabara is known to provide. We passed under the bridge and, oh yeah, here it is.

The iconic Akihabara street corner. Ever so slightly different from last time I visited.

This part of town is always so bright and colorful with the bright blue Japanese sky. If the cities goal is to mimic the cartoon-y, brightly colored, fun aesthetic of anime, they’ve definitely nailed the aesthetic. While I’m aware that Akihabara is a bit of a caricature of Japanese culture, it’s still wildly fun. I don’t really watch anime since it’s not exactly my thing, but when you’re here, it’s best to just cut-loose and immerse yourself in the insanity.

Let’s pick a random arcade and have some fun! Last time I was here, I definitely explored the arcades, but when you’re alone surrounded by intense Japanese games that don’t make a whole lot of sense to you, it’s hard to indulge. This time, I had a buddy, so we can suck at these games together! Oh, wait, I remember this arcade! It has Mario Kart cabinets in the basement. Yes.

….It was neck-and-neck for almost the entire race, but Abbie beat me by mere milliseconds. Good Game, Well played.

Before the race, you’re given a character hat to match a photo of your face with. I love this game.

After Mario Kart, we wandered about the several maze-like floors of flashing, magical, loud, and amazing games. Each floor had a different genre of games. Bottom floors are usually reserved to prize-catchers, while middle floors are usually rhythm games. Top floors are often multi-player networked games, fighting games, and retro arcade games. Rhythm games here are intense so naturally, Abbie and I needed to try one and make ourselves look like fools to those that can keep 21/16 time at 300 BPM like it’s nothin’.

After being bad at DDR, we found some other neat rhythm games that involved a sliding capacitive keyboard filled with colorful lights and “airtime” sensors. This game was pretty awesome. Abbie was fairly good at it too (though, our intensity level was “basic”).

Nicely done, Abbie!

I decided to give it a try, too. Most of the songs available were completely foreign to me. Mostly just high-intensity J-pop, idol girl bands, and anime intro songs. But… hey.. I know this song!

If you don’t share my affinity with sexy dragon girls, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

Anyways,

I wanted to give Abbie a brief tour of the Bic Camera store. I visited this place last time and was enamored by the sheer variety of stuff they had for sale. Floors and floors of EVERYTHING cool.

Stuff

Neat

A preview of what’s to come tomorrow!

Abbie bought her first souvenir here. A brilliant choice, if I’m being honest. A Kirby Otamatone. The world’s most spectacular musical instrument.

While we’re out and about, let’s check out Super Potato, the vintage video game shop where thousands of old-school consoles and titles are preserved and sold in like-new condition. I also visited this shop last time, but since it’s so iconic to the area (and also really cool), I figured Abbie would like to see it too.

How it feels.

We navigated through the streets of Akihabra in search of the non-descript hallway leading to a non-descript stairwell, leading to a VERY descript Super Potato. Posters lined the upper floors preceding the entryway. Here we are, vintage game heaven. Prices here are definitely very steep and you can surely find better deals in similar shops in the area, but for sheer consolidated variety, it’s hard to beat Super Potato.

Famicoms (NES) and Super Famicoms (SNES), disk drives, and other accessories in massive stacks.

Gonna need to stock-up on the Megadrives

Feels pretty amazing to actually hold a copy in my hand, to be honest. Go Technosoft!

After perusing floor after floor of vintage games, Abbie picked up a souvenir for one of her friends and we departed. Super Potato is always a treat. They even have a vintage arcade on the top floor if you’re interested in playing some classic titles.

By this point, it was just about noon and we were getting pretty hungry again. Abbie mentioned before we left on our trip that she’d like to visit a “rotating sushi bar” at least once. I happily obliged as there just so happened to be one just down the street! Once we arrived, we were immediately seated right at the bar. I explained the pricing rules to Abbie (colored plates are matched up with different prices), then told her to screw the prices and get as much as she wants because JAPANESE SUSHI, YO.


First bite – heavenly. Sushi is just so different in Japan. You can’t even compare it to American sushi. It is just pure bliss. Round after round of sushi. I also ordered a Miso-clam soup and it was wonderful. All the while, the staff bustled at break-neck speed through the crowded restaurant obliging the requests of many different customers at once. We soon finished with a decently sized stack of plates between us both and called for our check to be tabulated. The waiter counts up the plates and gives us our check. We stuffed ourselves full with tons of wonderful Sushi, and the bill was…. $22. For both of us. I love this country.

Back out on to the streets. We had yet another goal in-mind. Find table-flip game. I remember from last time that it was in one of these Sega arcades – problem is: there are like 4 here of them and they all look the same from the outside. We visit each one, up and down the many flights of stairs in search for our virtual domestic insanity simulator. No luck. But what we did find instead, was this:

 

A MASSIVE set of motion-equipped ridable cock-pit cabinets where you play as a virtual Gundam (large fighting robot, think similar to Transformers). The cabinets featured two joysticks, foot pedals, a side-display, and a MASSIVE screen. This was an arcade game that you actually needed a seatbelt for and it was AWESOME.

Strapped in

No big deal, just S-ranked it (well, the Tutorial anyways).

That was pure insanity and I loved it. But I still want to find Table-flip game. Wait, I know where it is. It’s in the special “Club Sega” arcade just down the street. We walk over and… yeah! I remember this stairway, it should be right around the corner. Oh my god, look! There it…

Sonic Sez: Get rekt kiddo

Broken. Aw. I have a sneaking suspicion that they just disabled the game due to the hordes of tourists (like me) making a ton of noise. These arcades were already blaring, but I remember that this game was a constant source of loud banging noises (because that was, you know, the core mechanic of the game). Oh well, maybe it will be fixed when we get back to Tokyo at the end of our trip.

Slightly disappointing, but that’s nothing a little ice cream can’t fix. Abbie found a little ice cream stall on the side of the street and got some choco-ice cream. I decided to pass since I was still stuffed from lunch. Abbie dropped a bit on the floor, so I had to ask the servers for a napkin. Why is this important? Because I’m actually conversing with people in Japanese now. Simple as the phrases may be, I’m not relying on Google Translate for most of my daily interactions. It feels like a super power. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a complete scrub when it comes to Japanese, but I’ve been studying for years now and it’s finally paying off. Day after day of studying with nobody to actually talk to makes it seem all-for-naught, and yet… I can do it. Even if it’s as mundane as asking for a napkin, it feels special to speak in another language and be understood. Someday I wish to truly be bilingual, but that will take many more years of study. Regardless, it’s still an amazing feeling that I would soon put to the test.

Heaven for Electrical Engineers

Tucked away in a slightly shabby building labeled “Tokyo Radio Department Store” lies the ultimate goal for our visit to Akihabara. Inside department store, nestled between countless sub-stores selling just about anything you can think of in regards to electronics lies a special man who goes by the nick-name Ken-chan. I first heard about this store through a friend of mine, but Scotty from Strange Parts actually just so happened to explore his shop too. They say in Akihabara, you can find a store catered to directly to your personal interests and Ken-chan’s store was mine.

Yes. Absolutely YES.

Wall-to-wall video game music players and self-made DIY kits that used the same exact vintage sound chips that I’m known for working with and love so dearly. There was even a wall of gotcha machines that dispensed random vintage sound chips. Heaven.

Behind a little register room was a man sitting quietly. I go up and ask, “Sumimasen, Ken-chan des-ka?” (Excuse me, are you Ken-chan?). “Hai,” he responds. (His name isn’t actually Ken-chan, but I’ll refer to him as such to keep his true identity safe)

I introduce myself and explain that I myself have a very similar hobby and have also made my own hardware video game music players. Almost immediately, he lights up with glee. I explained that it was very rare to find people that are into the same niche hobby, especially in the US (though, I think I got lucky there since I know a pretty cool girl that’s into these chips too!). I showed him videos of my video game music player designs and very quickly we both realized that our interests were extremely similar. He seemed to really love my most recent design – a MIDI controlled Sega Genesis synthesizer. We had a great time chatting. I can’t describe how AMAZING it felt to actually have a genuine conversation with someone in Japanese. My sentences were littered with errors, and my pacing was terrible, but I was being understood. I shared interests with someone. I made him laugh. I impressed him with what I made. He impressed me with what he had made. We were talking. Incredible feeling. There were times that I did have to bust out Google Translate because, you know, frequency-modulation synthesis is a tricky subject to talk about even in English, but for the most part, it was all me. He walked me through all of his designs and showed how his driver software worked. VGM files! Just like my designs! He even showed me some incredible portable designs and a complex FPGA-driven prototype of a YM2610 player. For those that don’t know, that is the beastly Neo-Geo sound chip that is incredibly hard to drive. Everything was so neat.

I decided to try out his sound-chip gatcha machines. I told him that I would try and predict the chip that would come out. “OPM desu!” I said as I added my coins and turned the handle. OPN2 (YM2612), which just so happened to be my most-used and most beloved model of sound chip. Sweet, but not an OPM (YM2151). I grabbed one more capsule for a friend back home. After a bit more chatting, Ken-chan dug through his many drawers and pulled out a little red bag with a chip in it. “Presen-to (present for you).” It was an OPM YM2151 chip, the chip that I tried to predict from the gatcha. He was giving it to me as a gift. Oh, my, god. That’s what makes Japan so special. A single gesture like that. I’ll remember that moment forever. A little while later, I turn to the wall of video game music player kits and find the most expensive model. A beastly DIY kit that included every module I needed to replicate his design along with a YM2608 (massive 16-channel FM chip). I’ve never worked with this specific chip before.

I point to the kit, “Ko-re wa” (This one). “Kai-imasu” (I’d like to buy it!). His eyes lit up, “Hai!” I couldn’t tell who was more excited, me or him! I can’t wait to build this thing. We talked for a little while longer going over software and chatting a bit more about our designs. It was just about time to leave, so I asked, “Ken-chan (implying friendship), Tomodachi desuka?” (Want to be friends?). He quickly turns around and rushes to his small desk and pulls out a card. It was his personal business card. I grip the card politely with two hands and study it. He explained his true name to me, to which I now addressed him by formally. “Dozo Yoroshiku,” (It is nice to meet you), I say after announcing his true name. Bowing is shown as a sign of respect in Japan, so I did so, but also extended my hand for a handshake. I think it was an appropriate display of gratitude between our cultures. “Sayonara (Bye, until we meet again), see you online!” I say as I depart. “Sayonara, arigato gozaimashita” says Ken-chan, laughing.

That was the best experience ever. I can’t wait to build this massive kit. Please check out his shop online and RE:Birth website if you’re interested in this sort of thing!

The YM2608 DIY Kit along with my OPM Present from Ken-chan.

Sound chip Gatcha Surprises!

After all that, Abbie and I caught the Yamanote back towards hotel, stopped by a kombini to pick up some instant coffee, and promptly crashed on the beds after we arrived. It was about 6PM. “We’ll just take a short rest.”

…We both awoke at midnight. Oops.

Exhausted Excitement

March 19, 2019

 

So my sister Abbie and I have found ourselves in Tokyo – you know, as you do – wandering the streets like brain-dead sleepy zombies in search of our hotel. Actually, that was the easy part, let’s talk about the hard part:

Everything began back at home. 8AM, rush-hour traffic to LAX, a non-coffee related diversion to Starbucks, airport, security, freedom from the TSA. Abbie and I explored the gorgeous Tom Bradly international terminal since we had a couple hours to spare. Abbie decided that her breakfast was going to be KFC. Truthfully, that’s probably the most Japanese thing that she could have picked.

This was going to be my second trip to Japan, the previous trip being written about in detail here. This time, however, as mentioned above, I am not traveling alone. My baby sister, who is now an actual adult now by the way (what??), will be joining me as we explore The Land of the Rising Sun. Now, it’s just up to us to get there.

Last time, I took an American Airlines 787 Dreamliner to Japan and it was pretty nifty. This time, I’ve chosen Japan’s flagship carrier, ANA on a 777. ANA is a “five-star” airline, and it most certainly showed. Attentive and friendly staff, tasty in-flight meals, galleys stocked with lots of incredible snacks – yeah, full-service airlines rule. Only thing I could think of docking them for were their rather stiff seats that really wore on me through the flight, but that’s more Boeings fault than anything.

A note inside the bathroom. So nice.

I digress. 12 Hours in the sky is enough to make anybody go crazy, but when the service is flawless, it makes the time go by so much faster. There was also a group of young children in front of us with a baby who could have been no more than 1 year old. At the very start of the flight, this baby immediately spun up and started crying. Abbie and I feared the worst, but only moments later, that baby fell asleep for nearly the entire flight. Wow, good job kid, props to you.

Main was a little soggy, but tasty. The sides were where it’s at though!

Eventually, we made it. As always, walking off the jetway instantly invigorates your soul with a newfound energy that you thought had left you once you crossed the international date line. We were here! Zip through immigrations, zip through customs. Easy. In fact, customs didn’t even search any of our bags like they did to me last time. Neat.

Okay, so last time I arrived in Narita, I was in terminal 2. Terminal 2 is definitely a bit more “foreigner-friendly” and has a better layout overall. I needed to find our SIM cards to use our phones and exchange our rail tickets. Finding our SIM cards took me longer than I’m willing to admit. Last time, my SIM card was available at the little post office. I assumed that this time would be no different. NEVER ASSUME. After about an hour of walking around to find the post office, we were informed that the SIM cards were delivered to a different shipping lines office, which we had already passed, at the opposite end of the terminal. Let us never speak of the SIM cards again.

Land. Japan is a sight for literally sore eyes.

After that, though, everything else was relatively smooth sailing. We exchanged our rail passes without a problem and jumped on the Keisei Skyliner train on our way to Tokyo. This was actually my first time on the Skyliner. Last time I took the Narita Express, but since we were here for a slightly awkward 15 days, I decided to activate our 14-day JR rail passes for the following day and grab the Keisei Skyliner instead. Soon, our train lurched forward and sailed into a really, really long tunnel. Wow this tunnel is super long. Why isn’t this tunnel ending…? OH WAIT, it’s dark outside?! Yeah, guess we were looking for those SIM cards for a little too long. Oh well, Tokyo is awesome at night.

Soon, we arrived at Ueno Station. Abbie had previously fought with the ticket gates and failed to get her card punched in, so I was totally waiting for her to insert her ticket and get stopped by the automatic doors. This would have been both hilarious and frustrating since we were both beyond tired. I insert my ticket, walk through the gates. Abbie inserts hers (this time, the correct way!) annnnddd…. right through. Phew. Okay, this is it. Tokyo. Get ready for your first time walking up those stairs:

Ueno

 

Yeah, I love this city. Let’s get to our hotel. We had two options: Yamanote train line and a bit of a walk, or the Tokyo Metro which takes almost directly to the hotel. It was about 7PM at the time, so peak rush-hour. Japan is infamous for its incredibly crowded trains at this hour, so I decided to take a chance on the metro since it was heading towards central Tokyo instead of away from it. Another thing I was thankful for was my ability to read the rail maps still and use the ticket machines. Being as tired as I was, not having this prerequisite knowledge would have been a disaster. Fortunately though, I managed to grab us both tickets for the proper amounts in no time. Once we were at the station, a train departing central Tokyo arrived and it was PACKED. Uh oh, is our train going to be like this too?

….Nope. Just like I predicted, our train had very few people on it since it was heading away from Tokyo. Perfect. A couple stops later and tada! Our hotel is just across the street.

The streets were filled with many smells of delicious and tantalizing foods. We were so hungry, but also tired to the point of literal delirium. Let’s check-in to the hotel first and THEN we’ll get something to eat. Yeah no we checked in and we were done for the day. As disappointing as that sounds, trust me, the fatigue was unbearable.

As I write this at 3AM, now rested, it was time to prepare to hit the town and grab something to eat. …or maybe just the kombini for now.