Friday, 31 December 2010

Day 9: At Splendid Heights

This entry is pretty short, because there's only so much one can say about climbing a mountain beyond admiring how nice the scenery was. As with the Osaka Aquarium entry, I'll put in a few more photos than usual to pad it out a bit.

I woke unaided at my usual time of 8am on the morning we were to spend up on Mount Takao, and waited around for my friends, who eventually woke at 10am. After a brief schedule re-arrangement to allow us to spend another day in Akihabara later on in the week, we headed off to Ginza on the Hibiya line.

Once there, we found the Sony building fairly easily, and wandered around inside. There was a wealth of high-tech gadgets, including a number of stereoscopic 3D displays, a camera that compensated for being shaken and a head tracking system. Prices went up to around ¥400,000, although nothing topped Osaka’s inkstone. There was more interactivity than we had expected, and most of the electronics could be tried out.
At ten million yen per square metre of floorspace in Ginza,
it pays not to cut costs on making your shop front
as impressive as possible.
You could buy this television for 399,000 and its speaker
set for 99,000. Or you could get an inkstone for the same price.
We were in there for around an hour and a half, although some of that was spent looking for each other, after we had separated to explore in pairs and then alone. We would have liked to spend more time in Ginza, but it was around 12:00 by the time we left the Sony building, and I was worried about not leaving enough time for Mount Takao, so we headed back to the station, and set off on the long train journey to Takao.

After about an hour and twenty minutes of sitting on and changing trains, we arrived at the base of Mount Takao. There was an option to take a cable car up to the half way point, and after some deliberation, and some persuasion from the team of those eager to climb the mountain unaided (Mark and I) we headed up the steep slope.
A statue on the rather scenic walk up Mount Takao.
The sights from a high place are best experienced after the climb up there, or so I have always believed. Indeed, after a few rest stops and much panting, we arrived at the visitors’ centre half way up Mount Takao, and were rewarded a fantastic view over Tokyo, which was all the more satisfying for having worked to earn it. We stayed there for ten minutes and caught our breath, and then headed on upwards.
The view from the rest area.
If I were an evil spirit, I'm sure I'd be warded off
pretty effectively.
The rest of the climb was more relaxed, and passed through a couple of Japanese religious structures reminiscent of those on the way up to the Inari shrine. The view from the top of Mount Takao itself was more scenic than that from the visitors’ centre, looking out over mountains and forests rather than over Tokyo. After spending a short time at the rest area at the top, we headed back downwards.

A long discussion about Final Fantasy with Mark made the journey downhill go by quickly, and we didn’t have to stop for rest breaks. Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the visitors’ centre, and Tokyo was spread out beneath us as a great carpet of lights. We stopped to admire it briefly before heading on down the steep paths to the bottom.
The view from the top of Mount Takao.

The path back down in the dark.
The journey back felt much more relaxed than the journey there. The train from Takao to Tokyo was fairly empty, so we could easily get seats together, but none of us spoke very much, all content just to relax in our exhausted states. I took advantage of the fact that the journey was almost exactly as long as Blind Guardian’s excellent At the Edge of Time album, and listened to it from start to finish as the starlit countryside rushed past us.

It was nearing 21:00 by the time we arrived back at Minowa station, and rather than make another journey out to find somewhere to eat, we gave in to Henry’s request to eat at the Chinese restaurant near our hostel. It wasn’t as refined as the food at the restaurant on Pontocho nor did it have the authentic feel of the udon restaurant on the way to the Inari shrine, but it was filling and tasted good, so we were more than happy. Somewhere near the beginning of the meal, Mark and I engaged in a discussion of When the Seagulls Cry, an incredibly tough murder mystery visual novel (and, as far as I’m concerned, the best murder mystery ever written – not that I’ve read very many). It improves upon the murder mystery genre with a number of systems that, as far as I know, are unique to it. The most prominent of these is ‘red text’: whenever a sentence spoken by a character is highlighted in red, that statement is definitely true (for example, ‘Jessica was outside the mansion at the time of the murder’), which will often be used in incredibly devious ways. Our discussion lasted almost three hours, and we came up one or two plausible theories and a great many implausible ones. This lasted us all the way through supper, back to the hostel and by 0:00, having just realised that one of the crucial pieces of information we had been basing most of our theories on probably wasn’t true after all, we gave up and settled down to sleep.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Day 8: Inside the City of Cloth

‘Inside the City of Cloth’ is probably the best title I came up with, as a modification of the final track of Katatonia’s ‘Viva Emptiness’ album. That said, this is the only section that was actually difficult to write, and has had to go through three drafts. I’m still not really satisfied with it, but I can’t imagine it’ll get much better with a fourth draft.

I met my expectation of being the first to wake up on the morning of Harajuku. I was pretty excited at the plan I had for today, thinking that the combination of Harajuku and Shibuya might even surpass Akihabara. I awoke at 7:00, a full two and a half hours before anyone else got out of bed. I filled the time by bringing my notes up to date, doing hygiene-related things and reading. Once everyone else was fully awake and we had eaten breakfast, we headed off at around 10:30.

Harajuku is the centre of fashion in Tokyo, and especially popular on Sundays. Japan-guide and Wikitravel, the two sites that I had made the most use of in my planning, had described it as being a popular location for cosplaying and for dressing in extreme fashions, such as gothic lolita. As everyone who knows me reasonably well will be confused at this point by why I was interested in fashions, I should probably clarify. As far as I am concerned, Japanese women are far more attractive than English women; I was a lot less excited at the prospect of looking at the clothes than I was at looking at the girls wearing them.
The Takeshita-dori, Harajuku 
Arriving at Harajuku station, we orientated ourselves and then set off. We headed first down the Takeshita-dori, which was easy enough to find, and incredibly crowded. Despite being one of the most popular streets for clothes shops, it wasn't terribly wide, and fairly difficult to move (the fact that there didn't seem to be any particular system of keeping on one side didn't help), and we therefore moved down it at a fairly slow pace. I didn’t mind at all, however – it gave me a good chance to look around at both the attractive female population of Harajuku and into the windows of the huge numbers of clothing stores. We eventually emerged onto the Omotesando, the largest street in Harajuku.
Smorking is naturally forbidden.
Surprisingly, so is the usually legal shoplifting.
It was at least pleasantly cool walking down the Omotesando, as trees grew over the paths on either side, providing some measure of shade. We decided to give KiddyLand, the huge toy store across the road, a miss, and instead headed for the Oriental Bazaar, a shop that, according to my research, sold traditional Japanese things that made good souvenirs.

The Oriental Bazaar sadly turned out to be the most awful shop we entered on our trip. It had a polished look with a high ceiling and stone floor that was clearly intended to appeal to westerners. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if it had been set up by an American. Indeed, other than the shop assistants, the only people in there were western tourists, all buying their 'traditional Japanese' souvenirs (miniature swords and dolls and so on) that had presumably been manufactured in some third-world country. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, and perhaps I shouldn't judge the place too harshly (my friends all bought things from there), but (as melodramatic as it sounds) it was almost as if this shop was personally insulting me. I had spent a very long time meticulously planning a trip that was unique to us and didn't follow any preset routes, and I had felt so far that I had experienced Japan in really quite a special way. Entering the Oriental Bazaar, it seemed like someone somewhere had decided every tourist wants pretty much the same things out of their trip to Japan, and wouldn't it be a bright idea to package those things up and sell them in a shop built to resemble a western department store. Considering the amount of time I've spent on this paragraph trying to explain properly why that shop left me feeling so dead, it still feels rather incoherent, but suffice to say, I didn't want anything, and I was very glad to leave.
The Oriental Bazaar. Ugh.
Coming out of the Oriental Bazaar, we headed back up in the direction of the station. By the time we arrived, I was wondering if I had made a mistake in my research. Other than gawping at pretty young women, one of the main reasons to come to Harajuku had been to see cosplayers – people who dress themselves up as musicians and characters from film and anime. Whilst ‘dressing up’ in the UK is often thought of as a children’s activity, in Japan it is often considered more of an art form, with people putting incredible amounts of care into extravagant clothes and make-up. The sites I had researched had implied that while extreme fashions could be seen everywhere in Harajuku, the cosplayers tended to gather around a certain bridge. Unfortunately, the station bridge (where I had thought they would be) yielded no results, but we crossed it in any case, and headed into Yoyogi Park, the large green space across the railway from Harajuku.

The first thing that met our eyes upon entering the park was a sign telling us which way the nearest temple was. We considered looking at the temple, but I was rather determined to find the cosplayers that I had been looking forward to, and so we instead set off in the other direction.

Thinking I must have been mistaken about the station bridge, I was convinced that there must be a bridge somewhere where the cosplayers were gathering. There were a few small ones over the road, but none of them were covered in cosplayers, and probably unlikely to be the ones we were looking for. We found a Sri-Lanka festival, at which we stayed for no longer than five minutes, and a rather impressive fountain that shot jets of water high into the air. By around 13:00, our stomachs were growling from walking around all morning in the heat, and we decided to abandon the search. Irritated with myself for not doing the research for Harajuku properly, I got out my directions for my recommended place for lunch, which was an okonomiyaki restaurant. For once, everyone agreed to go with my experimental option rather than seeking a safer alternative, and we headed back in the direction of the Omotesando.
The Yoyogi Park fountain

Passing back out of Yoyogi Park and over the station bridge, we finally saw them: two girls dressed in brightly coloured yukata with face masks. Apparently, cosplayers aren’t morning people: the station bridge had been the right one, but we had just been too early for anyone to be there.

In some ways, I suppose two girls was a bit of a weak offering compared to the mass of cosplayers I had been expecting. Even so, I was very glad that we had found what we were looking for, and that a fault in my planning hadn’t caused us to miss anything exciting – indeed, glad enough that I took out my camera for the first time on the trip and got some photos of them, one of which is displayed below. I stood around watching them for a while, but was quickly forced to give in to the requests to get going, and relinquished my gaze on the brightly coloured couple for the much less important business of finding somewhere to eat lunch.
The station bridge cosplayers
In Sakuratei, everyone cooked the food themselves on hot plates in front of them. Although it was an okonomiyaki restaurant, they also had a few other options, such as yaki-soba. Yingke, Mark and I went for the former, whilst Henry ordered the latter. We waited for a short time, and were then brought a bowl of ingredients. There was only room on the table for two people to cook at once, so Mark and I went first, and attempted to follow the instructions which would allow us to turn our assortments of interesting meats and vegetables into edible food.
Partially cooked okonomiyaki
(mine is the one on the left, pre-flipping)
My portion of okonomiyaki included vegetables, bacon, seafood, egg and sauce, and in theory, was meant to end up as a sort of pancake. Whilst Mark commissioned Henry (who had experience working in a restaurant) to flip his pancake at the required times, my determination to cook my own got the better of me, and I ended up with something resembling an explosion. Even when broken, it was delicious, however. After having eaten, Mark and I settled down to wait for Yingke and Henry. I would like to think that Yinke was only completely successful at producing a perfectly round okonamiyaki because he had learned from my mistakes, but perhaps he was just not quite so badly co-ordinated. It took us almost two hours to eat and, when we had finished, we headed back towards the station.

We found the ¥100 shop on our way back to the station, and looked in briefly, but didn’t stay long. The main purpose of £1 shops (and therefore the main appeal of ¥100 shops) is for people to impulse buy things they don’t actually have any use for because they are cheap. Whilst the store owners had managed to grasp the concept of filling a shop with things nobody in their right mind would want to buy, the idea of pricing everything at ¥100 seemed to have been beyond them, and indeed, we didn’t manage to find anything at all that was exactly ¥100. Slightly confused, we exited the shop, and headed back towards the station to catch our train to Shibuya. We had another glance at the station bridge on the way, but there wasn’t much else. The girls who had been there earlier had moved down the street slightly, and there was a cluster of people dressed in gothic clothing on the far side of the bridge, but no more cosplayers. Had I been alone, I would have hung around the station bridge longer in the hope of seeing something else interesting, but I felt that I had already asserted my own desires enough for one day, so I didn’t make the suggestion. We moved back into the station and used our Pasmo cards again to get us onto a train to Shibuya.

At around 16:30, we arrived in Shibuya. Other than generally looking around, our main objective was to go to a Mahjong parlour. I had picked out Shibuton as one that was fairly beginner-friendly (assuming that we were beginners by Japanese standards), and we were able to find amongst the high-rise buildings that made up Shibuya without too many problems. The parlour itself was rather smoky, but otherwise had a nice atmosphere. We were brought drinks shortly after sitting down while an assistant tried to explain non-verbally how our automatic table worked. We eventually got the hang of things, however, and once he saw that we all knew how to play, he left us to our game. It was the best sort of game we could have had - long and dramatic. There were a good number of big hands and two one-shot tsumos. Mark, Henry and I were all in the lead at some point. Yingke who had had rather a run of bad luck, pulled himself back up into second place with a dealer limit-and-a-half (worth 18,000 points) in South 4. Fortunately, I was able to win a quick, cheap hand and end the game with myself in first place before he could combo more than once and rack up any more points. (I apologise for the fact that those last few sentences will have been almost complete gibberish to anyone who doesn't play mahjong.)
A starting hand heading for toitoi, yaku-hai, dora 4
for a limit and a half? Not bad...
Even with the help of the automatic tables, which dealt and shuffled for us, our game took almost three hours. We were charged ¥6000, which seemed a bit steep, but we didn't really complain. When we got back outside, it was around 20:30, and night had fallen. Shibuya is one of Tokyo's main nightlife districts, and looked much more dramatic after dark than it had during the day. The streets were illuminated by dozens of neon lights and crowded with young men and women. Rather than the nightclubs, however, our destination was Sweets Paradise, an all-you-can-eat restaurant which has a few savoury dishes, but mostly specialises in cakes. It didn't look like a very easy route on the map, but we got there quickly enough, and paid our ¥1500 entrance fee.
The crossing outside the Shibuya 109 building
Sweets Paradise was decorated in a red and pink colour scheme, and for a moment, we were worried that it might be a repeat of our evening meal in Osaka. We found out quickly that the groups of people there were a mix of genders, however, and, feeling more comfortable, we headed over to pick up plates. I managed two large plates of noodle and rice dishes, before moving on to cake, of which I managed slightly more than two more plates. There was a fantastic variety, including some delicious chocolate and coffee cakes and one bright green one that tasted absolutely disgusting. After two plates of cake, the usual all-you-can-eat conflict set in, where I felt like I really should keep eating to get my money's worth as far as possible, but couldn't quite bring myself to transfer any more food from my fork to my mouth.
Part of the incredible selection of cakes
at Sweets Paradise
When Sweets Paradise closed at 22:00, we headed back out into Shibuya. It was even livelier than before, and I tried my best to take in all of the sights and sounds of the packed district before we reached the station again and embarked on the long train ride back to Minowa. My friends and I were separated on the train on the way back, as we were all tired enough to accept the free seats distributed around the train, even if doing so meant depriving ourselves of each others’ conversation. This did, however, give me the chance to use my MP3 player for the first time on the trip. I had been rather neglecting music so far (indeed, I think the first few days in Japan were the longest I have gone without listening to music in several years, which speaks for itself). Even so, rather than going for my usual power, progressive or black metal, I listened to some Olivia, the only Japanese artist I have any music by, which matched the mood rather well.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Day 7: Great Ocean Passage

I was the first to wake of the four of us, but as it was my turn to buy the shopping, I filled the time with a trip down to the 24-hour supermarket next to the hostel. I bought our usual melon bread and fruit for breakfast, and then read until the others woke up.

We had a slightly later start than usual, and unfortunately, we missed our 10:16 train to Osaka. Fortunately, there was another that would get us there leaving at 10:39, so we hung around Kyoto station, ate our breakfast and watched a bit of Japanese baseball. Although baseball is generally thought of as an almost exclusively American sport, it has widespread popularity in Japan. The four of us had a general idea of the rules from a reasonable number of anime series that focus on the topic, ranging from the psychological mind games of One Outs to the carefree atmosphere of Taisho Baseball Girls. Although it isn't something I would want to watch regularly, it was interesting to see it played, and between us we managed to work out most of what was going on before it was time to leave to catch our train.

The trip to Osaka was just as painless as the one the day before, and a couple of short train journeys later, we found ourselves at the station for the aquarium. From there, finding the aquarium was a trivial matter of following the signs. Osaka aquarium, described as one of the best aquariums in the world, is one of the main attractions of Osaka. Admission was accordingly expensive, costing us as much as the Unlimited Pass we had bought the day before.
The impressive aquarium exterior
After we had managed to find the entrance to the aquarium itself, which wasn't clearly marked in English, and had bought our tickets at the ticket machines, we were allowed entrance. After passing through a tunnel surrounded by water filled with impressive-looking fish, we emerged into an area with rocks and waterfalls. There were some rather inactive but also rather beautiful otters and a well full of crabs clinging to the sides. This didn't last for long, however, and we were soon back in the main part of the aquarium and could start looking at the tanks.

Whilst I can't remember everything we saw (and I'm sure a list would bore readers), my favourites were a breed of very large otters that had a wonderful technique of doing everything on their backs, including swimming and grooming. Several of them were also making good use of the length of their tank, swimming laps of it at impressive speed, and somersaulting whenever they reached one end or the other. Other highlights included the dolphins, which jumped up out of the water at regular intervals (sometimes synchronised, two at a time) and the huge tank containing a whale shark and a number of rays (some of which appeared to have smaller fish riding on their backs). According to my folders, Henry and Yingke between them took over 300 photos of aquatic creatures, and an aquarium is probably better experienced visually, so I'll put a few more photos in this entry than I normally would.
This particular breed of otter wasn't
terribly dynamic
The capybara is the largest breed of rodent
alive today
My favourite giant otters, the masters
of backstroke
The dolphins were apparently fairly successful at
thwarting attempts to get good photos of them mid-jump

The whale-shark, in all its glory
One of the more impressive specimens
in the jellyfish room

We spent most of the morning in the aquarium, and once we had passed through the final rooms (including a jellyfish room) and had a go at touching rays and other fish in the touching pool, we headed back out into the bright sunlight. It was approaching lunchtime, and we were all feeling rather hungry, so we decided to wander around and find some lunch.

The large open area just outside the temple distracted us from this objective, however. A juggler had gathered a crowd of people, and we watched him juggle increasingly large numbers of balls to an increasingly impressive height. The second distraction took the form of a Japanese rock band, who had set up near the river behind the aquarium. A number of people were sitting down to watch, and I stayed for as long as I could justify staying in the circumstances (the others were keener on finding lunch than watching the band). Their sound wasn't particularly unique for a J-rock band, but they put on a much tighter performance than one usually sees from English amateur bands, and their bassist had a few impressive runs. They were also dressed much more colourfully than most bands I had seen before, although I am vaguely aware of the Japanese culture of ‘visual-kei’ bands, which often play live dressed in very flashy clothes, with heavy make-up and radical hair-styling.
The rock band. God knows what the
guy on the left with the rabbit is doing.
Reluctantly leaving the band, I followed the others to find a shopping complex nearby. Upon entering, we were greeted with yet another show. A group of girls were dancing on a central platform on the second floor, and people had gathered around the railings which circled this platform. We only stayed briefly before heading downstairs to where it looked like the highest concentration of food outlets was. Henry and Mark ordered from a KFC, but Yingke and I, in principle against the idea of eating at another American chain in Japan, found a Japanese fast food place. Unfortunately, my ordering didn't go as well as it had at the Mos Burger in Akihabara. Whilst I successfully managed to convey the burger and drink that I asked for, the message that I wanted chips didn't quite get through (something that I only realised after I had paid and joined the others).

We found a free table (which wasn't terribly easy) and sat down to eat. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. I had finished my insubstantial lunch within a couple of minutes and, taking advantage of this, I abandoned my friends temporarily and headed back upstairs to watch the dancers. The performance itself was quite impressive, and the girls were very well synchronised. I cringed at some of the song choices, however - I doubt even classes of five-year-olds in England put on dance performances to 'Barbie Girl', nowadays.

Having re-convened and laughed at Henry for walking into the women's toilets by accident, we were just about to leave when we spotted a Taiyaki vendor. Taiyaki is a Japanese snack that consists of hot bean paste served inside pastry in the shape of a fish. Henry and I, both fans of Kanon, where Taiyaki comes up repeatedly as the favourite snack of one of the main characters, ordered some and, having waited for a few minutes for it to cook, sat down again to eat it. It had a rather unique (and, I imagine, acquired) taste. I quite liked it at first, but it had rather an overwhelming sweetness to it, and I was only just able to finish it.
Contrary to what its shape would suggest,
Taiyaki doesn't taste remotely like fish
When we were finally outside, it was rather later than we had anticipated. A combination of missing our early train, and my misjudgement of the amount of time we would spend in the aquarium meant that, had we gone to Nara as we had planned, we would have been quite tight for time catching the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. As missing it would have been a real disaster, and as we were all quite tired, we decided to give Nara a miss and instead head straight back to Tokyo.

We were right to do so, fortunately. The journey back was very long, and involved four changes of trains (including the long Shinkansen ride), and it was around 21:00 by the time we finally arrived back at the hostel. We checked into our new room and showered before heading back out at around 22:00 to find supper. Henry was, as always, a strong proponent of the idea of eating at the Chinese restaurant near our hostel, but the rest of us felt that a restaurant would take too long, and were inclined just to sleep as soon as possible. We therefore did as we had done on our first night in Tokyo and bought instant noodles from the supermarket, settling down to eat them in the hostel's lounge area before heading up to bed.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Day 6: The Abyss of Yuri

I woke at 8:00 to find that Mark had already bought breakfast for us. I was pleased to discover that Melon bread still hadn't lost any of the qualities that made it delicious, and after eating and doing some washing, we headed off to get the train to Osaka.

Osaka is a major commercial metropolis, as was made evident by the skyscrapers and high-rise office buildings that increased in density as our Shinkansen drew further into the city. Fortunately the trip was only fifteen minutes this time, and we reached Osaka by 10:30. Once we had picked up Osaka Unlimited Passes for ¥2,000 a piece (which gave us free travel on the city's railways and free entry to a number of tourist attractions) we headed off to the first point of interest: the Kanon bench.

We had discovered that the real-life location of the Kanon bench the night before, when Henry had been looking up anime pilgrimages and found that some scenes from Kanon had been based not only on a place in Osaka, but a place that was just a couple of stops out of our way on the route that I had planned for us. Mark, who wasn't a fan of Kanon, was unenthusiastic about the idea of visiting it, and after we arrived, I rather saw his point: it didn't feel particularly magical or special, and was, in fact, just a bench. The others took photos, but may well have shared our sentiments, for despite the fact that I had trips to Washinomiya Shrine (the setting of Lucky Star) and the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens (the setting of When the Seagulls Cry) lined up for later on in the trip, we made mutual decisions not to visit either when the time came.
It really was just a bench
Leaving the Kanon bench behind, our next destination was Nijo Castle, a much more satisfactory trip. After arriving at the station, there was a twenty minute walk to the castle which I hadn't anticipated. We were all getting used to the very high heat levels, however, and there were good views of the castle and its moat and walls from the outside, so it wasn't an unpleasant walk. We wondered, as we passed uphill over two moats and under the castle's massive stone walls how an enemy would go about capturing such a thing. We also caught our first glimpse of the legendary 'sailor uniforms' used as the standard school uniform by a few Japanese schools and massively over-represented in anime secondary schools.
This moat formed the first obstacle for
attackers of Nijo Castle
We were fairly hungry by the time we reached the castle itself, and even though it was fairly early, we made the decision to eat lunch at the fast-food restaurant at the top, which was really the only option. My rice dish arrived quickly and was very filling. It also came with a small plate containing a couple of slices of some bright yellow vegetable and a sour plum. I tentatively tried both, and found the yellow vegetable pleasantly tangy and the sour plum exactly as disgusting as you would expect semi-rotten fruit to taste.
Nijo Castle
Approaching the towering castle, at last, we detached the coupons that gave us free entry from our unlimited pass, and after passing up a flight of stone steps and past a rather menacing cannon, we stepped inside. The interior felt much more modern and polished than the archaic exterior would suggest, but perhaps it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected - we did know that the castle had been destroyed and reconstructed at least once. After getting our heads round the idea that we were meant to explore the castle from top to bottom rather than the other way around, we headed up to the 8th floor, which was an observatory. There were some quite impressive views out over the city. Once we had taken in the view and spotted some of the places we were going to later, we headed down through the museum, reading the descriptions and looking at the artefacts.
A rather impressive cannon
It was around 15:30 by the time we had finished looking around the castle, and we weren't quite sure whether we had left ourselves enough time for the Osaka Peace Museum. It was just next to the station that we were headed for, however (which wasn't the station we had arrived at), so we made our way over there and, upon seeing it, decided that we probably did have enough time. Our passes once again covered the entrance fee, and once inside, I was very glad indeed that we had come. The museum was small but well-presented, and had interesting exhibits on the American bombings of Japan in the Second World War (with particular reference to the incendiary bombings of Osaka) and an apologetic display on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Our next destination was Namba, the southern shopping district of Osaka. Other than simply to explore, Yingke wanted to buy some sandals to replace his trainers, which were slowly falling apart from all of the walking. We headed along the very long Shinsaibashi shopping arcade, walking slowly to avoid getting lost and to take in all of the surrounding stores. As we were to discover throughout our time in Japan, buying clothes is very easy if you're female and very difficult if you're male. The ratio of clothing stores aimed at young women to clothing stores aimed at men must have been close to 30:1. It wasn't an uninteresting walk, however, and on our way, we saw a display from a woman trying to sell puppets. She had one out on display, and it appeared to be moving all by itself, sometimes doing acrobatics and sometimes imitating her movements when she bowed or put out her hand. It seemed fairly magical, although we all suspected that it was somehow being controlled by the man standing a little off to the side and moving his feet in a rather suspicious way.
Shinsaibashi
Twenty minutes of walking found us a shop that had two or three pairs of men's sandals amongst their massive stock of women's shoes. Yingke sat down to try them on and Henry stayed with him while Mark and I had a look at the upper floor (more women's shoes) before glancing around the surrounding shops. The most interesting one we found was an antique shop which contained the most expensive item we saw in our entire trip: an inkstone for ¥500,000. It wasn't a terribly attractive object as far as display items go, looking much like a large black rock, but it would obviously be far too expensive to use for its originally intended purpose. We were left wondering what on earth one would do with such an object, and not at all willing to empty our bank accounts for it. By the time we had finished marvelling at the inkstone, Yingke had bought his sandals. It was too late to go to Shitennoji Temple as I had intended, mostly thanks to the Kanon bench, which had shifted the schedule down by an hour or so, so we travelled instead to Umeda, the northern shopping district of Osaka.

A short train ride later, we emerged into Umeda as the sun was setting. My original plan was to head to the Sky Garden first and then do the HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel after dark, but considering that we had all walked a long way and were fairly tired, we decided to go for the HEP FIVE first, as it was much closer to the station, and then eat before heading over to the Sky Garden. Predictably, it wasn't very difficult to find (a huge Ferris wheel on top of a tall building tends to be fairly noticeable). After entering through the glass doors, travelling up to the top floor in glass elevators and detaching our coupons (which, sadly, were not made of glass), we boarded the wheel.
The view from the wheel
Night hadn't quite fallen as we moved slowly upwards, but the view over the city in the dusk was still very beautiful (so much so that I even took a photograph or two, something that I had avoided doing for most of the trip). The best views were offered as we moved over the top of the wheel, and had unobstructed views in every direction, although the view on the way back down over the northernmost parts of Osaka was unfortunately obstructed by a large flashing Coca-Cola advertisement.

We stepped off the Ferris wheel into the top floor of the HEP FIVE building, and decided, as I'm sure had been intended by whoever was making money from us at that particular point in time, that we would eat at one of the restaurants there. Having wandered around and explored the options, we settled on an Italian restaurant that nobody objected to, and which looked like it served some interesting variation on pizza.

"The gay scene in Japan is hard to find, and the lesbian scene even harder", thus spoke Mark's guidebook to Japan. Perhaps the multi-coloured letters with the name of the restaurant should have provided a clue, or maybe we should have realised that we weren't wanted when Yingke commented that it was the first time we had stood outside a restaurant and hadn't immediately been offered a table. When we were finally led inside by a waitress wearing a sports uniform to see that the only diners were pairs of young women, however, we realised to our horror that the clientele of the restaurant we had wandered into was exclusively female. More specifically, the diners were pairs of women, each of whom seemed rather keener on her partner than is normal for two women. In short, we had wandered unwittingly into a Yuri den.

The waitresses were perfectly polite to us, but even so, it was quite clear that we weren't meant to be there, and it really was profoundly awkward. It's very difficult to be in that kind of situation without talking about it, but at the same time, terrifying to talk about it without the worry that you're being understood. Still, our money was as good as everyone else's, and so whilst we weren't actively wanted there, they didn't seem to mind serving us. Somewhere in between hearing one of the waitresses address a customer as “onee-sama”, and trying to sink into the floor when Yingke let slip some rather explicit terminology in Japanese, we managed to eat our pizzas. Once we had at last finished, paid and left like proverbial bats out of hell, it was, of course, all hilarious.

After supper, everyone seemed to have recovered enough energy to go and search for the Sky Garden. Sadly, the traumatic experience of being in a room full of Japanese lesbians seemed to have skewed my navigation abilities, and I set off confidently in the wrong direction several times under the mistaken assumption that we were at a completely different point on the map to where we actually were. When we had finally got our bearings properly, it was unfortunately too late to attempt the journey to the Sky Garden. It was a shame, but we had done a lot on our trip to Osaka, and visiting more attractions was rather secondary to ensuring that we got the last train back to Kyoto (it would have been a disaster had we missed it). An uneventful four train journeys later, we had arrived back at the hostel. Exhausted as always, we collapsed into bed and slept well.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Day 5: For the Sake of K-ON!

Perhaps something in the plum liquor didn't agree with me, as I awoke at 4:30 the following morning, having woken up repeatedly in the night. By around 5:30, I felt that I had established fairly soundly that I wouldn't be able to get to sleep. After having dressed, brought my notes up to date and done all of the hygiene-related things that I could think of doing, I decided to go for a wander around the surrounding area.

Kyoto was wonderfully peaceful in the early morning, and I greatly enjoyed watching the number of people around me slowly increasing as the morning sun emerged over the horizon. As the time drew closer to 7:00, I began to see particularly keen students on their way to school, and cafés serving breakfast opening their doors. Although I had masses of fun whenever I was with my friends, being alone has its own advantages, and I was glad for the chance to be able to concentrate fully on my surroundings. Feeling properly awake, I returned to our hostel room and read by torchlight until Mark woke up. We headed down to the lounge and alternately used the computer and tried to figure out what was going on in some of the manga he had bought in Akihabara. With someone to talk to, the next hour went by quite quickly, and by 9:00, the others had woken up.

Yingke was feeling a bit off-colour when he woke up, so he stayed in the room to recover whilst Henry, Mark and I headed out into the bright sunlight. We bought our staple melon bread at the shop next door to the hostel, and an experimental purchase of sweet dumpling's (the sort that Nagisa was so fond of, but without eyes, sadly) and sat down by the river to eat them. After I had finished my bread, and we had collectively come to the conclusion that the bird across the river from us was probably a crane and that none of us really knew anything about birds, I tried one of the dumplings. This was a mistake, as it turned out. I was never quite sure what it actually tasted of, but it had an incredibly rubbery consistency that caused me to retch every time I tried to swallow it. I could hardly spit it out in public, but I did eventually manage to get it down in small parts after chewing it for an awfully long time. Avoiding the amused expressions of the others, I resolved not to eat any more.

It wasn't until 11:30 that we finally managed to actually set off, which was much later than I had intended. The journey to the Golden Pavilion (which was the most complicated journey of our trip and involved three trains and a bus) went much more smoothly than I had expected, however, and this made back some time. We arrived at around 12:30, and walked the short distance to the Golden Pavilion.
The Golden Pavilion
The signpost outside provides a good description of its history. I'll post the image rather than transcribing it (obviously you'll need to view the image in full size for it to be legible):
The history of the Golden Pavilion
In many ways, the Golden Pavilion was magnificent, overlooking a lake with its golden roofs shining brightly in the midday sun. Even the lake and scenery around the temple appeared perfectly and meticulously maintained. It was easy to see why it was a spot so frequently photographed by amateurs and professionals alike; indeed, provided one pointed a camera in the general direction of the pavilion from anywhere in the vicinity, I think one would probably struggle to take anything other than a magnificent photograph. I imagine everyone (including me) was rather glad that my idea of the four of us standing in front of the Golden Temple and acting out the scene from K-ON! that took place there never took off, however.

We wandered around the Golden Pavilion, and then continued along down the path that wound around a beautifully maintained garden. At several points, there were bowls, and we saw people attempting (for the most part, unsuccessfully) to throw coins into them from behind the railings that kept us on the path. We all had a go; I used up my three ¥10 coins on three rather poor throws that didn't land anywhere near the bowl that was our target.
I imagine there are supermarkets less profitable
than this bowl 
When we emerged from the temple, it was lunchtime. We ate at a small udon restaurant whilst we debated where to go next. The choice was between a Ryoanji Temple with a famous rock garden, the monkey park visited by the K-ON! girls and the manga museum followed by Nishiki market (my excessively optimistic programme had, of course, had us visiting all four places). A fierce debate ensued, with tactical voting almost reminiscent of Saimoe and attempts to persuade members of the opposition parties, but eventually, we settled in favour of the monkey park and set off on the fairly long train journey.

A long discussion of both the concept and the storyline of Fate/Stay Night sustained us all the way to the entrance to the Monkey Park. Having paid the entrance fee, we climbed the hill, at the top of which we were greeted by a large crowd of monkeys. After a brief look around outside, we entered the hut to get out of the sun. As in K-ON!, monkey food was sold inside the hut, and the windows of the hut was covered with a wire mesh with gaps just large enough to admit a monkey's arm. They clambered around outside the bars, and we took it in turns to feed them from our hands. Our attempts to feed the one baby monkey were foiled by its mother, who would immediately snatch and eat any food presented to her offspring.

Outside once more, we sat down for a while on the benches and watched the monkeys, who were surprisingly tame and, whilst they didn't actively approach humans, certainly weren't remotely afraid of us. Monkeys are like cats in that they're really quite relaxing to watch, and we stayed up there for a good half hour. When we saw that the sun was threatening to set, and the amusement value of the male monkey who was being groomed by two females had at last been exhausted, we headed back down.
What a legend
Upon reaching the bottom, we found another small shrine, and a rack on which people had hung wooden boards with prayers and wishes. Predictably, there were a good many Kyoani and K-ON!-related wishes (including a rather impressive drawing of Mugi). Henry decided to pay ¥500 for a board, and after some discussion, wished for Maria-sama ga Miteru Season 5 and an animation of the Heaven's Feel arc of Fate/Stay Night, wishes that I heartily approved of.
A sincere prayer
It was dark by the time we reached the hostel, and exhausted from the day's walking, we lay down to rest for half an hour before heading off to supper. I hopefully suggested eel again, and found that Yingke had become a proponent of the idea over the last twenty four hours but the other two were still not keen. We instead asked for recommendations at the hostel and, after being given them and walking for a considerable distance without finding them, we decided to head into a place that served yaki-soba. Unlike udon, yaki-soba has much thinner noodles, and is fried and served without soup. It's very filling, and Henry and I had two portions, whilst Yingke had one portion following a serving of okonamiyaki (a pancake dish that I will explain in more depth on the report for Harajuku, where we went to a restaurant specialising in it).

Satisfied, and starting to feel the effects of being awake since 4:30, I headed back to the hostel with the others and fell asleep before they had turned the lights off.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Short Review: Denpa Teki na Kanojo, Episode 1

Denpa Teki na Kanojo

Opening a murder mystery with a dramatic, violent scene is a cliché; I know this even as someone who doesn’t often watch the genre. Grabbing the viewer’s interest is all very well, but not if it convinces them that your show is dull and generic. Denpa Teki na Kanojo wastes no time in doing just that, and first impressions are therefore not favourable, but fortunately, this is where its resemblance to a stereotypical murder story ends.

A string of gruesome serial murders takes place in Tokyo near where the anti-social high-school delinquent, Juu Juuzawa lives. He is unconcerned, until he is approached by the obsessively devoted Ame Ochibana, who is determined that he was a king in a previous life, and she is his knight, bound to serve him. He does everything he can to force her to leave him alone, but as more deaths occur, Juu begins to suspect that his stalker may have something to do with the killings.

“Most likely, there is something that makes them feel nothing about killing.” Psychological illness and trauma are significant themes in Denpa Teki na Kanojo, and the hour-long first episode makes one question one’s morality in interesting ways. Is a murderer ‘evil’ if they were convinced that what they were doing was morally right? At what point can you feel justified in judging someone who falls in that grey area between sanity and insanity?

The theme of multiple personality disorder is reflected in the presentation of the show. Dark, cold terror and heart-warming emotion give way to each other suddenly and unexpectedly. In Higurashi, the obvious comparison, the viewer is tense even through the forced brightness and happiness as they know the inevitable murders will take place. Denpa Teki na Kanojo, on the other hand, presents scenes that make one feel genuine warmth and relief as apparent interludes before throwing the viewer suddenly and unexpectedly back into violence and horror. Only the very best directors can make such transformations convincing.

Denpa Teki na Kanojo is an impressive and original offering. It should be considered essential viewing for fans of suspense, and I would recommend it to anyone else with a reasonably strong stomach, as shock and horror are used frequently by the first episode to convey its twisted message.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Day 4: Stairway to Inari

Before starting this entry, I have just realised that I've omitted giving credit where it is due for the photographs. So, thank you very much to Henry and Yingke for such excellent photography - this account would be much less colourful without them. I will be using exactly one of my own pictures on a later entry, but apart from that, every photo is credit either to Henry or Yingke.

Japanese food, which consists for the most part of noodle and rice dishes, tends to have much less fibre than we are used to in the British staple of bread. The obvious problem this causes is exacerbated by the fact that their shops stock less fruit, and that which they do have is often quite expensive. Henry and I remained unaffected, but Mark and Yingke were to suffer on and off for most of the trip. Yingke was the unfortunate victim on the morning of our trip to Kyoto; I woke at around 6:30 to find that Yingke had woken at around 2:00, and had been unable to get back to sleep.

Mark woke shortly after me to find that his leg had made a complete recovery overnight. Very fortunately, it wasn't a problem that troubled him again. Heading out into open air to find the sky overcast but the day still pleasantly warm (an unfamiliar concept for my fellow UK residents who I'm sure, like me, associate an overcast sky with freezing winds and drizzling rain). We walked the short distance to Kinshichou station and then took a train to Tokyo, from where the Shinkansen to Kyoto would depart.

Finding a restaurant willing to serve us breakfast for less than ¥1000 was tricky, even Tokyo Station's extensive 'Restaurant Town'. We managed to find a place serving traditional English type breakfasts at reasonable prices after a bit of wandering around, however. Feeling full, we headed off to the Shinkansen tracks.

The Shinkansen
Finding the one that would take us to Kyoto was fairly easy, and we boarded it after pausing briefly to admire how sleek and aerodynamic it looked. Understandably, Yingke slept for most of the journey, while Henry, Mark and I played Bamboo, a variant of Mahjong for two players using only the Sou tiles. The Shinkansen travels at top speeds of around 300km/h, but the journey was amazingly smooth and quiet. When you can play Mahjong on the fold-down seat tables of transport moving at 300km/h without the tiles falling over, you know it's well designed.

The view from the inside
After about an hour and a half of travel, we reached Kyoto station. The plan was to store our bags in station lockers, buy ICOCA cards (the Kansai equivalent of PASMO cards), travel to the Inari shrine, then head back to Kyoto station, pick up our bags, and go on to our hostel. It sounds like a rather convoluted plan, but our JR passes meant that it didn't cost us anything extra to do it this way, and the Inari shrine was an essential part of our trip to Kyoto (its southern position made it infeasible to combine it with any of the following day's activities). We were helped by a Japanese man to find the station lockers, and another guy gave us a hand in finding the 'English' button on the station machines as we were trying and failing to buy our ICOCA cards. Marvelling once again at the kindness of the Japanese to complete strangers, we boarded the train for the Inari shrine. As it happened, it was a fast train that wasn't stopping at the Inari shrine, but we only rode it one stop extra before we realised this, and so it was a fairly simple business to catch another train going in the opposite direction.

Inari is one of the more important deities associated with Shinto, and is responsible for farming and for fertility. Inari was also supposed to have fairly strong ties with foxes, and as such, a number of fox statues guard the entrance to the long trail up to the shrine, which is located on the peak of a mountain. The route up is one of the most impressive displays of Torii gates in Japan. The gates line the path up to the shrine, often so thickly that they only just let daylight through.

The amazing path up to the Inari Shrine
We stopped about an hour into our climb at one of the few udon restaurants on the trail, and ate kitsune udon (or literally, 'fox udon'), which is a noodle dish served in a soup with fried tofu. The restaurant was fairly empty, and eating while kneeling over a low table overlooking the mountain scenery was a wonderfully serene experience, and almost certainly my favourite of the lunches we had over the course of the trip. After having finished we sat in the restaurant for a while before standing up to brave the long flights of steps that would lead to the top.

The stairs seemed to go on forever, but the Torii gate patterns and smaller shrines dotted around the path were always interesting to look at. Many of the shrines were decorated with miniature wooden Torii gates that people had bought from the bottom of the shrine, written messages on and carried up. Presumably they had some kind of prayer or wish associated with them, although none of us could read what was written on them. It was also mildly amusing to see the vending machines dotted along the path slowly go up in price - bottles of water that had been ¥150 at the bottom would cost closer to ¥300 as one neared the top. About an hour and a half after we had set off from the restaurant, a few rest breaks and a great many more flights of stone steps later, we reached the top.
The Inari Shrine - notice some examples of miniature
Torii gates on the left
The shrine that awaited us at the top was not very much more impressive than the smaller ones we had passed on our way up, and certainly not magnificent in the way that the golden temple we would visit the next day was. It had its own splendour, however, and in many ways, the sight of the shrine that we had worked so hard to see was by far the more rewarding of the two experiences. I won't jump ahead, however. After a short rest, we all climbed the final set of steps into the shrine proper. We threw money into the donation box, rang the bell that hung over our heads, and put our hands together to ask Inari to grant us a wish. Given what he/she is deity of, my wish that the rest of our holiday would be as wonderful as the start was perhaps not the most appropriate, but it certainly came true, so perhaps Inari has some powers that even the Japanese don't know about.
Inari Shrine cat is displeased
The trek down the mountain seemed to go by much faster than the trek up. We stopped only briefly at the rest area half way down before continuing on to the bottom. We boarded the train back to Kyoto station at around 16:20, which seemed to be just as school was finishing. A large number of sixth-formers ('highschoolers' to Americans) boarded the train with us, and I had fun watching their interactions on the train back to Kyoto station, and then on the trains over to Gion, where our hostel was located. In truth, they didn't act very much differently from how one would expect English sixth-formers to act, but strange people in a strange place will invariably be infinitely more interesting than normal people in a normal place, and I spent large parts of my life in the company of English sixth-formers back when I was one.

Fortunately, the Kyoto hostel was much easier to find than the Tokyo hostel. The exit we needed was clearly marked down a long tunnel from the main part of the station, and the hostel was in clear sight as we emerged into the city. We checked in, deposited our bags, rested for a short time to recover from our long walk, and then headed out for supper.
The view from the bridge over the river near our appartment
Where we ate was to be the only real point of contention in our trip. I have always been an experimental eater, and felt that eating exotic and unusual Japanese foods was an important part of the holiday experience. Henry wanted to eat Chinese food every night. Meanwhile, Mark and Yingke fell at intermediate points between these two extremes depending on desires and how their digestive systems were coping on any given night. More often than not, we ended up at a restaurant that served either udon or some Japanese interpretation of a European dish, both of which fell in that unhappy middle ground where everyone was just about satisfied but nobody was truly happy. Restaurants are my only regret of the trip and, were I to plan it again, I would make sure to ask everyone exactly what they wanted to eat before picking out recommendations, as only two of the restaurants I found for our trip ended up actually being used.

My recommendation for the evening had been a restaurant that serves unagi, which is a form of grilled eel. After this was thoroughly vetoed, I suggested we head along Pontocho, which is a narrow alley host to a number of restaurants with terraces overlooking the river. I had been meaning for us to eat there the next day, but there was no reason as far as I could see that we shouldn't eat there both nights. It wasn't long before I saw how unfortunately short-sighted I was on that count. We found Pontocho easily enough, and the alley was beautifully lit and enjoyable just to walk along. The prices were almost invariably extortionate, however, and we passed a large number of restaurants offering us such delicacies as ¥3,000 sushi dishes as we walked down the alley. Once we had reached the end and thus seen all of our options, we walked back along the alley to the restaurant that had been our favourite and asked for a seat out on the terrace. Once happily seated on the terrace overlooking the river, we were handed a couple of set menus and told that people seated on the terrace could only order from the set menus.
Pontocho Alley was rather atmospheric
We could immediately see that this restriction would result in a much more serious blow to our finances than we had been planning on. There may have been some indication on the menu outside that the ¥1,000 noodle dishes could only be ordered as supplements to the ¥3,000 set menu, but we certainly hadn't read it. Lacking in other options, we all ordered the cheapest set menu (¥2,600). I did at least get my wish of eating unusual foods: the appetiser was a wide range of small portions of exotic seafood (including octopus, which was rather delicious) and a huge green chilli that actually had quite a subtle taste. The starter consisted of lettuce in an unusually sweet dressing which I really liked, Yingke found acceptable, and Mark and Henry couldn't eat. Finally, the main course was a beef hamburger steak. The food was, as I say, all delicious, but none of it was terribly filling, and even I, as the one who had enjoyed and been able to eat everything I was given, still felt hungry after finishing. The full set menu would perhaps have been more filling, but it was closer to ¥4,000 and therefore far outside what we felt we could spend (especially so early on in the trip, when we didn't know how easy it would be to find cheap restaurants). Henry and Yingke decided to order more rice and some more experimental drinks based on their names (an 'Imo' and a 'Mugi') while Mark and I discussed the role of characters with healing magic in fantasy literature. Then, feeling a bit dejected about the fact that we had each paid more than four times as much as we had at lunch for a meal we hadn't enjoyed as much, we headed back to the hostel and slept.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Day 3: The Art of Spending

As one does when one is on holiday in an unfamiliar time zone, we all woke up at around 5:00, but feeling suitably refreshed from nine hours sleep, and excited about our first venture into Akihabara, the otaku district of Tokyo, which sells anime, manga and electronics. We headed down to the lounge for breakfast, where we ate the melon bread we had bought the night before. My impression of it was very favourable - I quickly decided that it was the nicest form of bread I had ever eaten, and ate it for breakfast almost every day of our trip from then on. Henry and Yingke were similarly impressed, although Mark found it rather tasteless.
Melon bread - one of the most delicious foods
ever created
We hung around in the lounge for a couple of hours, whilst Henry and Yingke updated their blogs and Mark and I read (I had completed my notes on the outbound journey the night before). We checked out of the hostel around 8:30 and left our suitcases with them, having packed enough clothes to last us for our trip to Kyoto into our carry-on bags the night before.

The bright morning sun was a fairly sure sign that this day was to be as hot as the day before, but we enjoyed it more than we had when we were tired and lugging suitcases around, and the trip down to Minowa station seemed much shorter. Akihabara was four stops away from Minowa on the Hibiya line, but before reaching it, we made a brief stop at Ueno to get our rail passes, which would allow us to travel on JR lines and, more importantly, the Shinkansen (bullet train) for free. The passes wouldn't be activated until the following day, but we were quickly made glad that we had picked them up beforehand, as the procedure to get them was quite long, and involved filling out forms on our part, and processing them on the part of the lady behind the counter. We left our bags outside the JR enclosure, and after Henry got tired of guarding them, I volunteered to replace him.

The JR enclosure was right next to the main line of ticket barriers for Ueno station, and standing outside, I really enjoyed watching the crowds of people coming and going from the station. As with everything else, there was a set of external differences that were immediately obvious. For a start, young people dress quite differently. There seems to be a fashion for t-shirts patterned with random English words, some of which are hilarious if you actually understand the language. Wearing white face-masks in public is also much more socially acceptable in Japan than in England, where it would probably raise a few strange looks. People do it when they're unwell to prevent others from catching their illness, or just to protect themselves from hay-fever and colds. I stood outside for a few minutes before I was joined by Mark, and we chatted until all of the necessary paperwork had been completed, and we had been issued with our rail passes.
Ueno Station
Reaching Akihabara, we stored our carry-on luggage in lockers, and then, after taking the wrong exit from the station and being briefly confused by the lack of anime and manga stores, we emerged into central Akihabara.

Pausing briefly to comment on the huge advertisement for 'Witch on the Holy Night', the new Type-Moon visual novel, across the road, we entered the first building that interested us, which was the first building we passed. We stayed in there long enough to see that it was dedicated almost entirely to 'grabber' machines. These machines, filled with cuddly toys and equipped with a claw that one moves around to attempt to pick something up, will be familiar to English and probably American readers. In Japan, these machines are vastly more widespread than they are in England, and I was never really able to see what made them so economically viable. We very rarely saw any Japanese people actually using them, and we ourselves were wise enough to the fact that they are invariably rigged so as to make it impossible to pick anything up not to feed them our precious ¥100 coins.
Witch on the Holy Night looks fairly
promising from the character design
The shop next door to the one with the grabber machines was called Tora No Ana, and was probably the shop we spent the most time and money in the whole of our Japan trip. It was split into two sections - one for digital media and miscellaneous goods such as soft toys and figurines, and one for literature. The bottom floor of the first of these branches was full of CDs and DVDs. We wasted little time in locating the soundtracks of our favourite series. Yingke managed to find the soundtracks and drama CDs of Aria, but we were terrified by the prices. CDs in Japan are much more expensive than they are back in England. This is probably partly a function of the pound being weak against the yen (something that was to hit us repeatedly) and partly just that Japanese people are presumably more willing to pay for music. ¥2800 for a CD converts to around £20.00, which is almost double what I'm willing to pay for a CD back in England. Not tempted, I replaced the CD, and joined Mark in exploring the upper floors.

Touhou fandom in Japan really needs to be seen to be believed. For those who haven't heard of the series, Touhou games are bullet-hell games with recurring characters that have very little in the way of actual personality, but seem to have captured the hearts of Japanese otaku. Several of the floors were dedicated to doujin (amateur) games and merchandise, and in those cases, almost 80% of the floor would be dedicated to the Touhou series. I've really enjoyed playing Embodiment of Scarlet Devil recently, but I've never really seen the appeal of the characters beyond mild amusement at the inane dialogue before each boss battle, and Mark isn't a fan of the series at all, so we mostly passed by these floors. We did stop to look at the small area dedicated to the newest When the Seagulls Cry and to try our hands at the playable Super Marisa Land, which was about what you would expect of a cross between Touhou and Mario.

Taking photos of the Touhou nendoroids was expressly
forbidden. Oh, wait...
We had all found a few things to interest us in the first building of Tora no Ana, but the prices of CDs and incompatibility of DVDs with our PAL DVD players meant that none of us were really tempted to buy anything. In addition to this, the top three floors were dedicated almost exclusively to shoujo and yaoi content, and we stayed on those floors just long enough to realise what they were selling before practically sprinting back downstairs. The contents of our wallets intact, we therefore headed on to the literature building. For the most part, this was a much more satisfactory venture. One of the good things about manga is that although there is plenty of dialogue, the way it's presented often means that it is possible to work out what's going on and to appreciate the artwork without necessarily understanding what the characters are saying.

We progressed up the floors as a group this time, finding an appealing selection of art books and fan books on the third floor, and several floors of doujin manga. The second floor was where I started my search for the Alison and Lilia light novels, a search that I would persevere with for the whole of the rest of the trip whenever we went near a shop that sold books. I am the only person I know who considers Alison and Lilia one of the best series of all time, and indeed, one of a very few people I know who considers it enjoyable at all. The novels 'Alison' and 'Lilia and Treize' form the source material for the anime, but as far as I know, there are no English translations (professional or amateur), nor were the novels all that popular when the first one was released back in 2002. I was therefore well aware that I would have to search high and low if I was to find any trace of an Alison and Lilia novel. Sadly, Tora no Ana's light novel section yielded no results.

On the very top floor, there were several boxes of ¥100 doujins (which were, in fact priced at ¥105) where Henry, Mark and I made our first purchases. Taking advantage of the five-for-six offer, we each bought two and split the difference.

Whilst we had moved up the floors of the shop in a group, we decided to descend to the first floor individually and make purchases on the way down (the ground floor to Englishmen - the Japanese consider what we would call the ground floor the first floor). This was a system that seemed to work well, and one we used on almost all subsequent shops larger than a couple of floors. Two ¥100 doujins were all my frugal nature would allow me to purchase, however. I had found several things that I quite liked, on my trip up the eight floors of the shop, but nothing that really caught my attention other than the Kozue Amano artbooks, which Yingke had seen first and thus effectively claimed as his purchase. Several fanbooks attracted my attention, including the Saki and When the Seagulls Cry ones, but fanbooks and artbooks are a considerable investment, ranging between £15 and £25, and I was concerned about buying them and then seeing them cheaper in another shop.

The new Nanoha film is a very big deal
Reaching the bottom floor, I discovered that the others had had no such reservations. Spending ranged from ¥5,000 to ¥10,000. Feeling slightly dejected at having ended up with so little merchandise compared to the others, but confident that I would find plenty more of interest in Akihabara, I had a look at their purchases, and then, deciding we were feeling hungry and surprised at how long we had spent in Tora no Ana, we headed off for lunch.

Lunch was originally intended to be at a Maid Café, but after spending a while looking for the @home Café, we eventually found a long queue. Too hungry to wait, we instead decided to go to the Mos Burger, a Japanese fast food chain. Even though it was fast food, it still had a number of interesting options. I ordered a shrimp cutlet burger, but missed the melon soda that Henry and Yingke ordered, which looked and, I was informed, tasted, amazingly green.

Melon soda. No, really.
After eating, we headed back to look around Animate, which was the shop next door to Tora no Ana, and which is quite well known. It had eight floors and a basement, and we followed our usual procedure of moving up the floors as a group and then descending individually and purchasing on the way down. I found more of interest here: the Kanon ('06) series book, more copies of the Kozue Amano artbooks I missed out on in Tora no Ana, and a Mugi (K-ON!) Figma. They totalled to about ¥6,500, and as they were all things I really wanted, I was more than happy to spend the money. Mark, meanwhile, made the first really extravagant purchase of the holiday: a Natsume figurine for almost ¥8,000.
Really? An Aria PS2 game? What would the objective
be, 'be as happy as possible'?
 By the time we had finished with Animate, it was almost tea time, so we headed over to the building containing the @home Café for another shot. It was on the fifth floor of another building selling anime and electronics related goods, and this time, we progressed up the floors more slowly. There wasn't all that much of interest, but at the sight of a grabber machine offering a Nanoha figure, Henry gave in to temptation, and fed it ¥500 in ¥100 instalments before giving up.

The queue outside the @home Café was smaller than it had been when we had gone there for lunch, and we weren't as hungry, so we settled down to wait. As we progressed up the queue, we were shown the prices of the different activities and areas we could sit in. Although the lounge area looked more comfortable, the counter area was non-smoking, so we decided to go for that, and within ten minutes, we had entered the cafe, and been greeted with the traditional "O-kaeri nasai goshujin-sama!".

Maid cafés will be a completely alien concept to anyone who doesn't have an interest in Japanese culture, and it is altogether very difficult to explain the appeal to a westerner. The idea of being served by waitresses dressed in maid outfits who call their customers "goshujin-sama" ('master') sounds inherently creepy and fetishist. Indeed, I would be lying if I said that there wasn't a sexual element, and that I didn't find the waitresses attractive, but that's a means to an end rather than the main focus.
Photography in the Maid Cafe is forbidden, so
this photo of a maid advertising outside is the best we got
 We sat down, and were given both English and Japanese menus by one of the waitresses. She left us to think about our order, a different waitress came to take it (we all went for strawberry parfaits, but had different drinks), and a third brought us our drinks and engaged us in conversation briefly. She told us her name was Mémé, spoke quite good English, and looked delighted when Henry spoke a few words of Japanese to her. She was so cheerful it was infectious, and I found myself smiling at our broken dialogue. When she had distributed our drinks, she told us to make hearts and we chanted, "Moé moé kyun!" over our drinks before she left us to make a start on them. We all felt a bit stupid, but it can sometimes be great fun to behave in a way that's socially unacceptable in a place where it's socially acceptable to do so.

It is difficult to say, without sounding pretentious, that what maid cafés are really selling is happiness, relaxation and escapism. You know somewhere at the back of your mind that the cheer of the waitresses is just very good acting and that from the ¥700 seating fee to the extortionately priced ice creams and drinks, it's all a commercial operation. The acting and the atmosphere are so convincing, however, that it's easy to forget that somewhere along the line and have great fun doing things that you would never consider doing in ordinary society. It isn’t hard to accuse maid cafés of being creepy, but I maintain that they provide a much healthier form of escapism than many of those practiced by westerners.

Having paid around ¥2,000 for the most expensive ice cream and iced coffee I had ever had, we headed upstairs to check out the arcade that spanned the top two floors. Most of the games looked fairly standard shooting and racing types that you might find in an arcade in England. I made the unhappy decision not to play idolm@aster, a game in which you play the manager of a pop idol on the basis that it's a very dialogue-driven game and I wouldn't be able to understand any of it (and not on the basis that it’s creepy, which would be the much more obvious reason). Henry and I did manage to locate a Fate/Stay Night game, though. We agreed to each pay ¥100, and I played first as Archer and then as Rin (thus exercising my Tohsaka Rin fanboyism by fighting as both members of her partnership). I successfully dispatched Henry's Beserker and his Lancer, but lost with both characters to Caster, who had an incredibly powerful array of ranged attacks.

It was dark when we got outside, and although we were tempted to explore Akihabara further by the light of the massive neon signs that hung outside shops, we were exhausted, and carrying bags that were significantly heavier than they had been at the beginning of the day. We therefore decided to head over to Big Echo for some karaoke entertainment. Once we had been allocated a room, and been shown how the system worked, we settled down and picked our songs. I was fourth, mostly out of a strong desire to go last, which gave me time to drink a considerable amount of my Asahi beer before having to stand up with a microphone. I have been dreadfully under-confident about my ability as a vocalist ever since hearing a recording of myself singing at an early age, and I imagine my comrades were tired of hearing my warnings of how dreadful I would be before we had even reached the room.

My first track was OLIVIA's A Little Pain. It's the first ending of Nana, and as it's also an integral part of the plot of the series, it holds rather more significant meaning for fans of the series, and has been my favourite anime song ever since watching episode 17 of the series. While I was watching Nana, I listened to it all the time - indeed, so much so that I know all of the Japanese lyrics by heart. I followed this up with Dream Theater's Surrounded, Yuria's YOU (the Shuffle! opening), Sonata Arctica's My Land, Iron Maiden's Can I Play With Madness and Sonata Arctica's Paid In Full. It struck me how much easier it is to get an idea of the level of difficulty of the vocal melodies in a given song when you have to sing it yourself without the vocalist there to help you. The difficulty of getting Paid in Full to sound anything like the original was incredible when compared with the relatively simple vocals in Can I Play With Madness, and I will listen to that song with a new appreciation for Tony Kakko's vocals from now on.

Translation: "Rarararararara rararararara
rarara rarararara"
We were in there for around two and a half hours, and whilst I can't remember any of the names or artists of Yingke's tracks beyond his rendition of Fuwa Fuwa Time, I do recall that Henry showed off his superior hiragana-reading abilities by singing OPs and EDs to Key series, and that Mark sang at least one track by Bob Dylan and at least one track by Bon Jovi. There was an unfortunate amount of interference between the microphone and the speaker which caused the equipment to emit high-pitched screeches every couple of minutes, which I can only assume was a fault with the equipment, but other than that, it was great fun, and we resolved to do it again before leaving Japan. That was, of course, before we were told upon emerging from our booth that we owed Big Echo around ¥3,000 each.

The trip to the capsule inn in Shinchichou was painless for three of us and very painful for Mark, whose leg had suddenly started hurting him an awful lot. It was unfortunate, but not unsurprising - we had been walking almost all day, and Mark had significantly more to carry than the rest of us. Fortunately, he made it and collapsed down to sleep as soon as we got there at around 21:00. Yingke, Henry and I showered quickly at the communal baths (which were, unfortunately, the only option, but to which we all wore swimming trunks) and then followed suit.

Capsule inns are something else we don't really go in for in England, but readers will be relieved to know that they are much easier to explain than maid cafés. Dotted around Tokyo, they are convenient for anyone who wants to spend the night somewhere in Tokyo without having to pay very much. Renting a capsule for the night costs around £20, which gives you a place to sleep and also provides a few facilities (each capsule comes equipped with an overhead light, television and radio). The capsules themselves look a bit like elongated microwaves from the outside, but are more spacious than you would expect, and I slept very soundly in mine.
Capsules, complete with AC, radio and television