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

No comments:

Post a Comment