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

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Days 1 & 2: Eleven Hours of Outer Turbulence

I was the last to arrive at Heathrow, dragging my heavy suitcase through the terminal doors of Heathrow at our appointed time of 11:00 to find my friends already waiting for me. Henry Lin, Mark Pester and Yingke Shan were the three people with whom I would be spending the next two weeks in Japan. Yingke is both a Cambridge computer scientist and CUAMS (Cambrige University Anime & Manga Society) member, and is a fan of slice of life and comedy series. Mark is a Cambridge historian and also a CUAMS member, and enjoys watching action. Henry is a friend of Yingke's from school whom Mark and I had met during May Week, and is a fan of moé and also of Fate/Stay Night. For my part, I'm a Cambridge computer scientist, and my preferred anime genres are drama and slice of life.

From left to right, Yingke, Mark, James (me), Henry

The airport procedures went fairly smoothly, and are dull enough that they don't bear writing about. After the two hours of passing through the various security and passport checks and killing time at the ridiculously overpriced 'duty-free' shops, we boarded the plane and set off on the eleven-and-a-half hour flight bound for Narita Airport in Tokyo.

It was the longest flight I had ever been on, surpassing the eight-hour flight to Texas. The methods for making the time pass didn't change very much: talking, reading, listening to music and sifting through the American rom-coms to find the mindless action films on the in-flight entertainment system (I went for Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2). The only really new experience was the feeling of despair that hit around five hours in, when it struck me that we weren't even half way there yet.

It was important that we slept if we possibly could, as we wanted to be awake for our first sights of Japan. All of us spent several hours making valiant attempts, but a combination of being too excited and too uncomfortable made it impossible. I eventually gave up in favour of watching Top Gear, and Mark (seated on my left) quickly followed my example.

The plane finally descended onto the runway, and I watched the scenery as best I could from my aisle seat. After a fair amount of taxiing around the airport, and several hundred passenger announcements, we were finally allowed to collect our carry-on luggage and leave. In a stunning display of my usual co-ordination, I missed the stair coming out of the plane, and my first steps into Japan were therefore exaggerated staggers that just about managed to prevent me from falling. I wondered briefly whether this was deeply symbolic before hurrying after the others.

Procedures on the Narita side were just as straightforward as those on the Heathrow side, but several times more exciting, given that we were now actually in Japan. We showed our passports, collected our luggage, and were questioned on what we were doing in Japan before being allowed out. Our first mission was to find our way to the hostel, and this was to be the first time 'the plan' would be put to the test.

Narita Airport

 The plan was a 70-page 14,000-word document that I wrote in the evenings during my summer research project at Cambridge, and contained a comprehensive schedule, details of how to get to everywhere we were going, maps, restaurant recommendations, contingency plans, and any other general information we needed. I wanted to make sure that we spent all of our time doing things rather than getting lost or planning to do things and potentially disagreeing on where to go on a given day. In return for doing the huge amount of work required to create this document, I ended up having a fair amount of control over where we went and what we did, although I did make sure as far as I possibly could that I was planning the trip for all of us, and not just for me, and that all plans took proper account of the desires of other people.

According to the plan, we were to go down to the bottom floor of the airport (where the station was), buy four tickets for the Limited Express and ride it to Ueno. The ticket purchase went fine, but our first encounter with the Japanese ticket barriers ended less well. Whilst English ticket barriers are closed all of the time, and open only when you present them with a valid ticket, Japanese ticket barriers are open all of the time, closing only when you present them with an invalid ticket. In our sleep-deprived state, this concept was really too much for us, and upon seeing the ticket barriers with their gates wide open, we didn't bother presenting them with any tickets at all, and simply walked through. This was to cause us problems when we reached a second set of ticket barriers, which refused to let us through on the basis that our tickets hadn't been activated at the first set. Or something. In the end, with the help of a polite Japanese assistant, we were able to get through both sets of ticket barriers and onto our train before it departed.

The train from Narita airport (which is just outside Tokyo) into central Tokyo takes just over an hour, and we glad to find, when we boarded, that there was a row of free seats in the corner of one carriage. We probably all noticed that they were a different colour from any of the other seats, but nobody commented on it. We waited for ten minutes while the rest of the train filled up, and then departed. After a brief stop at the other airport terminal (also underground), we emerged into the Japanese countryside. It was around 11:00. The blinds were down all over the train, but our curiosity to get a proper look at the Japanese countryside quickly overcame our fear of breaking some incredibly important rule of Japanese etiquette that says you should never let sunlight into trains. Unfortunately, the picture of an old lady with a walking stick that was stuck to the window behind the blind was a fairly clear sign that we had, in fact, already broken one of the more universal rules of etiquette: four twenty-year-olds probably shouldn't take up all of the priority seats.

Go figure, it even says 'Priority Seat' in English...
Fortunately, there was nobody who was actually being forced to stand as a result of our mistake. Even so, feeling slightly guilty and wondering how many Japanese people had been laughing behind their hands when they saw us board the train and point excitedly at the free priority seats, we stood up and watched the countryside from the glass panels on the doors instead. Differences were easy to notice, even in the rural areas where there wasn't as much to see. The fields are separated by ditches rather than hedges for a start, so you can see much further across agricultural land. In the villages, roofs were flatter and presumably made out of different material, as they seemed to glisten. It was also noticeable how few people had gardens: space is at enough of a premium that having a patch of grass outside your house that isn't really being used for anything is rather a luxury. As we moved further into Tokyo, the land became increasingly build-up, accommodation more concentrated, and billboards flashing advertising more frequent.

The views of the countryside from the train
included a Japanese windmill
Ueno station, which was our destination, is split into two parts. The Keisei line, which runs between Ueno and Narita, has a station to itself. Then, a couple of minutes down the road from that, is Ueno station, where trains from the overground JR Yamanote line, the Hibiya subway line and the Ginza subway line stop. To get to our hostel, we needed the Hibiya line so, disembarking from our train, we headed out of the Keisei line station into the September sun.

Looking at weather forecasts before we set out, it had seemed to me that the Japanese Septembers were about as hot as the hottest point of British summers. Either I had read the forecast wrong, or the Japanese weather had just gone ahead and decided to do its own thing, defying all predictions in the process. When we stepped out of the air-conditioned station, we were hit by a wall of heat reminiscent of Texas and Turkey, where temperatures regularly rise above 35 degrees centigrade.

Ueno, Tokyo
Although I had anticipated that we would be hungry when we arrived at Ueno station, I hadn't quite anticipated our states of mind. Not only had we not eaten since the rather thin airport breakfast, we hadn't slept for around twenty four hours and had been standing up for the best part of an hour. Dragging our heavy suitcases to Ueno station from the Keisei line station in the sweltering heat, and then up and down staircases until we found the restaurants I had picked out seemed, at the time, like an insurmountable task compared to the idea of following the sign bearing a large yellow 'M' and pointing across the road.

And whilst I do regret to some extent that my first meal in Japan was at a McDonalds, it actually turned out not to be such a poor idea. The general feeling in England is that everyone in Japan speaks English to the level where they could quite happily have a conversation with you. Whilst this may well be true of many well-educated Japanese people working in skilled jobs, it is not by any means necessarily true of waiters, station attendants, shop assistants, or any of the people who it is really necessary to communicate with as a tourist. The American chain therefore gave us some idea of the combination of sign language, pointing and saying individual words very clearly that would be required, in a situation where we already knew what everything was and what we wanted. Once we had each struggled through the order process and ended up with something that resembled a meal, we dragged our cases up the stairs to the seating area.

As it turned out, there was no way to arrange four large suitcases and four carry-on bags in such a way that it didn't feel like we were blocking up the entire seating area, but we did our best. When we had finished eating, we made our way towards Ueno station proper. We found it fairly easily, and once inside, accepted our PASMO cards from Yingke. PASMO cards are used to pay for Tokyo's rail network - you load money onto them and then it is reduced automatically whenever you take a train. We passed successfully through the ticket barriers, and rode a Hibiya line train two stops northbound to Minowa, where our hostel was located.

The Tokyo metro, complete with mandatory
girl-in-sailor-uniform advertising
We weren't all that fortunate in finding our hostel either. Although we had directions, they were rather dependent on one taking the correct exit from the station (an exit which, as it turned out later, was only available to people arriving on trains coming from the other direction). We wandered for ten minutes in a direction we thought was probably the right one, occasionally narrowly avoiding being hit by bicycles. Everyone cycles on the pavements in Japan, which took some getting used to, and there were a number of very narrow misses. Once it became evident that we weren't heading in anything like the right direction, but we couldn't quite bear the idea of walking all the way back to the station again, we stood around for a bit looking at the map and feeling tired and thirsty until we were approached by a Japanese man.

It quickly became evident that neither party spoke enough of the other's language for a proper conversation, but he beckoned us into his restaurant anyway, and gave us water with ice whilst he and his wife poured over a map and tried to match it up with our map of the hostel and the surrounding area. Eventually, they realised our mistake: we had, in fact, set of in the opposite direction of the hostel that was our eventual destination. Once this had been successfully communicated to Henry (who spoke and read the most Japanese of the four of us), we set off back in the direction of the station, this time taking the correct road. We made another wrong turning, and were once again set right by a Japanese lady who was passing, before finally arriving at our hostel.

It struck me repeatedly over the course of our trip how much more polite and eager to help the Japanese are in comparison to the English. I will try quite hard while writing this report not to turn it into a huge list of the ways in which, as far as I'm concerned, Japan is superior to England, but in situations such as this, it really is difficult not to make comparisons. I remember the first time I was trying to get to The Underworld in Camden for a gig I got lost, and was ignored outright by the first couple of people I asked before I was grudgingly given directions. In Japan, you just have to look lost, and people go out of their way to make sure you are okay, as they did for us twice in the space of fifteen minutes, despite the language barrier.

We knew that we wouldn't be able to check-in until 15:00 once we reached our hostel (it was about 14:00), but we were grateful for the fact that we could at least sit down in the shade. I had bought my mahjong set, and we played an East round to pass the time. Yingke was understandably feeling a bit off-colour at this point, but sportingly joined in anyway. 

Our room -- we were all feeling really awake
by this point
Once we could finally check-in, we all had showers and then lay around under the air conditioning for a while. Then, at around 18:00, feeling as refreshed as it is possible to feel for people who haven't slept for such a long period of time, we headed out to the supermarket.

From the bridge over the road near the
The supermarket was next to the station, and despite its small size, it was host to a large number of interesting and unusual foods. We were to find out over the course of our trip that its stock was actually fairly standard for a Japanese supermarket, but we had fun looking around. We eventually settled on instant noodles for supper and melon bread for breakfast (something that we had all seen numerous characters enjoying in anime series). Back at the hostel, after deciphering the instructions on the packet (which were not any different from those for cooking instant noodles in the UK) we ate quickly, and then collapsed into bed around 20:00, falling asleep immediately.

Like Fountains

It makes sense to start a blog with an introduction and a coherent description of what sort of topics will be covered. Unfortunately, I have not the slightest idea what I'm going to use this for. I have never liked the idea of writing about myself directly - I can't imagine many people would be interested reading about what I do every day, which is mostly fairly mundane. Blogs with a specific purpose make for much more interesting reads, but the only thing about which I know enough to write coherent, regular and interesting pieces is music, and it makes much more sense to continue to use for that. The name 'Like Fountains' is therefore temporary (it is the name of one of my favourite tracks by The Gathering, for anyone interested), and will eventually be replaced when I've decided on a proper direction.

Whilst the longer-term purpose for this space is unclear, it is much easier to say what I plan to use it for in the short term: posting up the record of my trip to Japan with my friends in early September. I had originally planned to use for this, but in the end, I decided to keep for purely music-related thoughts, and write about Japan somewhere else. Whilst makes it much easier to get casual readers, I can't imagine casual readers (or indeed, anyone with any sanity) will get past the first few paragraphs of the report. Those people masochistic enough to want to read the entire thing should be aware that there is a huge amount of trivial detail and that (with the exception of a few paragraphs) it has mostly been written unedited and only fairly briefly proof-read. It is therefore unlikely that it will possess any great degree of coherence or literary quality. Anyone who wishes to get a general idea of the trip is advised to read the first paragraph of day 1 and then any selection from days 3, 4, 6, 9, 12 and 15.

As mentioned above, I wrote this with the original intention of posting it up on my journal on, and had planned to use a relevant modification of a rock or metal track as the title for each day. Whilst that appears much less appropriate here, I will retain the music-related titles I had planned to use, if only because some of them work so nicely, I can't bear to let them go to waste.

One point of note is the Japanese exchange rate: when commissions are factored in, ¥100 can be approximated as £0.80. Finally, I should say that there will inevitably be numerous references to Japanese anime and manga. Whilst I have translated as many of these as I can, some terms simply do not translate elegantly, and I recommend that anyone who isn't a fan of either medium keeps open something like this to help with terminology.