Friday, 21 January 2011

Day 11: Souvenirs D'une Autre Île

On day 11, I was, as always, the first to wake up, rousing myself at around 9:30. While waiting for the others, I headed downstairs to do washing. The others woke up shortly afterwards, but even so, the need to do washing resulted in a very late start indeed. After a brief breakfast of melon bread, we set off at around 11:45, to arrive at Shimbashi at 12:00.

It wasn’t too hard to buy tickets to the train that would carry us across the famous ‘Rainbow Bridge’, which was not, in fact, terribly impressive during the day. It was certainly large, but not much larger than suspension bridges back in England. The train travelled underneath the bridge, in a cage-like structure, and we had some good views of the island. When we arrived at Daiba station, it was about 12:30, and we were hungry, so we headed off to find somewhere to eat lunch.
The Rainbow Bridge during the day

The usual problem arose as we searched around Decks and Aquacity (the two shopping centres near Daiba station) for somewhere to eat. For every one of us who wanted to eat at any given restaurant, one of us was prepared to eat there, and the other two wanted to find somewhere else. Fundamentally, though, the problem that Yingke and I wanted to eat traditional Japanese food and Mark and Henry wanted to eat at McDonalds was not to be resolved. After around twenty minutes of hunting, we decided to divide up into two groups: Yingke and I went one way, Mark and Henry the other.

Yingke and I ended up at a Japanese restaurant with a terrace looking out over the harbour. The prices were around ¥1000, but most definitely worth it. My dish of chicken in rice covered with omlette and chopped tomato was really delicious. After eating, we met up with Mark and Henry where we had agreed and headed across the road to have a look at the TV Tower.
The rather impressive TV Tower

The main attraction of the TV Tower was that, unlike everything else in Tokyo, admission was free. We rode the bubble-like escalators up and spent half an hour or so looking around the exhibits we were allowed to without paying. With the exception of Eden of the East, I knew hardly any of the television shows being advertised. It was interesting all the same, however, and we did get to see some live television being filmed.
'Eden of the East' was one of the few shows being
advertised at the TV Tower that we all knew

Two short walks and a short train ride later, we arrived at the science museum, which was our next stop. The others were shocked that I hadn’t heard of Doraemon, a time-travelling robotic cat who was represented on a large poster outside the museum, and wasted no time in educating me. Once inside, we discovered that there was a special exhibit on gadgets which was in some way connected to the mechanical feline. Whilst it would have been fun to see, the tickets that included the special exhibit were much more expensive, and we were concerned that we wouldn’t have all that much time to look around the main part of the museum, so we opted for the regular tickets.

Once inside the museum proper, we had great fun looking around the exhibits which ranged from medicine to space travel. My favourite was an interactive simulation of using machinery to operate on a patient. I have about the co-ordination as a drunken hippopotamus, so I predictably messed up and killed my patient. Also of interest was an ‘intelligent’ computerised seal, which would respond to being stroked, and spoken to. Finally, I rather enjoyed the computerised ethical quizzes in the medical section, which would tell you what percentage of Japan agreed with your views. The Japanese were largely in agreement with my pro-stem-cell research stance; less so with my more radical strongly pro-abortion views.
The Science Museum

We stayed at the museum until it closed at 17:00, and then headed back to the station. It was pretty dark, which was fine for the final thing I wanted to do in Odaiba – a trip to Pallette Town, the shopping centre on the far side of the island from the Rainbow Bridge. “What’s this? James wanted to go out of his way to a shopping centre?” I hear you cry. But this is no ordinary shopping centre. It has a section called Venus Fort, which is styled as an 18th century European town.
Venus Fort, complete with rather convincing fake sky
The interior really was beautiful, even being what it was: a vessel for a huge number of chain clothes shops. Stepping in from the darkened wooden platforms and metal railings of Pallette Town, the world was transformed into one of tall stone columns, marble floors and (fake) cloudy blue skies. The shops themselves were of no interest; almost all of them were chain women’s clothing stores. Still, this meant that the shoppers were mostly young Japanese women, something which I certainly didn’t object to. We wandered through the winding streets, through the impressive Fountain Plaza, until we finally reached the front of a church, with huge oak doors that presumably opened onto solid stone behind. Taking this to be the end of Venus Fort, we headed back the way we came and, after a considerable amount of getting lost, we finally found the exit (which was fairly well-disguised) and headed back to the station.
The Fountain Plaza
The Church Plaza
It was past 18:00 by the time we had finished our explorations of Venus Fort. Whilst there was a hot-springs theme park we could have visited, we decided to give it a miss (hot-springs are popular in Japan, and would be great if it weren’t for the fact that being naked is practically compulsory). We decided to head back off Odaiba and in the direction of the Tokyo Tower, finding somewhere to eat on the way.

It was much easier to see how the Rainbow Bridge gained its name as we went back over it in the dark. I was lucky enough to have a window seat facing in the opposite direction from the way we were going, and could look back out over brightly-lit Odaiba. The huge Ferris wheel was particularly prominent, with constantly changing multi-coloured lights tracing patterns across its shape.

Arriving back at Shimbashi station, we were only a couple of stops away from Tokyo Tower. A few sites had recommended against going to Tokyo Tower, claiming that it was touristy, and that better views over the city could be had for free from other buildings. I was therefore slightly sceptical of it, and even had an alternative plan ready for if the others shared my scepticism, but as the Tokyo Tower is such a well-known landmark, we decided it would be worth visiting at least once.

A couple of train stops later, we arrived at the nearest station to Tokyo Tower. Here followed the usual face-off about which restaurant to go to, with the usual compromise of an udon restaurant eventually being reached. I didn’t much like the food there, but it was filling enough and, having finished it, we headed in the direction of the Tokyo Tower. I hadn’t actually been able to find directions to it, but for obvious reasons, it wasn't difficult to find.
A lack of directions to the Tokyo tower
did not pose a major problem...
The queue to get into the tower was pretty small, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a rather futuristic elevator. Stepping out of the doors at the top of its ascent, we were greeted by the darkened main observatory, and walls of glass that allowed us to gaze out for miles over brightly-lit night-time Tokyo.

It really was incredibly beautiful, and the thick atmosphere created by the darkness of the observatory and the soft, tasteful music playing through loudspeakers was masterfully achieved. Moreover, almost all of the observers were Japanese; there was barely a foreigner in sight. Perhaps in summer, the observatory crowds out with American tourists every evening. Even so, I must say, I completely disagree with the general advice that the Tokyo Tower should be given a miss; I thought that it really was wonderful.

There wasn’t much to actually do up there besides looking at the scenery, but that certainly never seemed to get boring. Mark and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the sorts of deep philosophical questions that a mass of lights and life stretching out across the darkness will tend to inspire, while Yingke and Henry took some of the best photographs of our trip.

To get back down to the ground floor, we had to descend a flight of stairs to a second observatory, a floor below the first one. Whilst going down the stairs had just been a means to getting the elevator back down to the ground floor, the second observatory had enough distractions to keep us up there for another twenty minutes or so. A glass panel in the floor of the second observatory that you could stand on allowed you to look directly down the metal construction of the tower. After we had walked across it and observed that, unsurprisingly, it didn’t break, I realised that the music on this floor was much clearer, and sounded much more like a live performance than a recording. Heading around the corner, we found a small stage with a piano, vocalist and a small crowd of people.

I’m normally rather a snob when it comes to music. If you give me an album to listen to that isn’t by an obscure European band and doesn’t incorporate extended instrumental sections, fifteen-minute tracks and influences from at least seven genres, I’ll tell you that it is simplistic and dull. Even so, I’ll refrain from over-analysing this particular live performance, because I had no concept of doing so at the time. The music was fairly sweet, melodic and poppy, but it fitted my mood, and I greatly enjoyed watching it without thinking about 13/16 time signatures or artificial harmonics or blast beats. I watched for as many songs as I felt I could without inconveniencing the others, and eventually allowed myself to be led away and back down the elevator.

The way back to the station was as painless as the trip to the Tokyo tower, and we soon found ourselves on the Hibiya Line, travelling back to Minowa. This was not an enjoyable trip. Office workers in Tokyo are mostly expected to work twelve-hour days (perhaps even longer if you’re in a position of any responsibility), so at 8:30pm, we were right in the middle of the rush-hour. And for those who know what it feels like to be on the London Underground in the rush-hour, it doesn’t begin to compare with Tokyo. Being crushed so closely to the people next to you that you can’t move an inch, and having your feet stampeded over whenever the train stops and people try to create a path to the exits is not a terribly pleasant experience. We were all very glad when the doors opened at Minowa station, and we all successfully managed to force our way through the crowds to the exits. We were, as usual, exhausted by the time we reached our rooms, and after washing, collapsed into bed gratefully, ready for an early start again the following day.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Day 10: In the Presence of Merchandise Part 1

Due to exhaustion from the previous day’s climb, I woke up at 9:30, which was still an hour earlier than everyone else, but considerably later than my normal time. We headed off to Nakano Broadway almost immediately, stopping briefly at the supermarket to pick up bread for breakfast, which we ate on the twenty-minute train journey.

Nakano Broadway is similar to Akihabara, in that it is an otaku paradise, selling anime merchandise, electronics, CDs, DVDs and so on. It is, however, much less polished, much less touristy and significantly cheaper than Akihabara. Whilst Akihabara will have all of the latest and shiniest merchandise from the most recent and most popular shows, Nakano Broadway is full of dusty boxes and cases containing cut-price second-hand or defect figurines and manga volumes from series that aired five or six years ago.
Nakano Broadway
Nakano Broadway itself wasn’t too hard to find, but it was about ten minutes walk away from the station. It was certainly more tucked-away than Akihabara, on the second floor of the shopping arcade. It took us a while to find anything. Although a figurine shop was of some interest, many of the shops were packed with old miscellaneous junk.

Eventually we stumbled across fantastic doujin store. Unlike Akihabara, where doujins were almost all ¥600 or more, everything here was between ¥100 and ¥300. While Henry and Yingke didn’t have all that much interest in browsing for doujins featuring their favourite series, Mark and I eagerly began searching through the racks. This was a rather more time-consuming operation than it had been in Akihabara, however. The doujins were sorted by circle rather than by series, and none of us were familiar with many doujin circles. We therefore had to browse dozens of racks packed with books in the hope of finding one or two with series that we knew. An hour or so of searching yielded a reasonable number of successful finds, however, and having paid for our very reasonably priced books, we headed back out into the Broadway.
This wall just seemed to be there for anyone to draw on it.
It's worth viewing it in full size - bits of it are quite
When we had finished looking around that floor, it was almost lunch time. We initially looked for a curry place that I had had recommended, but were unable to find it, and eventually settled on the cheap and easy option of udon. Mine was fairly filling, but the shop next door to the Udon counter was selling the most amazing ice-creams I had ever seen. The ice cream part was much taller than the cone itself, and came in swirls of whichever flavour combination you asked for. I avoided the experimental ‘green’ option for once, and went for chocolate and vanilla, which tasted wonderful. Sadly, I don't have a photograph of it, but it baffles me why ice-creams that awesome aren't sold here. Perhaps there's a business opportunity there.

After lunch, we headed back upstairs, this time looking to explore the highest floor of Nakano Broadway. This time, results came much more quickly. Within minutes of reaching the top floor, I had located a Tokiha Mai figurine at just under ¥2000, and a little more searching in a nearby shop yielded a Senjougahara figurine for under ¥1000. While I agonised over the decision of whether to buy one or both of the figurines, Yingke made the decision to go back downstairs (accompanied by Henry) and purchase some Touhou nendoroids he had seen.
A nendoroid is a type of small figurine with a disproportionately
large head.  I don't think they're very appealing, but
some people find them adorable.
I eventually decided on buying both figurines, which was really inevitable, but I wanted to at least pretend to myself that I was thinking about saving money. Mark and I waited around the figurine shop for a bit to see whether Yingke and Henry would come back up to us, then decided to head down to see them.

This proved a rather more difficult operation than we had anticipated. Whilst we knew the route back to the stairs, it was impossible to actually follow it without being distracted by the multitude of shops selling anime merchandise. We ended up going into five or six, and spending five to ten minutes in each. By the time we did finally reach the first figurine shop where we knew Yingke and Henry had gone, they had predictably left.
Are there any circumstances in which you would pay more
than £200 for a playing card? I thought not...

What followed was about twenty minutes of searching for each other. There were multiple sets of steps connecting the two levels of Nakano Broadway, and could probably have kept going around in circles forever had we not had the bright idea of one person staying in the same place and the other searching. By this method, Yingke and Henry eventually ran into Mark, who was standing still at the bottom of a flight of stairs while I searched the upper floor, and we were thus reunited.

We had been planning to go to Washinomiya Shrine next, but forces outside our control (rain, the length of the trip, a desire to buy more cut-price anime merchandise) prevented us from doing so. We decided to stay in Nakano Broadway, and doing so turned out to be a good plan. We went back around the top floor, this time making a more thorough search, and it didn’t take us long to find a CD and DVD store.

It was almost exclusively selling anime CDs and DVDs, which didn’t stop me subtly hunting for an Olivia CD. What I found, however, was just as good. In a corner of the store near the bottom of the rack were two Maria-sama ga Miteru drama CDs. I was tempted by both, but one was standalone, while the other was the third in a sequence. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway, I wouldn’t have wanted the third part in a sequence without having the first or second, so I ended up just buying the standalone CD. Yingke similarly located three Aria drama CDs. We were feeling pretty good about having resisted temptations and only spent around ¥4000 between us in that particular shop, when Henry broke off from our group just as we were leaving and headed back into the shop, mentioning as he did so that he was “just going to pick up the Shana box set”. The Shana box set was ¥12000.

Leaving the store, we headed on in the direction of a nearby Mandrake, a shop selling manga. The range was fairly impressive but, well aware of the amount we had bought by this point, we only bought a couple of volumes each.
The figurines purchased at Nakano Broadway. The nendoroids
belong to Henry and Yingke, while the taller ones at the
back are mine.
Finally, staggering under the weight of our purchases, we headed back to our hostel. It was the rush hour, and the train was packed to bursting, but we somehow made it. After an hour or so of playing around with our purchases and taking photographs, we headed back out again. Henry was in favour of the Chinese restaurant again, but I made an eventually successful push for a curry udon restaurant in Ueno.

Unfortunately, another disagreement ensued when it emerged that every other member of our party objected to either curry, udon or both. Defeated, I agreed to the grill restaurant nearby as a better alternative than Chinese food for the second night in a row. Amusingly, I ended up being the most satisfied with the food we were served. The steak with egg and onion sauce was absolutely delicious – indeed, I would go as far as to say that it was the nicest ‘British meal’ I’ve ever eaten. English chefs should be ashamed if the Japanese are capable of outdoing them so easily.
Steak, egg and onion sauce. Delicious.
Yingke and Henry weren’t filled by the meal, however, so they went into the Chinese place for a second course on our way back. Mark and I returned to our rooms, meanwhile, and started a second long discussion of When the Seagulls Cry, to the amused exasperation of Yingke and Henry when they returned an hour later to find us still coming up with and dismissing theories.