Sunday, 27 February 2011

Day 14: Realm of Games

Mark woke at 11:30 on the fourteenth day, but the late start did give me the chance to finish Small Gods, the Terry Pratchett book I had borrowed from him at the start of the trip. I quite enjoyed it, but there was something about it didn’t quite work for me, and I don’t think I’ll be exploring his extensive catalogue any further. I am very easily amused by the dry sarcasm in, for example, Nick Hornby’s early works, but my sense of humour isn’t quite sure how to react when it comes across jokes that are actually funny as they were in Small Gods. That completed, I started getting back into A Clash of Kings, which I had started on the plane. It’s the second book in George R. R. Martin’s heavily political fantasy series, and with a word count of about double that of The Fellowship of the Ring, the longest book I’ve ever read.

When we were all ready at around 12:00, we headed out to the Tokyo Games Show. We hadn’t specifically planned our trip to coincide with this annual event, but the fact that it happened to fall on the final day seemed too good a coincidence not to take advantage of. Our journey took us just outside of Tokyo itself, and was just over an hour long, meaning we arrived at lunch time. Everyone else wanted something simple, so my attempts to promote a Japanese omelette restaurant fell on deaf ears. We did at least end up at a Japanese fast food place rather than a McDonalds, though, and I had a shrimp burger with some rather pleasant spicy sauce.

It took us a bit longer than expected to find the entrance of the Games Show. There were about thirty exit and entry points, all of which were restricted to cosplayers, stallholders, journalists and so on. We walked up and down the massively long hallway twice, fighting against the crowds of people who were doing the same thing, until we finally had the sense to ask at the information desk only to find out that our entrance was in a completely different place. Finally locating it, we presented our tickets and were allowed in.
The Entrance
Predictably, the crowds outside didn’t begin to compare to the crowds inside, which were incredibly densely packed. By means of bellowing into each others’ ears, we agreed that we would meet outside if we were separated, and then began to look around. The first hall seemed to have most of the really big players in the industry, with Square Enix and Microsoft being the two that first caught my eye. The market for games is often different in Japan to the western world. The Japanese generally prefer storyline and dialogue-driven games, whereas Americans would sooner have shooting take precedence over the storyline, which is usually weak if it exists at all. There are a few Japanese games that have been popular enough to get professional translation. Square Enix are powerful enough to be able to take on American giants such as EA and Activision by translating and marketing their games for audiences in the US and Europe. For the most part, however, western fans of Japanese games generally have to make do with amateur translations, and don’t often get those.
Part of the main hall
Having decided to glance around at everything and then come back and look in more detail later on, we moved through the first hall and into the second, which was packed full of cosplayers. As I mentioned in the Harajuku entry, cosplaying (dressing up as anime, film or, in this case, game characters) is rather an art form in Japan. Mark and I spotted a number of Final Fantasy cosplayers (even those from VII, VIII and IX - it’s good to see that those games have endured for over ten years). There was an excellent Lightning, a pretty good Selphie and Irvine partnership and a passable Tidus. Unfortunately, Henry and Yingke don’t share our enthusiasm for Japanese games, so I haven’t ended up with any photos of the Final Fantasy cosplayers; I’ll have to make sure I take some of my own next time.

The second hall had a greater number of stalls, and most of them were from smaller companies. There were a number of stalls marketing mobile and handheld games, as well as those from companies that had maybe only released one or two games on a tighter budget than those allocated by Square Enix and Microsoft. We were in luck, however. As Yingke was admiring a driving simulator, I spotted a stall advertising a console port of When the Seagulls Cry, which I mentioned earlier. The series of games has gone down in my estimation significantly since the release of the eighth game, as the final solution to the overall mystery is frankly stupid, even if the way the individual locked room mysteries are constructed is still very clever, and I feel a bit annoyed that I wasted so much time thinking about it. Even so, I was still very enthusiastic about it back then, and so was very glad to see the sparkling pile of ‘gold’ as well as people dressed up as Beatrice and Battler, the two central characters.
The central characters of When the Seagulls Cry
The final hall was a tournament hall, with a large crowd watching two guys battle to the death in some fighting game that none of us knew. It was pretty intense, and we all stayed and watched the match that was going on, but in the end, we didn’t have all that much time, and wanted to look at the exhibits properly, so we headed back into the main halls to have a more thorough look around.

We paused briefly at an Evangelion stall for Henry to take pictures, although I hung back a bit. There are some shows that you know you’re just going to hate based on watching a single episode; Evangelion was certainly one of those. I’m rarely a fan of giant robot shows at the best of times, and Evangelion is a giant robot show served with a reasonable helping of philosophical pretentiousness. In any case, I kept my criticisms to myself, and moved on when the others were ready to. Back in the first hall, we stopped to check out the Microsoft stall properly and watch the demonstrations and trailers. There were some very impressive graphics and pyrotechnics, especially in Halo Reach. Clearly the Idolmaster 2 trailer is the one that stood out for Henry, as I’ve ended up with a massive collection of photos of it. Idolmaster is a pretty good example of Microsoft’s ability to throw their weight around. Their purchase of the franchise and exclusive release on Xbox 360 in Japan resulted in Xbox 360 live subscriptions increasing by something like ten times on the day it came out. A lot of their success doesn’t come from the abilities of their staff, but just that they have enough money to buy out any company that looks like it might be reasonably successful.
'Idolm@ster' - more than a little creepy.
The Square Enix and Eidos stalls were our next stop, the latter of which was responsible for my becoming interested in gaming with its release of the epic Tomb Raider II back in ‘95, and who has since been taken over by the former. The Tomb Raider series is still going, although wasn’t being advertised by Eidos, who were concentrating on the new Deus Ex game, which is coming out a good seven years after the previous one.

The queues were predictably ridiculous, and we weren’t tempted by the hour-long waits to spend ten minutes actually trying out the unreleased games. That said, I would have been tempted to spend an hour waiting for Final Fantasy XIII-2 had the dialogue not been in Japanese. Nor were we able to interest ourselves in Japanese games that we had never really heard of, and we gave the stall advertising Love++ a wide berth. Even being single as long as I have been, I still find the concept of a ‘dating simulator’ a little sad. Instead, we went off to explore the merchandise stalls at one end of the main hall. Prices were predictably ridiculous, and having already spent so much, I wasn’t even really tempted by the Tohsaka Rin T-shirt. The Final Fantasy soundtracks might have been of some interest, but CD prices in Japan are absolutely ridiculous. My upper limit for a CD is £13, and even then, I’m only prepared to go that high if it’s something I really want but is difficult to get hold of. The standard price for a CD in Japan is around ¥3000, which is well over £20. While I had counted myself lucky to pick up a battered copy of The Art of Life in Akihabara (a legendary single-track twenty-nine minute classical-inspired speed metal epic) which had been somewhat reduced, I certainly wasn’t paying over £20 for a soundtrack.
Not sure what these guys were advertising,
but they are pretty impressive.
As fun as boarding the same train back to Tokyo with a million other people as the game show closed and everyone stampeded for the exit would have been, we ended up deciding to leave twenty minutes earlier and catch a different train, thus avoiding having our limbs crushed. We therefore left at 4:40pm, boarded the wrong train, sat in the reserved section and were charged ¥500 by an irritable ticket inspector. The train was fortunately still going to Tokyo, so we did at least end up in the right place. Henry somehow had about ¥10000 ‘extra money’ left. We weren’t quite sure how this had happened, given that he had spent about as much as the rest of us put together, but in any case, we did make one final stop at Akihabara for him to sort out this terrible problem by purchasing the blu-rays of the Fate/Stay Night TV reproduction for exactly that amount. That was our last purchase, however, and we headed back to the hostel after that to finish our packing.

In some ways it’s a shame that I don’t really have the interest in games that I used to. I remember cycling home at suicidal speeds to pick up my copy of the original Fable, and bolting down breakfast so that I could spend half an hour playing Knights of the Old Republic before school when it had just been released. But I’ve had Final Fantasy XIII for almost a year now, and I’m not even half way through (and this is Final Fantasy - my favourite series of games of all time). I’ve got a bunch of other games sitting at home (Dragon Age, WET) which I’m half way through and bored with. I think it’s probably me that’s changed rather than the games, and while in some ways I miss getting the levels of excitement I used to get out of gaming, in some ways it’s a blessing. Conquering challenges in the real world is, after all, much more satisfying than taking down dragons and demons in the virtual world, and time is scarce enough that one invariably comes at the expense of the other.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Day 13: Death and the Panda

I woke at my usual 8:30am the morning of our Asakusa trip, and took my time with my usual morning routine as I waited for the others to wake up. For a bit of variety, I picked up a couple of egg-flavoured varieties of bread along with the usual melon-bread.

When the others were up, we decided to make a bit of a start on packing before heading out. Everything in our suitcases had distributed itself around our room along with our purchases, and it seemed to make sense to start getting organised a bit beforehand, so we didn’t have quite such a last-minute rush. It was worth missing a bit of time exploring Japan for the amusement value of watching Henry trying to figure out how to pack a pillow he had bought in Nakano Broadway, which was almost as large as his suitcase by itself.

Asakusa was our first destination after we had left our hotel at 12:00. It was fortunately only one stop away from our hostel, so we were there comfortably by 12:30. Asakusa is one of the more traditional parts of Tokyo. Rickety wooden stands outside shops overhung with lanterns offered lucky cat statues, chopsticks and fans. The atmosphere was altogether much nicer than that of the Oriental Bazaar, and the things for sale were actually being bought by Japanese people rather than tourists, which seemed to make all the difference. I went ahead and purchased souvenirs for my family members, and my friends did the same.
Asakusa's shops were often more colourful than
those we had encountered elsewhere
We hadn’t spent all that long looking around the shops before starting to get hungry, so at around 1pm, we had the usual food debate, settling on a ramen restaurant. Yingke made the very unwise decision to have a cream soda with his ramen, which looked a bit like melon soda served with ice cream (and therefore absolutely disgusting). It certainly didn’t agree with him, and unfortunately, he had to head back to the hostel straight after lunch, feeling rather ill.
Cream soda. Not the most appetising
drink in the world.
Henry, Mark and I decided to continue our explorations, and headed in the direction of the Sensoji Temple, which is one of the older and more impressive temples in Tokyo. Stopping outside the imposing entrance, we saw a large number of stalls selling charms and bracelets. Fortunes and charms sold at temples and shrines are very popular in Japan – much more so than in England. The three of us paid ¥ for our fortunes, and unrolled them eagerly. Unfortunately, none of us did that well – Henry and I received ‘regular luck’, while Mark managed to get one of the uncommon ‘bad luck’ fortunes. The system is that you then tie the paper fortune in a knot to one of the stands around the temple, and this either makes the fortune come true if it was good, or purifies it and makes it disappear if it was bad. I’m not sure what it does if it was ‘regular’ – presumably nothing. In any case, I managed to tear my fortune while I was tying it in a knot, so I imagine I’m now doomed to be devoured by a giant serpent.
Sensoji Temple
After drawing our fortunes, we headed past the grotesque statues and into the massive temple itself. Like the other shrines we had seen, there was a large box with a grate over it in the centre of the temple where you could throw money and pray. Unlike the others, however, the Sensoji temple seemed like a very lucrative business – people were crowding around the box to throw their money through the grate in return for having some wish granted, and while most were throwing coins, several notes went in while we were watching (where the smallest note in Japanese currency is ¥1000 – around £8). In the spirit of things, we threw some of our change in and prayed to the Shinto gods as well. I wouldn’t usually consider giving money to organised religion, but as far as I can see, Shinto doesn’t actively seek to convert or influence people like Christianity does. Most Japanese people seem happy to visit and donate to shrines whether they believe in the Shinto gods or not, just for the sake of maintaining tradition. They would probably be much less willing to maintain that tradition if the existence of the Shinto gods was made into a point of fierce religious debate, as the Christian god has been. I imagine the money is just used to maintain and restore shrines and temples across Japan, which is a cause I’m more than happy to support.
Purify your fortune by tying it onto the railings.
Or tear it into pieces in the attempt...

Donations are thrown into the grid, in exchange
for prayers.
After wandering around the temple a bit more, we headed back to the station. Our next stop was Ueno park. We had had brief glimpses of Ueno before, as it was where we had changed trains on the way to our hotel on the very first day, but were glad of the opportunity to explore it properly. After wandering around inside the park, we headed for the zoo. Ueno Park Zoo was well known for having a giant panda, which are quite rare. I say ‘was known’ because their giant panda died of chronic heart failure in 2008. They are currently in negotiation with the Chinese for a new giant panda. The effort of taking all the panda signs, cutouts and information apparently wasn't worth it just to put them all up again a couple of years later, so the zoo’s non-existent centrepiece is, amusingly, still heavily publicised.
The elephants were a pretty good substitute
for giant pandas.

It's a stylish lion, although I always
prefer tigers.
We paid the ¥600 entrance fee, and wandered around. It wasn’t a huge zoo, but they packed quite a lot into a small area. I particularly liked the elephants, who we saw being cleaned. They responded very obediently to commands to lie in certain positions so that their cleaners could reach different parts of them, and equally obediently to commands to stand on their hind legs and carry buckets and mops around. Clearly, training your elephants pays off. We also saw a variety of monkeys, pelicans, lions and a gorilla. Sadly neither the penguins nor the tigers were visible (the latter of which I was quite keen to see), but we felt we had managed to get good value for money as we headed out of the zoo at around 5pm.

Yingke still wasn’t feeling terribly well when we got back to the hostel, and Henry was a bit tired, but Mark and I still had some energy. We therefore decided to head out and visit one of the places that we had skipped over earlier in the trip due to lack of time: the Shinjuku metropolitan government building. It was right on the other side of Tokyo, and the trip there took over 30 minutes and cost around ¥500 each way, but it was worth it: this was one of the last chances we would have to look around Tokyo.

Shinjuku is the commercial centre of Tokyo, and many of the people who work in the towering office buildings make vast sums of money doing so (it’s a shame that they presumably have very little time to actually enjoy it). The government building is more than twice as high as the observatory we went up to in the Tokyo tower, and the views were spectacular. There was even a restaurant up there, which didn’t seem vastly more expensive than the one we had been to in Kyoto, although the diners were all very well dressed. Sadly, unlike the cameras possessed by Yingke and Henry, mine wasn’t quite up to capturing high-resolution cityscapes through the reflective glass of the observatory, and as such, the photos I took are all too blurry and generally poor-quality to be worth posting. I think next time I would schedule a more extensive evening exploration of Shinjuku. The mass of concrete and glass that surrounds you as you walk down its streets is really quite stunning.

After eating fast food as an attempt to save money, Mark and I headed back to the hostel to meet up with Yingke and Henry again, and slept at around 10:30pm.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Day 12: In the Presence of Merchandise Part 2

Honestly, I’m not really sure how to write this day. The second day we spent in Akihabara was one of the most exciting days for us, and all of us found one or two things that we hadn’t expected to find but really wanted. On the other hand, written up, it will mostly just end up being, “we went here, and then we bought this, and then we went there, and then we bought that,” which I can’t imagine being very interesting to read (especially given that the Nakano Broadway entry is almost exactly like that anyway).

After some thought, I have therefore decided to dedicate this post to the pros and cons of the idea of moving to Japan. It’s something that was originally fun to think about when my thoughts were on auto-pilot but now, having visited Japan and done significantly more research, it seems like a much more serious prospect. I’ll interleave the paragraphs with pictures of what we bought in Akihabara on this day, so it doesn’t feel too much like a wall of text.
I never thought that I would find an
Akari figurine

The first and most obvious problem with moving to Japan is the language. Learning a language is always difficult, but the written forms of Japanese and Chinese are notoriously so, mainly because of Kanji. Outside of the 72 letters that make up their basic alphabets (Hiragana and Katakana), Kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese language. There are about 2000 ‘core’ Kanji, which are required to be taught to all Japanese people in schools (yes, the Japanese do spend a fair portion of their school life learning to write their own language), and the vast majority of books and newspapers limit themselves to those. Reading academic papers and technical literature will usually require learning more than that, however. Most Kanji can be pronounced in multiple ways (some have as many as eight readings) and have multiple meanings (some as many as fifteen). There are ways in which the Kanji system makes learning vocabulary easier (you don’t have to remember ‘telephone’ is ‘denwa’, you can remember it as being a combination of the kanji for ‘electricity’ and the kanji for ‘speak’, for example), but for the most part, it only makes everything much harder.

The second major problem with the language is that finding time to learn it consistently at university has been really difficult. It isn’t like I couldn’t find time, but if I did, I would have to do it at the expense of other things – the chance of getting a first, for example, which still isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Learning language in fits and starts rather than doing some every day is a terrible way of doing it and, in the two years I’ve been learning it, I’ve probably only made about three months worth of the progress that I would have made had I been doing it full time. That can be pretty frustrating, and it feels like I’ve got a number of years to go before I could think about actually living in Japan.
The legendary Natsume figurine

Outside of the language, a further obstacle is that the Japanese just aren’t very accepting of foreigners. Unlike the UK, they’ve had a very tight immigration policy for a very long time. They’re beginning to relax a little, but fundamentally, there’s not much legislation around in Japan that says that you can’t discriminate against foreigners when making decisions about who to hire and who to promote. This makes it quite difficult for foreigners to work their way into a company at a position worthy of their skill set, and to work themselves up as they would in the UK.

The biggest issue I have with working in Japan, however, is the working hours. Most workers in Tokyo spend over twelve hours a day, six days a week at work. If you don’t put in those hours, you probably won’t last very long. I imagine it isn’t so bad if you are brought up with it, but it sounds absolutely dreadful to me. I have always been someone who enjoys working on a number of different things at once. At the moment, aside from my computer science degree, I’m learning Japanese, writing a blogging platform in PHP, writing this blog, and reading a book on social psychology on top of the clubs and societies that I take part in for fun. Even if you are getting paid more, working 12 hours a day means you don’t have any time to develop yourself in any other ways, and I would really hate that.
We didn't think that "Detective Opera
Milky Holmes" was likely to be a terribly
classy interpretation of Conan Doyle's classic...
Are there solutions to these problems? Well, the answer is yes, if you look hard enough, and if you work hard enough. Learning the language is mostly just a function of hard work. There’s one other thing that could really help, but I won’t go into detail on that for now. For the problems of being accepted and working reasonable hours, there is a route to go, but the number of openings is incredibly limited. Recently, with the slowly increasing tolerance of the Japanese for foreigners, there have been a few westerners who have set up small companies (often technology companies) over in Japan. Naturally, these companies are willing to hire foreigners, and generally they don’t expect the ridiculous hours that Japanese-owned businesses do. Prospects there may be more limited (if the companies aren’t making much, I can’t expect to be paid much), but it might be an excellent way to establish a foothold in Tokyo, from where I can examine my options more closely.

Why do I want to move to Japan despite these obviously major obstacles? Well, there’s an awful lot that I like over there, for a start. Most of my hobbies and interests come from Japan, and are much more socially acceptable over there. I think there’s also a fairly major element of wanting to do something interesting and have a long-term goal, though. I haven’t yet accepted my fate as being to leave university, go to work, work for someone else for fifty years, and then retire, because it sounds so dreadfully mundane. Going and working in Japan is something that feels more adventurous, and if I manage it, even if I hate it over there and end up coming back, I will have picked up some very useful language skills and will have done something quite special that very few other people do. And from there, I can move on to some other crazy objective.