Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three Volcanic Islands - Aogashima, Bora Bora, Santorini 
Japan is a whole whack of islands - volcanic islands.  So, I thought I would talk about volcanic islands - really awesome volcanic islands - for fun. Places with volcanoes tend to have a lot of mystique or exotic-ness about them. I've been to a few and am going to cover Santorini from the Aegean Sea, Aogashima that just looks so cool from the air, and Bora Bora - a paradise in the middle of the tropical Pacific.  Both Aogashima and Santorini are still active volcanoes.

Aogashima - Off the coast from Tokyo

I recently heard about Aogashima and saw the linked photo below at Tofugu and Panoramio. Tofugu called it "Monster Island" from Godzilla fame, and why not with the forbidding cliffs of this island.  It looks wonderfully lush and the Flickr photos indicate it is kind of jungle-like in places.  Doesn't appear to be much to do here as it has a small town and a tiny population. Hiking seems to be the name of the game for outdoor activities here.  If you look at the small cinder cone in the middle of the crater, it looks cultivated and I wonder if they are tea bushes or something. One other neat fact is that the island falls under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan government - not bad considering it must be 500 km away (see the Google map that is attached).  This is probably a great place to go to drop off the map for awhile.

View Larger Map

Bora Bora - French Polynesia, South Pacific
Bora Bora is a name that brings visions of palm trees, white sand, gorgeous blue water, and luxury resorts in huts over the water of the lagoon.  Even though it is isolated in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific, it is very different from undeveloped Aogashima.

Bora Bora is a gorgeous place that I visited almost ten years ago now.  I think some of the smaller islands like Tahaa are more beautiful in some ways for sandy island type get aways, and Moorea has incredible rugged beauty, but from the air, Bora Bora is the undisputed beauty queen as the picture below shows.  The sandy beaches here are the best as they are derived from bits of coral and shell.  The sand is not sand so it also doesn't get as hot on the feet.  Tropical drinks, cabins over the lagoon, coconut trees and white sand beaches are how you could describe this paradise.

More information about Bora Bora and Tahiti

Cool bathroom sign in Bora Bora. Flickr/vgm83

Santorini - in the Greek Aegean With A Gorgeous Caldera
Santorini is a land of myth and gorgeous views.  The food can be pretty darn good too, but the atmosphere of the place is wonderful and inspiring.  I've been here twice as I lived in Greece for awhile and had a great time every time I have visited. Out of all of the three islands, this is the most touristy, with large beaches, great views of the caldera which cruise ships sail into, and towns that seem to perch on top of high cliffs.  There is a great deal of history here too with ruins dating back to the Minoan period from Akrotiri, the likely location of lost Atlantis.
More information about Santorini
More information about Akrotiri - Lost Atlantis?

Looking out over the caldera with cruise ships in it.
Orthodox Church in the town of Oia.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Observations About Tokyo and Why I Like Tokyo + Japan

A Few Observations About My Tokyo From My Trip
  1. Most people are very polite and try to help you in Tokyo if you ask for it.  It is every man for themselves on a crowded train though.
  2. Coughing not always covered up.  Lots of people wearing the face masks, but lots don’t.
  3. Not everyone is a super cool dresser like the stupid guide books always say.  Dressing nicer always works to your advantage though.
  4. No soap in train station bathrooms, or hand dryers.
  5. Not all types of snacks and snack foods are in all the convenience stores, you’ll have to check each chain and store to find some items.  Hunting is required to find some limited edition Kit Kats, Goota Noodles, Gundam Cup Noodles (when these are available), etc.  Remember many snacks are seasonal or one time promotions that may have passed.
  6. I helped people by returning runaway hats, dropped scarfs and documents a few times and they were thankful.
  7. On the trains people played with Cell phones, PSPs, read manga, and read books in this order from most common to least common.
  8. Before the stores open, lots of stores have security / storm shutters down and it makes the neighborhoods look deserted / abandoned prior to 10 or 11 AM.
  9. Lots of narrow streets and navigating is hard.  Use Google Maps to orient yourself and pinpoint locations before you arrive in Japan.  Small shops with just a street address you cannot pinpoint on a map can be very hard to find.
  10. Akihabara is a very busy district – not half empty or for otaku only.  It is a hive of activity.
  11. Lots of character mascots for everything.
  12. Train stations and train lines have particular songs / chimes for their announcements.
Why I like Tokyo + Japan
  1. I watched Godzilla movies when I was a kid.
  2. I was hooked into watching anime by and Japanese Pop Culture by Full Metal Panic!, Cowboy Bebop, and Love Hina. Gundam Seed, the Gundam reboot, was pretty darn good too and helped to seal the deal.
  3. The Japanese have always had predisposition to mega projects and I like this a lot.
  4. They have F-15 fighters and Aegis Destroyers (see Zipang for a cool anime).
  5. They invented the Giant Robot and Astroboy.
  6. They built the NEC Earth Simulator and K Supercomputers.
  7. They do really big urban megastructures that I really like the Tokyo City Hall, Shiodome, and Roppongi Hills megaplexes. Tokyo Skytree looks fun too. Lots of cool architecture to photograph and wander around in.
  8. They do other really big megaprojects like the Tokyo Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (G-Cans), and Tokyo Geo-site projects.
  9. Akihabara and anime pop culture.  Too many catchy jpop songs from anime.  The model figures are pretty darn cute and so detailed.
  10. Japanese video games like Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and all of the stuff you played in the arcades in the 80's and 90's or earlier (look out - it is the Space Invaders!).
  11. Lots of cool tech comes out of Japan.  However, that doesn't mean they have a lock on high-tech.  See the iPhone as an example of a Japanese cellphone killer.  Japanese telecoms are now introducing their own smartphones, even though Japanese cells were a decade ahead of everyone a decade ago.  If you look for anime character goods, you'll find tons of cases for iPhones.
  12. Japanese vending machines.
  13. Japanese convenience stores or konbini (outstanding selections of snacks and other convenience products - even though you can't get an aspirin).
  14. Japanese gashapon.  Gotta like these capsule toy machines with decent capsule toys.
  15. Japanese are pretty good at robots, even though it was an American robot from iRobot (they make the Roomba) that got into the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. But they know how to take down the alien war machines in the War of the World remake with Tom Cruise.
  16. I like Japanese cars.
  17. RAMEN... so good...
  18. Lots of other tasty Japanese food.  Okay, I'll mention sushi - the international smash hit. And Japanese style curry and gyudon (Japanese beef bowl).
  19. Brainwashing from a lifelong exposure to asian and Japanese pop culture.
  20. There's other good reasons, but lots of cool things just happen there, so pick a reason.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 08 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 15 - Yokohama Ramen Museum

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 16 -Tokyo Tower

Day 8: Wednesday - Shiodome To Odaiba We Go!
November 03, 2009
Departure day has arrived.  Checked the bags at the hotel so I could wander around unencumbered.  Caught a JR Train to Yokohama.  I needed to get to the Shin-Yokohama station as the trains didn’t stop there from Shinagawa and had to transfer to get there.  A middle-aged Japanese couple helped me get on the right train and it wasn’t a difficult trip to make.  I was thinking of switching over to the subway, but they said stay on the JR Lines and it is cheaper / easier.  From Shin-Yokohama Station it was pretty easy to get to the Yokohama Ramen Museum.  The directions from the museum website are pretty good if you start from the right exit which is clearly numbered.  I misread the directions, but managed to correct myself pretty easily.  The museum opened at 10:30 and I got there at 10:15 in good time.

The museum interior is a recreation of 1950’s Showa era Japan, a very nostalgic time for many older Japanese as it was the beginning of the hard working, but boom years of prosperity.  Instant noodles were also invented in 1971 at the Nissin company.  The museum has a really nice ambience with real noodle shops from around Japan showcased there.  The noodle guys will yell out of their shops to attract people too.  Yummy smells, authentic background sounds and music, and the vintage visuals round out the experience.  Even the snack stalls have vintage pop and stuff to buy and eat.  A toy shop has vintage toys and candy too.  Ate tonkotsu ramen at one of the shops and it was tasty, but the broth wasn’t as rich as I thought it would be.  Nice gift shop here upstairs, but the make your own Nissin Cup of Noodle store was gone.

Took the bullet train back to Tokyo so I even got to ride the Shinkansen for 15 minutes to get back.  It cost 1200 yen or something, but it was worth it to get the smooth ride and the extra time.  At Shinagawa I transferred to the Yamanote Line to goto the Tokyo Tower.   It was a beautiful clear day with sun and blue sky and lots of people were out walking.  They were launching Pokemon Black and White and I picked up a little Pikachu cardboard hat for my daughter for free.  After walking in the park and seeing the Tokyo Tower up close I headed back to the hotel and picked up my bags. 

Getting back to the airport was easy by taking the Narita Express.  I wanted to pick up some Sake at the duty free but didn’t as I did not have a safe way to transport the bottles for the transfer flight to home.  I need to buy some wine transporter bags to avoid this problem in the future.  It was a great holiday in the end and I had a wonderful time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 07 (Travelogue / Tips)

Day 7: Tuesday - Tokyo Disneysea We Go!
Nov 2, 2009

Slept in a bit.  Up by 7:30 AM, ate at McDonald’s again and off to Tokyo Station to transfer to the Oeido Line to Mihama by 9 AM.  From here you can walk to Disney, but if want to go to Disneysea, you want to take the Disney monorail for another 240 yen to save time.  Waited 20 minutes at the front gate in another line to buy tickets to get in to Disneysea and then I had to orient myself.  Wish I had a guide to Disneysea.  Blew the fast pass as I should have grabbed one for Journey to the Center of the Earth first and lined up for the Indiana Jones to wait it out.  Instead, I did Storm Rider, which was cool as the lines were shorter.  It was really crowded at the fast pass for Storm Rider was 12:10 when I was in at 10 AM, and then the next pass for Indiana Jones was for 7 PM.   

CRAZY, so I knew my day was kind of shot as half of Tokyo must have been here.  In retrospect, I assumed it wouldn't be that busy as I thought that lots of people would be working, but it was a nice long 4 day weekend if you took the Monday off as Tuesday was a national holiday.  I wasn't thinking too clear on this. DOH!

The park was packed with people.  I would say it was kind of like a super unpleasant Disney experience with all the lines for everything.   I had a 2.5 hour wait for the main ride I came to see, which was Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Journey was pretty cool and the waiting areas are well decorated to distract you, but not enough for 2.5 hours.  Fortunately I had a PSP to kill the time, while the Japanese were using cell phones and Nintendo DSs.  I guess I would hate to see the park if it was even busier.  The place is actually relatively compact & swarms with people when crowded.  The Captain Nemo Mysterious Island setup is pretty cool with the erupting volcano.  They did splurge on the sets.

Given the main shops were mobbed, it was like Disney at closing time in the States.  Had some tasty curry at Arabian Nights then walked around the grounds some more in the dark and left at 6 PM.  I was glad I brought drinks and snacks with me as there were lines for all the food except ice cream as the day was cool and overcast with a slight hint of rain every so often.  I was glad to see the Mysterious Island and Journey, but I would want to try and buy tickets in advance somehow and get there for opening or within a half hour of opening through the turnstile to get to the rides.

The Halloween extravaganza was on at the time and it was busy for a weekday between Sunday and a Tuesday that was a national holiday.  Shortest line up that day was for 40 minutes just to take the ferry boat.  The gift shops were a little disappointing as they were more cute than themed by attraction.  No good souvenirs for the Mysterious Island except for some pipes and nautical stuff (but generically nautical – no miniature Nautiluses).  It is about a 15-20 minute walk to Disneysea from the Train Station.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tokyo Sky Tree and Return of the Odaiba Gundam

2012 is a year for some nifty things to happen in Tokyo.

The first big event is grand opening of the the Tokyo Sky Tree to the general public.  I hear that small group tours are already being booked to go up.  The second big event is the return of the 1:1 scale Gundam RX-78 Gundam to Odaiba.  You get to go up the tallest tower in the world and see the world's biggest Gundam model.  The Sky Tree is a whopping 634 metres high, while the 1:1 Gundam robot statue is about 18 metres (not too bad for an anime only manifestation in reality). In 2009, the Gundam was only up for a month, which I missed, but this time it is supposed to be up for a whole year from the spring of 2012 till March 2013.

Tokyo Sky Tree opens on May 22, 2012 and is located in the Narihirabashi/Oshiage area of Sumida Ward (near Asakasa - across the river) of Tokyo.  It is the tallest man-made structure in Japan and will be acting a powerful digital TV broadcasting tower, replacing much of the functionality of the shorter Tokyo Tower.  The views from it should be pretty spectacular.  I wonder which of the new anime will feature the Sky Tree and when the next Godzilla movie will knock it down.

Also, to give you an idea of the size of the Sky Tree, here is a comparison chart.
Wikimedia Commons

So until the Sky Tree opens, and even after it does, here are some other nice sky high viewpoints to see the Tokyo Skyline.

The number one famous landmark for views would be the Tokyo Tower.  Featured in numerous anime, including Cardcaptor Sakura.  This tower is a big favorite with the Japanese too.  It is still very pretty and lights up nicely at night.
My favourite sky high view is the Mori Tower City View located in Roppongi Hills.  Wonderful Panoramas and huge viewing windows.
Sunshine 60 in Ikebukuro is also another place with a nice high observation deck.  This place is near Otome Road, the ladies Akihabara.
Address: 3-1-1 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku

There are also numerous hotels and bars with fantastic skyline views of Tokyo. Just Google it!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 06 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 13 - Shiodome, Ghibli-ish Glockenspiel

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 14 - Odaiba, Miraikan, Asimo Robot

Day 6: Monday - Shiodome To Odaiba We Go!
October 31, 2009
Took the Yamamote Line to Shimbashi Station from the home base of Shinagawa Station.  Here you transfer to the monorail line to get out to Odaiba.  When you hit the train station right everything just lines up.  Getting to the Shiodome, which is basically Shimbashi station + a few blocks of distance, you should walk it if possible.  The monorail goes from one to the other for 3 blocks for 100 yen and you have to walk anyhow for a bit.  It was a much more pleasant experience this time than the walk the other night on the quest for the Pokemon Store.

At the Shiodome, which is a high-tech district of raised sidewalks the size of streets and ultramodern skyscrapers, it is sci-fi land.  There is a very cool giant glockenspiel (animated mechanical clock) here at the Nihon TV (NTV) Station here.  The copper clock looks like something out of Howl's Moving Castle and has a great mechanical sequence that goes every hour.  I didn’t know about this and it was a wonderful surprise.  Inside, is the Anpanman Terrace (a food court with Anpanman theme and Taiyaki (red bean filled pastries).

I took the monorail from here to Odaiba, the massive man-made island out in Tokyo bay.  This island was supposed to have been a new high-tech city, but the real estate bust in the 1990’s pretty much stopped it.  There are plenty of people living here in apartments, but it seems somewhat deserted for Tokyo and sparcely built-up in many places.    The monorail runs on a pretty interesting track to get over to the island.  There are numerous stops at smaller stations and then it runs up in a giant spiral to run underneath the massive Rainbow Bridge to cross over to the island.  Here, you pass by the Fuji TV building, Aqua City and Pallet Town malls and behind the Miraikan Science Centre.  In the distance you can see the massive convention center on its 4 supporting pillars and the Odaiba Ferris Wheel.

Got off the train at the stop closest to the Miraikan, a very nice technology and science museum.  There are some big outdoor sculptures here and there were some performing groups practicing some type of dance here the day I visited.  Inside the Miraikan, the interior is nicely architected and just as interesting as the exhibits.  From the massive staircase to the top and an entire gallery between two floors with a giant spiral walkway around an animated 3 metre wide globe of the earth.  The globe is covered in color LEDs that shows displays of a rotating earth with different modes to show normal views with weather and alternate views showing global temperature.

There were numerous exhibits, including:

  • Actual wall mounted with real detectors from the Super Kamiokande solar neutrino detector.  The sensors look like giant lightbulbs a couple of feet across that are very photo sensitive.  The actual detector array in located at the bottom of an old coal mine in a massive circular chamber that is covered with these sensors.  It is half-full of heavy water that will emit light when a neutrino hits a water molecule.  Men in rubber rafts boat around on it to inspect the sensors.
  • A mockup of the living section of the ISS Space Station.  The inside of a space station is always interesting and I took note of the instant space ramen that the JSA developed for their astronaut when they went up to the station.
  • Asimo, the Honda Robot.  There is a fifteen minute demo that happens several times a day when the robot performs.  It runs, kicks a ball, bows, waves, and even speaks to an enthusiastic Japanese audience.  From what I could tell, the Japanese love their robots and applaud after every successful trick.
  • Rocket engines from their own Japanese Space Agency (JSA) boosters.  The engines are modified shuttle engines.
  • Thermal displays showing your own body temperature.
  • Space probe mockups including the Hayabasai Space Probe and the Venus Orbiter.
  • Actual deep sea mini-submarine you can enter. 
  • There was also a large gallery on the life sciences and such here.
I also did a quick visit of a science fair that was on at the time and saw a few things about Catalysts.

After the Miraikan, I walked over to the Maritime Museum that looks like a big concrete ship on the shore.  It is a modeller's dream inside.  There are so many scale ship models, some of which are pretty large, with a mix of commercial and military vessels.  There are also scale sections of entire ships and a mockups of sections of other ships inside.  This includes the conning tower and control room of a JSDF attack submarine with periscope you can use.  Actual engines and giant propellers finish the exhibits.  There was a dance troupe competition there in the area in front of the museum too.

I had a break outside here next to 3 moored ships you can tour and looked out across Tokyo Bay.  These ships are part of the exhibits at the museum and include an arctic science ship and a few others.  Had a rice ball and some juice I bought earlier at one of the many konbini you pass on the way here. Always stock up before you get to the museums as they may sell drinks, but no food, or expensive food.

Walked over to the Fuji TV building afterwards.  It is actually a fairly long walk over, but I cut over through some overgrown grassy fields via a hole in a fence to get there on a diagonal instead of taking a long way.  Probably not recommended, but I managed to get to an overpass that gave direct access this way.  On the overpass, there were more dance troupes performing as part of some festival or competition.  It was quite a colourful and musical spectacle with drums and such.  It looked like a cross between traditional dance and something more modern.

I then went under the Fuji TV building, up these massive flights of stairs and admired the erector set type metal framework construction of the building.  There is a large revolving observation deck inside this suspended sphere at the top of the building. Neat building, but you have to pay to see lots of it.  Went to the big gift shop there with lots of Fuji TV merchandise via logos and many different mascots and anime characters.  They own Dragonball, One Piece, and have a big blue dog as the official mascot.  Went through the Aqua City Mall and took a look at the Toys R Us there.  Toys R Us is pretty much the same except for themed sections on Gundam, Pretty Cure (a very popular magical girl series for kids), and other Japanese anime characters.  At the food court in the mall, I had Soba Noodles and Tempura for lunch.  There is a mini-Statue of Liberty here too – kind of like the one in Paris I saw years ago.  At the Steps Mall I went to see this re-creation of  Hong Kong they have on the top floor.  It is a simulated Hong Kong street with the cacophony of street signs and various shops and restaurants.

The day wasn’t nearly over and I took the monorail to Shinbashi and transferred over to the subway to get over to Roppongi in the late afternoon.  I spent some time at Tokyo Midtown to see some of the free parts of  Design Fest (more line ups for the non-free stuff).  Saw an exhibit of the best design award winner for various products and concepts.  Finally went back to Shibuya in the early evening just so I could have a coffee at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing.  This was a very efficient Starbucks.  I ordered a latte, paid for it, walked ten feet and pretty much had it handed to me.  It was quick and I walked up the stairs to grab a bit of counterspace looking out over the intersection.  This is also a crowded Starbucks but watching scramble crossing where pedestrians dash across the intersection from five directions simultaneously, then taper off to be replaced by cars going through was fun.

This was the only evening where it started to have a light drizzle.  I worked my way over to the south side of Shibuya Station to get up to a second floor mall that connects the station to some other buildings, but you can see north to the crossing and take some more pictures.  Had a quick look at Tower Records here and then went back to Shinegawa Station.

At the station I had a late dinner of pork curry and rice at a curry restaurant that was really tasty.  Japanese curry is yummy and is different from Indian curries as they have their own take on it.  This was another of those fast food restaurants where you order at a machine and just hand a ticket to a server behind a counter.

Cleaned my blisters again.  Need to take it easy on the feet at Disney tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 05 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 11 - Asakusa, Sensoji Temple, Kappenbashi

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 12 - Tokyo Edo Museum

Day 5: Saturday - Asakusa, Tokyo Edo Museum

October 31, 2009

Went to Asakusa and took in the main shopping street of Nakamise here at the Sensoji Temple.  Lots of shops and tourists.  This is the first place I have seen lots of tourists.  I have seen a few in Roppongi, Shibuya, and Shinjuku there have been a few people too.  The gates are impressive and the main temple must be under restoration or protection for a long time as the scaffolding looked semi-permanent.

Place is packed full of Japanese and foreign tourists shopping for souvenirs.  There are keychains, kimonos, candy, roasted rice crackers (sembei), and other traditional treats for sale.  You visit, you brings stuff back for the friends and relatives.  Saw Takoyaki (octopus bits in battered balls) stalls and yakitori (chicken skewers) stalls too but no Japanese takers at the time so I skipped it.  Shopped for a few things on the street myself.  Bought a key chains, ornaments, lucky cat and some t-shirts.  Many Doraemon, Sgt. Frog, and Hello Kitty items to buy.  Busy shopping street that opens before 10, but most of the shops open later.  After wandering through the temple grounds looking at buddhas and shrines I walked through the streets around it.  Found a Taiyaki shop and had one right out of the pan.  YUMMY red bean filling and nice pastry! 

Ended up walking slowly to Kappenbashi, shooting photos along the way.  Found the street really easy and the internet tip map I found worked well except for the food models shop location. It looked like the shop was further north on the east side of the street than I expected.  Bought some hanging, paper (actually vinyl now) shop lanterns that hang outside the doors and door hangings you often find in Japanese restaurants.  Bought a 1:1 scale set of sushi in a little bento box too.  All types of restaurant supply stores here.

Walked back to the nearest train station then transferred over to the Yamamote line to Akihabara. Stopped for ramen in the station.  It was more filling at the place I went, but I don’t think it was quite as tasty as some (but better than what you get back home!).

Went to the Anime Center again to see the Kaiyodo Revoltech one day exhibit.  It was pretty cool and on a smaller scale, but it was still nice to actually see a hobby exhibit as I’d like to go to Wonderfest or something like that but the lines kind of throw me off.  The Anime Center is small, but it is packed full of merchandise and some life-size statues of anime characters such as Rei Ayanami and person sized models of a Zaku.  Could buy collectible, canned bread here in Fullmetal Alchemist and Macross Cans when I was there.  There was also an art show on in the building but I wanted to skip a fairly long line.  Went to Gamers and Radio Kaikan Building where the Kotobukiya store is.  There is a massive amount of Anime merchandise here.  The spaces are compact, but they are full of goods.  Almost bought another figure that was 10% off and a MSI Gundam that was on for 500Yen, but decided not to.  Got enough stuff.  I am waiting for the Revoltech ARX-7 Arbalest to come out.  It is anime heaven in the Radio Kaikan building.  It is a maze of stores with a cool staircase in the center that is kind of typical building staircase, but the design is cool as it kind of winds back and forth.  There are many shops and many are big like Kotobukiya, Volks, Revoltech/Kaiyodo, etc.  There is even a person-sized Evangelion Unit 01 on one of the floors.  Gashapon machines scattered throughout.  The building was hot and full of people on the Saturday so it was a little unpleasant to be in.

After this I wandered down to the Tokyo Edo Museum.  BIG! It is BIG.  Came of the wrong end of the platform again and had to walk all the way around to get into the museum.  Some very nice exhibits of old Tokyo.  I liked going through the traditional houses (take of your shoes), and seeing the recreated theaters and buildings.  Many dioramas, a full scale bridge replica, and there are many signs in English so you will have lots to read.

Tried an Ekiben at Shinagawa that night.  Fairly tasty, but I think I’ll go for something meatier next time, as I had one with more traditional vegetables and pickles. Also picked up beer, fruits and snacks at the supermarket.  Ekiben are a neat concept.  They are a chilled bento in a foam container that looks like real wood and can be pretty deluxe looking.  A real nice bonus for long distance train travel to have a nice lunch or dinner.

My suitcase is getting pretty full.

NOTE: I love the metropolitan train stations.  There are so many amenities in them and connected to them.  The stations are almost big malls with almost anything you want as long as it isn't an auto garage, or a Home Depot.  The department stores with their basement food floors and supermarkets are very convenient.  Fruit is expensive, but an apple a day keeps the doctor away... 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Information on Japanese Pop Culture, Anime, Manga for Visitors

Internet search is a fantastic resource to find information on just about anything, but this information is often scattered to the four winds and it is pretty much a treasure hunt.

Today, I'm going to put down some links to some accessible sources of high-quality information for the traveler to Japan about anime, Akihabara, manga, and Japanese pop culture. Hopefully, the treasure hunt becomes a little easier.

Web Information About Japanese Pop Culture

Cut and paste the text into your browser for the Japanese characters if you have to.
  • The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan [Paperback]
    Patrick W. Galbraith
  • TOKYO The Greatest Travel Tips 英語で歩く東京 [単行本]. Must order this on
  • 旅の指さし会話帳〈21〉JAPAN (ここ以外のどこかへ!) [ペーパーバック]  This is a point and look Japanese phrasebook with lots of images.  Must order this on
These books, pdfs, and links gave a pretty good intro for traveling to Japan for modern pop culture.  Just don't forget about the wonderful food and historical culture over there too.   I had a great time when I was there and probably had a big goofy grin much of the time I was there.  I've traveled to number of other countries and even lived in Greece for awhile, but I had a lot of fun on my trip there.  Some places have changed in Akihabara since this information was published; a big one being the demolition of the Radio Kaikan Building (where Stein's Gate is set), but the businesses will temporarily relocate and move to another "permanent" home at some point - maybe even back into the rebuilt replacement building.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 04 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 08 - Hei Jinja, Ghibli Museum

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 09 - Mori Tower, Mori Museum, Skyview


Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 10 - Akihabara

Day 4: Friday - Ghibli and Akihabara In Tokyo

October 30, 2009
Breakfast at McDee’s again.  I have had perfectly cooked sausage and egg McMuffins, good coffee, and non-soggy hash-browns so it is very good.  The breakfast at the hotel is expensive and I have heard some “interesting comments” about the buffet both online and first hand.  As I said earlier, there is a good pastry shop right across the hall from McDees too if this doesn’t suit your style, but with my schedule – a breakfast that lasts is very important.  I often get something like this when I hike as it will last until lunch.  
See "Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, Second Edition"

You wouldn’t think it, but McDonald’s also fascinates me in Asia as it has it’s own culture.  There are North American and an Asian cultural aspects to the burger chain.  Hong Kong people and Japanese (possibly other asian groups that I haven’t experienced either)  people both think that McDonald’s as normal and part of their home cultural landscape.   The chain has localized very nicely.  Other chains that have localized are Denny’s, KFC, and 7-11.  Seven-Eleven is another story altogether as it was so successful they bought out their American parent in 2008.

Seven-Eleven is one of a number of convenience store chains or konbini in Japan. These stores have done very well as they provide food that are both cheap and good (especially compared to what you get in a North American convenience store).  Onigiri and many other meals are made fresh and can be shipped out to the stores multiple times in a day. The selection of candy and snacks is also awesome along with the large varieties of drinks.  There are limited edition items and such too.  There maybe a lot of marketing at work, but I like it. 

Actually woke up at 6 AM and went back to sleep until 7.  Down at 7:30 and saw a very crowded platform.  I witnessed the conductors actually shoving in the last few people trying to get onto a commuter train and went right back upstairs for a couple of minutes to get into the next train.  I could skip the seriously packed, sardine-can like situation.  Got onto a later train and went a little further in from the door where crowding isn’t as bad.  I was lucky that lots of people were getting off at various stations before I had to get off.  I transferred to the subway and went to see the Hei Jinja temple that is on top of a hill.  Walked up the back way where there is a narrow stone stairway that runs up between what seems like a hundred red tori gates.  Very atmospheric.  There is a large, prosperous temple complex up top.  There are also many offertory Sake barrels lining the outside of the temple by the front gate.  These are very picturesque. 

Saw cat café and cute JPOP singing commercials.  All Japanese girls are turning brunette. Narrowest vending machine and elevator garage at the street.  Went to my first Japanese Starbucks. Great service, good latte, nice napkins.
Back to the subway to Shinjuku.  Saw that there were 3 or 4 trains on the Chuo line and figured I needed to take the local train to Mitaka as I was heading off to see the Ghibli museum today.  The trains were not very crowded by this time of the morning (9 AMish). 

This same train I took also takes you by Nakano Broadway, but I decided to pass on it.  Nakano is supposed to be the latest Otaku hangout and it is more “hard core” geek than Akihabara that has gentrified.  Mandarake has it’s largest stores here for example and there are many serious collectors stores in the mall.  Another trip, I’ll pop in, but not this time as I already have so much to see. 

Walked down to the Ghibli museum instead of taking the “Cat Bus” shuttle.  It is about a 20 minute walk there and you get to see what some residential neighbourhoods look like.  There is an amazing number of cables strung on power poles for cable, electricity, and phone here.  A lot of the infrastructure is above ground and not buried.   Something they want to change, but it will be awhile as it is pretty costly.  When there is an earthquake, this would take some time to fix. 
This is another time that Google maps gives you a slightly mistaken impression of the area.  I’ve figured that the maps – even with Streetview – don’t show  urban density or multi-level terrain very well.

Ghibli museum is very well done, but it is small.  Lots of displays on how animation is done.  Has interactive machines that show you how compositing, and overlays are done.  Autotropes to show you stop motion / frame by frame animation.  Many design sketches and the key animation process.  There are many storyboards, animation flip books.  A small, but informative Ponyo exhibition with a big Ponyo as a fish/human and Ponyo as a girl and Ponyo in a bucket were there at the time.  Shows animators desk and office.

Kids will like the museum (should probably be at least 4 years old to enjoy it fully) as there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, a big cast iron spiral staircase.  There are many nice details in the building that integrate Ghibli films into the building.  It is Disney light.  Best of all – only for the kids unfortunately, is a giant Catbus stuffy they can climb and play in.  That is something that most kids will get a huge kick out of if they have seen the classic My Neighbour Totoro – one of my favourite films of all time.

 The theatre was nice with a bug movie.  You don’t know which movie you will see.  Tickets to Ghibli must be purchased in advance at a Lawsons or from a JTB travel agency.  The museum website has details on ticket purchase and on how to get to the museum. 
There is a nice garden on the roof and the grounds are immaculately maintained.  On the roof is a giant robot from Castle in the Sky along with some other artifacts. 
The gift shop is very nice with some unique merchandise.  I bought a soundtrack to Ponyo and some stuffies along with picture books.  There is a book shop and a gift shop here.  Bring cash.  Places like Kiddyland also have a nice Ghibli section, and prices are comparable – I didn’t notice a premium.

Caught the Cat Bus back to the train station and took the train back into Shinjuku and transferred to a subway that took me to Tokyo Midtown. Midtown is big and cool.  Design Fest is on too.  Wasted time trying to find box Dog shop.  Saw Roppongi with the Mori Tower in the distance, walked over.  Passed famous ramen shop. Mori Tower with the mall at ground level is pretty darn big.  Bigger than Mid-Town.  It is more built-up.  Love the Spider, the Mori Museum with the exhibit by Chinese Birds Nest Designer at the Olympics. 

It seems like people wear masks when they are sick and such, but the rail station public bathrooms do not have soap.  It is also hard to find public trash cans except around vending machines.

The Mori Museum has a very large temporary exhibit by leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who designed the "Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium”. Had many large sculptures on exhibit, like bikes forming a geodesic kind of dome and large wooden sculptures. 

Sky View was awesome.  You could see the Tokyo Tower and pretty much all of Tokyo.  I think the Sky View is actually higher than the Tokyo Tower and on good days you can pay extra and even go up on the roof for a truly high viewpoint.

Went to Akihabara again, transferred from subway to train and it was a long 700 meters in a tunnel (very long).  The Anime Center was closed when I went, but it turned out they were setting up for a Revoltech exhibition the next day so I got to see that and the center later. 

View Akihabara Highlights in a larger map

Went to the COSPA store and it was a so so experience.  Was kind of disorganized looking when I went, but I did hit the gashapon machines in the hall on the main floor. Got lucky and actually got two of the ones I wanted on my first tries. It is kind of funny that they have so many machines here and at Yodobashi, but there isn’t as much variety as you think.  Kiddyland had some more unique stuff.  I wonder if there are other gashapon halls around too. 

Tooks lots of photos of Akiba and saw a fair number of maids.  Some were handing out flyers.  I took one once and the lady really tried to convince me to go.  Went to Animate and bought CS, books, t-shirts and character goods.  Blistered on all feet from too much walking and by the end of the day I was really hurting.  Gamers was pretty neat too, but I liked Animate just a little more.  The staff were really helpful at the Animate.  I had actually printed off a few product pages at and that made their life really easy to help find some stuff for me.  But also look around as there are lots of exclusive or more limited distribution goodies to be found at these places. 

There is activity at all hours of the day.  Have rush hour traffic at 5:30 on a Saturday and the trains can be packed wall to wall.  Counted my cash and bills to make sure the money is there.  For Canadians and Americans, buying in yen isn’t too hard as it was roughly 100 Yen to 1 Dollar American or a little more in Canadian Dollars. 

Went for ramen again from the first shop I went to and  the Shoyu Ramen is darn tasty.  Showered off afterwards and bandaged myself up as I got a couple of blisters despite wearing comfortable shoes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tokyo Craze - Part 03 (Travelogue / Tips)

Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 06 - Ueno Park, National Museum, Museum of Natural History


Tokyo Craze Webcomic Guide 07 - Ginza, Toho Studios Godzilla

Day 3: Thursday - Museum Day In Tokyo

October 29, 2009

Egg McMuffin breakfast at the McDonalds as it was really good.
Took the Yamomote Line to Ueno.  It was a coolish morning, but not cold.  The air was soft and you could tell if was humid, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.  Here was the first place I saw some of the Tokyo Homeless.  They were hanging out in the park near the National Science Museum and sleeping in the shrubs near the lake there.  They didn’t occupy the benches, but stayed in the background.  Smell of urine in the park in the odd place. 

Went walking in the park.  They were setting up for some craft show.  Visited 2 shrines.  Kiomizu Kannon Do and Bensen Do on the Lake.  Went to the Shitamachi Museum.  Very nice little museum.  Do explore the original house that has been moved inside the museum with its under floor storage.

Went to the science museum.  Lots of School kids.  The new hall is great, the old hall is kind of hit and miss and with old fashioned displays.  Excellent exhibits overall.  The 360 degree theater was very cool and I watched a show about the earth.  The sea exhibit with sharks and sunfish was also very interesting.  Dinosaur exhibit was good.  There were exhibits on computers with old mainframes and everything (as my career is computer related this was pretty cool stuff to me).

Went to the National Museum and skipped the Emperor's Exhibit of Art which was on.  This temporary exhibit showing treasures of the royal family had HUGE lines and you also had to pay more.  There was lots to see without a visit to the exhibit.

The museum is mammoth.  Just saw the Japanese Arts and the bronze age archeology section with the famous dancing Haniwa.  Should have brought more of a lunch from a convenience store as there is no food on the premises except for some very crowded and lined up restaurants and cafes.  BRING Food.  There are drink vending machines in the museum near the gift shop and on the grounds though.  All I had was a rice ball which helped.

Love the Jomon clay pottery, especially the dancing Haniwa figures that used to be guardians around burial mounds.  Saw a nice mix of samurai swords and stone age pottery. Some of the bronze age pottery of the time is fascinating as they look absolutely alien.

Down to Ginza.  Wandered around the International Forum.  Very cool building.  Lots and lots of glass and it is in this neat narrow leaf shape from an overhead view.

Went down along the west side of the Yamamote line tracks, paralleling Ginza, to get toToho Studios where there is this bronze statue of Godzilla.  There are all these little stall and yakitori places under the tracks.

Crossed over to Ginza near the Fujiya Building there. Found a Yotsunoya for beef rice bowl.  Was a Japanese homeless guy eating in there too with blue eyes.  I was eating a late lunch and quite hungry.

Saw lots of Ginza, the Mitsukosi, Seibu, Fujiya building, Sony Building, Sanrio Giftgate.  Lots of staff in these stores, there seems to be staff everywhere by North American standards.  Even had the Hello Kitty store pushing souvenir photos of you with a Hello Kitty statue.  The Hello Kitty store was fairly big, had lots of stuff, but nothing too unusual.

Went to Ito-ya for pens and got set of these Frixion pens where a friction eraser will completely fade the ink due to the heat generated.  Paper staplers were not so good.  One of them I had seen for sale over here.  Many beautiful origami papers to buy.

Saw lights come on at Dusk.  Very pretty with lots of neon, especially near the tops of buildings. Lots of animated signs, and buildings that even change color.

Took subway to Shimbashi from Ginza.  Really long walk underground.  Turns out that Shimbasi connects underground to Shiodome.  Walked to the center after getting lost and I swear it is faster to walk south from Ginza to get there instead of training it.

Shiodome is a neat place.  Massive office towers.  Very sci-fi-ish.  Saw the cool modular apartment building.  Got wrong directions from a guard who was very helpful, but he had the old location of the Pokemon Center.  I actually made a mistake coming to Shiodome, and should have taken the Yamamote Line down to Hamamatsucho where the center can be seen from the train platform.  However, seeing the Shiodome was good as I knew I would want to visit again.  I followed the directions I had downloaded from the internet instead and went for a 40 minute walk south in the dark to the center.  Never was really lost as I was paralleling the track again.  It was an ordeal as I had blisters on my feet from walking around.  My walking shoes which were not new just were not up to it.  Went with a compass.  Saw lots of more normal streets and it was nice.  Grabbed some riceballs and a drink from a konbini on the way down.

Pokemon Center was fun.  Lots of goods.  There were items for kids and adults.  If you have lots of children to buy things for, this is a good place.  You can buy Pokemon gashapon, t-shirts, fridge magnets, socks, hats, stuffed animals – some of which are not available or hard to find elsewhere, video games, keychains, jewelry, games, plastic figures, candy, even themed instant noodles.  I was glad I made the trip anyhow and bought a fair bit of stuff here.  They play the pokemon tune over and over again until you go mad. Dum da da dum da da dee dum (repeat until closing).

Headed back to the hotel with lots of stuff to drop off and a brief rest.  Went back out to take night photos of Shinjuku.  Like many districts in Tokyo, it looks different between night and day as all of the buildings light up.  There are also many, many people on the street until 10 PM at the earliest.  The concentration of people increases the closer you get to the major spots or the train station. 

It was a pretty late dinner at about 9 PM.  I stopped out for conveyor belt sushi at a really cheap place (started at 100 yen) that was in my Tokyo Guidebook.  The stuff wasn’t the best, but it was decent and filling and I was off again pretty quick.  I will try a better one next time.  These restaurants are pretty neat as you get as seat and the sushi is plated on small dishes that pass right by you on a conveyor belt that runs around the restaurant.  There are usually two levels to the conveyor belt and the types are sushi are priced based on the color of the dish.  You have a little guide by your seat and pour your own green tea.  There are cups and cutlery (chopsticks) right by your seat.  You put powdered tea in your cup and there is a hot water spigot right next to you to fill the cup. 

I’m on a pretty grueling schedule, but having a great time as I have read and seen so much about Tokyo and am getting a chance to experience it on the surface.  Digging deeper, the city has got to have great nuances and many more cultural aspects to explore, especially if you’re with people who live there.  As it was, a week was very short just to explore the surface.  I love architecture and dense urban spaces to explore, so it was just wonderful when you mix this with Japanese pop culture and wonderful food.  I didn’t have Kaiseki or anything like that, but I wanted to just see what more regular food was like from convenience food to low key restaurant meals.  Fancy dining is something that is best with companionship anyhow.

I wandered around Shinjuku Station and down to the Golden Gai and the main drag with all of the street signs that was featured in “Lost in Translation” when Bill Murray first arrives in Tokyo.  Very colorful locations.  The biggest concentrations of colorful buildings are around Studio Alta (with the big TV on the building) and on the main street.  The cities are not quiet around here and there is music and announcements being broadcast into the street.

After photos I was pretty beat, but stopped at a magazine vendor in Shinjuku Station to buy a Hello Kitty limited edition magazine with a collectable purse for my sister.  Magazines in Japan have lots of “freebies” bundled with them.  Sometimes you do pay a little more for the magazine, but I really like this concept as it isn’t just something you read.  The value-add is fun!

Crashed at the hotel after cleaning up.