Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tokyo 2013 Trip Highlights: Day 1 - Giant Gundam in Odaiba, Sumida River Cruise, and Tokyo Skytree

Arriving in Tokyo from North America usually isn't too bad for jet lag as it always feels like you've arrived later the same day (albeit a long day).  Stay up a bit and then crash to get a fresh start the next morning.  This time I was with a few people so the experience was a little different with a slightly easier pace and different dining options.  I was also hoping for warmer weather, but we had typical February weather with highs around 8 degrees Celsius with some good variation.
West side Ikebukuro Station

This time we stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Ikebukuro as it was one of the few deals I could find for a triple room.  We woke up the next morning a little tired, but ready to go, and headed down for breakfast.  One of things I usually avoid is the hotel breakfast as the price of one meal could often feed the three of you at McDonald's, a bakery, or other cafe.  There is also the option of eating from the convenience store or konbini - but I usually save that for a late night snack or a meal on the go as it is nice to get off of your feet when you eat - not only that - in Japan it is considered rude to be drinking or eating on the go.

We tried a place near the south exit by Lumine that made Beignets and coffee.  Not the cheapest menu, but the deep fried pastries were nice, fresh, and tasty with a coating of powdered cinnamon and sugar.  We originally went to a Doutor, but the reality of Japanese coffee shops set in quickly.  Many of these coffee shops have high quality drinks and food products, but they are often smoking and non-smoking.  However, there is no real divider between the two sections so the smoke goes everywhere.  It is like being in North America in the 1980s or 1990s when smoking was still allowed in restaurants.

See my post on the Shiodome.

After this, we took the Yamanote Line down to Shimbashi Station and the Shiodome.  We just missed the playing of the Miyazaki Steampunk Clock as it is a long way around to get there from Ikebukuro.  The clock  no longer plays every hour and plays on a spaced out schedule every two or three hours now since the earthquake as a power saving measure.  The Shiodome has a very high tech vibe to it with the modern buildings, giant walkway platforms, and monorail.  A very neat place to walk around to experience this type of feel and there are many malls at the ground and below ground level in the various buildings to explore.  The feel for the place is big and expansive - even underground.  You have to remember the Shiodome, like many Tokyo megaplexes works at the +10 metre level (walkway), then ground level, then one or two below ground levels so you are exploring a space designed to work on multiple levels.
Shiodome Walkway.  This is a walkway, not the street at groundlevel!
After a brief exploration, we headed off to see the Giant Gundam and Gundam Front over in Odaiba via the Yurikamome monorail.  The monorail runs on a pretty interesting path as it circles up to get to the Rainbow Bridge to cross over to Odaiba.  The monorail is also driverless and if you can get front seating in the first car you can have a pretty nice view out the front windows.  Even at 10 in the morning the train was pretty crowded and standing room for us.  This was foreshadowing as we were often on pretty crowded trains, getting seats maybe half the time (tried to miss rush hour in the morning when you are a sardine in a can).  I kept thinking that everything seemed to be more crowded this time from trains to restaurants, but the last time I was here was in the middle of the H1N1 scare, so I'm probably seeing normal this trip.  With 50 million people in the greater Tokyo area it has to be a pretty busy place!
Diver City
Giant Gundam
Closeup of Giant Gundam
Over in Odaiba we debarked from the Train just south of Aqua City and the Decks then walked east towards Diver City Mall where Gundam Front is.  I was a little anxious to catch a glimpse of the big Gundam and you can only see it after you turn the corner at the mall as it is on the East side (the front of the mall).  The 20+ metre tall 1:1 scale model of the RX-78-2 was pretty impressive, and pretty darn big once you get up close.  There were a few people there for it, but no big crowds.  There was a big crowd for a pop group concert there though.  The assembly and detailing of the Gundam is so good that you could imagine it coming to life and walking around.  Too bad there are limited head animations and a light show only for it.
Strike Freedom Gundam
We then went inside the mall to visit Gundam Front.  Gundam Front is on the top floor of the mall and is a small theme park for Gundam.  On the Sunday we went there were no lineups and tickets were easy to get at the front counter.  It consists of a:
  • Gunpla (Gundam model museum)
  • Clothing gift shop
  • Regular gift shop with exclusive items
  • Dome theatre with short film (with some original CG)
  • An exhibition area that contains a rotating display of art (for Gundam Unicorn at the time of the visit)
  • 1:1 scale bust of the Strike Freedom Gundam you can see up close, and that you can pay extra to have your photo taken in the cockpit.
  • There is also a photo area where you can choose a Gundam character to have your picture taken with for free
  • 1:1 scale model of a core fighter
  • A large model of the A Baoa Qu asteroid base with hundreds of little mobile suits fighting it out on its surface
One small part of a big room with probably a thousand models in it.
Like many anime related attractions, this one is for the fans - Gundam fans, and I enjoyed it in that spirit and had a great visit.  Afterwards we tried to get some lunch in the mall, but the place was packed with people and it was hard to find a place without a waiting line or a place to sit in the food courts.
Gundam Taiyaki
Haro Meat Bun
We went to the Gundam Cafe and found out it was a gift shop with a snack bar.  We picked up a Gundam Taiyaki (curry meat) and a Haro meat bun as a small snack and went over to visit the Toys R Us in Aqua City.   The Toys R Us always carries different Japanese toys and is worth a pass through just to see the things you don't see in Akiba.

See my post on Gundam Front at Diver City.

Yes there is a Statue of Liberty at Aqua City
We ended up having lunch in the food court of Aqua City and had a pretty tasty chicken curry and some Takoyaki Octopus balls.  Both were yummy and the extra time it took to get there meant the food court was less crowded.  There are also many restaurants in the Decks along with a cat cafe.  There is also a Takoyaki museum in the Decks where you can eat many different kinds of Takoyaki.
Taiyaki combo that came with soft drinks 1000 yen
One of the things I like about the Japanese food courts is that many of the shops use real dishes as the customers are supposed to return the tray and dishes back to them when they are done.  This is a pretty eco-friendly concept, but something I suspect that wouldn't fly over in North America as things would always go missing.

Another food item we had as a snack today from a convenience store int he mall was riceballs or onigiri.  I love these Japanese sandwich replacements and they travel fairly well in a pack if you need to carry them.  When you go visit a museum, there is often a sitting area to eat, but either no cafe or an expensive cafe - bring your lunch (e.g. National Museum).   Onigiri are fun, they even have a 3 step unwrapping process for the triangular ones (follow the numbers on the back) that keep the seaweed separate from the rice so it stays crisp.  They come in many flavours like tuna, salmon, cod roe, chicken, etc., and a couple will do you for a quick lunch.  Just remember to buy a drink.
Refrigerated Cabinet at Konbini with Riceballs on the top shelf.
Onigiri, Rice Balls You Can Buy At A Convenience Store For A Snack / Cheap Meal
Your Guide To Onigiri - this is a handly little guide to rice balls, but it still is hard to interpret the labels unless you read Japanese, but it works!

After the meal we bought tickets at the boat dock just outside the Decks for a river boat cruise up the Sumida River towards Asakusa.  I never had the chance to do this last time.  Two of the river boats, the Himeko and the Hotaluna look like spaceships and are very sleek looking boats.  The ride north was uneventful with many interesting views of the shore.  You pass these great big floodgates and the back side of Tsukiji Fish Market and get to see the city from another angle.  It was a nice relaxing trip up the river.  You have comfortable bench or table seating and there is a snack bar on board.  Many Japanese families were treating it like an outing and having beer and desserts.
Himeko Spaceboat
Boat View of Rainbow Bridge
Tokyo Tower From Boat
Asahi Beer Building
At Asakusa (this is also where the Sensoji Temple is) we walked across the bridge where the boats dock and checked out the Asahi Beer Building with the big gold thing on the roof (I don't want to call it a big gold p**).  Nice architecture there.  We followed the east side of the river north and cut inland just after the first waterway to beeline east (as much as possible on these streets) to the Tokyo Skytree. Hard to miss the tallest land mark in the area, not to mention the world's tallest tower at the moment. It is a 30 minute walk to the tower.
There are some great views of the tower as you head towards it and when you arrive at the Solomachi Mall at the base of the tower, you realize just how tall the tower is.  It is massive and reaches for the sky.  The tower itself is 634 metres high, well taller than the old Tokyo Tower.  Only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is taller than it by another 200 metres.  So today was future day with big robots and big towers.  Inside the mall we went to get tickets to ascend the tower and found there was a 4 hour wait to go up.  Fortunately have a quick line to get the entry passes for a certain time that is scheduled in 1/2 hour batches. When your time comes up, you line up and are allowed in to buy tickets to go up at that time.  You really have to crane your head up to see this tower as it is tall tall tall.
Looking Up The Skytree
Having a four hour wait meant we had a fair bit of time to kill and we decided to shop in this fancy new mall that has a beer museum/pub, restaurants, fancy food floors, an aquarium, a planetarium, and many very nice shops. The fourth floor of the Solomachi Mall is bursting with really good shops with unique products.  There is a Hello Kitty shop, sweets shops, other shops full of interesting folk art / toys / gadgets / souvenirs, and very nicely laid out too.  They are not over priced either.  It was easy to pass the time and explore the mall.  We had dinner in the food court there at an udon noodle shop where they hand made their noodles in the back.  Again, you get the real dishes and you need to return the tray.  Other shops here for toy fans included a Tomica Store, Shonen Jump Store, Takara Store, Rilakuma Store, and a really nice Studio Ghibli Donguri Garden store with Totoro!  There is even a QPOT jewellry kiosk in the mall.  Skytree souvenirs are overruning this mall so you should be able to pick up something a a momento.

See a post on viewing freak weather from the Skytree
See my post on the Tokyo Skytree.
Read about my concept of a World Tree in an excerpt from my next SF novel.

Shop Display
Japanese Nanoblocks Shop Display
Ghibli Store - Big Totoro and Catbus in the Windows
QPot Jewelry - Looks like chocolates
Udon Noodles
 When it was our turn to ascend we got in line and were quickly let in to purchase tickets.  Not long afterwards we ascended in a fast elevator to the lower viewing deck or the Tembo Deck which is at a height that is equivalent to the tip of the Tokyo Tower and had fantastic night views of the city.  We made our way around to look out in all directions and then headed back down to pick up some final souvenirs from the big gift shop at the base of the tower.  Well worth the wait to go up and about a million Japanese a year agree so the place is packed every day.
Skytree Lit Up At Night
 On the main floor of the mall at the base of the tower (which has the largest Skytree gift shop too) is an amazing multimedia mural of Tokyo by Teamlab.  Regular murals are combined with a fantastic computer graphics display to bring the city to life with fantastical figures and animations. Well worth seeing as there is so much detail.  They need to sell this as a screensaver!
Lower Viewing Deck
Tokyo At Night
Animated Mural by Teamlab
We took a Tobu Skytree train back from the Osiage Station right at the foot of the mall back to Asakusa to spare us another walk.  At Asakusa we transferred to the Ginza subway to get to Ueno and then the Yamanote Line back to Ikebukuro for the night.  Not the easiest place to get to from Ikebukuro, but not bad.

Related Links
View Day Two of the travelogue here.
View the Tokyo Travelogues Master Page here.

More Tokyo Highlights
More Japanese Pop Culture

Monday, February 25, 2013

Return To Tokyo 2013 Highlights For Anime and Regular Tourists

I haven't been writing or blogging much in the last few weeks as I was visiting Tokyo this February of 2013 with my family.  This trip was for fun and to confirm the best anime or pop culture or tourist sights for Tokyo. For the next little while I'll be posting about my experience there again so stay tuned. 
Shinjuku Signs by Tostzilla
Since the last time I visited Tokyo in 2009 the city has been:
  • Shaken by a large earthquake that cracked the earth in Odaiba (made of fill with buildings on deep piles) and shut down the trains.  Had shortages of toilet paper and bottled water afterwards.
  • Dealt with radioactive fallout from Fukushima due to the same Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.
  • North Korea tested an underground nuke and threatens war again.
  • Sporadic news reporting says that Mount Fuji is building up the most pressure ever (possibly due to the big earthquakes).
  • Has had at least one major outage on the trains due to typhoons.
  • A big meteor or hadouken streaked over the Kanto region of Japan, but it was nothing like the big meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia while I was there.  Hmm... Russians and meteors - Tunguska again?
  • The Radio Kaikan Building in Akiba is now a hole in the ground and a new building will be built.
  • Completed and opened the new Skytree to the public.
Giant Gundam by Tostzilla
Skytree by Tostzilla
The city has bounced back though and there are new experiences to be had.  So I wanted to do the following:
  • See the changed the Haniwa and Dogu exhibits in the National Museum.  
  • Visit Akihabara again and see if I felt the same about it with the new Akiba Zone, Gamers, Animate, etc.  I've never really been into the maid cafes, but I liked the energy in the area.  I think the Radio Kaikan was the heart of the district for Otaku in many ways and I don't think it will be easily replaced.
  • Go and see the giant Gundam in Odaiba and Gundam Front.  The big RX-78-2 was awesome.
  • Visit the Gundam Cafe Akihabara which is the largest one and has seating.
  • Visit Ikebukuro this time and the new Animate flagship store which is awesomely large and still shiny new.  Also seems to be female friendly as there were lots of ladies shopping there - not the same as Akiba at all - and a better experience for everyone.
  • Make a cup of noodle at the Yokohama Nissin Cup Noodle Museum and see the very nice museum.
  • Eat tasty ramen at the Yokohama Ramen Museum.  I actually ate and slurped the tastiest ramen broth I've ever had there this trip.
  • Shoot more pictures of Shibuya Crossing, Ginza, and Shinjuku at night.
  • Visit the Hikarie Building in Shibuya.
  • Visit a few of the "talked about ramen shops" in Tokyo.  I hit two.
  • Visit Nakano Broadway for the first time.  I actually think Nakano is truly a wonderful place for more classic anime fans and for merchandise (might actually be better than Akihabara - so it is a must visit if you are visiting the Ghibli Museum or just have the time to go from Shinjuku).
  • Ascend the Tokyo Skytree where the first observation deck is basically at the same height as the tip of the old Tokyo Tower.  See the wonderful animated wall boards they have on the ground level of the tower lobby.  The shopping at the Solomachi Mall at the tower is amazing in the upper floors - the shops are really good - not just for fashion.  The Ghibli Store at Solomachi is nice too - especially if you are not going to the museum.
  • Visit the Evangelion Store in Harajuku.
  • Visit the remodeled Kiddyland.
  • Visit the Artnia, the Square Enix Cafe and Shop in Shinjuku.
  • Visit Ekibenya (the train bento store) and Tokyo Character Street in Tokyo Station.
  • Visit the big fancy Uniqlo store in Ginza to visit Uniqlo T in particular for pop/anime culture themed t-shirts at a great price.  I picked up four pretty nice Evangelion T-shirts for 4000 yen there.
  • Do more shopping in Kitchen Town and visit Nakamise Street at Sensoji Temple again.
  • Take a Sumida riverboat ride on a Spaceboat.
  • And generally sight see, have great eats, enjoy the konbini, vending machines, excellent train service, and other fun stuff.
Well, I managed to pull all that off in 7 full days, so posts will start trickling out as I get over my jet lag and all that.  While I was there two small earthquakes also hit Tokyo.  There was one on February 20, which I didn't notice at all at it was magnitude 5.6 at about 9:30 PM.  Then a second one on February 24th with a magnitude of 6.2 that hit around the time my plane left Narita at 4:23 PM.  Tokyo was still there so visit when you have a chance!

View the Tokyo Travelogues Master Page here.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Japanese Mcdonald's Texas Burger and Idaho Burger

McDonald's is in the news again with the return of the Texas and Idaho Burgers. The wonderful world of Japanese fast food and international chains localizing to their host country brings some return products back to life. For info on Japanese Kaiju Burgers check this other post I did.

Other Mcdonald's news this year included:
  • On February 9, 2013 they announced the first year-on-year decline in nine years.  While not running at a loss they are just not making their normal profits in a squeezed economy.  
  • Earlier in January they had a get your order in 60 seconds or get it for free promo which was both a good and a bad thing according to web and twitter traffic.  The complaints were over the presentation and packaging of the quickly assembled orders (both packaging and presentation are of course important to the Japanese).
Now onto to Texas Burger.  I'm heading to Japan shortly and will get to try this out if the opportunity presents, but I'm going to miss out on the Idaho Burger.  The Texas burger has cheese, chilli, fried onion, bacon, mustard, and of course the big beef patty.

Idaho Burger with Hashbrown

I'm actually more interested in the Idaho Burger that has onions, cheese, bacon, relish, the beef patty, and a HASHBROWN.  Sounds kind of interesting to me and I love McDonald's hashbrowns when done right.  On that note there was also a recent humour post about hashbrowns being the "American food of choice for 2013" from the fictitious Japanese Diner's Association here.

Unfortunately it doesn't look like this is available until March so I'm going to miss it.  I'd actually rather see the giant gundam down at Odaiba instead as I believe it is going away in March of this year so I'll take the tradeoff.  But I hear that McDonald's in Rockford Illinois USA is testing an all day menu where you can get breakfast or regular menu items at the same time so you could kind of create your own Idaho Burger. UPDATE: I managed to catch it at Narita Airport on the way out of Tokyo.  The verdict is yes, it is a tasty burger.  The crunchy edges of the hashbrown give it a nice texture combination with the meat and bun, and the taste of the potato is good.  This is the same reason the Greeks stick french fries into their gyros!

Also, here are some other burger related links to favourite burgers in Japan and around the world.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shinto Shrine Etiquette and Anime (Lucky Star Washinomiya Shrine)

What are the most common rituals at a Japanese Shinto shrine that you see in your anime?  The Shinto shrine and mythology are commonly incorporated into many anime which is kind of cool.  In fact, the anime Lucky Star made the Washinomiya Shrine famous, as two of its characters were Shrine Maidens there, and it now has regular festivals to attract the fans of the show. The new year for 2013 even drew 470,000 visitors to the shrine in the first three days due to the anime linkage.  Wow!  Ryohoji Temple, an ancient shrine, has also gone Moe and has many otaku themed events and a mascot in Bensaiten, the goddess of entertainment.  The Shinto shrine even appears in the video game Persona 4 so you can establish a link with a fox guardian and fulfill ema wish requests!  Also in anime, don't forget the expected summer festival episode that will usually happen on shrine grounds. There is always a summer festival! Now onto the etiquette portion.

The Main Torii Gate at the Front Entrance
Meiji Shrine Main Torii by Parking Lot
Bow before passing through the Torii Gate to show respect for the Gods of the shrine.
Don't walk in the centre line of the approach as that is for the gods.  The main avenue is called Sei-chu for the passage of Gods, so you should walk at the sides of the torii gate and avenue beyond it.

Purification at the Temizu
When entering the grounds of a Shinto shrine a symbolic cleansing called temizu to purify the hands should be performed. This purification should be done before visiting the central shrine to clean the body and mind.
Every shrine provides a stone basin called a temizuya filled with water and provides wooden ladles to scoop the water.  You do not wash your mouth directly from scoop.
  1. Pickup a water ladle with your right hand.
  2. Scoop some water and pour water over your left hand.
  3. Switch the ladle to your left hand and rinse the right hand.
  4. Now switch the ladle back on right hand. Cup your left hand, pour water into it, then rinse your mouth.
  5. Then rinse your left hand again and you are done.
Praying at the Central Shrine Building
In front of the building with the big rope there will be a wooden offertory box called a Saisenbako for coin offerings.  The box will have a metallic grid so the coins thrown in will make a loud noise.  There is no specific monetary amount to offer, as it is your wish and belief in the deity that is important.

    1. Toss your coin(s) into the offertory box.
    2. Ring bell with the large red/white rope to call the god into the shrine.
    3. Do two deep bows.
    4. Make your wish in your heart.
    3. Now clap twice.
    4. Make one more deep bow.
A small shrine guarded by foxes.  Leave some inari for the fox spirit!

You can purchase an omamori or lucky charm at a shrine.  Each type has a different benefit. Common benefits are traffic safety, family safety, business success, educational success, safe childbirth, good health.  You are not supposed to open the charms as you lose the benefit. I talked about lucky charms for IT (information technology) folks at this other shrine in Akihabara here.

You can also purchase paper fortunes (omikuji)  or wish plaques (ema).  For the fortunes, there are usually these cylindrical containers with little sticks inside with a number on each one.  Pay the attendant, pick up the container, shake it until a stick comes out. The attendant gives you the paper fortune matching the number.  If the fortune is bad you can tie them to a tree branch or a designated place to for the Shrine's God to dispel the bad luck.  If it is good luck you take the fortune home with you.
Bad luck fortunes disposed of here!

People also make wishes on ema, or wooden plaques which are hung for the Gods to see and fulfill.
Ema Plaques

For more information on Shinto Shrines check out.