Evan Miller: Japan Again

by Evan Miller, Mar 23rd 2009

3/23/09

TAF Day 2/Cheapass Japan: Eating Cheap/Conbini Find of the Day: Moyashimon Portable Ashtray

Tokyo International Anime Fair: Day 2

Around the floor: The business days at TAF are a completely different experience when compared to the public ones, and that's not just in terms of crowds. It's important to note that TAF isn't limited to animation companies showing off their newest shows; there are many smaller companies from all over the world that attend the show to show off products, toys, and other merchandise. While sales to the public are encouraged on public days, they are mostly forbidden on the business days. Which is a shame, because I really wanted to take this little guy home. He's got an adorable "axe murderer" look to him. If that doesn't set the standard for cute, I don't know what does.

Ironically, there isn't much anime for sale at the convention; it's mostly limited to plushies, character goods, and a smattering of CDs. Since my editor Zac has been so helpful with this blog and my column, I decided that I'd pick up this CD for him at the convention's first public day. I mean, look at the picture - the characters are so happy and upbeat! I'm going to loop this track on my computer for him when he comes back to the hotel later. I'm sure he'll love it.

As far as the booths go, I still think the "most impressive" booth award goes to Fuji TV, seen in the pictures to the left. According to Fuji TV representative Noriko Ozaki, the network had their own design team come up with the setup, which involves over 20 screens and specially programmed sequences that give the whole thing a kind of "game show on acid" feeling.

Finally, a few random shots from the show:

I didn't know that there was a high school level curriculum for B-boying. Besides that, the smirks on the faces of the characters feel less representative of b-boy culture and more reminicent of a bad high school production of West Side Story.

Hey kids, another Detective Conan movie! YAY! Note to the show's producers: HURRY UP AND GET TO THE CONCLUSION ALREADY. Please.

CHEAPASS JAPAN: Eating Cheap

First off, the cheapest place to get food at any time of day is - as you might expect - a conbini/convenience store. Also, some supermarkets sell lunch sets and onigiri (rice balls) like the convenience store, so those are worth a look if you're near one.

Breakfast: The concept of eating breakfast at a restaurant here isn't as embraced as it is in the states. Family restaurants like Skylark (Gusto, Jonathan's), Royal Host and Denny's offer a few options, but I personally recommend the bread shops that are often found near train stations. The pastries are fresh and inexpensive, and you can usually get two of them and a coffee for 500 yen, or less if you're lucky.

Lunch: If you want to avoid the conbini, hit up a fast food style bento place, such as Hokka Hokka Tei. These places offer many varieties of bento for as little as 380 yen, and while it's not haute cuisine, it isn't something that came from a microwave either.

Sushi: Some kaiten zushi (the restaurants where small plates of sushi go around on a conveyor belt) places sell all of their plates for 100~150 yen, but be warned - the quality can be hit or miss.

Yakiniku/Shabu Shabu: In these tough economic times, the number of restaurants selling all-you-can-eat Yakiniku (barbecued meat, much like a "grill your own" Korean restaurant) and Shabu Shabu (hot pot) are growing. The cost can be as low as 1500 yen/person, which is a little expensive, but it's a good option if you feel like eating a lot.

Ramen: Good rule of thumb: any ramen or noodle shop that sells tickets you use for orders is probably reasonably priced. Furthermore, since Ramen lovers in Japan are practically their own cult, they've created websites (Japanese only, sorry) where Ramen addicts share information on cheap places to go. A few good finds include 200 yen Soba noodles and a full bowl of Ramen for 180 yen.

AVOID THESE:

Izakayas: These establishments usually focus on smaller dishes and drinks. At first glance, it can seem cheap since the menu is full of dishes that cost 250~300 yen. However, these pile up (especially if you are with someone else, who will insist on ordering more) and by the time you leave, you've dropped 4,000 yen.

Pizza (especially takeout): Pizza is notoriously overpriced in Japan. Some restaurants serve small, thin crust creations for 1,000 yen or so, but they usually aren't more than glorified cheese bread. American chains like Domino's and Pizza Hut operate in Japan, but considering that you'll pay around 2,500 yen for a small pizza, you might want to hold off on your pizza cravings until you're back in the Western Hemisphere.

CONBINI FIND OF THE DAY!

Moyashimon Portable Ashtray

In recent years, Japanese authorities have begun to crack down on smokers that just flick their cigarette butts into the street/river/air/other place they shouldn't be. Consequently, most conbinis stock portable ashtrays - small pouches that have a special insulated foil interior that can hold the remains of a cigarette safely. These things come in all sorts of designs, but I never expected to find Japan's most famous bacteria telling me where to stuff a flaming butt.

In keeping with the character of the Moyashimon characters, this ashtray is covered with little notes - and threats - from the adorable bacteria. On the front, they're holding up a sign that says "Littering prohibited!" while the bacteria below talk among themselves: "That's obvious, isn't it?" "Shut up!" "Hey, say something nice!" and (in agreement) "Oooookaaaaay!" I'm not a smoker, but if I was, I'm not sure how I would react to a bunch of bacteria heckling me on my nasty personal habit.

On the back of the ashtray, the threats get a bit more personal: "HEY, you homosapien! You were gonna litter? Bring that crap home, dammit!" Normally if my personal products began threatening me, I'd toss them out without giving a single thought to recycling them. Yet, for some reason, when it's a bunch of bacteria, it's okay. Besides, it's not like they're promoting smoking or anything.

Apologies for the late blogs; hopefully a few more posts over the next few days will make up for it. Thanks for reading!


3/18/09

TAF Day 1/Cheapass Japan: Accomodations/Conbini Find of the Day: Keroro Chocolate

Tokyo International Anime Fair: Day 1

TAF kicked off today, which means one thing:

Big fluffy creatures dancing through aisles of businessmen. I wonder what my ancestors would say if they knew I was working in this industry. Anyway...

The good: The booths are a bit more inventive this year. Unlike their bizarre Casino-themed booth from last year, this year's Fuji TV booth is a strange mix of monitors and a news ticker; I'll try to have some pictures up tomorrow. There are also some very promising titles on the horizon. My personal favorite: the Hosoda Mamoru (Girl Who Leapt Through Time) film Summer Wars, which is slated for release this summer and follows the adventures of a rural family battling against villainous elements created by the internet. I'm somewhat optimistic about the Shochiku project Umi Monogatari (Sea Tale) because the staff of the show has been responsible for shows like Princess Tutu and Kaleido Star, but I worry because it looks a bit like a harem show. Hmm...

The bad: Although they did a pretty good job covering it up, you can tell that there are fewer booths and fewer new projects coming out this year - a sign of the bad economy. There's a distinct hint of pessimism in the air among the exhibitors and companies, but at least people are still mingling and trying to generate optimism for new titles.

This is important: This is NOT a con. This is not anything like any anime convention in the United States; everything is very official, all the cosplay is corporately sponsored... you get the idea. If you don't, visit a local business convention, close your eyes, and pretend that all the companies are promoting anime. That's TAF. A lot of people tell me in passing that it is "awesome" that I get to go to TAF, and sure, it's nice that there are huge booths that tell you all about the new shows that are coming out. However, if you are the sort of person who values any kind of social interaction, TAF will bore you to tears. It's not that the convention is awful - it just isn't the kind of place where fans come to hang out and enjoy being geeky together.

However, there's still a giant Totoro hanging from the ceiling here. That's a perk.

CHEAPASS JAPAN: Hotels

Rooms with two beds are in short supply here. While most hotels have them, they usually only make up thirty percent of the hotel's space, and the rest of the rooms are for single travelers only. Room sharing is tough and not recommended; in some cases there isn't even space for a second person on the floor. Keeping all of this in mind, here's what I suggest:

RICH: Most hotels that operate English language sites are pretty nice, and if they have a reservation system that accepts dollars and not yen, it's almost guaranteed that it's a nice hotel. As one might expect, any big name American chain (Hilton, Sheraton, etc.) is a safe bet if you want a swanky room. However, be prepared to drop more than 25,000 yen ($250) a night on your room, and perhaps more depending on where you stay. If you're looking for the nicest hotels in Tokyo, most of them can be found in the Nishi-Shinjuku area around the Tokyo government offices.

MODERATE: Aside from trying to find a good deal on the notoriously complicated Japanese travel sites, there are a few chains that specifically cater to travelers on a budget. Toyoko Inn is a popular chain of cheap "business hotels" that are of decent quality (6,000 yen/night). Recently, the US chain Choice Hotels opened up shop in Japan, and the prices are really reasonable (5,500-8,000 yen/night). Not only that, but they accept reservations from the same site as their North American hotels. Finally, there are a few sites out there that offer discounts for Ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns with tatami floors and futons.

CHEAPASS: If you're looking for a place to crash for less than 3,500 yen, the options are... less than attractive. One option is hostels (2,500 yen/night), but many Japanese hostels have obnoxiously early curfews (9PM!) that are tough to deal with. The notorious capsule hotels (3,500 yen/night) are okay if you aren't claustrophobic and don't mind dealing with the occasionally seedy clientele. If you're desperate, you can sleep in an internet cafe (1,800 yen/night or less). This is against the rules, but people do it anyway - to the point that it's become a social issue. Still, many of these places have showers and food, so it's not a bad deal. If you have a lot of luggage, though, this is an option you'll want to skip.

CONBINI FIND OF THE DAY!

Sgt. Frog (Keroro) Chocolate

I'm a huge fan of amphibians who want to take over the planet, so you can imagine my excitement when I found this! It's...

...well, it's not much. It's your typical chocolate wafer cookie, packaged with a sticker featuring one of the iconic Keroro characters. The wafer cookie was okay, but far from wonderful, and the seal was rather small. Still, I now have an alien frog that I can stick on whatever I like. Perhaps on my necktie for business day number two tomorrow.

Yup, nothing says "business" like a blue frog in a spaceship.


You know that strange feeling you get when you return to the place you grew up? That strange flavor of nostalgia mixed with the odd sting of the familiar? For me, that's what a trip to Japan is. I know my way around, I recognize the signs and mannerisms, and the weird stuff... isn't quite as weird as it once was. Still, everything is familiar in a good way, and it isn't long before you rediscover all the things you love about the place.

Currently, I'm back in Japan with four other hard-working members of the ANN staff for the Tokyo International Anime Fair, a four-day business and industry convention. Aside from covering the con, I'll also be sharing a few notes about the adventures of the ANN crew in Japan. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll... read. Anyways, let's get to it!

Also: Cheapass Japan: Flights and Conbini Find of the Day: Buruburu Rirakkuma

Customer Magnets

As we were boarding our Japan Airlines flight to Japan, Zac remarked on the remarkably polite greetings of the countless JAL employees that lined the jetway on the way to the plane. For anyone who's been to Japan, this is second hat - no matter where you go here, there is never a shortage of "service" in any kind of public establishment. Anyone working in retail is required to shout "irrashaimase!" (like "Welcome!") countless times during their shift, and stores and shops employee tons of people in order to keep people happy. In some cases, this is pushed to the extreme that it becomes more of an annoyance than anything else. For example, the supermarket I used to visit on weekends would blast greetings at full volume over the PA system for the entire day. Imagine what it would be like if someone were screaming "WELCOME TO SAFEWAY THE CHICKEN IS REALLY CHEAP YOU MUST TRY IT NOW GODDAMIT IT IS EXCELLENT AND CHEAP" in your ear as you shopped for groceries - that's what it's like.

The idea behind all this ceremony is, of course, to drum up business, and it isn't just limited to greetings. When it comes to decorations designed to lure people into a store, Japan goes to great limits. Outside many KFCs and McDonalds, you might spot a lifesize replica of the Colonel or Ronald McDonald respectively, and most shops have a little sign out front to advertise the specials for the day. On this trip, we paid a visit to Mandarake, a huge store in the Nakano Broadway shopping complex that specializes in obscure geeky stuff. Waiting in front of part of the store was the fella you see here: an alien, clearly confused and wondering he's imprisoned in a sea of nerds.

Drawing customers in doesn't stop with characters out front, either. Many stores change their entire entryway to entice visitors to pass through. For example, the trendy "weird crap, books, and mostly useless stuff" retailer Village Vanguard surround their entryways with kitschy American goods. At Mandarake, the entry way to their "weird shop" (which Zac also mentioned in his piece) included this small TV in the wall, broadcasting this talking old guy. I guess if it works for them that's fine - as for me, I'm just hoping that this old guy doesn't make a cameo appearance in any forthcoming nightmares I may have.

CHEAPASS JAPAN

Every day, I'll be sharing a quick tip with info on how you can enjoy Japan based on your budget. Today's topic: Flights.

RICH: If you have a lot to spend, the tour groups to Japan run by companies like Intermixi are worth a look. Furthermore, they save you the hassles of finding your own hotel - a nice benefit, especially considering that the Japanese online hotel search engines make about as much sense as the aforementioned walls at Mandarake.

MODERATE: Aside from checking online, the USA and Canada have no shortage of Japanese travel agencies like JTB, IACE and others. These agencies usually price their flights cheaper than the ones listed on sites like Orbitz and Travelocity, so give them a call.

CHEAPASS: Occasionally, Korean Air deeply discounts their round trip route to Tokyo from Los Angeles, which is by far the best deal for a flight to Tokyo that I've ever found - as low as $500 round trip. It doesn't get any better than that.

CONBINI FIND OF THE DAY!

Burabura Rirakkuma

Although I've been back and forth to Japan more times than I can count, I still felt a bit jet-lagged when I arrived last Thursday. Thinking that I needed something to cheer me up and make me feel at peace, I picked up yet another byproduct of the Rirakkuma ("relax bear") franchise: a little keychain. Based on the box, and the lines drawn around the Rirakkuma's arms and legs, I can only assume that this bear is extremely chill. Or maybe he's recovering from a tough battle with some kind of addiction and has the shakes. Let's assume it's the first one.

The toy is designed with hanging arms and legs - kind of like a bobblehead in reverse. As a result, when you set the toy down, it looks like he's just chilling, waiting for you to chill along with him. However, as you can see here, his expression doesn't really change much and his eyes are still a perfect round shape, which can make him look more like Rirakkorpse than Rirakkuma. Still, as the bear gazed up at me from my knee, I felt strangely at peace. Or maybe it was the jet lag setting in.

The ramune candy that is mercifully tossed into the box with this toy is, as one might expect, nothing special - just some ramune-flavored stuff with no real redeeming trait other than the fact that it's sugar. Still, that's not a bad thing - someone could use the sugar high that this relaxed bear is clealy denying himself.

That's it for today! We'll be back tomorrow with more observations and banter, so stick around!


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