Nerd Tour Japan 2014

by Zac Bertschy and Hope Chapman, Mar 20th 2014


It's been a long time, but I'm back in Japan. After my last trip in 2009 I decided I wanted to take a break for a while – maybe see some other parts of the world, if I'm gonna travel internationally – but it had been long enough, and if I go cover AnimeJapan (the replacement for the Tokyo Anime Fair/Anime Contents Expo) then it'll be a work trip. I missed the place, dammit. And I really did enjoy myself those last two times.

Things are a little different this time. Way back in 2008 and 2009 I traveled with the ANN crew: Christopher Macdonald, Justin Sevakis and our guide/translator, Evan Miller, who I wound up spending many an evening with back then, downing beers and obnoxiously asking him to translate silly things for me. Since then, Evan's last name changed to Liu (he married the lovely and talented Lanny Liu, who designed the banner for House of 1000 Manga for us) and he started what is now a successful destination tour company focusing on Japan, PacSet Tours. I was given the opportunity this year to cover AnimeJapan 2014 while riding shotgun on Evan's Animated Spring tour, which has a whopping 30+ other nerds on it. Most importantly, it'd mean that once we're done with AnimeJapan, I can finally see something outside of Tokyo (I've been to Japan twice and have never set foot outside of the city) which was one of the criteria I had for ever returning to the country (last time I basically got to sit in a hotel room in Shibuya for a week).

And so, for the next week and change, I'll have a whole bunch of photos and commentary for you from the tour, with special side coverage of AnimeJapan this weekend. I was also given the opportunity to bring along a companion who had never been to Japan before, if only so my weary “been there, done that” perspective wouldn't be the only one we had, so Hope's here with me. She'll be commenting below on her experiences. These are pretty packed days – Evan keeps us moving from one dorky thing to the next – so there'll be a whole lot of photos (all of which can be clicked for embiggening).

HOPE: Having never set foot outside my home country prior to this trip, I was kinda nervous about spending over a week in Japan. Once we landed, however, it struck me how “familiar” a lot of the important things are, and that put me at ease pretty quick. Compared to most American cities, Tokyo is a little cleaner, quieter, and the spaces and halls are narrower and smaller, but it's a lively city full of normal folks going about their business much the same way as we do in the western world. It's easy to get comfortable once the jet lag wears off and just start having fun!

Let's get to it!

DAY ONE



ASAKUSA


Somehow I'd never been to this area before, which has been around for something like a millennium. It was previously one of the major entertainment districts in Tokyo, and was rebuilt after World War II blew it up. The giant shrines and temples are neat, but it's clearly intended for use during festivals, so coming here at 10am on a Monday kinda feels like visiting the State Fair grounds when there's no State Fair going on. Nice lanterns, though.





HOPE: The human visitors are much more respectful of the Buddha statues than the pigeon visitors, who like to strut along the wall and wait for offerings of melon bread.











HOPE: Can you see the two watchful guardians through the windows of the gate? Those are the Nio Kings guarding the temple. They take their job very seriously.

HOPE: Those oranges look real tasty, so I was compelled to take their picture. But for all I know, they might not even be ripe!


THE LEIJI MATSUMOBOAT: HIMIKO


I feel like I've seen this boat a zillion times in every nerd tourism article about Japan since 2000 or so when it first hit the river, and as it turns out, it was our transportation back to my favorite place in the world, the Orange County of Japan, Odaiba. Honestly, it's a little underwhelming. The exterior looks like a particularly cool Disneyland ride vehicle, but inside it's pretty spare. There's a little café with gelato and draft beer, some benches to sit on, and that's about it. It's pretty beat up, inside too; scuffed and nicked everywhere by a million tourists. The real attraction is the ride down to Odaiba, which is relaxing and lets you watch the change from old Tokyo to the reclaimed land with a bunch of goddamn Red Lobsters and Forever 21s on it.

HOPE: Just up and to the right of the Matsumo-boat, you can see a history museum with an unfortunately shaped golden “radish” on its roof.







As you travel down the river – and maybe this is why I thought ‘Disneyland ride vehicle’ – you get a spiel, sort of a radio drama delivered by the cast pictured here, kinda like the Mark Twain Riverboat. Naturally I had no idea what they were talking about, but I assume they were pointing out landmarks along the way.


HOPE: I hope Captain Harlock is driving! I'm ready to be a space pirate!

ODAIBA: GUNDAM FRONT


HOPE: The Fuji TV building has a rather unique structure. I kept expecting that ball to pop loose and zorb its way down the street, though.


Here's a fun game: translate the crude graffiti!


So we make it into Odaiba, which remains the place to go for homesick westerners dying for a bite of a Krispy Kreme, and we head up to Gundam Front, which is sort of a monument to Sunrise's grain-fed cash cow. It costs about 12 bucks to get in.


My ticket. Pretty sure they were mocking me.


First you enter this big dome where no photos are allowed and watch a 360-degree movie of CG Gundams (some with really questionable designs) smacking against eachother in space, and then there are a bunch of clips reminding you of all the Gundam series you could be purchasing right now. They're pushing Gundam Seed HD really hard, so a bunch of time was spent on that, and obviously Gundam Build Fighters. It's about 10 minutes long and it hurts your neck to watch, just like all Circlevision-style movies. No, you don't get to sit down.


No photos inside the Gunpla gallery! Inside it's a big hermetically-sealed display of what looked like every Gundam model ever (but it really couldn't be, could it?), placed in a stark white room with lighting that reminded me of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Shhh! Don't tell anyone I snuck this photo.


HOPE: There was a “Which Gundam Heroine Are You?” personality quiz on the wall in the ladies' room. Unfortunately, I couldn't read it. I'll never know who I was!


This Gundam is pretty big but it's not as big as the one coming up, so feel free to be all blasé about it.





Some big-scale models on display. This stuff all looked pretty good – the lighting inside here really helps sell it. I was impressed.


An exhibition of Gundam spin-offs! I expected this exhibit to go for about 10 miles or so given how many of those there are, but it's just a couple of rooms.




This is a 1:1 scale part from a Gundam. This is “Ankle Guard Wheel Part” and it's the size of a manhole cover. GUNDAM FRONT WOULD LIKE YOU TO UNDERSTAND: GUNDAMS ARE BIG.


HOPE: Llllllllllllllllllllllladies?


Char has his own brand of potato chips, which cost $10 a box. I didn't buy them. It didn't look like anyone had. Poor Char.


Outside the nerd merchandise area there's upscale stuff like jackets and ties and shoes and cufflinks and, yanno, boxer briefs. This seems to be a new thing – high-end menswear with little hints from Evangelion and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Gundam on it. I say it seems like a trend because this is like the third time I've seen it. Maybe all the ladies at the nightclubs in Harajuku go nuts for lightly-Gundam themed pocket squares or something.


Cirque du Soleil has a bug-themed show out back. You can't escape the Cirque.


So here's the big Gundam. You were waiting for it, right?


GUNDAM BUTTS ARE ALSO QUITE BIG


HOPE: You can see the truck there for scale. There are dozens of stickers all over the Gundam's body saying not to climb it, so you know at least one person's already pursued their dream of getting into that cockpit.




One Piece stuff is goddamn everywhere. There is nothing they won't make. Here's further proof.


HOPE: Fell in love with this little guy in Odaiba. It's Sirotan! He's a harp seal mascot who likes to dress up as other animals. (The manta ray costume he's wearing can be removed.) He helps save his fellow seals by raising awareness and a portion of proceeds for IFAW. He is also criminally adorable.

AKIHABARA, OF COURSE


We meet again, Akihabara.


HOPE: Akiba seems overwhelming from a street view, but that's just before you head into the buildings, like an Animate or Kotobukiya superstore. Then it's truly overwhelming. There's merchandise of every kind from all the biggest anime and games of the previous year packing every room for floors upon floors. Properties that don't have goods available yet have ads coating every open wall, even into the elevators. After a short time, you get genuinely dizzy from all the colors and insane variety of products, and needless to say, keeping your wallet shut is nigh-impossible. The greatest surprise in Akiba was the increasing prevalence of female otaku-aimed product, much more than I was told to expect in a male-dominated shopping district. The biggest franchises in that vein were Free!, Kuroko's Basketball, and Uta no Prince Sama, but there was tons of variety available, both on the main floors and on entire fujoshi-centered floors. You could even see echoes of female fandom for the gender-neutral shows like Fate/Zero, where stands were sold out of character-specific merchandise for “sexy men” like Tohsaka, Kotomine, Kiritsugu, and…Rider? Needless to say, as an otome fan, I felt very welcome.


As Hope mentioned, the biggest change in Akiba since the last time I came: Fujoshi seem to own at least a third of the real estate here when it comes to merchandise, if not more. Most stores have at least one Fujoshi merch floor, which is great, because that's equal opportunity consumerism. If the presence of all this fujoshi stuff in Akihabara indicates demographic buying power (it does!), they're here to stay.


Speaking of stuff you can't escape, Ted was a huge hit in Japan and the merchandise for it is ubiquitous in toy stores and pop culture shops. Which is a real shame because I was looking forward to not being reminded of the existence of Ted until Ted 2 came out. Given the type of stuff they're making, I'd say Ted is Japan's Alf right now.


HOPE: Well, if you wipe your bum with senpai, he will definitely notice you…

Clearance rack for White Day stuff. What are you doing in here, Creamy Mami? I… oh.


HOPE: Business on the front, waifu on the back.


This is fun.


HOPE: I like how the Durarara!! one slightly to the right says “keep out,” like yeah, I'm sure the proud new owner of that dakimakura is going to “keep out” of Izaya's snugglespace.


HOPE: Llama-san's iPhone cover says “I Need Grass” and it looks exactly how you're imagining, which is wonderful. Also really envying that Polar Bear Café coffee mug.


HOPE: Taiko no Tatsujin is the most cathartic of games. Nothin' like beating the tar out of that drum to Preserved Roses!


A lot of the really fun silly stuff seems to be exclusive to the crane games, like these celphone stands that look like kitties. I wanted one, but the machine was broken. Next time, kitties. Next time.


Next to this ominously dark stairwell is a case displaying some pretty common statues and figurines, beckoning you inside. I think it's a trap.


I'm not sure how long this has been sitting here but I'm going to assume it's been a long time, because that's the only thing that makes sense.


Outside this particular crane game place they had chained this poor, forever-bouncing Kirby toy to a pole, trapped forever in the elements, getting filthier and filthier as it futily tried to escape, occasionally getting kicked by a passer-by. I felt bad for him.

HOPE: All I could hear in my head as the poor little guy bounced around in the breeze was “Waaaaaiiii!”



Click here for Day Two!




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