Two Weeks in Tokyo

For my 38th birthday I spent two weeks mooching around Tokyo, seeing the sights and sampling the culture and cuisine before trotting off to the Tokyo Game Show for some so-called 'work'. My good mate K came with me and this is a small, not-very-detailed diary of what we got up to...

Two Weeks in Tokyo

27th September

Once again I'm in Tokyo for two whole weeks of geekiness. This time K as decided to tag along and we're enjoying the sunshine, gadgets and everything else Japanese.

Arriving at 10:15 after around 14 hours of travelling, our first stop was the hotel where - true to form - I found I had left my laptop charger at home. A quick trip into Akihaara (pic, right) and I found a old guy in a back alley selling all manner of charger-related goodies. We threw a few cables together and were back on track.

We spend a couple of hours wandering around various Anime, Computer and Game stores and found an awesome networked Mecha-combat game in a Sega Arcade building. Each player had their own pod with a wraparound display and played in a 16-player deathmatch.

I took a brief (16-second) video showing the game play. The player (who you can see in the bottom left) sits inside the pod controlling the action with a couple of joysticks and an array of buttons. It looks pretty damned good.

It's a shame we'll never see anything like this in the UK, since the investment required will be far too high when you think about how the UKs arcades tend to end up full of chavs and all the machines covered in cigarette burns. By contrast, Akihabara's arcades are clean and tidy, with staff distributing hand wipes and keeping the machines clean.

The lack of sleep caught up with us so we returned to the hotel where we had a beer and promptly fell asleep. More news tomorrow, possibly.

Harajuku and Shibuya

28th September

Yesterday's travelling caught up with us more that we initially though, with the maid waking us up at 11am to clean the room. We hopped out of bed sharpish and started our second day half asleep.

Since it was Sunday we decided to go a few stops along the Yamanote line to Harajuku where we saw all the young and trendy Tokyoites in their funky costumes. A few goths were there along with the 'Free Hugs' guys, and we took a few photos before heading into Yoyogi Park.

We posed for a quick photo at the huge Tori gate and headed into the Meiji temple where we saw a young couple getting married and possibly the world's cutest toddler in a mini Kimono.

Too Cute!

There was a bit of a photo scrum at this point so we went off the peruse the architecture of the shrine, only for K to get us into trouble for sitting on the steps. Can't take him anywhere!

Now woken up, we returned to Harajuku and walked around Takeshita Street and Omotesando, stopping for a bite to eat and a can of coffee. Eventually we ended up in Shibuya very close to the huge central crossing there - a five-way traffic/pedestrian battle overlooked by giant video screens, almost like something out of Bladerunner.

The futuristic theme was continued in the arcades we found with most of the games being of the networked, multiplayer variety, everything from horse racing to the POD network games mentioned yesterday.

I had a quick go of Tekken 6 and got my butt kicked in High Definition. It was worth the ¥100 (50p).

Eventually we made our way back to Harajuku and rejoined the enlarged crowd at the bridge where we took more photos of the various cosplayers, including a 6ft man dressed as a woman and a shorter girl dressed as a Mortal Kombat style character. We posed with a couple of them because, hey, why wouldn't you? K chatted to a Japanese woman from Australia who looked bemused by the proceedings and refused to have her photo taken with the performers, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Itou Misaki harajuku Fashionistas Shibuya Station

Footsore but thoroughly entertained, we headed back to the hotel pausing at the 7-11 for something to eat, and went in to blog. We put the (HiDef) TV on just in time to catch a bizarro eating competition with people scoffing platefulls of chicken and squid, and later watched all the drama of Felipe Massa pull out of the pits with his fuel line still attached in the Singapore Grand Prix, handing his position to Hamilton. Hurrah!

Ginza

29th September

It was never going to be a case of 'Rain Stopped Play' here in Tokyo, since the city doesn't stop for anything and we pretty much thought the same, but the constant light rain from Typhoon Jangmi cast a shadow over the whole day as we trekked around the streets of Ginza - Tokyo's leading shopping area.

The architecture around Ginza is mainly towering skyscrapers. You could argue that much the same can be said for most of Tokyo, but here they're much newer and more modern, with glass-fenced courtyards, subterrainian shopping areas and more. Many major corporations have their own towers and the overall effect can be sterile and futuristic.

Our intention was to hit the Sony building and find the Godzilla statue, but my bearings were off and neither of us thought to check the maps we had for directions so we ended up stumbling around Ginza an hour before anything opened. We passed the 6-story (ish) Toy Park store and made a mental note to visit it later, but promptly forgot how to get back to it. Disaster!

Ginza Ginza Godzilla Statue Godzilla Fountain

Never mind, the Sony building housed a great collection of current and future products, everything from camcorders to MP3 and Blu-Ray players. Despite being decidedly anti-Sony (I dislike their habit of introducing unnecessary proprietary formats) I could not help being impressed with the quality of some of the latest models and the set pieces.

After an hour of wishing for fatter wallets, we eventually went back out into the rain and made our way North West towards the Godzilla statue. Mighty Godzilla stood tall and proud (all 4ft of him) for our photos and we celebrated our pilgrimage at the nearby Starbucks.

On the way back we stopped off at a Pachinko parlour where K dutifully sacrificed a few hundred Yen to the God of Gamblers, then is was a brief train ride back to Shinagawa and our hotel. Sadly the rain has continued all day, so we're hoping for better weather tomorrow.

Odaiba

30th September

The rain continued today so we hopped on the train to Tokyo Teleport and the Sega Joypolis arcade. For roughly £17.50 you get an all-day pass that allows you to play all of the full-version arcade games from your youth - things like Outrun with full-sized cars and so on - as well as some of the newest games from the company.

Halfpipe Canyon was there the last time I visited Joypolis, but it's worth a mention since I don't think I covered it last time. It comprises four 2-person skateboards arranged along a halfpipe. The boards swing on a pendulum arrangement and you can perform a 360 using a large rocker switch beneath your feet. The aim is to start the turn at the centre point of the halfpipe for maximum points.

Joypolis Entrance Inside Joypolis

One of the new rides was 'Spin Bullet' which is an indoor roller-coaster cum teacups ride. The track ducks and dives around the inside of the building in a frenzy of tight corners and sudden drops, including one around the three quarter mark where I where there's a moment of zero-g. Not recommended for people with bad backs or of a nervous disposition!

Also new is Burnout Running - a track and field sim featuring four full-sized treadmills for competitors to sprint on. We watched four girls playing this and decided it was far to energetic for old farts like us.

Partway through the day we took a walk over to Toyota Megaweb where we had a look around the latest models from Toyota's lineup, including the Toyota Alphard and the Lexus SC430. The staff at MegaWeb are on hand to explain the features of the vehicles for as long as you want them, and you are more than welcome to sit inside to try them on for size.

Toyota Megaweb Toyota Alphard Megaweb Big Qheel

We also took a 7-minute ride in the eCom - an electric two-seater that was running around the building on a guiding track. Great stuff, and well worth the ¥200 (£1).

On the way back we noticed the huge ferris wheel that dominates the skyline was all lit up, making it even more noticable. We didn't go on it this time since we really wanted to snap some photos of the surrounding area, but we'll see about it next week. We returned to Joypolis for a few more games before getting something to eat and heading home.

Ueno

1st October

With the rain finally easing off we set out to walk around Ueno, a market and shopping area just North of Akihabara that also hosts Japan's oldest Zoo. The station was a 20-minute ride around the Yamanote line from our hotel and we started out late morning.

Walking around the market area we saw plenty of fish and vegetables on sale alongside handbags, trainers and sunglasses. Throughout our visit the market was full and bustling with crowds all going about their business, giving a 'real life' feel to the area not found in the fashionable districts like Ginza. We left the market to the West and backtracked up Chuo Dori to Ueno Park and the Benten-do Shrine.

Ueno Zoo Monorail Ueno Zoo Meerkats Ueno Zoo Shoebill Ueno Zoo Polar Bear

After snapping photos of pretty much everything, cats, fish and ninja turtles included, we moved on to Ueno Zoo and spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking at the animals there. The zoo is normally ¥600 to enter but was free today, and is nicely laid out in two halves with a short monorail and footpath running between them.

Restaurant in Ueno Ueno .. Thing Ueno Market Ueno Drain Cover

Eventually we were feeling a little footsore and went back to the market for a bite to eat. Well I did at least - K looked rather ill while I ate my Octopus Balls (not as gross as it sounds) and didn't seem hungry after that. Heh.

Nissan GT-R

TV Spot: Riko Narumi from the J-Dorama One Litre of Tears is the new face of NTT Docomo. She appears on most trains and all the NTT leaflets, as well as a few TV ads.

There's also an ad for DHC (for MEN!) that appears mostly on the trains and never fails to make us laugh - it shows three guys with a bizarre .. I don't know .. scalp cooler? You have to see it to appreciate how mad it looks. Sadly it's not yet on YouTube.

Shinjuku

2nd October

Our first stop of the day was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices Building - a cumbersome name but one with no fear of being done for false advertising. The building towers 48 stories over nearby Shinjuku Park and has an observation floor right at the very top, reachable via its own high speed lift, where you'll find a cafe and gift shop.

Views over the city are fantastic with Mount Fuji visible on a clear day (sadly not today) and the neighbouring skyscrapers there for all to see. No more craning your neck upwards to catch a glimpse of these wonderful buildings - from the observation deck you can look down on them and take some stunning photographs although, according to Wikipedia, you're not allowed to use tripods.

I snapped a few bird's eye photos of the surrounding area and bought a few bits of tat from the gift shop before heading off to the park nearby.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices Shinjuku Park Waterfall Shinjuku Park Spider

Shinjuku Park is nicely laid out, with a wide waterfall greeting visitors coming from the direction of the station. The open space in front is a popular spot for people to excercise and practise martial arts or just to meet friends on the steps nearby.

The only downer is that the bushes and undergrowth around the park are absolutely crawling - if you'll pardon the pun - with an array of spiders not usually seen outside of the type of nightmare you get after a heavy night on the cheese. Arachnophobics take note.

After our brief sojourn around the park we headed off to the NTT Intercommunications Centre, a kind of museum-cum-art-installation located on the 4th floor of the Tokyo Opera City building. Our map turned out to be out of date at this point because a new expressway appeared to have sprung up in the interval since it was printed. This caused a little confusion, easily resolved by popping into a nearby police station and inflicting my broken Japanese on an unsuspecting receptionist.

The NTT installation was.. interesting to say the least. The highlight was probably getting to play with the weird and wonderful Tenori-On musical thing. It looks stupid and a waste of time, right up until the moment you start playing on it and before you know it you're late for your next appointment, dammit.

Which is pretty much how we came to miss the Japanese Sword Museum, so we'll have to do that another day.

Images from Shinjuku

4th October

We've had a couple of days of catching up with various sights, taking photos and charging batteries, stuff like that. Here's a few photos from today's hike around Shinjuku which ended at Harajuku after a cut through Yoyogi Park. Enjoy!

Courtyard Fountain Corporate Art Shinjuku Skyscrapers Mode Gakuen Tower Astrological Clock Giant Toe Art Love Art featured in Densha Otoko Yoyogi Park Trees

Bullet Train to Hiroshima

7th October

After ten days of hiking around various areas of Tokyo we decided to give our feet a bit of a change of pace and go somewhere that wouldn't require as much walking. A decision was made to hop on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and visit somewhere, but where to go? Deciding to wing it a little, we noted that the next train was to Hiroshma, and so it was that we found ourselves on the Nozomi Shinkansen to the visit the first city ever to be hit by an atomic bomb.

Buying the tickets was fairly straightforward even for someone of my limited Japanese. The words 'Nozomi', 'Hiroshima' and two politely raised fingers sent the desk clerk into a frenzy of activity that resulted in two sets of return tickets (total cost, a frightening £175 each) for unreserved seating cars on the 700-series train.

The trip there is much like flying by aeroplane, but with bigger windows and seats and more leg room and no seat belts. The train whizzes along rather quietly (we were in the first car, close to the front) on a smooth, tilting track. Staff are exceptionally polite, bowing to the passengers when they enter or leave a car. Prices for food and drink are roughly double vending machine or kiosk prices.

Our trip took four hours including stops. Hiroshima station helpfully has large, obvious instructions to help you find your way to the A-Bomb Dome which is the main focus of the memorial. Emerge from the station, take Street Car 2 or 6 as far as Genbaku Dome-mae (approx 15 mins), and pay ¥150 when you get off. To get back to the station, simply take the same Street Car back again.

There are several art installations and statues in the area to the South of the A-Bomb Dome which make up the memorial area, and the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall is the main focus of the park. In there, you'll find the awe-inspiring Hall of Remembrance comprising a 360-degree mosaic made from 140,000 tiles representing the estimated number of victims, a central time sculpture depicting 8:15 - the time of the explosion - and a severely hushed atmosphere. Flash photography is forbidden but you can take photos.

Hiroshima A-Dome Hall of Rememberance Explosion Monument

Everything about the park was tranquil and conducive to reflection on the events of 1945, from the eternal flame near to the dome, to the water feature clock at the entrance to the Hall of Remembrance in memory of those who died begging for water. The hall itself contains a searchable database of the names of the known dead, as well as transcriptions of letters and memories of survivors of the events.

After a couple of hours, during which we took some great photos, we left to catch the Street Car back to the station and caught the Bullet Train back to Tokyo. We both agreed that the visit to Hiroshima had been a once-in-a-lifetime thing and were very pleased that we'd decided to visit.

Tokyo Game Show: Day 1

9th October

Up with the lark, we showered and dressed earlier than usual to catch the train to Tokyo and then on to Kaihin Makuhari on the Keiyo Line and Makuhari Messe - home of the Tokyo Game Show 2008, or TGS for short. The convention hall itself was well signposted, but it was really just a case of following the crowds since everyone was heading in our direction. Once we rounded a corner and were greeted by an inflated VG character we knew we were on the right track.

Today is the first day of TGS, which means it is open to entertainment-related businesses only. I was pushing it with my Web Design job but I'd recently had some business cards printed up where my title was given as Design/Consulting so I used those, and I'd recently given K tips on games and stuff so that's consulting, right?. I presented my completed application form with the requisite two business cards, paid my entrance fee and away we went - we were in!

Welcome to TGS2008! Booth Babes PS3 Thumb Board

All of the big names were there, from Nintendo with the Wii to the likes of Sega, Sony, Konami and more. Microsoft didn't have a booth specifically but there were plenty of XBox 360 kiosks to play on. Level 5 had an enormous stand incorporating a closed theatre showcasing some excellent-looking titles on a huge high-definition screen. Sega's stand seemed dwarfed in comparison, but was still one of the better looking ones, decked out in blues.

Many of the booths featured the obligatory Booth Babes who on the whole were pretty to look at and didn't mind posing for photos in between handing out all manner of freebies. We scored a few fans, pens and badges, DVDs and countless product brochures, so much in fact that our bags were beginning to weigh us down towards the end of the day.

Gaming machines were numerous as you would expect but there was also a huge presence from KDDI and NTT Docomo with their mobile gaming offerings including Tetris League and a 3rd Person 'Monster Spree' thing that saw you running around a city killing spiders and possibly the other online players. The Japanese market is massive for this kind of stuff, since the subways are packed with commuters doing something on their mobile phones or handhelds.

Big-Box gaming was well represented as well, with Gran Tourismo Prologue, Silent Hill Homecoming and Metal Gear Online all being showcased by their publishers. Anyone could play these on the hardware provided and we made sure to give it a go. Versions at the show are special 'TGS' versions which can be reset to a default state with a few clicks of the controller, and only have certain levels/features available.

The Nintendo DS seemed to be everywhere, but three quarters of the games (to us at least) were the click.. click.. click.. RPGs that the Japanese love so much. We can only stomach so much of these, not least because there were no English versions, and the low point of the show was having to persevere with a space-based version (click.. click.. click..) because a camera crew had set up just behind us and we were in the shot. Still, the NDS is a hotbed of development right now, with everyone piling on. Phantasy Star Zero looks to be one of the titles to wait for.

Oh, and Taiko Drum Master is coming to the Wii! I've already kinda decided to buy it based on my terrible performance at the show, and I can only apologise in advance to the distress I am going to cause my neighbour.

One of the last things we did was try out an Earthquake Simulator - a small mockup of a dining room atop a hydraulic lift that shakes, rattles and rolls everything around you, simulating a quake of 7 on the Richter scale. We spotted a couple of Japanese TV celebs (no idea who they were, sorry!) filming a segment in the machine and decided to have a go as well. Talk about laugh.

After spending at least six hours wandering around, snaffling freebies and taking photos, we decided to call it a day and make a run for the train before rush hour combined with Tokyo Disney (which is on the same route) to bring everything to a crawl. We'll be going back on Day 3 which is the first day open to the general public to see how different things are.

Tokyo Game Show: Day 3

11th October

Day three of the Tokyo Game Show is the first that is open to the general public as opposed to those 'in the trade'. We arrived at around 11am expecting to have to queue at least a little, but the sight of thousands of people already ahead of us in the huge meandering line gave us pause for thought.

After checking with the attendants it transpired that, yes, even ticket holders were in this line, which was slowly snaking its way around the entire forecourt in front of Makuhari Messe. Figuring that the inside was going to be just as crowded as the outside we decided to stay a couple of hours and meet up and the giant Norton inflatable out front.

The inside of Hall 5 had changed drastically. Gone were the huge publisher booths, and instead there were booths dedicated to individual games from various companies. Several countries had their own little areas - places like The Netherlands, Canada and even China had all of their national talent under one roof. Smaller companies lined the walls of the hall with their own tiny displays.

Some of these smaller houses were touting wares that were more imaginative than the big boys' offerings. One company had a title that tied in with a webcam so that your actions on the table in front of the camera caused the on-screen character to do something. Sadly I didn't catch the name of that one but it looked interesting - certainly more interesting than the latest Madden or Need for Speed.

Another of the smaller titles was Castle Crashers from The Behemoth, a four-player co-op where each character has specific abilities that may or may not help the team complete the level. While this may sound like Sony's Little Big Planet, the action in Castle Crashers is more beat-em-up than puzzle solving, and the graphics and huge, colourful and just a little bit mad. It could be good.

One thing that puzzled us both is the absolute insistence of some companies to forbid people from taking photographs. It's as if they don't want the publicity at all. No harm will come of someone leaking a wobbly, slightly-out-of-focus video of the rendered scenes or even the game play, and in fact it would only whet the appetite of those looking to buy the games. Heh, screw you guys, I'll just take my videos from further off, with a mono/tripod and a zoom lens. I saw a few people doing this.

I was hoping to find out more about Ushiro, the grungy-looking haunt-em-up that Level 5 are working on for the PSP. I sincerely hope this comes out on the Xbox 360 because it looks amazing. Sadly the crowds were too dense (in more ways than one) and I gave up around 1pm, electing instead to go and get something to eat and drink.

The public day was certainly different from the business-only days in that it was much more about the games and there were more of them, whereas Thursday was more about the publishers and their offerings. While I don't really want to suffer the crowds on the public days, I think it is necessary to go to both days to a broader spectrum of what's on offer.

Sayonara, Tokyo

13th October

And we're off. We caught the train to Ueno and thence to Narita and were here three hours before our flight time, like good little passengers. We had one last Japanese meal before we left - Chicken Teriyaki - and filtered onto the plane homeward.

Tokyo was, once again, a city of a thousand different sights, all of them welcoming. Just hopping onto the Yamanote line and alighting at a random station is enough to let you experience the different flavours that make up the metropolis. The city is clean, tidy and efficient and you will be welcome pretty much everywhere. Some of the highlights of this year's trip:

  • Riding the Bullet Train and visiting Hiroshima.
  • Finally getting to try Octopus Balls. Being shooed from the steps of the Meiji Shrine (oops).
  • Whale meat for two at Kujira-ya.
  • Tokyo Game Show, both days.
  • The hospitality and welcome everywhere we went.

Typing this on the plane, I still have a while to go before we land in Amsterdam ready for the 40-minute hop across the English channel to our local airport. I am stuck in a window seat on the South side of the aircraft with the blinds down, which means they're radiating heat into one side of my face, and I can't really put them up because people are trying to sleep.

In the seat in front of me is a fat Dutchman who can't sit still for five minutes and is straining his seat almost to breaking point, encroaching into my leg space. To add to the fun, he's intermittently dropping the most disgusting farts imaginable, which despite the carbon stuffing of his seat are finding their way into our part of the plain. I can only see the top of his head, which is grey, balding and greasy.

The plane is kitted out nicely, with an airphone and TV in each seat, and a range of games, movies and TV shows to keep every passenger occupied. Unfortunately, thanks to El Dutcho, my screen is tilted slightly downwards and so any video I want to watch is half negative, since the vertical viewing angle on the screen is utter crap and it won't tilt up enough to compensate for the seat it is on being tilted back.

And I have six more hours of this. Sigh..

Update:
Finally got in to find that the luggage had been delayed, so I nipped back to the airport (it's only 20 mins away) and picked it up later.

 

bl0ke

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