Monthly Archives: January 2014

Come to Akihabara and get Schooled at Arcade Games

I grew up with an arcade up the street from me. I only went there once and it has now been replaced by a furniture store. You don’t see many arcades in the USA anymore. That is quite the opposite of what is going on in Japan. Arcades seem to be thriving, especially in Akihabara which is considered the cultural centre for all things computer games, manga, and anime-related.

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I think we took the JR (Japan Rail) to get there and then just walked North(?). There might have been a few transfers, but I can’t remember exactly HOW we got there, but we got there. Right out of the exit we are bombarded with neon’s and brightly painted buildings touting anime and manga characters that I was (and still am) unfamiliar with. We kept walking until we found an arcade that we liked, actually I think it was the first arcade we came across but we liked what we saw. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos while inside but let me tell you, it was pretty cool. The arcades that I grew up with were always on a single floor and spread out over a vast, expansive space that was more like a warehouse. With space and land at a premium all things in Japan grow UP and not out.

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Once inside we went up an escalator that snaked up the building. We passed through floors with various games ranging from a ‘Rock Band’ like game to a floor that was entirely pink and filled with games meant for smaller & younger children. After staking out the entire place we went back down a few floors and found some games to play. The first one I played was a classic zombie shoot-em-up only as you held the gun in your hand it monitored your heart rate and whenever a zombie or another creature popped out and surprised me, I would see the meter spike. A truly fun and unique experience, even if I did die within the first 10 minutes.

The second game I tried was called ‘Quiz Magic Academy’. I had no idea what the game was about or what it did. I just sat down, dropped in some Yen and started playing…or at least I tried to play. Little did I know that I stumbled upon a word/quiz game – in Japanese! I selected my character, who rode a rocket ship instead of a broom like the other witches/wizards and I was off.

Then the questions started coming.

I had no idea what they were asking or what the answers were. I just pushed the buttons on the screen hoping for something good to happen. I got one or two right, clearly on accident, and this game felt like it went on for an hour because I was doing so poorly. Mercifully, the game ended and no one was near me to see how poorly I did, although I’m sure they could just look at my face and see that I was in a daze because my ass just got kicked.

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After leaving that arcade we ventured up the street to find another arcade. As luck, and proximity, would have it we found one a few buildings away. We walked inside and could see that this one was different. This arcade was filled with games that allowed you the opportunity to win prizes! From stuffed Pikachu’s to figurines and body pillows with scantily-clad manga girls on them. I stuck to the games with Pokemon prizes in them, because that was the only thing I was familiar with in that entire shop.

After trying my hand at the classic claw game trying to catch a plush Bulbasaur, and failing, I sat down to play a version of Pokemon. Finally! Something I knew how to play without having to know Japanese! I selected my Pokemon and proceeded to battle. I missed my opportunity to catch two of them but the third was mine. I sent out that Pokeball and boom! I caught a Garchomp! Relishing in my victory I gave myself a small round of applause and then I heard something rattle around at my feet. I looked down and saw a prize slot and a cartridge. I picked it up and saw it was Garchomp. Apparently you could use the cartridges in the game itself as you battled other Pokemon. I then came to the realization that you can actually carry around Pokemon in your bag and be ready for battle at any arcade that had this game. I didn’t care about that. I only cared that I literally caught a Pokemon in Japan! My life is complete.

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Shibuya

This place is crazy. Crazy busy and crazy confusing.

The second night in Japan my friend Sean and I met up with a Japanese friend, Ryoji, who is a good friend of an old friend of mine back in the USA. He suggested meeting in Shibuya, even though he said he hated that station and that part of town. After arriving there, we could see why. We were tasked with finding a numbered exit at the Shibuya Station where we would meet up and go out from there. We followed signs, even though the led us in a different direction and ended up walking back and forth through the station a couple of times before I messaged him to come and find us. We stayed put and were found within minutes.

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Shibuya Crossing

Walking though the station there is a wall of glass that allows you to peek out and view the famous Shibuya Crossing (above) and witness the madness that ensues when the walk signal turns on. Once street level we walked around a bit taking in the surrounding area while we searched for somewhere to eat and, of course, drink. We crossed through the busy crossing and I kept my camera in my pocket because I was wary of being run into and being THAT guy who stops in the middle of Shibuya Crossing. I mean, I already stood out enough and I didn’t want to draw any negative attention to me so in my pocket it stayed.

We find some place that apparently had a good deal on all-you-can-drink beer for 1 hour and sit down and eat … and drink. I am HORRIBLE with chopsticks but after about seven or eight Asahi’s I think I was doing OK and was mastering the eating utensil. There were some adventurous food choices that we ate. Some good (beef tongue) and some not so good (chicken kidney) but I tried it and have lived to tell the tale.

After dinner was over we met up with a friend of Ryoji’s who just got off work and she was hungry so we went to a diner about a block away from where we just ate and, well, ate and drank some more. By this point I was a chopstick master, at least that’s how it looked from my perspective. I was picking up and eating food with ease. It was great. Then, out of nowhere, it was 3AM and that meant that it was time to head back to the hotel. With the Metro closed we decided to walk back since it wasn’t that long of a walk and it was probably better for us anyway.

Walking in the dead of night through a foreign country probably sounds like a very bad idea but Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world, something Ryoji told me as we walked around Shibuya, and it felt good to walk around and see the city in a different way. The highlight of the walk was when we stumbled upon some Akira artwork. I have no idea why it was there but it was cool. After taking a few photos we made it back to our hotel. I have no idea how long it took, but we got there in one piece so that’s OK with me.

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A Visit to Meiji Jingu Shrine

“A giant patch of green and serenity in the middle of the chaos that is Tokyo.”

That is how I described Meiji Jingu Shrine. It’s a peculiar place, not in the odd sense, but in that it exists in a city that is so modern and busy. It was a nice escape and a pleasant way to start my Japanese journey.

After taking the morning to figure out how to get there – Tokyo Metro to Harajuku – my friend and I were on our way. Once in Harajuku we noticed that people were dressed differently than in Akasaka. In Akasaka, it was more business attire. In Harajuku it was more free spirited and apparently this is the place to find the “Gwen Stefani’s”, so that would make sense. After snaking our way through the streets and taking in the various shops and restaurants we made it to the Shrine entrance.

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Once through the entrance, the hustle and bustle of the city faded away as the canopy of trees acted as a sound barrier allowing us to hear the quieter sounds like the loose pebbles moving beneath our feet with each step. Further down the path, we came upon a wall of sake barrels. The sake barrels are offered every year to the enshrined deities by the Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association and other brewers wishing to show their respect to the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

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Before entering the main Shrine building you are asked to pay respect in the form of rinsing your hands and drinking water.

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After paying respect we pass through to the main Shrine area and take in the beauty that is the Main Shrine Building.

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From here we walked around the grounds and at one point we could see the city peaking out from behind the trees and it served as a reminder that in fact we are in a metropolis.

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Circling the grounds we then entered the Meiji Jingu Garden. The Garden is home to a fishing stand, iris fields, the Well of Kiyomasa, azaleas, water lilies, wistarias, and numerous other flowers. Although most of these were dormant, given the cool temperature, it was still a beautiful sight.

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The sun was setting and the Shrine was a few minutes from closing so we made our way through the Garden and back to the main entryway. The cacophony of the city slowly faded into my ears as we reached the entrance. No longer would we be in a quite and peaceful setting but I was OK with that because it was a great experience.

Across the way we could see the National Staidum, home of the 1964 Olympic Opening Ceremony and a site for the future 2020 Summer games. I was lucky enough to take this photo of the sun setting just behind the stadium and I feel it is a perfect place to end this piece.

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To The Land of the Rising Sun

With my journey in Hong Kong over, I embarked on my next destination: Japan! But first I had to get to the airport.

I left my friends apartment in Tin Hau before 6am to hop on the MTR. Little did I know that I would have to wait for it to open and in that brief moment I saw the entrance gated off, I thought to myself “How the #%&* am I going to get to Central Station? Will I need to take a cab there? Do I go back to my friends apartment and wait?” Those questions and what felt like a million others flooded my brain as I walked toward another entrance. I was greeted by a locked gate there too, but this time I read the sign and saw that it opened in 10 minutes. This set my mind at ease and I was able to wait patiently, with my three bags, for the MTR to open and subsequently hop on the train and head to the airport. Once again, it was very simple to make my way through Hong Kong and to the airport which I had forgotten how spacious it was since I was rushing through trying to get my bags the last time I was there. It is beautifully constructed, with a ceiling that seemed to stretch forever and made me feel very small in comparison.

After a smooth check-in, a quick stop at a gift shop, and a bite to eat I was on my way to Japan. After sitting on flights for 15.5 & 13.5 hours this quick trip of less than five hours was nothing to me. Going to Japan had been a dream of mine ever since I was young and I owe it all to anime. I grew up watching shows like Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors, Cardcaptor Sakura, Gundam Wing, and DragonBall Z so this trip had been a long time coming. I knew it wouldn’t be anything like those shows, but being where they were created was what I had been wanting to do for quite some time.

After a friendly exchange with the airport security guard checking my bag, I mean this literally he was very nice and curious about what I there to see and do. I realize it was typical screening stuff but it did not feel like an interrogation (like the ones I’ve faced when re-entering the USA). I gathered my bags, looked around the baggage claim area and saw that I was one of the last ones left from my flight – which is what I like since I like to be last off the plane because I have to wait for my bags anyway so I might as well relax! I walked through the double doors and what was the first thing I saw? A poster of DragonBall Z characters and some Hayao Miyazaki characters, like Totoro, all welcoming me to Japan! How cool is that? Too cool, if you ask me. I determined it to be a great omen for the rest of my trip.

Once through the doors, I looked around to see how I was going to get to my hotel and eventually meet up with my friend who was flying in at the same time but at Narita, the other major airport on the other side of the city. I knew my final destination and the general way how to get there – or at least I thought I did. All of my research was done online but when I stood and looked up at the most complicated metro system I have ever seen, I froze. Luckily there was a nice female employee who asked where I was going and then directed me how to get there and what I needed to pay. I made my way through the turnstile and down to the platform for the Keikyu Line. Once the train arrived I hopped on and I looked up at the map – no English. Internally, I panicked but calmed myself because I knew the name of the station I needed.

I moved out of the way as passengers boarded and took their seats all the while I was doing two things: listening for my stop and taking in the Japanese urban scenery. It wasn’t until two stops before my final stop that I looked directly above me and saw a digital screen that flashed both Japanese AND English for the station name…Oh well. Sure enough, I made my transfer easily and found my way to my final destination: Tameike-sanno station in Akasaka. I found my exit and made my way to my hotel. I had used Google Maps to find my way, but nothing can prepare you for actually being there. I made my way through an alley and onto the street the hotel was on but I took a wrong turn and then had to find WiFi and pinpoint the hotel which was literally a block away.

Let me tell you, finally finding that hotel and being able to put my bags down felt AMAZING! I was sweating from carrying my bags and I just needed a rest. About an hour or so later, my friend arrived and we hit up the 7-Eleven for some late night/cheap eats. I grabbed a juice, some chips, and a microwaveable burger. I put my items on the counter and the cashier spoke to me in Japanese. I told her one of the few Japanese phrases I knew: “I don’t understand”, and shrugged. She then continued in Japanese but this time pointed to the microwave. I shook my head, since we had one back in our room, said “Arigato!” and we walked back to our hotel.

Back at the hotel, we went to the vending machine to see about the famed Japanese vending machines that carried beer – something unheard of in the USA. We were not disappointed:

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After eating, and drinking, we walked around the neighborhood a bit to give ourselves a better feel for our surroundings. Walking around we were treated to bright neon lights and a city brimming with life as tons of people were on the sidewalks making their way and the street was filled with cars. A truly amazing sight, and the beginning of an awesome journey.

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Come On Get Happy – Valley

Fun Fact About Me: I have seen horse racing on three continents.

The first being North America, where there is a race track not 10 minutes away from my house that I have been to a number of times. The second being in Brisbane, Australia, where I might have had too much fun and fell asleep somewhere on the grounds (I won’t divulge where) only to wake up and find that everyone, literally everyone, was exiting but I still saw the horses race…a few of them anyway. The third was in Hong Kong at Happy Valley Racecourse.

Happy Valley is a largely upscale neighborhood, which would explain the Maserati’s, Rolls Royce’s, and Lamborghini’s I saw rolling by – although this is Hong Kong and I saw more nice cars there than I have in my entire life living in Southern California: the place where everyone wants to be seen in a nice car (Sidebar: but I never got that sense in Hong Kong. They just seemed to be cars people drove around, used as status symbols but not in the flashy way I’ve seen back home.).

The Happy Valley Racecourse has races held nearly every Wednesday night during racing season and my friend currently living in Hong Kong thought that this would be a good way to end my visit. It’s an easy place to get to by either taxi, or you can walk from the Causeway Bay MTR station, but the preferred my preferred method is by Tram. It will be cramped and it may take a bit longer, but it’s all a part of the experience and it allows you to see the city in a new way.

Take the tram all the way to the Happy Valley Terminus and if you’re uncertain if you’ve reached the right place, take a look around and you’ll see the Racecourse right next to you and, most likely, the rest of the passengers will be getting off at this point as well. Or, when in doubt, just ask. The tram operator will be happy to let you know if you’ve reached your stop.

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The lights make this place seem more grand and exciting than just your normal racetrack. Walking up, I was taken aback at the box seats & luxury suites that arose from the grandstands. Then there was the music pumping through the speakers and even a fashion show! It was not something I was accustomed to seeing at racetracks, then again this was my first time in Asia so there were bound to be some new and exciting things. Across the open track the high rise apartments, that are no doubt expensive, caught my eye. The lights from the track illuminate the buildings closest to them, but as civilization expands outward the buildings seemingly get taller and their yellow lights shine in the black night like stars.

The Racecourse is a popular gathering spot for expats from the UK, Australia, the USA and who knows where else. I heard their accents as I walked by and I was amazed at how far some people have come from their home countries to live & work. I then learned of an acronym for a certain type of expat: FILTH – Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Is it true? I have no idea. I was only there for a few days, but the Brits I saw looked fairly successful…if I were solely judging them on their clothes and arm candy – which both indicated that they were successful – at least visually… I digress.

The races themselves were rather, well, pedestrian with the highlight being the brie & bacon hot dog I ate with my beer. Full disclosure: I don’t bet on sporting events. This dates back to Super Bowl XXXIV when I bet four of my friends $5 each that my Tennessee Titans would beat the St. Louis Rams. I was only out $20 but I learned the hard way of the pitfalls of betting on sports & gambling with your heart instead of your head and I vowed from that day on I wouldn’t bet on sports. Now I stick to the occasional blackjack and slot machine where I keep a limit. Anyway, not betting on the horses probably made the night less exciting but I kept my money and enjoyed the sights and sounds that Happy Valley had to offer.

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