Category Archives: Japan

A Visit to World Cup History

The Summer of 2002 was a magical year for the Stars & Stripes at the co-hosted World Cup between South Korea and Japan. It saw them advance to the quarterfinals only to fall to eventual runner-up Germany. But it was also a huge success for the Asian hosts. This was the first time the tournament had ventured to the Far East and the two hosts performances laid the foundation for their current crop of national team members and their supporters. This was only the 2nd appearance at the World Cup for Japan with their debut coming four ears earlier in France. They have since qualified for each following World Cup, including this Summer’s contest in Brazil. This is a young soccer nation and they have proven that they should not be taken lightly. The host for the 2002 final was the city of Yokohama, roughly 25 miles South of Tokyo and being being soccer fans Sean and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium.

The first step was getting to the stadium from Tokyo. Up until now, we had mainly used the JR and Tokyo Metro and in order to get there in a timely manner we decided to take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). It was also an excuse to ride the famed Japanese Bullet Train.

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A quick and quiet 18-minute ride later and we were in Yokohama and there are signs at the train station that point in the direction of the stadium which only made it that much easier.

After navigating the streets and adhering to the directions from the signs, we were at Nissan Stadium.

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It’s a massive structure that was on the border of the city and suburbs. It is also a popular destination for runners and joggers, as we saw numerous people running by the stadium.

As we walked toward the entrance it was easy to try and put ourselves there back in 2002 and imagine the sea of Yellow & Blue & Green and Black & Red & Yellow parading into the stadium, cheering and singing all the way. On this day, it was empty.

At the stadium entrance there is a small statue commemorating the final and the entire tournament with the bracket and group results filled out. Being a USA supporter I quickly found the spot where we beat our archrival Mexico and knocked them out of the World Cup in what has led to a series of matches where we beat them 2-0, or Dos A Cero (en Español).

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Dos A Cero!

After basking in that glorious moment that took place over a decade ago, it was time to take the tour. Normally, the tours operate at certain times and since we thought we had just missed the first tour of the day we were prepared to wait around the gift shop or the stadium until the next scheduled tour. This was not the case. No one showed up for the first tour and since we were the only two people waiting for one we were treated to what turned out to be a private tour.

The tour guide filled us in on when the stadium was built and walked us by the banners and plaques commemorating the World Cup group matches played there and the home team Yokohama F. Marinos of the J-League. From there we went inside the stadium.

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Once down on the field level we really got the scope of the stadium and just how massive it really is and how loud it must have been on the night of the final. Speaking of the final, what must have it been like to be in that winning locker room? I’ll show you! While it is impossible to recreate the moments and atmosphere of that event, the Japanese do a great job preserving the memory of the final. Upon arriving in the locker room we see jerseys of each player hanging in their respective locker and it was hard not to get giddy at the fact that we were standing where Brazilian greats like Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Kaká and Ronaldinho once stood and celebrated. They also had each player sign the wall behind their locker and they then encased in in plastic to preserve it. They also preserved the white board coach Luiz Scolari used on which he predicted that they would win based on adding up the years previous champions, Germany and Argentina, had won and they all equaled the same total. He also boldly predicted, based on this equation, that they would win again in 2006 in Germany – not so much.

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After touring the locker room we were brought into a room where the players practiced shooting on  goal. It is literally a goal painted on the wall with a diving goalie added for effect. And yes, you can even take a shot on goal!

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After barely making a goal, the ball just slid inside the “post”,  we were led to an area that housed many items of memorabilia from the tournament. Items like signed jerseys, balls, and programs from different matches throughout the World Cup played at the stadium and just beyond that, is a gigantic mural pieced together artfully depicting “The Beautiful Game”.

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This was the final destination for us on our mini Japanese adventure and it was a fitting conclusion to a fun-filled trip.

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An Early Morning Bike Ride Around the Imperial Palace

Imagine if the US Government allowed road closures around the White House and then let people ride bikes around it. Sounds awesome but there would be detractors who would say it was a waste of tax payer dollars to close the roads and provide free bikes for people and then there would be the national security element and on and on and on which would ultimately lead to it never happening.

Good thing this is not the US.

Every Sunday, a roughly 3km set of road surrounding the Imperial Palace is closed to car traffic and 500 free bikes are available on a first-come-first-served basis. All it takes is a simple signature – I assume it is some sort of waiver – and you get to choose any bike you want.

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Look at all these bikes!

It’s very simple to just hop on and ride and there are guards who point you in the correct direction. On the Sunday in November we were there, there is no one around to pressure us to finish our lap so we were able to ease into the ride and stop and take as many photos as we wanted.

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Oh Hey!

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Taking a photo of a guy taking a photo

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The roads are closed

 

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Near the turn around

 

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Tokyo’s Finest

After completing the loop and returning to where we first picked up the bikes, it was time to actually enter the Imperial Palace gardens, which just so happened to also be free! We couldn’t ask for anything more!

First up was touring the outer portion of the Palace and admiring the architecture and scenery. Just as it was with the Meiji Shrine, it is amazing to find a place as serene and beautiful that is also surrounded by a metropolis. We were drawn to the Palace gates – mainly because there were numerous tour groups gathered in front taking group photos so we decided to see what was going on. As it turned out, it was the main entrance for the Emperor and Empress – who are very rarely seen.

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Then it was time to head inside and tour the gardens.

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Entrance to the garden

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There really isn’t a whole lot more to tell. The photos speak better than I could hope to and physically illustrate the beauty and majesty that is the Imperial Palace and the Gardens inside.

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The SkyTree

The name SkyTree certainly conjures up a great image in the mind. A tree that lives in the sky. Sounds poetic and perfectly describes this Tokyo destination.

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Unfortunately, for this trip we were not allowed to go to the top because of bad weather (high wind) yet when I checked the website that morning it said it would be open…oh well, those are the breaks. It just means that I will need to make another trip to Tokyo and finally see the city from a different perspective.

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It’s a very impressive structure that sticks out amid the urban sprawl of apartments and offices. And as we stood from the base and looked up we realized just how massive the structure is and the amount of planning and engineering involved in the making of this observation deck.

After we walked around the base and took in as much as we could we walked around the mall that surrounded the SkyTree. At the base, where tour groups and buses gather, there is an art installation that is part hand-painted mural and part digital. It depicts Tokyo in a compressed and condensed manner that highlights just how compact the city is while also having fun with technology that has become a part of the city’s identity. The digital portion of the mural animates the citizens of Tokyo and how they go about their daily lives in a fun and cartoony way.

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After taking in this fun piece of art it was time to head on out since the tower was not going to be opening until much later that night and we had things to do and places to see.

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The Dome & A Dolphin, Uniquely Japanese

As I have already experienced, nighttime and dusk is when Tokyo comes alive. Taking a trip out to the Tokyo Dome to ride the Thunder Dolphin was no different.

The Tokyo Dome is a MASSIVE stadium home to the Yomiuri Giants and I was excited to see the stadium and see what was around the venue. It just so happens that these Giants share the same colour scheme as the hated San Francisco Giants, so there was NO WAY in hell I was going to purchase any gear with players names or hats or anything else with the word ‘Giants’ on it out of sheer principle.

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That being said, I was hoping that we could possibly take a tour in the stadium or possibly take in a sporting event that was going on at that time. Sadly, the only thing going on there was some pop concert that had what looked to be every single tween in Tokyo waiting beyond the gates and talking with their friends waiting for the gates to open. This clogged up the walkway and it was difficult to navigate through the sea of tweens to get to our final destination: The Thunder Dolphin.

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I don’t think I have ever been on a roller coaster that, literally, goes through a building before, let alone one that is in the middle of a city. As a roller coaster enthusiast, I knew that the Thunder Dolphin would be an awesome experience just by looking at it. It was a simple process of purchasing a ticket from the kiosk and then waiting in a line. The line is a tad slow, but that is only because there is only one car that runs on the track at a time. While waiting in line the ride operator shows you a list of items that you can and cannot bring with you on the ride. Luckily there are pictures just in case you don’t speak Japanese.

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Before you are strapped in you must put your belongings into a locker coinciding with your row. They provide a key attached to an elastic band that fits snugly around your wrist so it doesn’t fly away. No hats, glasses or watches are aloud. Trust me, they will tell you to take them off if they see them. Just do what they ask the first time so you can experience the ride sooner rather than later. Once strapped in, the ride operator in the control booth gets everyone excited and holds up a plush dolphin and everyone gives a good yell of excitement.

This is where the fun begins.

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The car slowly lurched up the ramp with a loud CLAK CLAK CLAK and we looked to our left and right out at the city below and just as the car reached it’s zenith my friend said “The [expletive deleted] Japanese are crazy!”, then we plummeted at a near 45° angle, felt weightless and then were slammed into our seats as we shot up at break-neck speed. The track bent left and right and went through that hole in the building from the image above and went up and down and all around until we were back at the ride entrance and everyone was laughing and smiling with joy and excitement after experiencing such an awesome ride. It is a must-see & must-do for anyone visiting Tokyo and any roller coaster lover.

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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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