Wednesday 31 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 3 (Reunions)

At the start of the day, Ryan and I had arranged to meet with Masami. We both knew Masami from Leeds Met where she was one of the Japanese students involved with the study group we joined. Last year, after finishing her course, she had returned home to Japan so we were looking forward to a reunion.

With both our very busy schedules, today would be the only day we would get to meet, so we seized the opportunity after some careful planning. The weather did not start out so great as the rain did not stop all morning. This proved to be a little problematic for Ryan and Kyle who ventured out to buy much needed supplies. Sure enough, upon their return they resembled survivors of Noah's flood (bringing with them a breakfast of hamburgers - we haven't really had a Japanese breakfast yet).

But true to form, Ame Kami (Rain God) answered our prays and the rain stopped. Unfortunately this came too late for Ryan and Kyle who were looking at me with with worryingly angry expressions.

And now for something completely different (Miis with cat ears)

 Upon arriving at the station, and successfully navigating the stations, we made it to our rendezvous. This did involve a little heated debate regarding whether we needed to get to the east exit or the Seibu east exit. Ikebukuro isn't quite as complicated as Shinjuku (that station has more exits than any other station I've seen, I wouldn't be surprised if there were more exits than lines!) but still has enough exits to make it difficult to arrange meetings at. Sure enough, Ryan was proven correct although in my defence, the two exits are next to each other (okay, that's not much of a defence).

It wasn't long after lunch time and none of had eaten yet (well other than our "breakfast" of hamburgers) so lunch was the first order of business. Masami suggested a ramen restaurant called Hakatta Ippudo ( In stark contrast to some of my previous trips, I'd so far avoided the ramen diet so it seemed like a nice change.
I can strongly recommend Hakatta Ippudo, I've been told by Masami that they've opened a branch in London, definitely going to have to check that out some time.

We chatted about how things were going and what we all had gotten up to over then past year. After finishing our noodles Masami offered to show us around Ikebukuro. Our tour started with shopping, Masami suggested checking out the Hello Kitty shop (yes, there is such a thing!). We had to see it to believe it, seriously, I don't think I've ever seen so much Hello Kitty related merchandise in one place! Next on the tour were an electronics store and an alcohol shop. The latter was quite interesting, there was an apple flavoured sake and a sparkling sake available to try. The sparkling sake was nice, I decided against buying a bottle after being told that it's popular with young women (a point that Ryan and Masami found hilarious) but did opt to buy a bottle of the apple flavoured one.

Ryan was interested in buying a sushi cover for his suitcase (I'd love to see a baggage carousel filled with those!) so Masami suggested the Tokyu Hands in Sunshine City. Unfortunately the covers in question were nowhere to be found, Masami seemed to think that they might only be available in Haneda Airport.

Time was running out (we needed to return for the evening activities Kyle had planned) so we finished up at an arcade where we were treated to a display of Masami's Mario Kart skills. I was introduced to Taiko no Tatsujin. This is a music game that involves beating a drum to the players choice of song (think drum version of guitar hero/rock band, with cute drum mascots). Let's just say that I have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever.

Before parting ways at the train station, a kind gentleman helped take a group photo. We said our goodbyes then Ryan and I left Ikebukuro for Minami Koshigaya and the evening of entertainment Kyle had planned. Hopefully we'll be able to meet up again sometime, it was a nice afternoon.

In Minami Koshigaya we met with Kyle and his friend Mizushima San (a friend from the local reading circle). Once again, I had met Mizushima San earlier in the year whereas this was a new introduction for Ryan. Kyle was hoping to get a drink and some food at the standing bar (I don't think this was it's name but that's what he called it). Unfortunately they were full so they helpfully suggested that we try Yamachan for some yakitori.

The food at Yamachan was great and the restaurant had a great atmosphere. We chatted for a while over food and drink, the next activity was Karaoke (something that I required a little liquid courage for). Readers, you may consider yourselves fortunate that I'm typing this and not singing this. You see, I have absolutely no singing abilities whatsoever. The fact that Kyle insists that I try to sing a few songs each trip suggests to me that he must be a complete masochist.

Karaoke did provide an opportunity for a little humour. Mizushima San is doing very well with English but doesn't know much about the cruder side of the English language so we decided that he needed to learn more about English (or at least British) swearing. Bearing this in mind, I opted to sing "Going Underground" by The Jam but with some... different lyrics. The lyrics in question were "London Underground" by Amateur Transplants (I pretty much had the lyrics to that particular song memorized). Here's a video of the song in question, please be aware that it contains very strong language.

After my ritual humiliation (and the punishment of the eardrums of all present), things had become a bit quieter at the standing bar so we went for a drink there (it was close to last orders) before returning home.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 2 (They maid me go!)

This story is entirely non fictitious, names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent

After a good night's sleep Ryan and I felt refreshed and ready to take on the day (at least Ryan was, I resembled an extra in The Walking Dead). Being the only one of us who was fully awake, Ryan offered to venture out and bring us breakfast. Because Ryan and I were interested in trying more Japanese food he brought back... McDonalds (sometimes I wonder what goes on in that guys head).

After a breakfast of egg mcmuffin (covered in maple syrup - what's with that?) we got ready to leave. The plan was to meet A San outside the Tsukuba Express station in Akihabara. We arrived early so we took the opportunity to do a little shopping. The main reason for this was that Ryan was interested in buying a Sheriff Woody figure, aka "Hentai Woody". Clearly I've not been a good influence on Ryan
Some of the things Ryan will be able to use his "Hentai Woody" for

Things in Akihabara had changed a little since I was last there (the promotions on the sides of buildings, the themes of arcades and other thjngs change to reflect the latest media) but the place can still be recognised as Akihabara.
Some of the latest promotions
One thing that did confuse (and slightly worry) me was the new promotional image from Sega, featuring a woman hugging sonic. I don't think there are words.
So I guess Sonic is popular with furries?

With shopping complete, we returned to the station to meet A San. This was my second time meeting A San (we met during my last trip) but for Ryan this was a first time introduction.

With introductions complete it was time for lunch. As we were in Akihabara, where else would we go other than a maid cafe? In my defence, the maid cafe wasn't my idea! (I suppose you could say they maid me go).
As expected, cute adornments to beverages etc
It was all pretty standard maid cafe fare (from what I've been told, don't get the wrong idea - it's not like I'm an expert in maid cafes or anything) with cute pictures being drawn on food/drink and playing a random game with the waitress.

I've come to the conclusion that the waitress took a particular dislike to me for two reasons: Firstly, we ran out of time so I didn't get to play a game (not the end of the world and not worth noting on its own). Secondly, when I provided my name for the loyalty card (before you ask, something they provide to everyone - I didn't specifically ask for it) they wrote profanities instead.
Judging from the name they wrote... I don't think they like me very much
Next stop on the tour was Tokyo Station. This wasn't because there was anything in the centre of Tokyo that we wanted to see, we just went to see the station. Don't worry reader, this wasn't a train spotting trip, we were just interested in the architecture. Tokyo station (currently celebrating it's 100th anniversary) is designed in a European style of architecture which actually reminds me of Leeds.
It's just like being in Leeds
Tokyo station was only a flying visit so it was soon time to move on to our next destination: Asakusa (and Sensou-Ji temple). Asakusa is easily one of my favourite locations in Tokyo,

As always, the shopping district next to the temple was incredibly busy. The hustle and bustle add a certain charm to the area but I suggest caution if travelling in groups as it's very easy to become separated (this almost happened to us a few times).
Marketplace in Asakusa
A new year speciality available at the time was amazake, a sweet, spiced sake. As this is only available around new year, I strongly advise trying it if you have the chance.
Enjoying some amazake
By the time we finished in Asakusa it was almost time for dinner. Kyle had made reservations "The Lock Up", a horror themed restaurant I went to 2 years ago. One of the quirks of the restaurant is that one member of the group gets nominated to be handcuffed by a waitress, dressed as a police woman, when the group are taken to their booth (designed to look like a cell). We nominated Kyle for this and judging by the look on his face he appeared to be enjoying it.

Food and drink options have a horrific/monstrous/mad scientist theme to them. This and the setting all contributes to create a fun atmosphere.
Unusual selection of cocktails
There's a reason this guy was banned from the science lab when we were at school

There are "Russian Roulette" dishes available. These consist of 4 dumplings, sushi rolls or a few other assorted dishes. 3 of the 4 are normal. 1 of them contains lots of wasabi or chilli. Be sure to have a 2litre jug of beer on standby for the loser of the game! We tried a few rounds and I soon started to feel guilty as A San lost 3 out of the 4 rounds we played (I lost round 4 and can confirm that these are not for the faint of heart!), As Kyle had tricked A San in to thinking that he had lost and the other 3 were safe, Kyle grudgingly accepted to try a round of Russian Roulette nibbles by himself as a forfeit. He soon learned the true meaning of pain when he found that the batch he tried were a little more powerful the the previous ones (maybe the chef was wondering why we had ordered 5 of them?).
As added entertainment, every so often the staff will stage a monster escape. A member of staff in a ghoulish costume will enter random booths and "shoot" the occupants (with a pop gun, the kind you get at western events as a kid) until the "monster" is shot by one of the waitresses. It may sound a little strange but it all made for a really fun evening.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 1 (I'm rushed, I'm stressed, is this going to work?)

Boxing day marks the start of my trip to Japan to celebrate new year. This was a pretty last minute trip (only booked around 2 weeks ago) which only became possible due to a change in work schedule. I'd been looking at the possibility of a new year trip previously, so Ryan (already flying out to visit Kyle) suggested joining him.
Without my usual (almost a) years worth of planning (and such close proximity to Christmas), this was a little more stressful to organize than usual. Now that the trip is underway I think I can say that a trip like this does't really need a years worth of planning. It certainly makes it easier, but it is possible to plan a trip like this in a shorter space of time.
The thing that surprised me the most was the price of the flights. Pessimistically, I had expected flights to cost an absolute fortune and be completely impractical but was pleasantly surprised by the prices I found. The tickets were cheaper than what I used to pay with Lufthansa and certainly cheaper than Finnair/JAL (JAL are still my favourite for service and a 2 bag allowance in economy class). The only catch is that I'd be trying another new airline, in this case Virgin Atlantic so I at least have an opportunity to review another airline.
The main things I needed to sort out were:
  1. Getting to the airport
  2. Foreign currency (didn't need much as I already had some left from last time)
  3. Phone rental (in some situations a lifesaver)
  4. Travel plans with Ryan to get to Kyle's (I didn't put together a plan for which trains to use as I have the route memorized)
  5. Some preliminary discussion with Kyle and Ryan about what to do
Beyond that, there wasn't much else to do.
Getting to the airport on Boxing Day required a particularly early start time of 02:00 (this is early even compared to previous trips), so it's safe to say I wasn't drinking much on Christmas day (at least my weight loss was being assisted). Ryan and I opted to share an airport taxi as the options were limited for boxing day (I might factor this in if I go back for new year again).
With Ryan's flight due to open baggage drop off at the same time mine was due to depart we took the opportunity to grab a coffee for an hour (after I'd dropped my bags off) before I went through to the gates. Fewer people appeared to be travelling as there were few queues at security, I probably managed to get through the whole process in less than half an hour. This left me with plenty of time to spare - waiting in airports is not something I particularly enjoy.
It's not like there's anything else to do in Terminal 2, is there?

The flights were pretty uneventful, consisting of a short hop from Manchester to London Heathrow then on to Tokyo.
The first flight was from Manchester Terminal 3, which was new to me (having previously flown from T2). Terminal 2 is a little bit... small and there wasn't much to do. On the plus side it was quiet so the whole experience was quite pleasant. The only thing that particularly annoyed me was the idiotic passengers at the gate who insisted on talking over all the announcements. This does not help when the boarding rows are being announced! There isn't really much I can say about a 1 hour flight. I was offered a mini bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, can't complain.
The second flight was from Heathrow to Tokyo Narita. This is only the second time I've used Heathrow and it's been okay so far. Virgin Atlantic passengers with connections were able to take a shuttle bus to Terminal 3 and proceeded straight to the gates. That certainly sped things up! With over 3 hours to kill, I went in search of free charging stations (I really didn't think the S3 battery was going to stand up to being used on a 12 hour flight, even in flight safe mode) and grab a quick bite to eat (plain ham sandwiches from Boots - I like simple sandwiches, don't judge me!)

After boarding I soon saw that the cabin interior looked rather... dated and the in flight entertainment looked a little... outdated (I don't think they've updated the cabin for a pretty long time). I was left with the feeling that the 90's called and they wanted their television screens back (seriously! turning the brightness up and down felt like I was doing it on a 90's television set!). Other than that, couldn't really complain. Despite the rather outdated interiors (and entertainment system which I didn't use this time, so can't comment on the quality yet) the flight was pleasant enough. One thing I will say about the Virgin Atlantic cabin (at least on the A340-300) is that there seemed to be a reasonable amount of legroom. The Finnair flight I caught last time did feel a little more cramped and didn't seem to have much legroom, this was pretty good.
Food was okay, for lunch, a Christmas lunch was offered (opted for a Japanese curry instead) and a full English served up an hour before landing. Beer selection was limited, but that's hardly the end of the world.
During the flight we were notified by the flight attendants that the northern lights were visible. I couldn't sleep anyway so the brief glimpse of the northern lights did make for a nice little moment. Other than that, I spent most of the time simply trying to relax or listening to Big Finish audio plays. These really do help pass the time!
After landing and going through the standard malarkey of immigration, customs, baggage collection etc I set about picking up my phone and establishing contact with Ryan. At this point my partially careful planning started to let me down as I had received no message from Ryan. Having ordered a week in advance, I had my allocated number sent to my email address so I could let Ryan and Kyle know what my number would be.
For some reason, we thought that Ryan landed before me and would wait in the airport for an hour or two before we headed out to Kyle's. Turns out that Ryan hadn't landed yet and (according to the arrival boards) was due to land half an hour after I collected my phone, Timing worked out quite well so I simply waited at arrivals for Ryan in the area I knew all passengers leave through.
With contact established, we were ready to head out to see Kyle. This is a route I remember well from previous trips so I had no trouble getting us there.
Surprisingly, neither Ryan nor myself needed much rest so after a quick catch up we headed out to get some Tonkatsu for lunch (clearly Kyle and Ryan intend on me gaining weight during this holiday).
On the way back we explored a little more of Misaso including the Mega Donkeyhotey, a mega store selling just about anything and everything.
I have absolutely no idea why they chose that particular name for it, the only conclusion I can reach is "because it's Japan".
You can see this from just about anywhere in Misato
Also of note is that the Ikea building can be seen from most places in Misato. I just thought I'd mention this as we also browsed LaLaPort and LaLaPort is next to Ikea.
After a little more exploration (and walking off lunch) we headed back to the apartment for a little gaming (there wasn't much point going further afield on day 1). By this point we were getting close to dinner time.
The plan was to go out for yakiniku (meat grilled at your table). We were joined at the restaurant by Sato San and Kojima San. After some food and drink it was time to head back, by this point exhaustion and jet lag were starting to catch up with me.
On the way back we noticed some graffiti, not something that I'd normally expect to see.
After getting back we decided to check Nintendo Street Pass and came to the conclusion that there are some very dull people out there. Health and safety information counts as a game? (then again I've seen a few people who's most recent game was System Settings)
That's all for now folks. Day 2 coming up soon.