Saturday, 3 February 2018

Japan New Year 2017, Day 3 – New Year Celebrations, Otaku Style

My plan for the first part of the day was to make a much needed visit to that great shrine of otaku culture – Akihabara.
One of the first things I like to do when arriving in Akihabara is to see what series are being promoted. For example, on a previous trip, I remember seeing some “Kizumonogatari” related promotional materials on the outside of the Atre buildings. This time round it was Fate/Apocrypha, there was also a Blend-S billboard on one of the other buildings.

Feeling a little tired from the previous day, the first order of business was to get a some coffee. Fortunately, in Japan, there is no shortage of vending machines capable of supplying caffeinated goodness. While it was tempting to stop by a coffee shop/café (to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee, I recommend café moco) I was a man on a mission. My mission was to identify and purchase a suitable quantity of figures and character goods. Those who know me from the anime circle will know that I have a particular fondness for Konosuba (and a certain masochistic knight…) so something konosuba related was going to be on the cards.
Browsing around some of the stores, a noticed a few interesting curiosities. First was a cardboard cutout of Reimu (from the Touhou series) in one of the stores (I decided to get a photo of this as there was a sign saying “camera ok”). The second was a promotion for what appeared to be a new manga. I believe the title translated as “Chastity/purity of sadistic girlfriend”. I decided that I’d have to do a little background research in to that series – in the interests of science, it’s not like I’m interested in that sort of thing or anything! (Baka!)

During my shopping trip I found a few items I # interested in, one of which was a “fukubukuro” or “lucky bag”. This is a nice little system for clearing out stock at the end of the year. These are bags with a collection of random items, sometimes you can get some great deals and other times not so much. On a previous trip I got one containing a few random Youkai Watch items. This time I got some rather rare Animal Crossing game cards (buying the 1000 Yen general bag rather than a 5000 Yen “Love Live” bag – I do not like Idol anime!).
Something fun about Akihabara is that you can sometimes find interesting new themes for the old Maid Café concept. One I spotted this time was a “Samurai Maid Café”. It’s different, I’ll give them that! Maid cafes aren’t really my thing, though, and I decided to give that a miss. I also noticed a woman outside promoting an owl café (they have become quite popular) and signs for a few cat cafes. I did at least think “boku to neko” (cat and I) was a somewhat witty name.

Something new that I found was that there seemed to be a trend to use “itasha” (cars decorated with anime characters) for promotional purposes. I think these were promotions anyway, as I saw the same cars doing circuits of the area to I surmised that they were doing promotions.
One of the first places I checked out was the Shosen Book Tower. I was hoping to pick up some JLPT N4 materials (as I wasn’t able to take classes, I thought it best to continue my studies independently) and to see if I could find another copy of the vocab guide I use for some friends who are learning Japanese. Thee vocab guide wasn’t there, so that would have to be left for another day. I was, however, able to find some reading and grammar guides for N4. For anyone currently living in Tokyo, Shosen has a selection of English books so this is good for those looking for books from home of material to practice reading in English.
During the course of the afternoon, I think I managed to break the pedometer in Google fit. Passing one of the many stores, I spotted a little plush of Puk from Re:Zero. I thought nothing of it at the time but as time went on I lamented myself for not making an impulse buy. Eventually, caving in, I double back and went in search of the plush. After reaching Akihabara station, my starting point, I thought to myself “ah, you missed it. Let’s try again”. Sure enough, after an almost endless walk, there was no sign of Puk. Had he been sold already? Maybe, or was I missing something? Then, I realized my stupidity. I crossed over the road to look in one of the other “Liberty” stores (Liberty have a couple of stores, 2 of which are opposite each other. Sure enough, there he was. With luck on my side, I wasted no time and made my purchase.
Normally, I like to describe (in great detail) the things I eat. Unfortunately I was too focused on shopping to remember to get lunch. By the time it got to 16:00, I started to think that I might be a little late for lunch and early for dinner. With that, I employed the fallback strategy that served me well last time, nikuman from the Family Mart! This helped stave off hunger, but I did regret not getting home run curry at one of my favourite restaurants.
My haul in the end was:
·         A lucky bag
·         Puk
·         (Konosuba) Darkness Nendoroid
·         Kiss Shot figure from Monogatari
·         Darkness keychain
·         Saber keychain (Arturia – the best saber!)
·         A mountain of JLPT materials

With a successful shopping trip, I headed back to Kyles to drop off my goodies and plan out where to get dinner. The second half of that turned out to be fairly easy, as Kyle was in a rush and wasn’t sure when he could leave he made an executive decision and bought in McDonalds. How very Kyle, but having subjected him to “The Ramen Diet” a few years back, I’m not one to complain. Besides, he was keen to try the new bacon burger. Eating in gave us the opportunity to plan out where to go later on, we were thinking of going to the shrine in Nagareyama but Kyle wanted to check what other shrines might be available in the area so that we could potentially try somewhere new. Not seeing many other options in the area (we were keen to avoid getting the train for practicality), we decided on Nagareyama. Although we’d been there before, it’s a nice shrine and had a good atmosphere before.
Arriving a little early, we were able to have a look around while preparations were being made. Things were pretty quiet except for the… loud gentleman who was clearly annoyed about a number of current events. He was shouting “bakayarou!” (you asshole) at someone, somewhere, and was referring to Kim Jong Un as “baka” (idiot) – I’m sure we could agree on that part. I got the impression that he may have had a few too many drinks, I commend the shrine volunteers for handling the situation in a dignified way. He appeared to get bored and left at some point while we were looking around the main shrine building. It was interesting to see a large number of omomori in a box, these were likely ones that had been given back to the shrine at the end of the year. You see, after a year, omomori are usually taken back after a year to the shrine they were bought from and burned (the blessing only lasts a year).
Being at the shrine just before midnight was a nice experience as everyone present was able to take part in a countdown to the new year. This was initiated by the mayor of Nagareyama who thanked all present for coming, especially the Gaijin – Sometimes it’s good to be a fashionable westerner! The countdown was a great (collective) responsibility, so Kyle and I made sure to practice beforehand (じゅう、 きゅう、 はち、 なな、 ろく、 ご、 よん、 さん、 に、 いち). After the countdown, we made our offering (5 yen in the box then a routine of bowing and clapping) and checked out the area. I decided to get an omikuji (paper fortune), since we were going to be meeting Yaashita in a few days I thought I might be able to ask him for a translation. Knowing my luck, I’ve probably got a bad fortune!

It was getting pretty late so we then decided to had back. At 02:00, we figured it was going to be a pretty late start the next day…

Friday, 12 January 2018

Japan New Year 2017, Day 2 – So this is a sleeper town?

While I was settling in and overcoming jetlag, we decided not to stray too far from Misato. An interesting opportunity presented itself in the form of an Aeon Town shopping centre that had recently opened in Yoshikawa Minami. This was somewhere that Kyle had not visited before so we thought it might be worth a look. Yoshikawa Minami was just a few stops before Koshigaya Laketown so close to some familiar areas.
Arriving at Yoshikawa Minami station, I was confronted with a giant statue of some kind of pink… creature. Kyle informed me that this was simply the town mascot. Japan went through a phase of creating mascots for just about everywhere. This turned out to be rather costly and now as some of the mascots are being “retired”, replacements aren’t being designed. The aim is to just stick with prefectural mascots.
Behold, your new overlord!

The Aeon Town turned out to be a little disappointing, rather than a mall it turned out to be just a large department store. There were still a few interesting things including a character goods section and some fashions. Kyle managed to convince me to try on some coats, I did find one that looked quite good on me but sadly even the large size felt a little tight when trying to close it. At 4000 Yen it wasn’t a bad price (and of year sale!) but in the end I decided to stick with my faithful old M&S coat.
We explored the area surrounding Aeon Town but there wasn’t much in the area, the whole area looked like a development set to become a “sleeper town” (commuter town). Panic and confusion set in as the creeping realization hit us that we hadn’t seen a single convenience store – impossible! Aside from a single Lawson in an “Mansion” complex, not a single “kombini” to be found. Sensing that there must be something seriously wrong with this place, we moved on to Laketown.
By the time we arrived it was time for lunch, there was a kebab stand in the outlet section that I was told was worth trying as well as a (Japan specific) speciality currently being offered by Burger King (I remember the “Aka Samurai Burger” was good so I thought this might be worth a try). Having filled up after the kebab, I thought it best to abandon burger king and have a wander around instead (that and Burger King was absolutely jam packed). While we were looking for the kebab stand (it tends to move around but doesn’t have the light normally associated with a side-quest) I noticed the “Dog dept Café”, wondering if this might be some kind of Korean restaurant, I quickly moved on.

Kyle took the opportunity to introduce me to the Bean&Leaf Café, a great little coffee shop that he’d recently been introduced to. In addition to great coffee, they have excellent deserts. Having filled myself up completely with the kebab, I split a slice of cheesecake with Kyle instead of having a whole slice.
We noticed that there was a special event on at the stage in the middle of the mall. The event in question was some Japanese boy band. They were… not all that good. The autotune was quite clearly being pushed to its limits. To save our ears from any further assault, we quickly vacated the area.
By the time we made it back to Misato, we’d managed to work up quite an appetite. Since we had hamburg steak yesterday we decided to try regular steak. Part of the reason for this was that the local steak restaurant had an unlimited side bar, which included curry and rice. This was more than enough to satisfy the massive appetites we’d managed to build up.
Since it wasn’t too late when we got back, we connected my laptop to the TV in order to put on Yu-Gi-Oh! Dark Side of Dimensions for some entertainment. All was well and good until my laptop started to install the Windows 10 Fall Creators update – oops. By this point it was starting to get late so the movie would have to be postponed for another day.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Japan New Year 2017, Day 1 - Travel

Once again, it’s time to travel to (where else but) Japan. Unlike last time, this trip is in the civility and comfort of Business Class (as a side note, I should point out that with the previous trip I really can’t complain given the price). As such, it’s time for the much anticipated (it is anticipated, right?) trip report)
Beforehand, online checkin went pretty smoothly, with my preferred seat (3A, both legs) selected and ready to go. A few things I found quite nice were:
·        An email from Luftahnsa the day before confirming some of the basic details (times, services onboard etc) along with the time difference in Tokyo, weather and links to exchange rates.
·        A selection of electronic newspapers and magazines available for download after check in
·        An email receipt after dropping off my bags
·        Email confirmation of the departure gate
Airlines catch a lot of flack for unreliable web services connected to the creaking, legacy, systems but in this case it was all smooth and convenient. The agent/employee who checked my bags was good enough to remind me I could use the fast track security and which lounge I was entitled to. Nice for if you don’t travel often and likely to forget some of these little details.
The “fast track” security at Manchester had quite the queue. So much so that many of us were being diverted in with the other passengers. All in all, security didn’t take too long so I wasn’t particularly concerned. I suspect that if I’d paid extra to use fast track (as opposed to being included in the ticket), I might have been a little miffed.
I took the busy security as a portent of things to come as a sign at the Aspire lounge informed me that the lounge was at capacity and no on the day bookings could be taken. One of the results of this was that there were no baps for bacon sandwiches out. Turning a disappointment in to an opportunity, I figured this was the universe telling me to have coffee and croissant instead of a bacon sandwich (healthy eating is a new years resolution for me).

The view

Despite around a half hour delay, the flight to Munich was fairly uneventful. The continental breakfast provided on board was a nice alternative to the typical greasy, fried breakfast that the English are used to.
Continental breakfast - chocolate muesli

Paranoid, as ever, my first port of call upon arriving in Munich was to figure out where the gate I needed was. Second was the Business Lounge. I wasn’t expecting much but it’s not a shabby lounge and (at least during the time I was there) it was a quiet, relaxing space. As it turned out, for most of the time I was waiting, the lounge was almost deserted. I’d heard that the lounges in Munich tended to fill up at peak time so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find a nice, quiet space relax in.
I am required under international to have a pretzel whenever i come to Germany

Waiting to board -747-9

Eventually, it was time to board the flight. I was quite exited about this part of the journey as I was looking forward to trying ANA business class and seeing how it compared with Finnair (from last years trip). From the moment I boarded, I felt like VIP. After taking my seat (which required shifting the small mountain of amenities), one of friendly and helpful members of the cabin crew explained the use of the mattress topper (a nice little addition to make sleeping more comfortable) and offered to store my coat and hat in the cloakroom. I was also offered a cardigan (as I was wearing a t-shirt under my coat) which I thought was a nice little touch. The in flight entertainment offered a number of satellite TV channels (CNN, NHK world and a sports channel) in addition to a selection of television shows, movies etc – not that I had much intention of using them, my plan was to catch up on some much needed sleep later on (same as last time. While a good entertainment selection is nice, I still prefer making use of the bed to make sure I arrive well rested).
My throne

Pillow, blanket, mattress and slippers 

Entertainment selection

 After take off and maybe ¾ hour in the air it was time for the meal service, beginning with a pre-meal drink. The cabin crew were knowledgeable about available options and offered helpful suggestions. For the pre-meal drink, I opted for an Italian red wine which I was told was one they had specially for year end. For the meal, I opted for the Japanese option over the western option. There was a sake from Yamaguchi and a sake from Niigata on the menu, which went nicely with the food. Interestingly, the flight attendant who was advising the best order to try the two types told me she is from Niigata even showed me on one of the maps where the prefecture is (I was curious as I’m still not familiar with the location of most Japanese prefectures). I was told that a lot of passengers don’t go out of their way to make conversation with the flight attendants in that way, which I thought was a shame.

Afterwards, with a full stomach, it was time to get some shut eye. Comparing the seat/bed to those offered by Finnair, I’d say that the Finnair seat is more comfortable when in recliner mode as the ANA seat seemed a little short. In bed mode, I’d say the ANA seat was more comfortable.
I think I was one of the last people to wake up as other passengers were having their breakfasts. The breakfast/snack service in ANA business class is “on demand” up to about 2 hours before landing so once I’d woken up, I was offered the breakfast choices. As with the main meal, I opted for the Japanese style breakfast. All that was left after that was to prepare for landing (and make sure my landing/customs cards were filled in properly – a good timesaver for arrival)

Having travelled to Narita several times, it would normally be a simple matter to find my bearings and get to Kyle’s. Of course, this time wasn’t quite so simple I’d travelled to Haneda instead. Fortunately, armed with a cheap data SIM, the wonders of the internet made up for my lack of navigational skills and my journey continued. Upon arriving at Kyle’s, I received the usual warm greeting: “You again?”
We caught up on current events and I gave Kyle his Christmas present – The 2017 Private Eye Annual (I saw it in a bookshop and immediately thought of Kyle). It was starting to get late in to the evening (in other words, my stomach was rumbling) so our next priority was dinner. In all the years I’ve been visiting Kyle, I’d never been to the Bikkuri Donkey restaurant near his apartment. Suspending disbelief that we’d somehow managed to ignore this option before, we had our restaurant choice for the evening. This provided a perfect opportunity for me to try a “hamburger steak”, basically a Japanese version of Salisbury steak. It was also my first time eating at a Japanese “family restaurant”, I’d seen them before in shows like Toradora (the restaurant that Minorin worked at, that Taiga took Ryuji to in an early episode) so that was fun.

On to the next day!