Return to the Rising Sun, Day 4: Going Home Again. . .Well, Sort of

When it rains, it pours.

And I mean pours.  I awoke at about 4:15am and rain was just coming down in buckets over Shinagawa.  Still, there was something peaceful about listening to the rain pelt the ground as I went to the kitchen to post pictures and write yesterday’s article.

We ended up being pinned inside the apartment until nearly noon when the rain finally let up and cleared.  We decided to make our way to Ikebukuro which had been our base of operations for the Tokyo Maximum tour four years ago.  The place had changed a bit in the intervening four years.  A few new businesses had sprouted and the McDonald’s where we had eaten a few meals had been remodeled.

The first thing we tried was to relocate the Mountain Dew machine for Dave.  Alas, our efforts were for naught as the machine was no longer there.  Instead we walked to the ramen joint that always has a line out the door to find that there was a line out the door.

We debated waiting, but as it was already 1pm, we opted to have okonomiyaki instead.  I settled for a regular okonomiyaki and water while most of the other chose sets which included rice and cabbage salad.  We had a leisurely lunch and then left to start walking around the district.

The sky had clouded up during lunch and a few sprinkles began to fall.  With the sunshine, I had left my umbrella at the apartment.  Dave asked me if I were going to buy a new one, but I declined as a few sprinkles were not going to bother me.  Mother Nature proceeded to call my bluff as the rain began to intensify.  I ran into a nearby 7-11 to purchase yet another umbrella, but Andrew bought one big enough for us to share and we shuffled around the district to Tokyu Hands.

Tokyu Hands is a department store and I took a brief glance around the store before heading outside to wait and did some people watching.  Saturday was a good day to get an idea of the massive population size of the city as the streets were jam packed with people.

Eventually our group came together and began making our way to Sunshine City, though we had a brief stopover at Super Potato, a vintage video game store.  This time Mat’s GPS did not fail as we reached Sunshine City in record time.

Most of the group opted to go to a Pokemon store, but as I had no interest, I watched a rather interesting Hawaiian dance demonstration going on at the bottom of the mall.

When the rest of the group came out of Pokemon, we decided to grab some dinner at Café Miami Garden known for pasta and pizza.  I split a pepperoni pizza with Andrew who kindly picked up the tab.

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After dinner, we spent the rest of the evening at the arcade.  I found a machine that had Elevator Action and played a few rounds on it before teaming up with Mat to do some major league damage on Luigi’s Mansion.

It had been a long day and we returned to the apartment for another night of rest.

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 5: Duel with a Tyrant

On our fifth day in Tokyo, we would be enjoying a free day. Now the one regret I had about the entire trip was that I was unable to climb Mt Fuji with Mat and Dave. We are discussing possibly returning to Japan within the next few years so all three of us can climb it, but I’m getting away from the thread of this tale.

I had planned to spend the day climbing Mt Takao, but when my eyes fluttered open that day, I heard the unmistakable sound of rain pounding at the window. Being an island nation, Japan is a lot like living on the coasts in that it rains often and unexpectedly. In fact, it rains so much that umbrellas are available, cheap, in every local shop. I got a call from Yukie saying that the mountain climb was canceled due to the weather, so he refunded my money for that excursion and I joined Mat and Dave on their explorations for the day.

We made a quick stop at Family Mart to pick up some breakfast and then we were on our way. Mat wanted to take us to a cosplay exhibition called “From Cloth to You”. As we were walking to the exhibit, the rain began to pour buckets on us. I was getting drenched, so I ducked into a local store and picked up an umbrella for 400 yen.

Soon we arrived at our destination. It was an old, seemingly abandoned building. The rooms had a dank, basement feel and left an interesting aura for the event. The paintings were rather good and had a wide variety of flavor. Some were typical anime fare. Others had a horror theme. Still others a surreal feel. We spent nearly two hours admiring the artwork and from there, Mat led us to a place to which he had truly been looking forward.

Shortly before our trip, it was announced that a mall in Tokyo was going to be opening a special theme restaurant for one year. It was called the Biohazard Café and Biohazard is what Resident Evil is known as in Japan. I still remember the message Mat sent me with the link to the article. He said, “If you think this isn’t on the agenda, think again!”

I was very impressed with the detail that went into the eatery. Newspapers articles were hanging on the walls discussing the strange murders and disappearances going on in Raccoon City. There was also a special exhibit of S.T.A.R.S. (the special police force in the game) items. The restaurant was all you could eat in the style of a Brazilian steakhouse. What that means is that servers bring cuts of meat to your table until you tell them to stop. For sides, there was some type of bread that was quite delectable and “Healing Herbs” salad. Mat and Dave each enjoyed a Code: Veronica (mint julep) while I satisfied my thirst with water. It was a very pleasant meal and I was especially impressed with the lamb. What I found most interesting was the fact that it cost more for men to eat at this place than it did for women. This is because men can typically eat more than women.

The centerpiece of the restaurant was a life sized replica of the Tyrant (the main monster from the first Resident Evil game). At 9 feet tall, heavily muscled, and a right hand that had razor sharp claws, this beast was truly a force to be reckoned with in the game. When we were nearly finished with our meal, the servers began putting on a little dance show for the patrons. In the midst of the show, alarms started going off and the servers began protecting the customers. The Tyrant had come to life and was threatening to annihilate everything and everyone in its path. The servers bravely fired on the creature, but to no avail.

Time for the reinforcements.

Bravely, I dove into battle and picked up a fallen gun that had the kickback of a feral mule. Taking careful aim, I aimed for the Tyrant’s external heart and took it out in one, clean shot. Victory!!! I was covered in smooches by the grateful waitresses and lauded by the clientele.

Seriously, one of the servers did pull me into the fray and she handed me a gun so I could deliver the killing shot to the Tyrant. My prize was a badge certifying me as an honorary S.T.A.R.S. member that I still have today.

After lunch, Mat wanted to take us to a place called Namja Town in Sun City so we could try some of their ice milk. Now here’s where things got funny. Mat was using a GPS system to help guide us through Tokyo and it seemed to work very well. The only place his GPS didn’t seem to work was in Ikebukuro. In that region, that device sent us all over the map and always to the wrong destination. So we walked. . .and walked. . .and walked.

As we continued trying to get to Sun City, I managed to finally find a vending machine that had Mountain Dew to Dave’s joyous glee. Vending machines are very prevalent in Japan. They can be found on every street corner and contain everything from soda to sushi. Japan seems to be partial to Coke so Dave had to make do without his beloved beverage of choice. When I pointed out the vending machine, our lovable Dew junkie practically danced in the street and I half expected him to bow in homage to the machine. He immediately bought 3 cans of the stuff and these were tallboy cans, so each was about the equivalent of two normal cans. As the machine wasn’t far from our hotel, Dave raided it a few more times before our trip ended.

After 90+ minutes of walking, we finally found Sun City and enjoyed some of the famed ice milk which wasn’t too bad. From there, we headed back to our hotel, only making a brief stop to pick up some burgers for supper. After all the running around of the past few days, I was ready to take it easy. I took a long, hot bath, watched a movie on my laptop, and went to bed.

The next day our tour group would be heading to Odaiba.

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 2: Culture Immersion

Despite having been awake for most of the last three days, I still managed to awake before either of my roommates.  I felt greatly refreshed and felt only slight effects from the jet lag so my acclimation plan seemed to work in that regard.  I took a look out of our window and marveled at the fact that I was now on the other side of the planet.  Then I decided I would take a long, hot bath which unwound me a bit and helped clear up the slight fog of jet lag.

My cohorts were up and about by the time I had finished cleaning up and soon we were in the lobby meeting up with Yukie and the rest of the tour group.  Joining our little group were Kelly and Savannah Nicholes.  Yukie gave us our tour bags which contained swag, itineraries, and a little card worth 2,000 yen that could be used at Family Mart which is similar to a 7-11 in America.  These convenience stores can be found on nearly every street corner.  At one point during the trip, I found a Family Mart across the street from a Family Mart which was kitty corner from a third Family Mart.

We were given about an hour to kill before beginning our half day bus tour, so Dave, Mat, and I wandered around the neighborhood a bit.  What I found most amazing is that I felt safer in Japan than I have in parts of America.  A big reason for that is that Japan has a low crime rate.  This is probably because America is very egocentric, meaning that the focus is on the self.  But in Japan, the focus is on the family unit.  If you do something wrong, it brings shame to your family as well as yourself, so that probably helps keep the crime rate down.

There was a Family Mart right across the street from our hotel, so I bought a ham sandwich and a cocoa drink that was so tasty, I had it all, but one day that we were in Tokyo.  Mat had melon bread and Dave bought some little pancake sandwiches which two little pancakes about twice the size of a silver dollar that had the butter and syrup in between.  It was a nice day so we ate and chatted outside of our hotel.

Soon we had hopped onto a bus to begin our half day sightseeing tour.  We began by going to Tokyo Tower which looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower except it is a bright orange.  The top of the tower gave us a spectacular view of the city.  After exploring the tower, the bus took us to the Mejier Shrine.  Before entering the shrine, we went to a purification area to make us worthy to enter the shrine.

The purification area consists of a long vat of water and you take a ladle and pour water over your left hand, then your right hand, then you swish the water around in your mouth, spit, and tilt the ladle backwards to remove any remaining water.  In the shrine was a prayer board where people would post prayers they hoped to have fulfilled.  Once the board is full, the prayers are burned and offered to the gods.  Apparently, the board fills up pretty quickly around school entrance exam time as tests must be passed not only to get into college, but high school, as well.

I spent my first yen here when I bought a charm for my mother.  I was a bit puzzled at first when the clerk pointed to a tray instead of taking my money.  Mat pointed out that taking money from a customer was considered rude in Japan.  The customer places the money on a small tray because that means he or she is giving the money to the clerk.  As I placed a crisp, new 2,000 yen bill onto the tray, I saw Mat’s eyes flash in wonder.

“Did you just pay with a 2,000 yen bill?” asked Mat.

“Yes,” I replied, concerned that I was making a faux pas.

“Son of a b—–!” exclaimed Mat.  “I didn’t know they had those.  Do you have any more?”

“Yes, it was the only denomination I brought,” I said.

“I’m buying some as soon as we get back to the hotel,” said Mat.

From Mejier Shrine, we then went to the Imperial Palace gardens where I stared goggle eyed at the lush beauty of the grounds.  After soaking up the scenery, our tour bus then took us to Akhibara where we would begin an afternoon shopping tour.

First, Mat, Dave, and I had a light lunch in the Gundam Café, which is based on the anime series, Gundam Wing.  I had a light snack of a couple of chicken wings and some water and my companions played their 3DS machines while I snapped photos.

Soon we were walking the streets of Akhibara, visiting the numerous toy, electronics, and manga shops that littered the area.  In a place as massive as Tokyo, space comes at a premium.  You can’t even own a car unless you own land that you can park it on.  So most people get around Tokyo using foot power, bicycles, or the subway.  Consequently, one didn’t see a lot of traffic in the area.  The lack of space also means that businesses are housed in tall buildings.  Either multiple businesses will occupy an individual floor on the building or the business will have each department on a specific floor.

After wandering around and shopping, our group met up back where we had been dropped off and we caught a subway back to our hotel.  From there we took a night walk around Ikebukuro and ended the evening at an okonomiyaki restaurant.  Okonomiyaki is like a Japanese pizza.  The fillings are mixed into the dough and it is cooked in front of you.  I partook of a shrimp, octopus, and pork okonomiyaki.  The waitress really liked the Son Goku (a character from a series called Dragonball) shirt I was wearing and after dinner, we took a group photo outside of the restaurant doing the Kamehameha wave (Goku’s signature attack).

After an exhausting day, we returned to our hotel to rest and recharge for more adventures.

 

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 1: Traveling to Tokyo

In “The Arizona Chronicles”, I alluded to a trip I took to Tokyo, Japan and now I think it would make for a good series while I am between escapades.

It was 2012 and my old friend, Mat O’Donnell, had announced that he was going to return to Japan.  Mat loves Japanese culture and even studied the language in college as a part of his major.  He had taken a tour to Japan back in 2010 and gushed about how amazing it had been and vowed to one day return.  Two years later that vow came to fruition and Mat planned to go back to Japan in style.

Mat was going to take advantage of the 5 week paid sabbatical offered by his company and top it off with a few weeks of vacation so that he could enjoy Japan properly.  Once again, he was going to take the Tokyo Maximum Tour offered by Destination Japan, but he was also lining up a number of other things before the tour, including a climb to the top of Mt Fuji.

Mat had invited me to join up with him for the tour portion, but I had declined.  The tour took place in September which is always a very ugly month of work for me at my current place of employment.  So I always felt that asking for time off would be an impossibility.  Not long after Mat had made the announcement of his impending tour, I learned that he had somehow, and miraculously, talked our friend, David Sundberg, into joining him for the entire duration of his journey.

So now two good friends of mine were going to be going on a fabulous adventure and that’s when something clicked in my head.  I realized that it wasn’t right that I should miss out on opportunities like these, so I talked to my supervisor, who agreed that I shouldn’t miss out on what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  We worked out a deal where things could be reasonably covered while I was absent for two weeks.  I messaged Mat and let him know that I would be able to meet up with him and Dave as part of the Tokyo Maximum Tour.  I could hear the glee in his FB post when he said he would make sure I had the time of my life.

Things progressed quickly after that.  Despite the fact that only 7 people signed up for the tour, Destination Japan decided to go ahead with it.  The company also allowed Mat, Dave, and myself to share a room (at a discount) which was a big thumbs up.  I found a bank in Omaha where I could exchange my dollars for yen at a good exchange rate, arranged a flight to Los Angeles, and had Destination Japan arrange a flight from LAX to Tokyo at a reasonable price.

The hardest part about preparing for the trip was working to get my body adjusted to Tokyo time.  I stayed up for nearly 48 hours straight by cleaning, exercising, playing video games, and sheer force of will in order to acclimate myself.  I caught my early morning flight to LA and snatched a little sleep on the way.  About 1pm I met our tour guide, Yukie, and two other tourists, Gavin and Mike, and we headed to the Singapore Airlines counter to get our boarding passes for our flight.

We flew to Tokyo on a double decker plane and I got a window seat on the upper deck (woo hoo!).  The trip from LA to Tokyo means that the plane is fighting the Gulfstream the entire way, resulting in an 11.5 hour flight.  I had hoped to catch a good long nap on the flight, but excitement kept me revved up and I only managed to catch snippets of sleep here and there.

Singapore Airlines was a very comfortable way to travel.  I found that they try to make things as pleasant as possible on international flights.  Although I was flying coach, it was the equivalent of flying first class on a lot of domestic flights.  I freely admit I would like to travel business class on an international flight at some point so I can experience the seat that turns into a bed.  They had a large variety of movies to choose from and I watched The Avengers and read the mystery novel, The Magic Bullet

Another thing I learned was that airlines apparently use food to distract the passengers on these long flights.  After we were in the air for about 90 minutes, supper was served.  I had the traditional Japanese dinner which was pretty good, though I mistook the soy sauce for my noodles as a cup of broth and drank it.  At some point during the flight, I was offered an apple and just before touchdown they offered a “snack” which was really another meal that I declined. 

After sitting for over 12 hours, I was grateful to walk around and stretch my limbs.  My companions and I quickly retrieved our luggage and made it through customs before hopping on the bus which began our 90 minute ride from Narita International Airport to Hotel Tokyo Metropolitan in Ikebukuro.

My jaw dropped when I entered the hotel lobby.  This was easily a 4 or 5 star hotel, complete with bellboys and elegantly dressed personnel.  I found that Mat and Dave already had my key, so Yukie took all of us up to our floor (a high one, which I prefer).  My room was at the end of the hall.  I knocked on the door which was opened by Mat, adorned in his Chopper hat (from One Piece, a popular manga and anime series).

Mat and Dave quickly filled me in on their adventures and we chatted for about an hour before we were all ready to hit the hay.  Especially me, as I was about ready to collapse.  I jokingly asked Dave for a bedtime story who replied, “No!”  Mat supplied one, instead.

“Once upon a time there were three guys trying to sleep only one of them wouldn’t shut up so I smothered him.  The End!”

Ah!  Good times!  Within minutes, I was in the land of Nod, dreaming of the adventures which would begin later in the morning.