By Michael Mygind
This past March, my wife and I were able to make a trip that I’ve wanted to make since I was little: Japan, the land of the rising sun, Mount Fuji and culture that is still intact.
Despite this being a video gaming blog, I feel it would be a serious injustice to only talk about games and not touch on the trip. So while it is a departure from our usual content, this particular post will be focusing almost solely on the trip.
Parts two and three will focus on the presence of “Nerd culture” in Japan and my hunt for retro video games.
You can watch all of the videos that you want about Japan, but you just honestly have to see it in person. Because of the language barrier and the many differences in how their society operates, it is truly a trip unlike any other that I have gone on. We flew there for two days, and were there for six days and six nights total. Rather than getting lost on our own, we went along with a tour group through the Affordable Asia travel company who organized our flights, transportation and hotel accommodations.
After driving to LA, staying with a friend and arriving at LAX, it all began with an 11 and a half hour plane ride to Tokyo. The way there was filled with 2 complimentary meals, a seemingly constant offering of snacks and beverages, four different movies, random naps and surprisingly, video games on the back of the headrest in front of me. The on-board entertainment offered hundreds of free movies, albums and video games, most of which were the equivalent of mobile games with a controller in-hand. In this case, the controller was the remote flipped around, which mimicked the scheme of the SNES controller. Amidst a ton of shovelware, standouts included Tetris, Pac-Man and Bang Bang Buster, a Bomberman clone. According to the entertainment guide tucked in the backseat pocket, Street Fighter II was offered. But, due to its absence in the game menu, I was unable to play the definitive fighting classic with a makeshift controller and its stiff d-pad.
When we finally arrived at our hotel, 16 hours ahead of Fresno, CA time, I tried to watch Night at the Museum dubbed in Japanese and passed out. The following morning, we woke up, ate breakfast and took a stroll through the quiet streets around the hotel before meeting up with our tour group. I was in Japan, clear across the world and for some reason, it wasn’t sinking in.
The first day consisted of going to Asakusa, where we visited the Senso-Ji temple and the outer perimeter of the Imperial Palace, the current residency of the Royal Imperial Family. Upon walking up to the temple, it was clear that I wasn’t in the states anymore.
We then proceeded to the Ginza shopping district, Tokyo’s equivalent to Rodeo Drive where the streets were blocked off to vehicles on that particular day. We were then given free time, and did some game hunting before getting dinner and taking the subway back to our hotel.
The next day, we took a six hour bus-ride to the breathtaking Mount Fuji and spent the night in a Western-style hotel in Fujikawaguchiko that had traditional features, such as an onsen bathhouse and mandatory sandals that must be worn throughout the hotel. While Tokyo was a bustling city, the area of Fujikawaguchiko that our hotel was located in was quiet and empty. It was a real change of pace.
The next day, our group drove away from Mount Fuji to visit our favorite stop of the trip, Kyoto, the exact image that you have in your head when you think of Japan. It was a perfect mix of modern and traditional Japanese architecture. Before we got to our hotel, we made stops at Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion) and the Kiyomizu Temple, where we were able to find plenty of cherry blossoms.
The day that followed was a free day in Kyoto. After going on a hike that was located just outside of our hotel to get a beautiful view of Kyoto, we navigated Kyoto’s subway and train system to get to the Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama where we took in the sights and visited the nearby shops for souvenirs for our families.
Later on, we found our way to the Gion District in Kyoto, which is synonymous with Geishas. After stumbling onto the Gion Corner theater, we bought tickets for a traditional Japanese show that featured a Maiko dancer, a tea ceremony couple with an on the spot bouquet arrangement, and Japanese harp (Which immediately conjured thoughts of Samurai Shodown…so help me, I love my SNK games.), a traditional comedy routine and a puppet performance.
The next day began with another hike up the hillside outside of the hotel to discover that it was snowing! While it was in the high 80’s in Fresno, it was about 48 degrees atop a scenic hillside in Kyoto. If there was one single moment that I could never forget, it would be this very moment where I got one last beautiful view of a city that has continued to embrace its heritage as the original capital of Japan and still remains a mecca for Japanese culture.
Back to Tokyo we went, where we did a little more game hunting, witnessed the craziness that is the Shibuya crossing and walked through the Harajuku district, which is loud, obnoxious, overran by teenagers and very Kawaii. We ate a strawberry custard crepe and made the long stop-filled journey back to the hotel on the subway.
The final day consisted of us making our way to the Tsukiji fish market and the Diver City Mall before meeting back up with our group and making another long flight back to the states full of food, sporadic naps and more movies.
- Unlike in the States, trash cans are a rarity in Japan. Their streets are also remarkably clean. I would spend half a day with pockets full of grocery store receipts, gum wrappers and even twisted up water bottles because I couldn’t find anywhere to get rid of it.
- On our long drives from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, Mt Fuji to Kyoto and Kyoto to Tokyo, we made stops at various rest stops. When I think of an American rest stop, it’s typically a couple of picnic shelters, a restroom and maybe a vending machine. Japanese rest stops are miniature shopping malls with at least a dozen food vendors, various shops and state-of-the-art restrooms with lights that signify when a stall is vacant or in-use. Oh, and these have a conveniently placed row of trash and recycling receptacles in front. Score!
- Optional excursions with our tour company cost a lot more than simply finding your way their own your own. The aforementioned show at Gion Corner was part of an optional package that cost $99 per person and included dinner as well as transportation back to the hotel. We paid $30 each and had to figure out our way back. This wasn’t a problem for us.
- Call it masochistic, but I wanted to experience a rush-hour subway. On our second visit to Japan, we rode through about 13 stops in a jam-packed subway car that was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. I was practically kissing my inner arm as I gripped a handle amongst a tight and ever growing cluster of Japanese business men and women that were making their way home. All the while, my wife sat comfortably in a seat.
- You might have noticed that I didn’t mention much about food; that’s because I’m an insanely picky eater who couldn’t find a single meat and rice dish until the final day. While my wife was open to try just about everything, my criteria for a friendly restaurant to eat at eventually came down to one question while looking at posted menus: “Do they have fried chicken?” Trying to communicate what I don’t want on a plate was completely out of the question, so it was fried chicken (Which was available everywhere) and yakitori chicken skewers that comprised my dinners and lunches. Oh, and Japan has mastered the art of pastry making. The best part of each complimentary breakfast at each hotel was the variety of pastries that were offered.
- Every time that we were in a jam and needed to find out where to go, anyone that we would ask would be very helpful. Even if they can’t speak English they would point at spots on our map or at least point us in the right direction. Another couple that we met said that someone even took the time to walk them where they were looking to go. The hospitality that we saw was unrivaled.
After coming back home and practically traveling back in time 16 hours, I was jet lagged for close to a week with a sleep schedule that just barely got back to normal. Regardless, it was entirely worth it. We’ve been to many places, but have yet to visit anywhere that compares to Japan in its shear amount of culture shock; it was an entirely new and exciting experience. For anyone that is interested in traveling to Japan, I highly suggest that you take a guided tour and avoid the optional excursions so that you can venture out on your own. Not long after we got back, we already decided that someday we will return.
Part 2 – “Nerd Culture in Japan”: The presence of gaming, anime, manga and toys in Japanese culture.