Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ob-la-di, Odaiba

Tokyo, day 1:

Feeling rather jaded (it worries me how much of my life is spent hungover) we got packed up and caught a mid-morning shink. This wasn't as straightforward as you might think, as I had to shuttle five people and four large bags to the station using a four-seater car, which I didn't want to leave at the station. And I couldn't leave the fox and the chicken together on the same riverbank.

I blew my companions away with the trick of swiveling the shink seats 180°, and Tim rashly declared that his hangover had only lasted two hours. Arriving in the early afternoon, it was a punishing heavily laden fifteen minute walk in the summer heat from Ueno Station to our hotel. Though not quite as swish as the one in Osaka, the Weekly Mansion chain once again came up trumps with a basic but pleasant place to stay. What I particularly like is that the rooms have cooking and dining facilities. We didn't make much use of these, but they were handy for breakfast.

In the three times I have organised my own accommodation in Tokyo, I have always ended up in Ueno or neighbouring Asakusa. Evidently, this is the cheapest part of town. I'm not really sure why, as it isn't at all dodgy or run-down. I can only assume that it's because it's a little out-of-the-way (though still well-served by the metro), and compared to the rest of Tokyo, a bit boring. Compared to Nanyo, though, it's a Jason Statham-esque adrenaline-fest.

We conducted a little recon of the area around the hotel, and attended to the perennial problem of finding ATMs that accept foreign cards. For all it's hi-tech, credit cards have never really caught on here. Cash machines are thin-on-the-ground, and when you do find them, they're picky about what cards they take. Japan tip: the post office is your best bet.

Hunger overrode cultural curiosity and we shamefully went to McDonalds for lunch. Well, I think everyone else considered it shameful; I personally think Mickey D's is great for what it is. Tim, despite definitely not being hungover, wanted to go back to the hotel for a nap. Dressmaking enthusiast Aoife went to the nearby Nippori, Tokyo's premier fabric district. And to think I said we were staying in a boring area! Adam, Graham and I decided to head to the gardens of the Imperial Palace, for some relaxing sightseeing. Our hopes were dashed, as we got there to learn that it was closed on mondays. Since it has a moat and armed guards, there was no question of sneaking in for a peek.

As our half of the party comfortably possessed at least 90% of the total geekiness, and since it was on our way home anyway, we decided to play our trump card early with a trip to Akihabara, or Akiba, or indeed AKB, as in AKB48. Sadly, Electric Town loses some of its impact when you see it in daylight. My friends seemed impressed in an abstract sort of way at the scale of the arcades, and in the technological novelty of strategy games that one controls by moving physical cards around on a tabletop. But they had no real desire to spend any time in the noise and smoke. Graham, who specialises in puncturing fun with laser-guided gloom bullets, pointed out the arcades are a dying business; when everyone owns a machine that allows them to experience hi-def 3D worlds from the comfort of their living room, there isn't much point in pumping 100 yens into a machine in some cacophonous hall. He's right, of course. Indeed, a considerable portion of the space was devoted to quaintly primitive retro games like the almost-20-year-old Street Fighter II, which is surely a sign of a moribund industry. Having said that, people were literally queueing up to play Project Diva, which is apparently the hot new game. Actually, a quick look on Wikipedia tells me that it's an arcade port of a PSP/PS3 game. Moribund.

We had a quick look in some shops selling anime figurines, but quickly realised that they were too expensive to make good novelty gifts. And disappointingly, Adam and Graham found the maids on the street creepy and depressing, rather than fun and kooky. So we didn't stay long in Akiba, instead returning to the hotel for a game of Catan. Graham uncharacteristically won.

We rendezvoused with the rest of the group, including Joy. She had failed to get any surfing done on account of a poverty of waves, but she sounded like she'd had a nice enough couple of days anyway. We had dinner in a vaguely Chinese-themed bistro, and ended up back in Akiba. Sure enough, it did look a little better with all the neon, and we managed to find a couple of enjoyably odd novelty games.

-- Oooh, earthquake, in the present. Nothing too major here, but apparently it was quite a big one out in the sea. --

One was an incarnation of the Bishi Bashi series (as ripped off by WarioWare), which brought back happy memories of an ex-girlfriend of mine. Our relationship had been based on snowboarding, weird Japanese video games, and her delightful bosoms, in roughly equal measure. But even better was a game whose name I sadly can't remember, which had a novel controller shaped like a table. The player had to choose one of four scenarios: a home, an office, etc. We went for the home. You then assumed the role of a grumpy father trying to enjoy a family dinner, while your daughter chatted on her mobile and your son played some handheld game. When your fury could be contained no longer, you had to violently flip up the table to cause the maximum possible damage. Your outburst was then replayed in super slo-mo from various angles, and that was your lot. Adam made the hi-score board when some stray debris fortuitously sailed into a cabinet of china.

Tokyo, day 2:

Most of dinner the previous night had been taken up with a discussion / argument about what we would do this morning. In the end, team B (Aoife, Joy and Tim) decided to get up painfully early and go to the famous Tsukiji fish market, while team A (Adam, Graham and I) took things at a more leisurely pace and met them at the science museum on Odaiba, the man-made island in Tokyo Bay. Our two teams ended up quite far apart in a long queue for the museum. Communicating via the limited medium of gestures through a window, we managed to get into a misunderstanding that resulted in my team abandoning the lengthy queue in the mistaken belief that the advance party had bought tickets for us. Tempers were frayed.

Once we finally got in, the museum was excellent. Perhaps our group was biased, containing two scientific doctors and two more prospective ones, but I'm confident that anyone would enjoy it. Highlights included a demonstration of Honda's Asimo humanoid robot, and a huge spherical screen displaying various data about the planet. I also enjoyed the cloud chamber, which gave one the rare opportunity to see the individual particles of radiation that bombard us constantly; and the thermal imaging camera, from which we learned that Joy has terrible circulation and I, with my cold glasses and relative lack of insulating hair, look like some kind of awesome cyberpunk when rendered in lurid thermal pseudocolour. The only part I didn't like was the neuroscience section. I feel like I can happily go the rest of my life without looking at another neuron. Anyway, at only 600 yen, I can't recommend the place strongly enough.

We spent a while sampling the synthetic delights of Odaiba, including a shopping centre decked out like a classical Mediterranean plaza, full of fountains and fake marble. After that the group once again splintered, with team A + Joy taking the sea bus back to the mainland for some impressive views of the Rainbow Bridge. We headed to the Imperial Gardens once again, but arrived at about ten past four to discover that they closed at half past. It seemed that the Emperor really didn't want us to see his flowers.

Joy went off to do her own thing, and we gave Shibuya a cursory glance. As it is a chic shopping district, it didn't really hold a lot of allure for three nerds with hardly a shred of fashion sense between them. We headed on to Shinjuku, our arranged meeting place, by way of Harajuku, which was disappointingly but predictably (it was a weekday) bereft of cosplaying teens.

Running a little short on time, we darted into a British pub for dinner. It was reasonably authentic; in particular, you ordered at the bar. I'd never really thought about how alien a concept this is in Japan, but they felt it necessary to have prominently-placed signs explaining this wacky system. We each got a classic fish and chips, and though the portions were laughably small - my chips must have numbered less than 15 - it was impressively tasty. As a pint of Guinness was an outrageous 900yen (but it was a pint, not 500ml), and cocktail happy hour was on, we washed it down with some less traditional Moscow mules.

The crew reunited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, the reason being that this is a place where you can get a free view of the city from the 40-somethingth floor. Incidentally, it is right across the street from the hotel used for the JET Tokyo orientation, so the place book-ended my first year in Japan nicely. I have to say though, you get what you pay for. The whole place is a brightly-lit gift shop, meaning that you have to mash your face up against the glass (smeared with the face-prints of those that have gone before you) to get a decent view at night.

Minus Adam, who had gone home with severe sweat-chafing, we took a quick wander around Kabukicho, the red light district and hotbed of mob activity that is widely held to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in Japan, though that still makes it safer than just about anywhere in Los Angeles. I was glad that we had the girls, as they made it clear we were not in the market for pleasures of the flesh, and as such the pimps left us alone. Confirming this observation, team B went to get some noodles, and literally within seconds a pushy Afro-Caribbean gentleman was hassling Graham and me. We fled into a subway station, and didn't stop until we were back in the safety of boring old Ueno.


  1. Sounds fun! Maybe I should check out that science museum one day. Can you take pictures inside?

    I'm sure Adam wanted you to tell everyone the reason he went home too. Ouch!

    Next time you're in Akiba check out M's. Seven story sex shop!


  2. After you swivelled the Shink seats 180 degrees, was it uncomfortable sitting on the ceiling?

  3. Monique: You can indeed take pictures at the science museum. And just for you, I shall check out M's when I'm next in Akiba. I'm curious to know how the seven floors are organised, as much as anything else.

    Danny: Shink seats, like me on a snowboard, are only good for rotation about the yaw axis.