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Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part VIII: Tokyo Drift [II]
Oct 5th, 2009 by Dan

The famous and super-busy scramble crosswalk at Shibuya.

The famous and super-busy scramble crosswalk at Shibuya.

Here we are on the last (full) day of the Main Tour. It would be the last day that Dave and I were together in Japan, so we decided to hit up all our Tokyo loose ends. That mostly meant wandering around getting the last of our souvenirs and checking out some of the famous districts within Tokyo.

Our first mission of the day was to head to the NHK building, home of Domo-kun. Other tourgoers told us that the building was in Shibuya, so we hopped aboard the subway and arrived at Shibuya Station, only the fourth-busiest station in Japan with 2.4 million passengers a day, and made our way outside to witness something we hadn’t seen before: a crowded Tokyo. At each end of the scramble crosswalk you can see above, there was a full compliment of tourists and businessmen going about their business throughout Shibuya. Finally, I thought, I’ll have some pictures to prove that Tokyo isn’t the ghost town that Eric thinks it is.

These horns are pretty famous. Ive seen them in videogames.

These horns are pretty famous. I've seen them in videogames.

The NHK building wasn’t as close as we were led to believe, but as we wandered around we ran into some cool storefronts, like the one below.

The second most elaborate entrance to a Disney Store that Ive ever seen.

The second most elaborate entrance to a Disney Store that I've ever seen.

After a long walk, we finally saw the NHK building in the distance. Our morning’s journey would finally come to a close and we’d experience the awesomeness that is Domo-kun!

I dont know what the other NHK mascots name is, but Domo is the only important one.

I don't know what the other NHK mascot's name is, but Domo is the only important one.

It turns out that Domo-kun and the NHK gift shop cater almost exclusively to small children in Japan. All that walking and our hilarious attempts to try and bridge the language barrier to get to what we were seeking was for naught. I still love Domo, but this was a seriously disappointing start to the morning.

What Dan doesnt know is that the smile on his face will be wiped off immediately after entering the gift shop and finding no cool Domo-kun merch.

What Dan doesn't know is that the smile on his face will be wiped off immediately after entering the gift shop and finding no cool Domo-kun merch.

Seriously…why can I buy cooler Domo-kun merchandise on the American Amazon.com page than in the NHK’s very own gift shop?

They lure you in with the giant Domo, but its ultimately a disappointment to anyone over seven-years-old.

They lure you in with the giant Domo, but it's ultimately a disappointment to anyone over seven-years-old.

From the NHK building’s remote location in Shibuya, Dave and I wandered in search of a rail line to get back to the hotel and look up the location of our next hopeful spot, the Square Enix store. We wandered for another half hour or so and even came across a large contingent of teenage girls dressed like goth rockers queuing up outside a concert hall.

The concert hall in question. [Not pictured: hundreds of goth rocker teenage girls]

The concert hall in question. (Not pictured: hundreds of goth rocker teenage girls)

At some point we came across the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Meiji Jingu. The shine was in a huge park, so David and I gave up on getting to the shrine (we had things to do!) and hightailed it to the nearest Metro station, which turned out to be Harajuku.

The most extreme fashion we saw at Harajuku. I assume it gets better on Sundays when school and work are out.

The most extreme fashion we saw at Harajuku. I assume it gets better on Sundays when school and work are out.

Unfortunately, it was a Tuesday afternoon, so the people who might have been here dressed up in bizarre fashions were all in class or working or just plain not here. That didn’t stop us from wandering around a bit and spotting the essential commandments of Harajuku.

I dont want to know what smorking is, but touting sounds even scarier.

I don't want to know what smorking is, but touting sounds even scarier since its picture does not match its definition in the slightest.

At this point we realized we had no idea where the Square Enix store was (turns out we were looking in the wrong part of Tokyo), so we decided to pop back to the room to do some research and then head back out again. Back to Shibuya we went!

Above Davids head is the famous Shibuya 109 (BONUS: It looks like a taxi cab is about to drive into Daves ear).

Above David's head is the famous Shibuya 109 (BONUS: It looks like a taxi cab is about to drive into Dave's ear).

When we got back to Shibuya station we finally spotted a landmark we were desperately searching for, the statue of Hachikō. If you don’t know the story, Hachikō was the dog of a professor who took the train from Shibuya every day. Hachikō saw his master off every morning from his front door and met him at the station every evening when he got back from the University. One day, his master suffered a stroke and died at the university, but poor Hachikō could not know such things, for he was a dog. He went back to his master’s house repeatedly after being given away, but eventually realized that the professor was never coming back home. After that, Hachikō returned every evening at the appointed time to Shibuya station to search for his master for ten straight years until he died. He became a hero and a symbol of loyalty and affection for the Japanese and a statue was erected of him at the station where he awaited his master throughout the years.

Dave posing with the cutest, most loyal dog in Japan.

Dave posing with the cutest, most loyal dog in Japan.

Quick research in the room showed us that we never found the Square Enix store because it was in Shinjuku, not Shibuya. We quickly set out again now that our maps were recalibrated. Since we only had time for that stop and little else before we had to be at the ballpark, this would be our last stop for the day. Lucky for us, it wasn’t that hard to find the Squeenix store, although we did manage to end up on the wrong side of the road and had to walk quite a ways before we found a crosswalk.

A picture of Lightening from the upcoming FF XIII. I thnk Daves in the picture too.

A picture of Lightening from the upcoming FF XIII. I thnk Dave's in the picture too.

The Square Enix store sits in a nondescript part of Shinjuku. There are no other stores immediately surrounding it, it has a fairly bland facade (the picture of Lightening and the logo above the shop are the only really standout things aside from the merch in the windows), and it is closed on Thursdays (a fact I would later regret not remembering), but the interior store is definitely cool, if not too small. Since Squeenix’s biggest recent release was Dragon Quest IX, a full half of the store was dedicated to DQ merchandise ranging from slime t-shirts and hats to figurines of iconic DQ monsters (including slimes) and Dragon Quest-themed DS accessories. Also available were plush figures from DQ and Final Fantasy, various Kingdom Hearts and Snoopy (random, I know) related merchandise, KH clothing, and even a section containing soundtracks from their various game franchises. It’s the back room that features the most iconic piece of art within the store.

I dont even want to think about all the uncontrollable fangirls who have licked the floor above Sephiroths face.

I don't even want to think about all the uncontrollable fangirls who have licked the floor above Sephiroth's face.

A just-under-life-size Sephiroth lies encased within the “lifestream” in the back room that contains various pieces of overpriced Square Enix action figures and themed jewelry. Ever wanted a key chain in the shape of a keyblade? It’s here for ¥2000. A replica of the same pendant Squall wears throughout Final Fantasy VIII? Yours for a much less reasonable ¥19000. You can even buy ridiculously overpriced “materia” (read: marble on a chain) for ¥12000.

Beyond this point there be baseball talk.

Beyond this point there be baseball talk.

Our mission accomplished, Dave and walked to the further (and free with our rail pass) JR station about 15 minutes away to head over to Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. As Tokyo’s “second team,” the Swallows get about as much respect in Tokyo as the Mets do in New York City. While the Giants play in a nice dome in the heart of Tokyo that even has an amusement park associated with it, the Swallows play in a smaller, open-air ballpark owned by the Meiji Shrine.

One of the gates to Meiji Jingu Stadium

One of the gates to Meiji Jingu Stadium. I forgot to mention in the article, but Dave went to the hotel to work on some homework at about this time.

The hallways within the stadium are narrow and dingy, but the food options are pretty neat. Dave and I ate at a curry place earlier in the day that featured a novel way to order your food. Instead of placing the order with a waitress and having her relay it to the chef, patrons simply select their meal based on text and a picture on what looks like a soda machine, put the money in, and give the ticket that comes out to the chef.

Put money in and tickets for curry come out!

Put money in and tickets for curry come out!

Some of the food in the ballpark was like that and some was your typical ballpark fare, hotdogs, the occasional hamburger, and bento boxes.

I didnt think about it before, but this box of katsu was served at room temperature, which I dont find ideal for eating fried pork.

I didn't think about it before, but this box of katsu was served at room temperature, which I don't find ideal for eating fried pork.

It took me until this ballpark to realize it, but it’s a very Japanese feature in most ballparks, even non-domes, to only have real dirt in the area immediately surrounding the bases and on the mound. The base paths and the rest of the infield is all artificial turf. Even more bizarre is that even outdoor stadiums like Meiji Jingu have artificial turf in their outfield too instead of real grass. It blows my mind, considering how much baseball players absolutely hate playing on artificial turf, that they’d do something so ridiculous in an outdoor ballpark.

Its hard to tell, but if you look closely you can see that the dirt around second base is differently colored than the artificial turf made to look like dirt surrounding it. The grass is fake too.

It's hard to tell, but if you look closely you can see that the dirt around second base is differently colored than the artificial turf made to look like dirt surrounding it. The grass is fake too.

Other than my gripes about the field, Meiji Jingu Stadium is a decent ballpark with a pretty fervent fanbase. The Swallows have a unique tradition of raising umbrellas during their 7th inning stretch and whenever the team scores a run. Hearsay from the tour tells me that it’s a subtle jab at the Giants as a way of saying, “We don’t need a dome, we’ve got umbrellas.” If that’s true, it’s a little weak, but I might be saying that because I developed a strong anti-Swallows sentiment at this game.

Its not a bad ballpark at all once you get over the fake dirt.

It's not a bad ballpark at all once you get over the fake dirt.

My dislike for the Swallows stems from a few arbitrary reasons, but, really, since I’m not from Japan, my feelings about these teams can only come from arbitrary decisions made right on the spot. How else can you explain me becoming a Hiroshima Carp fan?

Reason #1:

At about this point on the tour, I realized that my schedule had me seeing the Swallows four times on this tour!

Domo-kun shares my feeling about the Swallows.

Domo-kun shares my feeling about the Swallows.

Reason #2:

One of the tourgoers, Ken, loves the Swallows (and the Lions). For some (evil) reason, this made me want to root against them. It’s thanks to him that I realized that the Swallows played on fake dirt and grass too.

These player intro slides were the only awesome thing about the Swallows.

These player intro slides were the only awesome thing about the Swallows.

Reason #3:

The most important reason. They were playing my beloved Hiroshima Carp that day.

My favorite NPB player, Akihiro Higashide, hit his 1000th hit against the Carp the same night I was there! This is him accepting a bouquet in honor of the achievement.

My favorite NPB player, Akihiro Higashide, hit his 1000th hit against the Carp the same night I was there! This is him accepting a bouquet in honor of the achievement.

The game turned out better than I could have hoped. Hiroshima creamed the Swallows, winning 9-0 and netting Akihiro Higashide’s 1000th hit just for us. It was a pretty special moment in a great game that I had a good time at.

The always cool Bob Bavasi striking a pose above the dry-eyed Leon.

The always cool Bob Bavasi striking a pose above the dry-eyed Leon.

After I got back to the hotel room, I grabbed Dave and we went out for karaoke again.

Dave making what Im sure he thinks is a cool face for the picture.

Dave making what I'm sure he thinks is a cool face for the picture.

I’d say the highlight of the night was the performance of “Love Shack” by the B-52s.

After a hard night of partying, it was finally time to hit the sack and say goodbye to Dave and most of the tour.

Domo-kun had a little too much to drink.

Domo-kun had a little too much to drink.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part II: Journey to the East [II]
Sep 3rd, 2009 by Dan

A reenactment of me starting to write this entry in emacs

A reenactment of me starting to write this entry in emacs

I begin this entry sitting at the gate for my ANA flight…1 (No joke, my flight number is NH0001), listening to Japanese ska to get into the mood as I await my 1220 flight out of America. As per usual, I got here a good three hours before my flight even was ready to think about starting to take off thanks to something I like to call hyper-punctuality, but I’m sure most would call insanity. In fact, I was so early this morning when I arrived at 0900 that ANA hadn’t even opened up their check-in terminal (don’t worry, I’m sure to repeat this detail later)

To be totally fair, my early arrival was due to a change in plans, for the better. I originally intended to take the Metro into Dulles after parking my car at the lovely Duffy house, but The Legendary John Duffy, as he is known in these parts, volunteered to haul my annoying self and my bags over to the airport after he got his hands on some coffee. After about 40 or so minutes of always riveting conversation with TLJD I found myself once again at Dulles, an airport I mistakenly thought I’d never been to before.

The best way to describe Dulles is slightly confused. At some point, big, modern airports realized that people were getting confused with where to go, since they had multiple buildings housing different terminals. They began to label their terminals numerically or by color. Not wanting to be left in the dust, Dulles seems to have enthusiastically took up this practice for a single terminal. No joke, the one terminal is as long as the terminal devoted solely to Southwest at BWI, but they felt the need to divide it into not just two zones, but four.

So I arrived at zone 3, profusely thanked TLJD for the ride, and boldly stepped up to the ANA terminal…to find that it doesn’t even open until 0920. Before you all laugh at my insanity, consider that there were two families who had arrived before me and another passenger showed up at around 0915. If that doesn’t convince you of my sanity, I don’t know what will.

Seriously dude, dont you have anything better to do with your time?

Seriously dude, don't you have anything better to do with your time?

I will continue to be undeterred by the fact that I’ve written hundreds of words covering the mundane and I have yet to even leave American soil (Hey, I’m *really* early for my flight and I’ve gotta do /something/, cut me some slack!) and continue to regale you all with stories about how my carry-on bag was too heavy by five kilograms. Now, as a man of science, I almost exclusively prefer the metric system for any and all calculations. That being said, I have absolutely zero concept of what a kilogram is. Faced with the threat of having to check my bag, I decided to try and pull out my toiletries and pray that they weighed five kilos. It brought me down to 21.5 kilos, which was good enough for my Japanese travel agent (what’s the job title for those people?) and good enough for me, especially because I was secure in the knowledge that I’d be able to just move my toiletries right back into my carry-on once I was safely seated in the terminal.

Security, miles of walking along people movers to get to the midfield terminal, and here I am. Country music begins to play over my headphones and I rather like the reverse framing going on here. More to come when something actually happens…

I return to this travelogue at 1927 local time on 3 September. In about three minutes, I’ll have been up for 24 hours thanks to the difficulty that I have sleeping on planes. A lot has happened since I was sitting bored in the terminal, so we continue from there.

The staff at ANA seems to be rather small, because when the plane arrives and boarding is being handled, I begin to see all the folks from the ticket counter that I saw in the morning show up and help with boarding. My flight is also eerily empty for some reason. I have an entire row, nine seats, to myself and this is the case for most of the people on the plane, but I guess since I’m on a rather long flight I can deal with the stress of having so much space it’s ridiculous. I can only pray for such a windfall on the way home.

A small moment of panic sets in rather early as I try to discreetly snap a shot of one of the better looking flight attendants for Eric and one of them tells me that I need to put my camera and phone away, there are no electronics. Figuring that she meant while on the runway, I put them away and quickly began searching through the documentation to see what I could find about whether or not I’d be able to use my electronics on this long, 14-hour flight.

These guys came around so often I nearly burst from all the food.

These guys came around so often I nearly burst from all the food.

Since I was flying on a Japanese carrier, I thought I’d point out some of the differences between it and the American one. The seats are a bit closer feeling, to me, all of the information is primarily given in Japanese, then in sometimes difficult-to-understand English, the food is distinctly eastern in style, and the magazines have a small bilingual section if you open them western-style and a large Japanese section if you read it right-to-left. Most everything else is pretty much par for the course, American carrier or not, for an international flight. The warnings and safety measures are in Japanese first and the pictures are of Japanese folk instead of drawings, but all the information appears to be the same.

The other constant among international flights is the food. I was nearly drowning in food as they brought meal after meal after snack, despite undergoing no effort to work up an appetite. The food was all of pretty good quality, for airplane food, and garnered no complaints from me.

Ice cream and green tea were to follow

Ice cream and green tea were to follow

That’s about all there is to say about international flights. They are disappointingly mundane, even when on a Japanese carrier. I’ll leave the topic with some video (sadly without the original audio) of a game show that I was watching on the in-flight entertainment television. The point here was to name the countries of Europe while pounding on beat to a song. You’ll see very quickly what a wrong answer leads to. There’s also one guy there who they liked to pick on for some random reason.

Trust me, it’s even funnier with the sound.

Arrival and customs are not all that special, so I’ll refrain from mentioning them, but I was surprised at how far out of Tokyo the airport seems to be. There are trains leading into the city itself, but they all seem to take quite some time to get to the heart of the city. My plane arrived about an hour early, which is always awesome, unless you’ve been asked by your brother to wait in the airport for him before heading to the hotel. The time I had to myself allowed me to take a look around Narita International Airport and get a feel for what a Japanese airport was yet again. One thing worth noting for people landing in September is that they seem to keep the a/c at a rather toasty 80°F, which is totally understandable, I guess, but feels a bit toasty to those of us used to a lot more climate control. Another thing worth noting is that the fear of communicable disease has yet to clear Japan, especially after the very recent H1N1 troubles that they were having. Notices about sanitation are posted throughout the airport and there are many, staff and patrons alike, wearing masks to shield their face from germs.

When you deal with thousands a day, sometimes a little protection from germs is nice.

When you deal with thousands a day, sometimes a little protection from germs is nice.

There was also a rather funny graphic on one of the video screens showing how bird flu, I think, started to spread. There was a silhouette of a chicken and what looked like a duck that eventually turned red with “disease” of some sort. From their reddened bodies emanated more evil germs and arrows that infected a standing silhouette man and caused him to drop to all fours and turn red. The man eventually began to shoot out red circles of death to other groups of silhouette men. It was riveting stuff, but I didn’t manage to capture any of it on video before Dave got there.

After an hour and a half of waiting, guess who decides to show up.

After an hour and a half of waiting, guess who decides to show up.

Dave finally landed and Bob lead us down to get our passports checked for the rail passes that we were to make use of throughout the country. We got our tickets and made our way onto the platform where the train was and Dave began enthusiastically getting onto the train only to have the doors begin to close behind him. After a valiant effort to hold the doors open, he was trapped on the train while we looked on from the outside. Except, if he had read the sign that we only saw after he was trapped, he would know that they were just cleaning the train.

Dont get on or youll be trapped Dave!

Don't get on or you'll be trapped Dave!

After he was asked to get off the train, they began cleaning and the train seats actually turned around. They’re on a mechanism that turns them, I guess so that you’re facing the direction the train is headed so you don’t get that disoriented. And so began the ~1 hour long train ride into Tokyo.

Skyliner! It hungers for Americans...

Skyliner! It hungers for Americans...

It randomly featured a windmill.

Am I in The Netherlands?

Am I in The Netherlands?

Our hotel in Tokyo is pretty nice, it’s got two singles that are surprisingly long so I’m not hanging off the edge. We dropped off our stuff, sent word that we were alive and well, and headed right back out into Tokyo to do some first night exploring and grab a bite to eat. Dave spotted a CoCo Curry on the way over from the train station, so that was our ultimate goal for dinner. At first we headed across a nearby bridge through a Dental University and wound up in a slightly urban area surprisingly filled with tons of instrument stores. There typical classical instrument shops intermixed with way more awesome guitar shops, one of which featured the most Japanese bad ass, hardcore, punk rock guitar I’ve ever seen.

Youve never rocked until youve rocked with Hello Kitty!

You've never rocked until you've rocked with Hello Kitty!

There was also the most awesomely named shop ever, at least for a fan of Metal Gear Solid like me.

This is Big Boss. Im done here.

This is Big Boss. I'm done here.

Dave’s impeccable sense of direction did finally get us to CoCo Curry House without too much stress at all. If you’ve known me for a while, chances are you’ve heard that I have something of an obsession with Japanese curry. Getting back to CoCo curry was definitely high on my list of priorities, but it was thanks to Dave’s sharp eyes that I even knew that there was one nearby.

CoCo Curry House Ichibanya: Heaven on Earth

CoCo Curry House Ichibanya: Heaven on Earth

I’ve seen CoCo Curry compared to Burger King in other places, mainly because you can “Have it your way” there, but they really put Burger King to shame with how completely customizable they are. Their (thankfully) English menu offers directions on how to order. First, select a curry base, then how many grams of rice you want, how spicy, and finally, toppings.

The procedure is simple, really, so long as its in English

The procedure is simple, really, so long as it's in English

I went with the staple curry dish, tonkatsu curry (breaded pork cutlets), while Dave opted for the more interesting crab croquette curry. It was delicious.

Finally! Great Japanese Curry!

Finally! Great Japanese Curry!

It did not last long on my plate.

Not a grain of rice left.

Not a grain of rice left.

The urge to explore continued after dinner, so Dave and I decided to walk around the town and see what we could find. Not far from the curry, we began seeing girls dressed in maid outfits, no doubt advertising a maid café of some sort. Dave decided not to take a flyer, but I couldn’t resist.

Maids!

Maids!

We saw a tall Sofmap building and I remembered that they tend to sell new games. I dragged Dave along and we coincidentally ended up in an elevator with one of the maid café girls. Shenanigans promptly ensued.

Neither Dave nor I really knew where we were going in this building nor what floor we were headed to and I was unsure whether or not Japan did that ground floor thing, so I pushed 1. The maid girl laughed at us and asked if that’s really where we were going, since that’s the ground floor (I think, I speak no Japanese). The elevator soon made its way up to the top floor of the building and it opened to the maid café advertised, much to our surprise. The place was bright pink and filled with people and maids, but Dave and I very quickly decided it was not the place for us. We tried going to the third floor instead, but we were greeted with a corrugated steel door. The maids in the tiny elevator had a great laugh at our expense. We exited the elevator and asked to take a picture of one of the maids who was now quarter-carding, but she politely told us no.

There’s not much else adventure that went on that night. We made our way to an anime store filled to the brim with goods. They had no picture signs up that I didn’t notice until after I’d snapped two shots.

Tons of manga

Tons of manga

We also found an arcade and wandered around the first two floors a bit.

One of the famous Japanese arcades

One of the famous Japanese arcades

That’s all for the first night, off to explore more of Tokyo!

Domo at Cornell [Photographic Memory]
May 5th, 2009 by Dan

The famous McGraw Tower. A Cornell icon…

Cornell Domo

…About to be consumed by Domo-kun

Hungry Domo

The Chronicles of the Traveling Domo [Photographic Memory]
Mar 17th, 2009 by Dan

So it’s shameless self-promotion of the highest degree, but I’m really enjoying this photo project I’m working on. For now it’s been a picture a day on my iPhone of Domo-kun in various situations, but the general idea would be for me to take pictures of Domo in various places I visit. For example, had I started the project when I was in South Beach last week, I would have taken a picture of him at the beach. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the set so far.

Domo Fighter

Shotgun Domo

Outcast Domo

Goomba Domo

Best Buy Domo

Iron Chef Domo

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