Back in the beginning of 2012, my friend (who is on staff at Anime Detour, here in Minneapolis) informed me that the con was hosting a panel that year by a guy who led tours to Japan. Now, anyone who knows me even slightly understands: I’d been itching to get there since I was still in diapers. I’d even taken a few semesters of Japanese in college, but could never seem to find the right opportunity to go.
I signed up for the convention, at what was pretty much the last possible second, pretty much just to attend this panel. It was hosted by Evan Liu, the male half of PacSet Tours (which he runs with his wife, Lanny): a very nice, funny, and knowledgeable gentleman who knows how to make any situation entertaining. Over the months that followed, he was constantly feeding us preparation tips. When October finally came around, most of the things mentally holding me back from going to Japan had disappeared, crushed by all of the reassuring information provided by Evan.
The Saturday before departure, Evan flew up to Minneapolis to host a meeting for anyone who had any last minute questions. Two days later, we were off to the races.
We landed at the airport in various states of consciousness (there were 29 of us, plus 3 guides), made our way through customs, and exchanged money. Evan had informed us weeks prior to get traveler’s checks: “Your banker will look at you like you’re crazy… just trust me.” Now we knew why… Japan is almost entirely cash-based. The only thing your card will work for is to get cash out of an ATM… at a markup. On top of that, the money exchange at the airport has the best rate, and will give you an even better rate if you have traveler’s checks instead of cash.
I was near the middle of the line, so when I was done, I had the chance to use the bathroom. First culture shock, and I hadn’t even been off the plane for an hour: that was the most complicated pooper I’d ever laid eyes upon. Doors opened and closed with buttons, knobs everywhere, pull chains, half of the stuff was automated… chaos.
From the airport, it was about an hour bus ride to Kawasaki, a city rather close to Tokyo, on the south side. We checked into the Hotel Sunroute, and found that the accommodations were relatively close to what we were used to. Then Evan announced that for those of us who were still awake, we would be heading to Jonathan’s for dinner (a Japanese-style Denny’s, for lack of a better comparison).
While walking to the restaurant, we got to meet (by force) some of the town’s barkers, trying to pull people into their restaurants or bars. One of them heard me giving someone else a primer on basic Japanese, and tried to strike up a conversation. I stammered through it briefly, and after being awake for almost 24 hours and being out of practice for over five years, my brain just gave up. He and I shrugged at each other, and parted ways.
The food at Jonathan’s was pretty good. I ended up getting beef stew omuraisu. The first part I assume is self-explanatory… “omuraisu” is an omelette wrapped around rice that’s flavored with ketchup. Different, but hey… that was kind of the point. For a drink, I was introduced to Japan’s obsession with melon-flavored… everything, this time in the form of soda. Honeydew soda. Good stuff.
After meeting in the lobby, we were given our train cards, called Suicas. Evan led us to the train station, where we feasted on amazing baked goods from a shop there. It was then off to the fashion district of Harajuku, where we started the day at the Meiji-Jingu Shrine for a history lesson, and to pick up some charms as souvenirs.
From there, we split up into two groups. Since I don’t really care about clothes, I tagged along with the group that went to Kiddy Land, because it sounded like the lesser of two evils. I was not prepared to be blown away by a frickin’ toy store. This place is five levels, each with a different theme: Relakkuma (a relaxed bear), Hello Kitty (plus some… odd… derivatives), and even Peanuts… as in, the Charles Schultz comic featuring Snoopy.
When we merged groups again, Evan took us to a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We sat around tables that had iron griddles in the center while he explained how this worked: We would be having okonomiyaki. We would be ordering a batter with whatever we wanted in it. It would come in a bowl that we would pour onto the griddle, and cook it ourselves. Turned out to be pretty good… at least to me. I started to get a feel for who the picky eaters in the group were. One guy, though, surprised me. Let’s just say that he didn’t seem to be the type to ever slow down when it came to food. He took a few bites and said “Yeah, I pretty much can’t eat this anymore”. To me, okonomiyaki seemed… tame. We hadn’t even gotten to the raw fish or otherwise exotic stuff yet.
Next stop was Akihabara. For those of you who aren’t Japanophiles or otaku, Akihabara is… well… a nerd mecca. I wish I had taken more photos of it, because the ones I took don’t even come close to doing it justice. The main street is lined with arcades, video game stores (new, used, and retro), Mandarake/anime/manga stores, maid cafes… you name it. Constant nerd action, 24/7.
Evan took the brave of us to one of the aforementioned maid cafes. I was completely unprepared for this. It was without a doubt one of the strangest experiences of my life. First off, the place is on the third floor of a very small building. The elevator only held about four to six people, so we had to go up in batches. I was in the third group, and when the doors opened we heard very loud cheering and shouting. Crap. We step off, and enter the cafe to a team of drunk Japanese guys forming a high-five gauntlet for us while cheering us on, screaming “WELCOME TO JAPAN!” at nothing less than the tops of their lungs.
Once everyone was in, and things settled down, the waitresses/maids came up, introduced themselves, and told us how the place worked. Long story short, in order to get their attention, you weren’t allowed to say the standard things, like “Sumimasen!”. Oh, no… that would make far too much sense. No, you had to hold your hands up to the sides of your head like paws, and say “Meow meo~~~w!”. Uhm, no. I’m a grown-ass man. Sorry, not doing that. I ordered a parfait shaped like a turtle or something… I forget. I was way too distracted by the drunkards being hilarious. The maids did some karaoke while we ate, and that was that.
The guides let us run free for a couple of hours, because clearly there was no way to structure this. It was an absolute zoo. With nowhere else to start (because… wow), I began looking for games that my friend back home wanted me to pick up. After a few successes, I found myself inside a retro game store that sold used games from the original Famicom and Super Famicon (Japan’s equivalent of our NES and SNES, respectively).
Meeting up with the guides later, Evan took us to one of his favorite ramen restaurants. This place was tiny, seating only about 15 people, but the food was excellent.
By then it was dark, so the guides took us to Tokyo Tower. Everything about it screamed “tourist trap”, but it was still pretty cool. We took the surprisingly-smooth elevator up to the observation area, where we killed a good half hour or so taking in the amazing view (regardless of the rain) and buying trinkets.
Afterward, we were all pretty tired, so the trip back to Kawasaki felt like it lasted for hours. I honestly don’t even remember falling asleep after getting back to my room.
We hit the bakery for breakfast again. You would too, if you’d seen this place. Dag, yo.
First on the itinerary was the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. It was a bit of a hike from the station, but worth it. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll have to actually go there to see it, but you really should. This place is amazing. They had various characters and scenes from their movies, architecture that was just as stunning, food court, and gift shop, all of which matched their intricate theme. We even got to see an animated short that is exclusive to the museum’s theater. Now, you have to understand… I hadn’t seen much anime before this, other than Fullmetal Alchemist, so I missed a lot of what was going on here… and I was still blown away by this place. It’s about as close to the Miyazaki style as you can get outside of one of his movies. This museum is actually what inspired me to start watching anime upon my return.
Once we’d all had our fill, it was off to Nakano Broadway, which felt like a hybrid between a shopping mall and a flea market. I did most of my souvenir shopping here: some nice sake, cups, a porcelain tanuki, etc. I also managed to find another game on my friend’s list, even though I’d give up hope on it. There were lots of little niche stores there. I’m kind of kicking myself for not taking it more seriously, after seeing some of the cool stuff the other folks found.
From there, it was back to the hotel for a quick break before heading to Ikegami for the Honmonji Oeshiki Festival. It was dark by then, so the streets and alleyways of Ikegami were lit up with the lights of the food vendors and parade. The food was so good that my tee shirt decided that it wanted some of the curry sauce. On the plus side, I got to learn the Japanese word for “rag” from the very nice vendor who kept shoving free food in my face for being foreign.
Oddly enough, some of the people on the tour met a Japanese guy who had been to America, and had fallen in love with Minnesota. They traded photos and Facebook profiles. Random.
We started with Shinjuku, which appeared to be the business district… skyscrapers everywhere. Evan took half of us to the Square Enix Showcase. Small store, but lots of cool stuff for JRPG fans. They had Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII in the floor (it’s a plot thing), and all kinds of plushy goodness to commemorate their 25th anniversary. Snagged myself a cake-wielding chocobo. From there, we went to the place the other half of the group started off at: Tokyu Hands. Picture a gigantic Macy’s, but one floor is surprisingly devoted to the most random collection of crap you can find. Not my thing. Didn’t stay too long.
After that, they briefed us on how to navigate the trains, and turned us loose upon Tokyo for the rest of the day. At first, I thought I’d see the giant Gundam in Odaiba, but never made it that far. I broke off with a small group whose interests seemed to align with mine.
Our first stop was lunch at the Alice in Wonderland theme cafe. In the basement of a labyrinthine shopping mall in the middle of Shinjuku, it was very hard to find. Food was good, but nothing you can’t find in the ‘States.
After that, we went back to Harajuku, to pick up some souvenirs from Kiddy Land. Along the way, I noticed a store that pretty much only sold shoes from Minnesota. They sold both Red Wing Boots and Minnetonka Moccasins. Small world.
Since Harajuku is actually a district of Shibuya, we hopped over to see the Scramble Crossing, Shibuya 109 building, and Tower Records. That place was a zoo. Lots of activity, and surprisingly easy to get turned around.
Finally, it was starting to get dark, so we made our way back to Akihabara to finish get our nerd shopping on, aaaaand… we got lost immediately after exiting the station. Crap. On the plus side, I had a surprisingly productive conversation with a street barker to get back on track. By now, the Japanese had started flooding back into my brain, and this conversation seemed to be the turning point for me. I was getting more confident, since this dude and I were actually able to understand each other. He and his friend were able to help me figure out where we were on the map in the guidebook, and off we went.
I ended up buying a third-party Famicom/Super Famicom dual console, and a handful of Japanese versions of some of my childhood favorites: Mario 1/2/3, Zelda, Duck Tales, Donkey Kong Jr, and Kirby. (Interesting story about Mario 2, if you don’t already know it: What we call “The Lost Levels” from Super Mario All-Stars was actually Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan. They thought it would be too difficult to keep American attention, so they took an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic, swapped out the characters and sound effects with those from the Mario universe, and released it as Super Mario Bros 2 in America. This is why it makes absolutely no sense as a Mario game. This version of it is called “Super Mario USA” in Japan, and that’s the one I picked up. I asked if they had Japan’s Doki Doki Panic, but apparently it was only released on the Famicom’s disk drive system. Boo.)
The rest of the evening in Akihabara was spent going to every “Trader” store and back-alley used game store I could find, looking for the rest of the games on my friend’s list. Once I wrapped that up, I met up with my roommate at the Sega arcade, where he showed us the infamous table-flipping game.
We then caught the train back to Kawasaki, and chilled out in front of the fountain in front of the nearby mall before calling it quits for the day.
This was our last day in the Tokyo area for this tour, and one of my favorites, because: Kamakura, bay-bee. Finally got some history, shrines, temples, and gardens. Since I hadn’t drunk the anime Kool-Aid yet, this was one of my biggest reasons for coming on the trip. Kamakura was the capital of Japan at one point, being the seat of the shogunate. Unfortunately, not much of the original stuff is left, since it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1920’s.
We started off at a bazaar that took the shape of a long alleyway connecting the train station to the primary shrine+temple (which is apparently an odd combination in the same location, since one is for Buddhism, and one is for Shinto). There was a public wedding ceremony happening while we were there. Absolutely beautiful.
After exploring the grounds for awhile, a few of us randomly met up on the way back to the station, and decided we were hungry. We popped into a small traditional restaurant for food… the kind of place that has tatami mats, tables that are about a foot off the ground, and zero leg room. Nobody could read the stylized menus, so we decided what to get by how it looked. Apparently, I ended up ordering tripe instead of mushrooms. Oops. I’m glad I’m not a picky eater, because it actually wasn’t that bad.
We met up with the rest of the group just in time, and headed over to the Hase Temple. There are not words to describe this place. It has amazing beach views from the tops of the cliff, caves to crawl in, and a gigantic golden statue, all of which are connected with well-tended ponds, gardens, and hardscapes. Truly impressive.
Our last stop in Kamakura was probably the best. The guides took us to the “daibutsu”, which is pretty much just a gigantic, hollow bronze Buddha statue. Evan was very adamant that everyone hand him their camera. At first I assumed it was because photography was forbidden, and he didn’t want us getting kicked out accidentally. Once inside, however, he has us line up in front of the stairs. He then starts going through all of the cameras one at a time, taking a photo of all of us in front of the daibutsu. It took almost 15 minutes, during which time the locals were laughing at the goofy American. Awesome time.
After the photo shoot, a few of us got the wonderful opportunity to meet a Japanese gentleman who was truly impressive. He was a retired postal worker who was not going to let his mind rot if he had anything to say about it! He was teaching himself English, Chinese, and Korean, traveling, and staying active. While I can’t speak to his abilities with any other language, his English was excellent! The first few minutes of the conversation, he humored me by letting me practice my Japanese with him. After that, he dazzled us with his story in English. I wish we’d had more time to talk with him. He had me hooked.
Back in Kawasaki that evening, we had dinner at what’s called an izakaya. From what I could gather, their main focus was on alcohol and drinks, but they served appetizer-sized food as well. They sat the group of us in a room with four tables (the kind where your legs actually drop down into the floor below the table, so you actually have legroom), and piped in American pop music. Food was eaten, alcohol was imbibed, and good times rolled.
We departed Tokyo to spend the last two days of the tour in the mountainside town of Ikaho, about a four hour drive away. Ikaho has one main feature that the rest of the town seems to be based on: a volcanic hot spring at the top of the mountain. The hot, mineral-rich water is channeled through the center of the town’s iconic stone staircase and into the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) about halfway up the mountain where we spent our last two nights in Japan.
Once we got checked in, we met back in the lobby, and the guides went right to work. I tagged along with Evan and Lanny’s group as they went up the stone staircase from the ryokan toward the mountaintop. The staircase is lined with shops and restaurants on either side, and Evan pulled us into a smaller restaurant for lunch. I decided on the “kare udon”, which are thick noodles in a curry broth. Like everything I had in Japan, it was quite superb. This restaurant, like the other shops on this steep staircase, has an extreme lack of space… and nowhere was this more apparent than the bathroom. Evan went to use it, and when he came back, he asked the biggest guy in the group to go take a look. When he gets there, we hear him shout “Are you frickin’ KIDDING me?” The ceiling was no more than five feet high!
After lunch, a small group of us broke off to continue the climb up the mountain. After awhile, the stone staircase stopped, and the trail started.
Thirty minutes of rather steep climbing later, we hit the summit.
Once back down the mountain, it was time to put on our yukata (like a kimono, only much less ornate… more like a bathrobe), and enjoy the hot spring bath, called an “onsen”, with the group. Now you should know this about an onsen: they’re gender-segregated, and for good reason. See, you have to be buck nekkid. You strip down to nothing, wash yourself thoroughly, and then hop in a tub with strangers (or in our case, people you’ve only known for a week). Once you adapt to that, however, it’s… amazing. Almost supernaturally relaxing. This ryokan had a total of four onsen, two indoor and two outdoor. I found the indoor one to be too humid, and apparently the rest of the group agreed, because everyone was outside.
The ryokan served all of us a traditional Japanese dinner of either oyako donburi (chicken and egg over rice… “oyako” literally means “parent and child”… don’t read too much into that) or ebi tempura donburi (lightly fried shrimp over rice). I ended up with both, since people somehow didn’t like them. I promptly put them into my face.
After that, we had game night. Some people played cards, others used the Famicom I picked up in Akihabara, and others got tipsy.
Our final full day in Japan had us waking up to a traditional Japanese breakfast and visiting the Mizusawa Temple a short drive from the ryokan. A gorgeous forest and mountain setting made this place a secluded sanctuary feel.
After that, the guides took us to a 500 year old (not kidding) soba noodle restaurant. It’s been in the family since the days of Christopher Fricking Columbus. So, you think they know how to make noodles? Why, yes. Yes they do. You get a wicker plate with cold noodles. You pick them up with the chopsticks, and dip them into a sesame seed sauce.
After getting back with the rest of the group and returning to Ikaho, Evan took us up the mountain the easy way: the ropeway. What took us 30-45 minutes of moderate effort the day before was easily accomplished in 3 minutes today. Sounds like progress to me! Evan was a dork the entire way up.
Once there, we got to see all of the cool stuff at the top that we were too tired to explore the day before. They’ve got a nice observation deck, woods, and a park for kids (and dorky tour patrons). Almost everyone got to appreciate the rope tower… at once.
Another traditional Japanese dinner, and more fun and games back at our rooms before bed. One of the guys approached me, saying that some of them were going to try to stay up as long as possible so they could better sleep on the plane. Sounded like a great idea. We ended up passing out around 5 am, and getting up just in time to check out.
The four hour bus ride to Narita airport was torture. Half because I was crazy-tired, and half because I was leaving Japan. The pit stop halfway there saw me loading up on candy, turtle-shaped melon bread, and other assorted foodstuffs for the 10 hour plane ride back.
When we got to the airport, we had some time to kill. Narita is laid out a bit differently from the U.S.’ airports in that all of the cool crap such as restaurants and shops are before the security checkpoint. Therefore, we got to explore quite a bit before the point of no return. I was looking for some last-minute souvenirs when I noticed a shop that sold I-don’t-know-how-many different flavors of Kit-Kats. Tired and overwhelmed, I just loaded up on some green tea flavored ones, and hung with the same group I was with last night.
Upon return home (on a Wednesday), I was immediately glad that I had taken the next two days off. Jet lag hit me hard on the way back. All-in-all, it was worth it, though.
- Even though it was very different, I did not find anything to eat there that I did not like. Even the food and drink from vending machines and convenience stores were awesome. I drank so much Boss Coffee from vending machine cans that Tommy Lee Jones would be proud (he’s there spokesman, somehow). The station in Kamakura had ice cream in vending machines. Delicious. The konbinis (convenience stores) had better sandwiches and onigiri balls than I could make here. And don’t even get me started on the bakery chain in the Kawasaki train station. The general philosophy with food over there seems to actually let flavors work their magic instead of stuffing as much salt and sugar into it as possible.
- My biggest concern before the trip was getting lost. The maps we were provided were impossible to mess up, and after an hour of studying the train map, and deciding on trains myself based on them, it was easy.
- I’ve never felt safer in a large city than I did in Tokyo. There was an overwhelming sensation that people actually looked out for each other. People were having a great time in dark alleys, and even though I had to carry cash on me everywhere I went, I never felt like I was at risk in any way. What really surprised me, though, was hearing the same thing from several women on the trip.
- Japan’s public transit system is nuts compared to the ‘States. Maybe I think that only because Minneapolis is notoriously bad for public transit, but still. I never once had to purchase a ticket for anything; just tap the Suica on the turnstile at your source and destination. Buttery smooth.
- I cannot possibly say enough good things about PacSet Tours! Evan, Lanny, and Becka really knew what they were doing so well that they were completely comfortable and approachable. Everything was planned, rehearsed, and smooth. In fact, I’m planning on hitting up their holiday tour this coming December. If you’re in the Minneapolis area for Anime Detour this year, please do yourself a favor and stop by their panel.
I hope this has convinced you to consider a trip to Japan. If you are apprehensive for any reason (never been our of the country before, don’t speak the language, etc.), I highly recommend you start with PacSet Tours. They are an amazing company run by knowledgeable, helpful, and fun people. A tour is a great way to get started!