Mike's Japanese Expedition, August/September 1999

For those who don't know, I was in Japan from August 22 to September 3 1999. It was a trip that I didn't think I would actually go on, and I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts about what went on when I was there. It took me a while to get the photo-CD made and to get some time to sit and write about it, so I hope I didn't forget anything.

This page is a work in progress- No doubt there are errors and things I forgot that will be added as time goes on. In addition, I have several hundred more images I could be adding in the near future, so be sure to check back every now and then. The images you can click on below range from 30k to 100k in size. I marked off the especially good ones in red!

First off, I want to thank Bill and Masami for letting me stay in their apartment while I was in Tokyo. I want to also thank Hiroki for showing me around. Thanks also to Mr. Ito, for his generosity and his time. And, of course, a big thanks to Norie and the Isogawa family. I owe you guys bigtime.

So, lets begin with the plane flight. 14 hours. The longest I've ever been on a plane. After about the 6th or 7th hour, I went numb and I don't remember much about it.  When we finally landed in Tokyo I remember seeing the ANA Pokemon 747 and I knew we were finally in Japan!
I collected my luggage and made my way though customs and to the train station, got my tickets and called my friends from the platform to let everyone know I was there. I think it was about then I realized that I had taken way too much luggage. So, I boarded the Narita Express train and made the 40-or-so minute ride to Shinjuku (I think, maybe it was Tokyo?) station.  There I met my friend Bill, who wasn't too hard to spot since he is so tall! The first place we went was back to the GOL office, where Bill and many other of my friends work.  When I arrived there I was totally exhausted from toting the luggage around that the first thing I did open the luggage and give people the things I had brought for them in an attempt to lighten the load a bit. I got to see some old friends, like Dave, who moved to Tokyo a few years ago. And, I got to meet some people who I've known for a long time and never met, like Peter. It was good to finally meet everyone in the GOL office and to see what work at an isp is like. 

Shortly we made our way back to Bill's place, where thanks to the graciousness of Bill and his wife Masami, I was able to stay for free. I remember eating some and talking a bit, but about that time the jet lag hit me and I passed out.


The daytime hustle of the Tokyo streets

This is definitely not a New York subway!

Yes, its a beer vending machine!

My time in Tokyo was a lot of fun, but I don't really remember doing anything "touristy".  I don't remember exactly what I did in any particular order. I do remember going to some anime and manga shops, which was interesting to me because those shops are really very small, much smaller than the pictures in the magazines would lead you to believe. 


This is a small ramen shop near Bill's place.

Out on Tokyo Bay

Tokyo's urban sprawl

I met up later in the week with my friends Hiroki, a producer at AIC, and Rio, a voice  actress. I've known Hiroki for quite some time, and Rio I met at Katsucon in Feb 1999, when I offered to drive both of them from the convention to their hotel in Manhattan.  Since then we've become good friends. Anyway we went out and had dinner at a Chinese theme restaurant which was apparently very popular based on the amount of time we spent on line to get into the place. The food was great, the restaurant atmosphere was fantastic, and we had a really good time. Shameless plug: When I was in Tokyo I got a chance to watch one of the Battle Athletes DVDs. I'm not usually a big fan of AIC titles, but I really enjoyed this one. Not only is it just plain fun but Rio has the starring role in it as well. You can check it out on Pioneer's website. Its a fun title that you may enjoy.

The next evening I went with Hiroki to meet one of my industry idols, Takehiko Ito.  (Character designer for anime like Lamune & 40, KO Beast, and author of manga like Future Retro Hero Story) He's a great guy, and incredibly generous. I now have a lot of promotional materials and stuff from him. I was very happy to get his Birth of V-Darn manga which is part of the KO Beast series. He also drew for me a quick color sketch of Princess Earthia from Future Retro. I was amazed at how quickly he can draw these things, but, of course that is his job and he's obviously really good at it! The studio is remarkably small but it was really exactly as I expected to see it.


Hiroki, Dave, Bill, and Rio

The dinner party!

Bill, Rio, and some weird guy

That night we went out to eat. He took us to a nice Italian place where, of course, they serve wine with the food. Sadly, I am not a drinker, and I was rather quickly dizzy from it. After that we went to the Esquire Club, which is like a Playboy bunny club.. where we drank some more. I was really quite gone before long, and I know I we were having interesting conversations but sadly I don't remember them! 
The next day was quite interesting. I went with Hiroki to tour the AIC studios. I met a lot of nice people in the industry who are working on all sorts of interesting new animation  projects. Also, I spent some time in the AIC Digital studio- where I saw the future of  AIC animation. What was most amazing about the AIC digital studio was how they take 3D models and then apply special "cel" filters that make the 3D model look just like a 2D animation cel, and that was really incredible. The old part of the studio was really incredibly low-tech, I guess I was expecting to see state of the art equipment, but the actual process of making and painting cels there hasn't changed much. Also, its remarkably smaller than the pictures  I've seen would lead you to believe. But, in any case, I got to see how the mechanics of anime production work, and it was really an interesting experience. I didn't take any pictures there though, I figured it probably wouldn't be allowed.


Takehiko Ito at work

Mr. Ito and I in Morningstar Studio

Mr. Ito's gift art

Later that afternoon I went to the recording studio. To me that is the real magical part, where there characters are given voices! Sadly, I don't think Rio is currently working on any AIC projects, so she wasn't going to be there. But, things there were definately interesting.  First off, we got there quite early... the recording session wasn't going to actually start for a few hours. Hiroki then explained that the particular episode of Kacho Ohji that they were recording tonight was taking place in New York City. They had a scene where they weren't sure about the dialogue of a native New Yorker, and they asked for my help. So, they showed me the storyboard of the scene with this big mean New York guy beats up on a skinny little Japanese  guy. So, I wrote a little script and we went over it... but it was "too nice", so I threw in a bunch of cursing and clever little jokes, and it seemed to fit pretty well. I thought my work was done there, but then they took me into the recording booth, and asked me very nicely if I could record the dialogue. I was very hesitant but I didn't want to disappoint Hiroki, so I agreed. It took me a while to understand the process, but within about half an hour or so my dialogue was approved by the director and I was done. Later on I watched them record the rest of the dialogue for the episode. Unfortunately I don't know anything about Kacho Ohji, all I can tell you is that the guy in episode 10 who speaks perfect English is me! Oh, and while we were waiting, Hiroki was nice enough to do a pencil drawing of Akari Kanzaki for me, which I really enjoy very much.

Unfortunately I couldn't stay to hang around after the recording was done. I had to leave before the actors were finished- but I got to see and participate in the process, and it was amazing. I hope to see it again sometime... but, I had a schedule to keep, and I was on my way to the second part of my vacation.

This is me in the studio, and the character I voiced on screen

The streets of Shinjuku at night

Gift art work on the walls of a small restaurant. Hiroki has one there!

I got a chance to ride the Nozomi Shinkansen, which is the fastest train in all of Japan and one  of the fastest in the world. Wow, what an amazing experience. Its nicer than being on an  airplane, and it feels like you're flying on the ground. How fast does it go? I don't know  for sure, but the train is capable of sustaining 180mph. So, I was on my way at ludicrous speed to meet my friend Norie and her family at Nagoya station. One thing about the Shinkansen is that it is so very comfortable and quiet that I was asleep before too long. I'm glad I didn't sleep too deeply or I may have ended up in Hiroshima.

Norie and her mother met me on the platform. I didn't recognize her at first because she cut her hair. So we made our way out of Nagoya station and got in the car for the hour or so  ride to their home in Ueno city. 
I was obviously never in a Japanese house before, so I was really curious to see everything.  I liked the layout. The size of the house was comparable to the size of my parents house- but the way it is used is pretty different. My room was the spare room, where I slept on the tatami floor on a futon. I have a few notes though about the house, though. First off, Japanese homes generally do not have central air conditioning or heating, which kind of surprised me.  Also, pet cats and rice paper doors are not a very good combination. Every night the cats seemed to take great delight in ripping bigger and bigger holes in it!


My nightly companions

The first day I spent in the Kansai area, I got to see lots of the local area to Norie's home. I went to Akame Shijyuhachi Taki (Red-Eye 48 Waterfalls) which is a recreational area that goes up into the mountains where there are numerous beautiful waterfalls. I took a few nice pictures there, and I was happy to see something natural after spending a whole week in the urban sprawl of Tokyo. We also went to see Ueno castle. Which, I later learned, was not the actual castle  but a reconstruction on the site of the orginal built in 1935. Anyway, at the time it seemed really old, and contained a lot of fascinating ancient Japanese artifacts. The Iga-Ueno area is also home to the Iga Ninja clan. So, in Ueno park they have reconstructed a Ninja house where they give demonstrations on Ninja weaponry and techniques, and the whole thing was really amazing. Even today, their techniques are truly frightening and they would make quick work of me, I can tell you that.


Here's one of the magnificent waterfalls

and another!

Ueno Castle

The next day I spent in Osaka. I had a little shopping to do, so off we went. There's not too much to report about Osaka, one thing that sticks out was the trip to the part of the city that is the "American Village", which was really amusing. Most of the people were dressed up in what I can only describe as early 80's British punk style. (Think Vyvyan of "The Young Ones" and you pretty much have the style of dress) I always wanted to go to the Kotobukiya hobby  shop, and I finally got my chance. So, I was really expecting to see this massive store with all sorts of stuff... but in reality it was a little shop crammed wall-to-wall with lots of stuff! But, thankfully, they still had one garage kit that I really wanted, so I got my kit and left, but not after looking around to see what they had to offer. The funny part is that most of the stuff there I could get via mail-order back home... and for less too. The best sightseeing in Osaka for me was this oddly shaped building with an observation deck on the top. (I don't remember the name of it, but I'll look it up) The observation deck was called "The Floating Garden" I felt kind of stupid when I asked where the plants were, but although it  has garden in the name, there is in reality no garden there. oops. They have an interesting  gimmick in that observation deck, though. They spray a mist out around and below the deck which when the weather is cooperating would make it appear as if you are standing on top of a cloud. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and the mist didn't do much of anything, but, hey I give them points for the effort. After that I wanted to pick up some cute Pikachu gifts at the Pokemon Center. This place isn't really that big, but its big enough to have just about everything Pokemon you could possibly want. I'm glad I really don't like it that much because if I did I'd have been broke at that point! I got some cute gifts and picked up some cards for my co-workers kids. As an aside, if you thought kids in the US were crazy for buying overpriced Japanese toys/cards that they can't read or understand, at the Pokemon center was a section of overpriced US toys and cards which Japanese kids seemed to be interested in as well. So, the Pokemon crazies cross cultural as well as political boundaries it seems.


Looking up at the Floating Garden.

Out on the observation deck

The next day I remember well, for it was the day I was really looking forward to: Kyoto! (and, it was my birthday too) Norie's uncle was a cab driver in Kyoto for many years, so he knew the top places to go. First order of business was Kiyomizu Temple. I had some documentation about the temple but right now I can't find it. Suffice it to say that the temple is very old, very beautiful and on top of a really steep hill! It didn't take long to be totally wiped out from the unbelievable heat and the endless upward trek to the temple. Next was Kinkaku-Ji Temple,  otherwise known as the "Golden Pavilion". And, it is just that. The building is actually  covered with real gold. It sits out on a pond surrounded by a forest. Truly spectacular. Even more so is the history of the place and the interesting little bits around it, like the natural springs where the Samurai got his water, and the old gardens, and the reconstructed tea house... all very pretty and amazing to me. Next, we went to Padios, the Toei studios tour. Now, this was a whole lot of fun. The whole place is a movie set, designed to look like Kyoto as it appeared during the Edo era. Many of the old Samurai movies are filmed here, and I must say that it looked very familiar to me. I haven't watched many of those movies but I've seen a few, and I'm sure I've seen this place in movie form. No, it wasn't as big or exciting as some of the US studio tours, but it was really fun! By the end of the tour we were all pretty wiped out from the sightseeing and the heat, and our day was done.

Kiyomizu Temple

The Golden Pavilion

a closer shot!

That night I slept pretty well, except when one of the cats decided to use my forehead as a springboard to launch himself onto the family altar. He scratched up my head pretty nicely.

So, the next day, with a scratched head, we were back in Kyoto. This time, though, it was  for something even better than sightseeing: shopping! We met up with Norie's friend Mikiko, a quiet and very pleasant girl. We went to the Kyoto handicraft center, which is a large tourist gift shop. There were some very nice things there but Norie and Miki knew other  places to get the same things cheaper. The only things I got there were some very nice porcelain dolls. The advantage of buying them there was that they would ship them for you from there. I already had a pile of junk to take back with me, and I didn't want to risk taking some fragile stuff back in my luggage! After that we went to some department stores and I picked up gifts for the rest of my family. 

Later that afternoon we went to Kyoto station, which is an absolutely huge structure in the middle of the city. We went to a nice Italian restaurant there. The food was somewhat different to what I was used to, but really good. I think Miki was a little embarrassed when Norie told her that my family was Italian and that they took me to have Italian food, but in actuality it was good to eat something a little familiar. Although I enjoyed Japanese food, it was good to have a little pasta after 2 weeks without it. Funny thing is, I never thought I would miss something as simple as that!


Check out the fake food on the movie set!

This is the Kamo River in Kyoto

Me, Norie, and Mikiko over the Kamo River.
Hint: I am the one who is not a Japanese girl.

The next day I was back in Osaka, because I wanted to go to the Japanese mint to get a proof coin set. Although I didn't intend it to become a long event, they actually have a great mint museum there which was really fascinating. Surprisingly, Norie seemed to enjoy herself even though I figured she would be bored out of her mind. So, after the mint museum tour, I got my (very expensive) mint proof set, and we were on our way back. Incidentally, it is on the grounds of the mint bureau where the very famous cherry blossom viewing happens every spring.


The very stupid looking Kyoto Tower

The old entrance to the Mint Bureau

Huge bamboo trees!

Then, my last full day in Japan was on hand. One thing I wanted to do was get a real big bamboo plant. I have some small bamboo here, but the bamboo there is huge! Giant bamboo is all over the place there, but nobody seemed to know where to get it. In that area, its not exotic or interesting... it is in fact an annoyance! Eventually we came across a piece of land where I hacked a small piece of bamboo runner out of the ground. I washed it and wrapped it in a plastic bag and stuffed it in my luggage. Right now its planted in the back yard, and I'm hoping that it will grow in the spring. The climate here isn't as warm as it is there, so I would suspect that it won't get as large. But, I don't think I need a 70 foot tall  bamboo anyway.

The next day, I was back at Nagoya station, waiting for the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.  Coincidentally I happened to ride on the 700 series Nozomi, which is the newest style of the Shinkansen. It really looks like a duck. Supposedly the 700 is not as fast as the 500, but it did seem to have a smoother ride.


the 700 series Nozomi Shinkansen

My benefactors, Norie and her mother

So, that about sums up my trip. What did I learn? Well, a few quick points. First, that no amount of reading about a language or watching TV shows in another language will really prepare you for interacting with people in another country. But, even knowing a little bit does help. I learned that in the complete absence of forks, you can learn to use chopsticks really quickly. Also, Japanese food was not anywhere near as bad as I was led to believe, and in fact overall its somewhat bland but good. I learned that as much as I like Japanese tea, I can't drink it when its cold. I have no idea why.

I've seen a lot in the two weeks I was there, but there are so many other things to see and do. I hope it won't be long before I can return and spend a little more time in this interesting place.