Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NHK Studiopark, and Shibuya: Tokyo, Day One.

April 2nd. Our first day in Tokyo – and we discovered... stamps.

Being in three separate buildings we had to come up with a meeting time early in the morning. One by one we all showed up grabbing a bite to eat along the way. The 99 yen shop? A perfect place for all your edible needs. Ice cream bar? 99 yen. One liter of juice? 99 yen. All number of delicious treats? 99 yen! For three bucks you can be fully fed and on your way. Just before we took off, we had a mission to fulfill. A mission I wish I had known to undertake last time I was here. We were off to grab Suica cards.

These are the reloadable cards that you can pack with money, so instead of buying a ticket each time you ride, you just need to scan your pass, and off you go. You don't save money – in fact, you have to pay a five hundred yen deposit. But the convenience – the convenience. And – buying the card we passed by a stamp. How were we to know what this would lead to? It seemed nothing more than an innocent little stamp, but oh – it was so much more.

Some stamped notebooks, others stamped cards they were carrying. Me? I stamped inside my Jurassic Park novel. So much for dropping the book off when I finish reading it.

But that was time enough – time enough spent. We had a great big city to explore, and only – well we had days to do it, but really, Tokyo, it's more than you can ever really get to. Our first stop? Shibuya.

Before I go on, I need to take a moment to described our first meeting with people on the streets. Nick, one of the many travelling in our group, has unique shoes. And by unique I mean very strange, but also fantastic. They are toe shoes. Picture toe socks, now picture them as shoes. A family, mom and dad with little Timmy, and Billy, or some other such name were looking around outside of the station, and saw Nick approach. In their delightful American accent they went up to him and asked him about his shoes. Not being one to turn people away, he explained what they were for (something about fixing our feet which have been destroyed by modern footwear.)

As he was turning to leave Dad noticed a bottle of some Japanese drink grabbed at random from a vending machine in Nicks bag. Dad went on a speech about how much he loved that drink and enjoyed drinking it the past few times he was in Japan. He seemed to be talking a we bit slowly too. At this point I thought nothing of it – you know, Americans. But just as he was about to leave Mom decided to pipe up, “You know,” she began explaining to Nick, “you speak very good English!”

At this point I was too busy covering my mouth and running away – bursting with laughter – I have no idea how this played out, or what was said. In my mind it was a snarky, “I should, it's the only language I've known and I've had 27 years of practice,” but being a better person than I, I'm sure he wasn't quite so cruel. He probably rolled with it.

Still – for days to come we will undoubtedly be reminding Nick how wonderful he speaks English, and what a lovely treat it has been for all of us.

I wish I could say that it was just Americans not being able to tell the difference, and the story would be delightful left on that note, but I must – in the interest of integrity – go on to explain that all number of Japanese have gone up to my friends expecting them to understand what they're saying as well. It's equally as delightful watching that play out. Still, nothing compares to the verbal pat on the head, of, “you speak very good English.”

Back to Shibya.

Shibuya is a district of Japan that has a lot going for it, but it rarely leads in any of the various categories. You've got the bright lights, but it's no Shinjuku East. You've got the toys and gadgets, but it's no Akihabara. You've got the trends and fashion, but it's no Harajuku. Still – it's a good cross section, and it's a nice place to start wading into the expanse that is this world class city.

We wandered the streets walking all number of stores. We were men on a mission. A mission of my creation, but one none the less. We were on our way to find Mandarake. This store is my Japan. Video games, manga, figures, collectibles of all types. Mandarake is wonderful, Mandarake is bliss, Mandarake is – closed... Too early for Tokyo. Fine then, there's always Harajuku and Yoyogi park. A new mission was born, and it took us north.

Never did we make this next district however, we were stopped right on the border. Right on the border lay NHK Studiopark. Sure we didn't really know what this was, but Domo was right outside, and the entrance was only two hundred yen. Even if it's terrible, it's less than half the price of a bowl full of noodles.

What lay inside was a magical wonderland beyond previous comprehension.

NHK allowed up opportunities to do all sorts of terrible things, such as voice acting for animated cartoons. Into the sound booth we went, and were given the chance to watch a brief bit of a scene, and then re-dub it to our liking. It should be said that Tsangerang and I should never be allowed in the same room together. Especially given the chance to do voice work. especially over a child's cartoon. It's for the best that nobody outside our group spoke English, and we'll leave it at that.

Next up was a trip to “Cool World.” Well, not so much Cool World as the less seedy Japanese child-like equivalent. Five of us stood in front of a blue screen, while the sixth filmed the monitor on the outside. Pressing a button the procedure started. A small cartoon character came up to us, and started to walk around us. Within moment we had regressed to the state of hyperactive children, all trying to grab the little cartoon in the virtual space. He then began to fly, and instinctively we looked for him, mirroring our actions to fit with what was being displayed on the screen. And though we stayed in the same spot, once the screen changed to that of an undersea world we felt the need to mime swimming actions. Anything else would just be ridiculous, you must understand.

There was no capturing the critter, and eventually we were defeated by a large octopus. Still – it was a true delight.

The final event of interest (which isn't to say that it was the final thing worth doing, as you can watch morning shows be recorded, listen to live radio shows and watch as they're broadcast, and – if you read Japanese – learn the history of the programming. Also there are many creepy children's show characters to take pictures with as well. But the final event was in the News broadcasting room.

What I gathered from the small English blurb was that we would watch how a newsroom operates. A desk lay in front of camera and teleprompter. To the other side were the benches we all sat in. A Japanese woman stood up and introduced herself – I think – and then, apparently, asked for a volunteer. A little girl raised her hand. She was accepted. The woman continued to ask for volunteers – at least that's what I think she was asking for. Tsang convinced me that it would be in all of our best interests if I raised my hand. I protested that I had no idea what I was raising my hand for, but that didn't work as I noticed some how my fingers were extended up above my head, and the Japanese woman was now talking to me expecting me to understand her, as clearly I had understood her enough to put my hand up.

I stared blankly. She then looked at my friends, Asian as they were, expecting them to know Japanese. This too failed. Flustered, I was just directed to the front where I took a seat behind the News desk with my five year old co-anchor. Together we were going to pretend to read the news. At first thoughts of video dubbing came to me, and I wondered what I might announce as having happened – but again, there was a five year old beside me, and going off script would not be recommended in that occurrence. Just wouldn't be right. Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion that this employee knew more of my mother tongue than she was letting on.

Out came the scripts. The girl read first. I was only slightly terrified when I saw that it was all in Japanese. I didn't even know what direction the words went in. Up to down, right to left for those wondering. Just as my turn came, and I smiled and nodded like someone on day release from the hospital, whenever the host stopped speaking, I was handed an English script. The world became a little less terrifying at that moment.

I read with gusto and expertise, if I do say so myself, and was then directed back to my seat, full of excellent chest puffed pride at a News Anchoring job well done – and only a little upset I didn't get the chance to go off-script. Still, children and all.

Then, right before we left, I saw called to stand again, and was awarded with a pictre of myself behind the news desk that had been taken and printed out there. When asked a question, I once more smiled and nodded. This time it didn't seem to be enough, blank stares were aimed my way. On the fly I innovated, and stuck out a thumbs up. This seemed to do the trick.

Later I learned that I was asked how I enjoyed the experience. The thumbs up was a correct response after all. Good for me.

Best two dollars ever. Ever. EVER.

[authors note: it's now April 14th, and I'm starting to realize just how much I've done in the past two weeks. I am terrified of the prospect of writing up blogs for all these days. And yet they were so fantastic that I can't not. Ai ya.]

[Author's Note: April 22nd says hello. This is going to be a loooong day.]

Next up? Shibuya 109. I know this store for one reason, and one reason only – the video game The World Ends With You. Games based in Tokyo – and there are a number, are so correctly based in Tokyo that Nick managed to navigate his way around based on the maps he remembered from playing.

What we could not predict was what was inside 109. Ten floors – TEN FLOORS – of shop til you drop madness, girls only. We had previously spent some time in Mandarake, looking at all the geek stuff, and this was like coming out of your parents basement into something strangely foreign and distressing.

Sure there were guys there – but we doubled the amount. In our mission to find Mike and Tonia, who had left the nerdy underbelly of manga, and action figures, early we climbed the epic tower from floor one, to floor ten. There were some basements that also needed checking. Who would have thought that finding two Asians in a giant Tokyo shopping complex would be difficult?!

Each store was full of girls looking at one brand of clothing or another. I do not like shopping – and as such can not understand their ridiculous cries of joy, and shrieks of madness. They were, quite frankly, shocking and distressing. What was more shocking, however, was that in an environment with hundreds upon hundreds of pretty girls, there were no boys trying to pick up. Not one. Back home this would be a target rich environment towards where many would head on such a quest.

Here – no boys. Only the sad, dead eyed, ones being dragged along – knowing full well they are nothing but their female handler's purse.

There's only so much cries of the Japanese version of OMG that would could stand. And the smell of baby prostitute was overwhelming. Twelve floors had been scoured, and still we failed to find our missing members. Back to the dog statue outside of the station (also in The World Ends With You.) It's a well known meeting spot, and meet up there we did.

I think it's important in understanding the Tokyo geek culture, and how it differs from the fashion culture – sure you can pay five hundred dollars for a pair of pants in 109, and that may sound crazy – but in Mandarake, there was a two inch square sticker selling for over two thousand dollars. Puts it all into perspective a little, don't it?

From here on out, we needed to only wait for Mike to forge the unending sea of people that was the Shibuya crossing, and make his way to us. Then it was all illegible Japanese menus at skewer restaurants, automatic beer pouring machines, and resting up for the next day.

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