Japanward, Ho! Editorial
A report on random observations from my first visit to Japan, way back in Y2K.
I had the pleasure of doing something that a lot of anime fans dream of. No, not having a girl from outer space come to earth and decide to move in with me, the other thing. Ok, fine, nobody gave me a giant robot, either. But at least I got to visit Japan. Anyway, if you're interested, I've put down just about everything I could think of. This is mostly as my experience relates to anime, but I cover some other stuff, too, and I write long, so I've broken it down. Addendum: This was written in 2000, so the observations on technology, fashion, and "what's in" are very dated, but some of it is still relevant; read what you're interested and skip the rest.
To start with, I'll give a brief rundown on my trip. "I" am the guy who writes almost everything at AAW. I was traveling to Japan in January, 2000 with my brother mainly to visit Akemi (she's real, by the way, and that is her name), meet her family, and officially propose to her (she said yes). I was there a little less than two weeks, and spent most of my time sightseeing in Yamanashi (a relatively "country" prefecture and one of two that contain Mt. Fuji), and a couple of days cruising around Tokyo. Lots of cool sightseeing, and of course some shopping (guess what kind of stores). Absolutely nothing went wrong, I had a great time, and I've been back several times since. But you want specifics...
The Anime Scene In The Motherland
Before I start, keep in mind that my anime experience was pretty limited, but I did have my eyes open, and I picked up quite a few flyers... To start with, "what's on TV": Actually, there wasn't much more animation on TV than you see in the US, although the times tended toward early prime-time rather than Saturday morning and after-school. Of what I saw on, there was yet another magical girl show (didn't seem noteworthy), an entirely computer-animated Donkey Kong show (he's pretty popular there right now) which looked about like, say, the American show Reboot. It was definitely a kid's show, and wasn't anything to write home about artistically or otherwise. There was a couple of rather strange-looking children's shows, also not particularly noteworthy, and of course some Gundam reruns. Finally, there was Zoids. This show initially had the look of being one of those blatant marketing tie-ins; it was a war story featuring giant dinosaur-shaped robots with matching dinosaur robot toys available in your local toy store.
But, as it turned out, this was probably the most interesting of anything I saw. To start with, the actual animated story looked more mature and interesting (though it was a little hard to tell from just one episode) than the concept implies, and the character design/art was quite good. But most interesting, and the thing that bodes very well for the future of anime as a whole was the robot animation. Most of the robot animation was entirely computer animated, but it wasn't a budget-induced cop out. On the contrary, the rendering was done in such a way that it looked almost exactly like cell art... really, really fluid cell art. Had I not been paying attention, I could have mistaken it for hand-drawn animation that likely would have cost several times the budget of the show. If this trend continues (which it probably will), it bodes very well for the future of everybody's favorite, the mecha anime show. Just imagine what a show like Gundam might look like if the fight scenes were solid and animated at a full 30 frames per second... scary. And I at least am looking forward to that.
As for OAVs, Boogie Pop seems to be quite the thing, and there is (at least so far) definitely not much of the slowing OAV production that I've heard rumors of. Of the new OAV series on the way, the most noteworthy (or at least most hyped) seems to be "The Big O". It's an interesting looking giant robot series, and I'm guessing that the producers probably didn't catch on to the connotations that phrase carries in English. In any case, it was featured in several flyers, and I saw plenty of hype around it. I also saw several ads and a promo video for the new Sakura Wars series; the little I saw looked very good, and if the posters are any indication, it looks like this one might actually have some kind of coherent storyline, which is good news.
Two things that weren't new but were definitely pervasive were (big surprise) Pokemon, and a show that most extra-Japanese anime fans don't see much of, Doraemon. The former is pretty close to as popular as it is in the US, though perhaps (and I wouldn't guarantee this) a little faded compared to the US right now. I also spotted a news show about the occasionally violent popularity of Pokemon stuff in the US. Toys everywhere and games abounded, though the animation has more or less run its course. The other show, Doraemon, is an old comedy TV series whose title character is a four foot tall blue cat that came from the future, talks, and has a kangaroo-like pocket with all sorts of weird gadgets (sort of like Lum's bra). He hangs out with a little kid, Nobita, and his friends, and they all have cute, character-building adventures of one sort or another. It's a little kids' show, but he's the rough equivalent of, say, Mickey Mouse here. The reruns are still on (even though the show is very old), and you see Doraemon merchandising everywhere. Doraemon chocolate snacks in all shapes and sizes, foot-tall doraemon talking alarm clocks, and so on.
In the broader picture, I went to some anime stores (and picked up lots of promo flyers) in a couple of small cities, and a 3 story anime-only place in the Akihabara district of Tokyo (for those who've never heard of it, Akihabara is the major electronics shopping district in Japan). Other than feeling like I was walking into heaven, I noticed a few things. First, comics were prolific and always sold alongside anime (though they were also available at newsstands and bookstores); no shock, but interesting to note. Second, DVDs are NOT big. They're definitely there, but the selection was usually small, limited mostly to sets of a few TV series (most commonly Outlaw Star and the Dog of Flanders), and the most discs I saw anywhere was probably 300, many of those from two-episode-per-disc TV series. In total, I'd say we actually have a better selection of anime DVDs in the US--a lot more variety. Many upcoming OAV series were slated to be released in all three formats (VHS, LD, DVD), but several were missing the DVD component, and not much older stuff (even really popular things) is available yet (the first Macross Plus DVD, for example, just came out).
This isn't exactly surprising considering that (DVD equipped) PCs aren't as common as they are in the US, and the only stand-alone DVD players I ever saw were very high-end and in the $400 to $500 range. Obviously changing, but LDs are holding on a lot stronger than elsewhere, and DVDs are obviously slow in coming (nice to see the US at the front of the technological curve on something, anyway--you'll hear more about that later). Note, though, that I did see LDs loosing some ground; though many stores had a large selection (much larger than their DVDs), the local bookstore where I was staying had a 50% off sale on their entire (mostly anime) LD stock, and though that wasn't true everywhere, it did seem to hint at a trend. VHS seemed to be just fine, too, although for some time now LDs have been pretty popular among hardcore fans (much more so than in America).
Finally, it was no shock, but you also saw plenty of American animation around; almost as much Disney stuff as in the US (Tarzan was big), and WB had a presence, too.
Final note to those wishing that they lived in Japan (for all the cool anime stuff): You can buy anything you could imagine, but everything is expensive. With the sole exception of Manga (which was reasonably priced at around $10 for a 200 page volume, less than you'd pay in America), anime in the US is way cheaper. An anime VHS tape will usually set you back on the order of $40 to $50, and LDs are a little higher than that. DVDs are in the same range, and (as fans of imports know) soundtrack CD's run around $30 to $40, so it may not be so bad after all to live away from the mothership.
Japan and Anime Compared
This may not be a major question to most, but I'm sure that some Western viewers wonder "Is Japan really like it looks in Anime?" The answer is, of course, not really, but not a complete no, either. There are definitely no alien women running around, no giant robots, and few if any of the wacky roommates/friends that every anime character seems to have. On the other hand, the general image of the people I met wasn't all that different than the anime characters you've seen (the normal kind, not the wacky or violent ones), and the look of the country was pretty close to what you see in anime set in the modern day (and even some that aren't).
Let's start with food. One thing I was a bit surprised by: You know those cute, super-polite, uniformed young women that always seem to be behind the counter of fast food restaurants? They really are. Seriously--the service was so formally polite that it was almost hard to believe at times. For another thing, the food is surprisingly similar to what you see in anime. There are of course hamburger joints and fried chicken places (which frequently include a rather disturbing-looking statue of the Colonel out front). But how about those quaint looking udon/soba (Japanese noodle) cafes with the flags hanging over the entrance that you see in everything from Samurai epics to Urusei Yatsura? They're real, too, and all over the place (at least where I was)... and they even had the flags sometimes. Even what the food looked like was surprisingly close to the artificial-seeming image I had; you could buy those cute boxed lunches at most train stations, and the bowls of noodles that always seem to be perfectly laid out with veggies and such on top, and those little star-shaped spiral thingies (you remember, a duel started with one early in the Ranma 1/2 series)--even they looked almost exactly like in the drawings. Some of the food looked so much like a drawing that it was kind of funny... "look, I'm eating anime food, and it looks like it's supposed to!"
And, in case you were wondering, eating methods are usually portrayed pretty accurately, too. The style of eating where you hold a bowl of rice and sort of shovel it into your mouth with chopsticks is true to life, and they do slurp noodles--noise, splattering broth, and all. Note, though, that slurping the broth would be considered rude. Go figure.
I'll talk more about food later, but moving on to other areas of interest and getting back to the people. Most schoolkids do in fact wear uniforms, and they look quite a bit like their animated incarnations. For fans of the ever-present sailor suits, though, I am sorry to report that they are a rarity at best these days. I was on the lookout, in fact, and when I thought I had finally spotted two girls in blue sailor suits, I had declared success... until they walked past and I realized they were both American. Oh well. It took two more days of city trains, but I did finally spot one lone girl in a sailor suit. Note, though, that it was one of the all navy blue ones--the Sailor Moon style was nowhere to be seen, and I have the feeling it's near extinct in the real world. The boys on the other hand were true to the image you'd expect. Of course, most Japanese people have plain black hair, although there was a fairly large number of people with imaginatively dyed hair, so the whole multi-hued hair thing isn't entirely inaccurate. More on fashion later.
Finally, the housing. The close-packed suburb-like neighborhoods with the thin two story houses and microscopic yards are real, and in fact commonplace (so are apartments). And the old neighborhoods that show up in anime once in a while, with the twisting streets and old-looking houses piled up are quite real, too--that's where I stayed most of the time I was there. On the subject of streets, you probably noticed in anime that they drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, and this (as well as the depictions of street signs) are of course accurate. But you might have also noticed that there are a lot of kind of funny looking cars in anime; tiny pickup trucks, funny looking little compacts, and "sports cars" that look more like a compact with a big flashy spoiler and such? They are all real, and more. There were plenty of big cars and SUVs, but the bulk of vehicles were tiny, and there were a LOT of weird-looking two-seat micro-compacts, little semi-sports cars, bicycles, mopeds and the like. Teenagers don't usually have cars, either. (By the way, the legal age to drive a motorcycle is younger than for a car, so that's why you often see anime high school kids with one.)
Two final things about family life in Japan. The image of the father coming back from work, sitting down to dinner, and just sort of avoiding life while mom cooks dinner (think Urusei Yatsura or Birdy the Mighty, for example) isn't all that inaccurate, at least for some families. And about baths: If you think people going off to take an evening bath is just an excuse for some quick fanservice (you see this theme in everything from Tenchi Muyo to Plastic Little to Captain Tylor), you're sorely mistaken. True, it makes a good excuse for some onscreen flesh, but however many baths people in anime take, it isn't as many as real Japanese people. The tubs are usually pretty small, but people take a bath almost every night, period. The whole family, young and old (and in the same water). Seriously.
Other Japanese Observations
Ok, enough about what in Japan is like anime. I'm sure some of you want to hear something about what's going on in Japan. Well, here are a few of the observations I made. Fashion-wise, there were two rather amusing trends that you don't see a whole lot of elsewhere. One was platform shoes. Sure, they're coming back in style in the US, and the Spice Girls have those stacked-up shoes, but it's a phenomenon there. There were numerous shops that sold nothing but really, really tall platform shoes. Boots, pumps, sneakers, even frilly pink sandals--if it had a sole, you could buy one that would keep your feet a good six inches off the ground. Some of these things were so tall they looked downright dangerous (not to mention really silly), but they certainly added some serious height to their wearers. Didn't look so cool once they started walking, but oh well.
The other fashion thing I noticed was a thing known as "Ganguro." It's basically a style that involves either dying or making up one's skin to be a very dark tan shade and bleaching one's hair to a sort of carmel color. It frankly looked pretty strange, but was relatively common in the cities. So much for the classic Japanese ideal of the pale-skinned beauty.
Speaking as what you'd call a technophile, I was on the lookout for cool gadgets in the land that breeds them for the rest of the world, and I definitely wasn't disappointed. Hot new technology was rampant--MiniDisc players were everywhere, digital camcorders are popular, and about every other person in Tokyo has a cell phone. In a trip to a few electronics shops in Akihabara (I mentioned it above as the sort of techno-bazaar of Tokyo), I saw dozens of flat panel LCD TVs, big and small (the only ones available in the US are big). Widescreen TVs were quite common, too, and several TV shows are broadcast in letterbox format. There were even some rather exotic technologies to be found; digital VHS decks, set-top DVD-RW players/recorders, and that sort of thing. On the other hand, these things really were pretty exotic, and don't think that everything doesn't come at a price. The flat TVs may have been cool, but you'd pay around $1000 for even a small one, and the fancy video hardware wasn't any kind of cheap, either. If anything, when I compared digital cameras and camcorders, I'd say that the prices in Japan were a little higher.
This might lead you to wonder how anybody can afford stuff, so I'll give my (entirely baseless, mind you) theory on the economics of the situation. In Japan, everything (and I do mean everything) is expensive. A good guideline is to take what you'd pay in America and multiply it by two (often more). This holds true for just about everything except for mandarin oranges, cars, rice, and electronics. But nobody is starving, since Japanese wages are considerably higher than their US (for example) counterpart. But since they probably have an equal percentage of that higher wage left over after living expenses, and electronics aren't proportionally more expensive, a Japanese person probably gets more electronic bang for their leisure buck, so to speak. Hence, more cool stuff. Also keep in mind that they're even more of a cutting-edge obsessed consumer culture than America.
But before you American readers start feeling all technologically inferior, take heart. There are three areas I saw serious lag in. The first was DVD acceptance, as I mentioned above--that's still a ways off, and well behind what you see in America. The second was the MP3 revolution. Despite recent crackdowns, MP3s (and hardware to play them away from a computer) are all the rage in the States, but aside from a lone ad for the Diamond Rio, I saw nothing. The reason might be due to ignorance or government regulations, but more likely it's due to two factors: Less people have personal computers (or are adept at using them) than in America, and price. Although you can rip your own MP3s, downloading them is plenty big, too, and that's not cheap in Japan. In Japan even a local phone call will cost you about 3 cents a minute (including one to your Internet provider), and most ISP plans only offer between 5 and 15 hours a month before you start racking up hourly charges, so downloading could get mighty pricey. This leads to the third lag, and that's the Internet. You can see how expensive access would lead to a somewhat lower-profile Internet scene, and it has. Not that the Internet isn't a big thing--you see web addresses on some ads, and people are definitely aware of it and use it--but it's nowhere near the level it's reached in America (nobody ever even mentioned actually shopping on the Net, though I'm sure it's at least possible). Nor is it likely to become so until access gets cheaper.
Observations and Oddities
Ok, now we're on to our last topic, and that's probably the one you really want to read: Funny stories. I don't have too many, but I did have a few amusing observations and anecdotes. Japan is a relatively homogenous society, but that makes the incongruities all the funnier.
On the day I arrived, we pulled up beside a car at a stop light. I already mentioned how Japanese cars are by and large a tiny lot, but this was the exception. What idled beside us was a mile-long polished black 1970s-era Cadillac, in all its bloated pre-oil-crisis glory. Behind the wheel sat a glaring youth who would have fit right in in some kind of gang movie, except the Japanese laws on guns are so strict he probably didn't have anything more dangerous than his steely gaze and a pocket knife. Well, that and his car was so big I doubt it could handle any but the biggest roads in town; I got the feeling he just drove back and forth along the main drag, looking menacing and wishing he could turn somewhere. Actually, maybe he couldn't even manage to get the thing turned around when he ran out of town, so he had to just put it in reverse and cruse back to where he started for another run. That last bit is only a slight exaggeration, but in any case, it was a funny image.
Another rather amusing observation was the kids. Akemi's Nephews, two spirited lads of 6 and 8, had enough spunk between them to make up for the past several hundred years of Japanese stoic demeanor. We stayed at a really fancy (and traditional) hotspring hotel, complete with Japanese garb, rice mat floors, sliding paper doors, and a bamboo cup on a stick for a drinking fountain (seriously). There is something just so right about walking through the silent, pristine halls of a dignified Japanese hotel in your properly tied Yukata and seeing two kids in Mickey Mouse pajamas go running by, screaming at the top of their lungs and laughing like escapees from an asylum. And pretending to be Pokemon, of course.
Here's an interesting one for the vertically-endowed traveler; if you were in the tourist-friendly areas of Tokyo, there were a fair number of European-looking folks, but most anywhere else, we were basically the only Gaijin in sight. Japan has gotten to the point where there wasn't really any staring (even in small towns), but I certainly did notice one thing. They are saying that Japanese people are getting taller due to Western nutrition and chairs, but they definitely haven't caught up yet. My brother is no giant--5' 11"--but there were probably a total of 3 or 4 guys taller than him that we saw the whole time we were there. It was a weird feeling being an average-height American and staring out over a sea of humanity... that I could easily see over. I kept getting reminders, too--I just barely fit under many doorways, and the hotspring hostess took one look at us and said "I'd better go get the extra large robes." In the entire time I was there, I never once saw (or wore) a pair of slippers (a requirement in most houses) that were even close to fitting me. Even the largest of the "large" were about 2cm short of my heel. Next time, I go prepared...
Finally, food (those with weak stomachs had best skip this paragraph). Somebody apparently forgot to tell the Japanese that it's customary to cook your food before you serve it, because all those stories you hear about raw fish are quite true. And not just fish, either--there was raw shrimp (head included), raw octopus (chewy!), raw squid, raw beef, and (my personal favorite, and the specialty of the area I was staying in)... horse. Raw horse. On the other hand, Japanese vegetables aren't known for their quality, so they're almost always cooked or pickled (go figure). Speaking of which, there was plenty of pickled stuff--a little harsh for breakfast. Actually, there's lots of tasty food, but it seems like a lot of Japanese cuisine was designed to frighten away invading foreigners. My personal favorites are natto (fermented soybeans with some sort of slime mold growing on them that smell worse than they sound) and some kind of slimy Japanese potato that, when ground, has the exact texture of milky snot. And you just suck the raw goo out of a bowl with the aid of chopsticks. Yum. I won't even get into the really strange stuff that I (thankfully) didn't see. (Oh, by the way, it's a common misconception that sushi--rice and fillings wrapped in seaweed--is raw fish; it may include that, but the raw fish is called sashimi.)
[Editor's note: Though this essay was written in 2000, much of the travel advice is still accurate.]
Finally, a few bits of advice to those who want to travel to Japan. First of all, be prepared to either study Japanese or have nobody understand you. True, most people study English, and a fair number of folks speak a little, but not as many as you'd think. A lot of signs are (thankfully) bilingual, but be prepared to shop in Japanese, and struggle to make yourself understood. If you can find a guide (either hired or a friend) who speaks both some of your native language and Japanese, it would be a very, very good idea.
Actually, it's not just a good idea because of the language--it'll really help you get around. The Tokyo train system was pretty clean and relatively fast, but getting anywhere without speaking any Japanese would have been a nerve-wracking experience. If you can get somebody who knows where they're going to help you get around, I guarantee it'll make your life easier and your trip more fun. Heck, just having somebody explain how to eat various things and what that was you just swallowed would be invaluable. Oh, and learn to use Japanese-style (pointy) chopsticks if you haven't already--you'll have to eat with them at some point.
Food wise, you'll be able to find western food (McDonald's, etc.) if you feel the need, but there's plenty of exciting cuisine to try; the little diners can have some very tasty (and neat-looking) fare, if you're up for it.
Getting around: I was fortunate enough to have somebody taking me around the whole time I was there, but if you're not so lucky, I would definitely recommend public transportation. You may be able to get an international driver's license, but car rentals are not (I think) common. Even if you could get one, if you're from America it's probably more trouble (and danger) than it's worth. The combination of driving on the other side of the road and streets so thin they look like sidewalks is not good for people used to Interstate highways.
As for what to see, I recommend the history. Mt. Fuji is of course cool, and there is plenty of nice scenery, but the really neat stuff was the man-made sights; there are temples and shrines (big and small) everywhere, and there are cool cemeteries and old style buildings tucked away everywhere. The traditional stuff--Japanese-style restaurants and traditional hotsprings/inns--are great, too, if you can afford them. Finally, there's Tokyo. Shopping wise, there's Akihabara (the electronics district [Ed: Now an anime/game geek mecca.]), Shinjuku (the hip fashion-type stores), and Ginza (high fashion boutiques and really expensive stuff). The third is nice to see, but the first two are more likely to provide fun shopping.
But that brings me to my final recommendation, and that's the big one: Bring money. Lots of money. Lots and lots of money. If I haven't already made it clear, everything in Japan is expensive, and the more interesting it looks, the more expensive it probably is. Even relatively short train trips can easily cost US$10 or $20 a person, one way, and that adds up. A meal is usually in the $10 to $20 a plate range, but I saw dinners (for one person) upwards of $60 at a small-town restaurant that wasn't all that fancy. A pampered night at a nice Japanese-style inn can easily run over $100 a head, and staying in a hotel near Narita airport will be closer to $200. Plus, personal checks are unheard of (you probably can't even cash one at most banks without days or weeks of waiting), and credit cards are uncommon. Everybody pays with cash--Japanese people commonly carry around wads of 10,000 yen (about US$100) bills, and with good reason. Be prepared.
Well, that about does it. I had a great time, and recommend it to anybody, if you can afford it. But it might also be nice to know that if you keep your eye on your anime, you're getting a feeling for what Japan really is like, and if you watch enough, you might be surprised at how familiar some stuff is. If you still have questions, feel free to ask.