Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


Saturday, August 8th, 1998
It's nice to have a place to call home, even if for just a couple days. It was time to practice my Japanese and to see what was in the area. As yesterday, I found myself up at 7:00am, way earlier than the 10:00-11:00am opening time for most of the stores in Tokyo, so I wandered a while to see what Ikebukuro had to offer. Being so early, I was surprised to see a long line of people standing around the corner from the hotel. Curious, I started to follow it... the line stretched around the entire block! As it turned out, the line ended at the "Cinema Sunshine" theater, which is just two blocks from my hotel on the same street. The line was the crowd waiting for the new, American-made Godzilla film, which was premeiring today under the name of "Godzilla in New York". I've seen it already [thumbs down]... besides, I don't care to stand in this line!
But following the line did let me get an idea of what stores and restaurants were in the immediate area. Not only is there a large selection of electronic and video entertainment stores, there's also several odd specialty shops -- an all-socks outlet, for one example -- and a few used book, record, and game stores as well, all of which I guarentee I'll be visiting later. I was also happy to note that there was a "Tokyu Hands" in the area. Tokyu Hands is a chain store in Tokyo, carrying several floors worth of art, craft, and carpentry supplies... including a section of supplies related to making comic books, something you'd be lucky to find anywhere in the United States, and something I'll be checking out before I leave Japan.
Having done my walk-around for the morning, I stopped by the local Mosburger -- a well-known fast food franchise in Japan -- and had a curry pita bread for breakfast. My plans at this point are vague at best; I know that later in the month I want to go visit some shrines and temples in northern Japan. But in the meantime, I just want to get my language skills back up to snuff and generally get used to how things work in Japan again, so I know I will probably be in Tokyo for a couple of weeks, but with no particular agenda.
And so I went window shopping.
Here's a new spin on an old idea... it's the Japanese equivalent of "Everything's $1.00", the 100 Yen Store! The really funny thing about this store is that it has almost exactly the same crap that the "Everything's $1.00" stores in the US have. Go figure.
Something I've noticed; no matter where you go in Tokyo, there's always a bowling alley and pachinko parlor in walking distance of the train stations. Pachinko I can understand -- there's a thriving (and somewhat illegal) gambling interest in the game. But this doesn't appear to be the attraction behind bowling, so I'm not sure why it's so popular... but it is. So now you know, for what it's worth.
Right next door to Hotel Theater is a Sega game parlor, called "GiGa"; a seven story building featuring a variety of Sega produced amusement machines on each floor. This sort of parlor is popular, and most of the big name game companies in Japan -- Capcom, Tecmo, Namco, etc. -- run their own parlors [I ran into the Namco one last night, remember?]; coin operated games are alive and well in Tokyo. Unfortunately, this Sega parlor was still closed, so I would have to visit it later to see what it offered.
I returned to my hotel room and typed this all up... I'm going to watch some morning TV for awhile, and go back out again after the stores in the area start to open up.

* * *

After ten, I headed back out to explore the stores that had opened up. The first place I headed was across the street to a Sakura Electronics store [which is next door to a great empty lot full of construction thingees at work]. This shop has ten stories with everything from cameras to kitchen appliances and, more useful for me, computer hardware and software as well as Japanese game systems. I just wanted to see what there was and what it was priced at... I'm toying with the idea of buying a Japanese copy of the Windows 98 operating system so I can have a computer for writing Japanese web pages on. I also intend to buy a Japanese Playstation with games before I head home at the end of the trip.
UPDATE 2000: at least one Japanese dating simulation got released in the US, but only because it's a dungeon and dragons style adventure... it's called "Thousand Arms", and the only good thing about it is the theme song by Ayumi Hamasaki.
For those of you who don't know, Playstations can normally only play games from set countries; so an American Playstation can play games from America, but not Japan, and vice versa for a Japanese Playstation. I'm not sure why anyone thought this was a good idea; but it also means that some games are never translated from one language to another because no one believes they will sell in another country. This means that all those American football games are available in America only -- nobody plays American-style football in Japan -- and many types of games that sell well in Japan will likely never make it to America -- like the dating simulation games or the various bizarre mahjong games. So I want to buy some Japanese games and be able to play them, okay?
Of course, that sort of curiosity next led me to the Sega GiGa game center near the hotel. Many of the Playstation games from Japan that do get translated to English start their lives as stand-up game machines in centers like this. I didn't realize what a variety of these games were actually produced in Japan though! Every floor of the center was themed differently. The bottom floor was full of prize machines; games like the good ol' UFO grabber where you plunk in your money for a chance to win a cheezy doll, glass, toy, something. After looking all of the different games over, and watching people who have spent so much time and money on these machines that their ability to coax out just the item they want is this side of magic, I finally decided to take a chance on one that looked like even I could handle (I'm generally terrible at things that require skill or luck).
"Mighty Atom", a.k.a. "Astro Boy", was one of the early comic book creations of Osamu Tezuka, who become known in Japan as manga no kami... literally, "the God of comics". Why? Click here!
This machine had a multi-level carosel in it that was slowly rotating; each level had different prizes on them. For one 100yen coin -- about a buck, American -- you got a chance to move an arm up and down beside these levels, and to then try to push a prize towards the center of the carosel, where it would drop down the center and into the prize shute. And I did it, too... I got me a genuine "
Mighty Atom" glass decorated with different characters from this famous cartoon/comic book [Americans got to see the "Mighty Atom" cartoons in English in the 1950's and 60's, but re-named as "Astro Boy"; sound familiar?]. Of course, I had to try five times; so it cost me five bucks.
After an attendent trotted over and give me a bag for my prize, I explored the upper levels of the place. The second floor was where the standard video games started -- drop a coin, play awhile. But they were grouped according to the style and type of game. One section was the shooting games with fake guns instead of joysticks, then sports games, which were mostly soccer (very popular here) and baseball, and then there were the music and dance games. These are cool. For those people who want to be great musicians or dancers, I suppose these offer both practice and a chance to perform in public. The idea is the same in both cases; the machines will play some pre-picked currently popular tunes while displaying cues on the screens for what the player needs to do to keep in step with the music. In the case of the various music machines, the players have to play drums or guitars exactly as the screens indicates with the proper timing... everyone can hear when they blow it. The dance machines have pads the player stands on which are separated into nine squares; the cues on the screen tell the player which pad they have to step on and when... good players (who have memorized the patterns, no doubt) can improvise some very cool moves while keeping in step and beat with the machines. I wonder if these would have a chance of selling in America? [UPDATE 2002: The dance machines have finally made it; I recently saw one in the game center of the Metreon in San Francisco.]
The third floor was more what you see in American game palours; the sci-fi-beat-'em-up, blow-'em-up-and-kill-'em games. But some of the games were back to back, so two players could challenge each other or work side-by-side in a single game and not see each other or their screens. It's an interesting idea. I didn't see anything that stood out on this floor... it's all stuff that either is, or soon will be, available in America anyway. So I moved on to the fourth floor.
This floor was very interesting... there are basically two types of games: fighting games, and Mahjong and puzzle challenge games [I know, I know; sounds like three types of games, right? Keep reading.]. For those of you who remember the "Street Fighter" and "Mortal Combat" games when they were all the rage in the States, you may be interested to know that they were just the tip of the iceberg on the fighting style games available in Japan. Most of the fighting games on this floor -- "Dead or Alive", "Psychic Force 2112", "Dark Stalkers", etc. -- are networked together like some of the games on the floor below, so people can fight each other in the games; and there were a lot of people doing so, often with a crowd of fans around them watching the matches. For how good these guys were -- and yes, it was all males playing these games -- I have to wonder how much it would cost me to learn the same skills [especially if someone kept beating me at the game while I was trying to learn!]. I watched, but I didn't bother wasting my money to give someone else the pleasure of pounding on me.
The second half of this floor has an entirely different sort of feel to it; mostly, it has a whole section of Mahjong games. Mahjong -- the non-electronic version -- is normally a multiplayer game, often played at a smoky table for wagers like a game of Poker in the US. The electronic versions are mostly single player, with the computer supplying the other challengers... and they typically included sexy females in the game either as other players or Mahjong dealers, who strip and pose in sexy lingerie or swimsuits as the human player wins matches. This seems to be the going theme to the other games in this section as well, loosely collected near the Mahjong games; each has some sort of different challenge or puzzle that must be mastered -- at great coinage expense, likely -- in order to garner a glimpse of a pixelated female. Oy. I did say the Mahjong games were "mostly single-player", didn't I? Some of the games were also back to back, like the fighting games, so two players could challenge each other in a single game but not see each other's screens.
The fifth, and last floor, surprised me at first; but on second thought it made perfect sense. It's an electronic casino, with games you can win money from (but not easily, like in a normal casino, eh?). There are no slot machines; the only game that smacked of being pure chance was an electronic horse race consisting of a ten foot by six foot replication of a race track with little horse and jockey figures that would run around on it while a big video screen showed "close-up footage" -- actually just computer animation -- of the "race". Many people bet, like at a real racetrack; and then they'd watch the race to see who won.
Other games are more based on skill than luck, as with the prize machines on the first floor; there's one which you continually feed coins, trying to overflow a pile of them so they would fall into your prize shute. There's also the electronic game version of the classic gambling games, like Blackjack; just you vs. an electronic dealer. Not too surprisingly, this is the only floor where people were using tokens rather than actual coins; with machines full of tokens that you have to trade in, the temptation to break open a machine and grab a handful must have been significantly lessened. Now I'm not one to gamble; so, curiousity satisfied, I left the game center to look around the Ikebukuro area more.
This is an interesting area overall. It's between a railway station and a well-known shopping mall -- the afore-mentioned Sunshine City mall -- so the area is full of both shops and amusement centers, aimed at various different age groups. There are the ubiquitous Pachinko game palours, but there is also a bowling alley and at least two more game centers like GiGa [but owned by and presenting games from different companies]. One thing I hadn't noticed before is a shop called "Gamers" which is on the third floor of a nearby building. It took some time to figure out where the entrance to the building was, but when I reached the third floor, I was a happy guy.
Gamers consists of two shops next to one another; one all comics and manga, and the other all comics and manga related toys, books, animation, etc. I wasted a good two hours digging through these shops, and enjoyed every minute. I discovered two things of note: first, you can buy or have custom-made adult-sized costumes of many favorite animation, manga, and game characters... apparently, there is enough of a demand for this to support a large -- and expensive -- costuming section in one of the stores. Second, and more immediately interesting to me, there is a big comic book convention this coming weekend, from the 14th to the 16th! I bought a guide book for it; it's as thick as a phone book. I'll see if I can figure out where it's being held -- and how to get there -- tonight.
After Gamers, it was about time to head back to the hotel for the night; I'm still tired out from the plane trip here. But I walked around a bit more first, following alongside a raised roadway... it's a freeway that passes through Ikebukuro on a roadway raised about thirty feet in the air, and I was following one of the larger streets under it. This area looked to be professional buildings on the side of the road I wasn't walking on -- lawyers, real estate agencies, stuff like that. On the side I was walking on, there was just the backs of some of the larger hotels as well as the back of the bowling alley, and a few trees and some shrubbery.
It was now dark out, but there was still plenty of light and sounds from the other side of the buildings, where shoppers were still shopping and nightlife was just getting rolling... of course, for some people nightlife gets started early. I mention this because, as I was walking along innocently, a somewhat inebriated gentleman gingerly stepped around the corner, approached the shubbery, and proceeded to water it in full view of both me and any poor shmuck who happened to be driving by at the time. No matter where you go, people are people... and no matter where you go, some people are pretty rude, eh?
Anyway, at the end of the block I found a Lawson's -- this is a convenience store chain in Japan -- and I bought some food to take back to the hotel. On the way back, though, I ran into a more pleasant surprise than the last one... I found a two-story tall used book store, only a couple of blocks from the hotel, and it looks to have some very old books indeed. It was closed for the day, so I didn't go in... but it will be open tomorrow. Yeah, overall, I like this area.

On to August 9th, 1998

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