Oh boy. It’s been roughly three months since my trip to Japan and I think I’m finally ready to write about it.
If you’ve known me for a while, you’re probably aware that manga and anime mean a lot to me. Japanese media became my first love and obsession when I was just a young girl, and in the late 90’s, it was on the cusp of reaching mainstream success in America. Our local bookstore had maybe one shelf of manga, which included Akira, Inuyasha, and a few other series by creators like CLAMP and Rumiko Takahashi. If I wanted to consume more than Digimon and Cardcaptor Sakura on Saturday mornings, I would need to either stay up late enough to catch Toonami programs at my dad’s house or convince my mom to rent VHS tapes from Blockbuster. Majority of the time, the tapes had random episodes from a series that I previously hadn’t seen or even heard of, but given the lack of options, I was desperate and grateful for anything. My sister Jaclyn and I had to constantly find smart and creative ways to get our fix in the suburbs of Wisconsin where accessibility to Japanese media wasn’t close to how it is now. Sometimes I miss those days and the thrill of watching or reading something my peers thought was strange, but I’m also really happy to see how popular and accepted it is now within our culture.
Anyway, fast forward 20 years later and here I am, walking through Tokyo with my older sister, sleep deprived, and trying to grasp that yes, we’re really here in this beautiful place that created the backbone of our childhoods. This was Jaci’s fourth time visiting, so she handled everything like a pro. We spent 6 months planning this trip, but for the most part, I just had to pay my share and show up where I needed to. A lot of people say Japan is a country that’s incredibly easy to navigate if you don’t speak or read the native language, but I somewhat disagree. Sure, the people are very accommodating and I could figure out things on my own eventually, but Jaci’s guidance and level of communication saved us from a lot of unfortunate or potentially awkward situations. I don’t know if I could ever visit on my own, or if I did, I would want to have at least a mediocre understanding of the language. (Plot twist: Years of watching subbed anime will not help you whatsoever!)
This trip was meaningful for so many reasons. Jaclyn and I can be very opposite outside of our love for all things related to Japan. This mutual appreciation is a thread that has kept us connected throughout our lives, which I’m very thankful for. We also booked the trip around my birthday, which felt like a really great way to put a bow on the first 25 years of my life. Everything already feels so different at 26, and I wanted to say goodbye to the first quarter of my life by ending where I feel like my identity begun. That sounds cheesy as hell, yes, I know, but it’s true. I was also secretly terrified of feeling underwhelmed or like I was romanticizing the whole experience. It was very hard to get excited but also keep my expectations grounded, because the last thing I wanted was to feel disappointed. Kind of like going on a first date, haha.
However, I’m happy to say this trip was everything I wanted and more. There’s a lot to talk about and I’m going to probably divide this over 3 posts since we crammed a lot in those two weeks. Visiting Japan was a side step from reality, where overspending and being reckless with my diet was encouraged. I didn’t have to count every cent or worry about my adulthood problems waiting for me back in Atlanta. This was a dream I never wanted to wake up from, and it’s something I still think about every day. If you’re reading this–thank you–I’m sorry I ramble so much, but a part of me is writing this just for my own preservation and so that I don’t forget anything. I appreciate anyone who entertains this weird mess of mine. Anyway, let’s jump in.
After 20 something hours of travel, we arrived at the Sunshine City Prince Hotel in Ikebukuro. The place was really nice for a 3-star hotel. Our room was small and narrow, but the large bathroom, overall cleanliness, and convenience made it worth it. The hotel was connected to the Sunshine City Alpa mall, Family Mart (a better version of 7-11) and a 24-hour Wal-Mart was only a few minutes away on foot. We got some breakfast and snacks, and I tried some yummy melon buns and soy joy bars for the first time. I’ve been vegan for 5 years now, and something I had to think about was how to accommodate my lifestyle in unfamiliar territory. Overall, my eating experiences were mostly positive, but it is very, very expensive there. Most vegan restaurants were also organic and run by a single person, which added up quickly and took up a good chunk of time. Snacking in the morning really helped our wallets and kept us on schedule, so I recommend other vegans do the same. Also remember to request a vegan or vegetarian meal on your flight in advance! The HappyCow app also helped me plan a few restaurants visits in advance thanks to their handy map tool.
Instead of breaking down what I did every day, for me, it’s easier to divide things by area. Staying in Ikebukuro was definitely the best choice, as my sister immediately explained that it’s a more female-centric otaku area of Tokyo. Not only are the businesses geared towards women, but it also felt incredibly safe and I had no issue walking around by myself late at night. Less than five minutes from our hotel was the massive Sega arcade, which led into a giant, neon strip that reminded me of a far cleaner version of Times Square in NYC. The sensory overload is immediate: on your right, glass slide doors open up and a wave of blasting arcade music catches you off guard. There’s a sea of Pokemon plush claw machines, the strong smell of…well, something that has octopus in it, and young, exuberant teenagers constantly bumping into you. There’s a bustling entrance to a train station on your left. And then stores, upon stores, upon stores. Stationary, trinkets, and charms at Tokyu Hands, the biggest Uniqlo you’ve ever seen, a bizarre string of Denny’s, KFC, and other American chains that are like a novelty there. Everywhere you turn, billboards and advertisements for karaoke bars, pop-up cafes, and beauty products do their best to stand out with neon anime girls winking in your direction. At some moments, it was almost too much to handle. Despite the quiet, calm nature of its residents, the advertising in Tokyo sometimes made my head spin as everything is trying to max out your senses whenever possible. It definitely took a while to get used to.
Our favorite place to visit was Animate, an 8-story building with all of the latest comics, magazines, and collectables from the newest anime and manga series. Regardless of the day or time, this store was always packed with young women. (Even on our last day, we saw people in their school uniforms shopping when they were probably supposed to be elsewhere.) I ended up getting a lot of really unique Attack on Titan official merch here. My favorites include a postcard set that includes season 3 sketches, and these Levi and Erwin acrylic keychains of them wearing dog costumes. It’s the little things that make the whole experience, y’all. This picture doesn’t include all of the AoT come ups I got during my stay, but a lot of the keychains not seen here are now apart of my ita bag that I took to Momocon recently.
Ikebukuro had a ton of anime stores, to the point where I don’t remember the names of them offhand. Most of them share a similar layout of neatly organized racks that are organized by series and then character. They tend to all focus on the same few popular series, but sometimes you get lucky and find a few oddball pins or clear files from a 90’s shoujo. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Yona of the Dawn, which created a fun challenge of trying to find what little merchandise existed for an anime that aired in 2014. Surprisingly, I found a decent amount (this will be in a separate post) but I mostly stuck to CLAMP series and old favorites from the 90’s and early 00’s.
I should add that before and during our visit, I actually wasn’t really watching anime! I kept up with my favorites, but it was often put on the back burner in favor of my other interests. Now, I’m trying to watch 2-3 shows per season while checking out the ones I’ve been sleeping on for years. It’s nice to be involved again, but it was a little disorienting walking through entire stores and realizing I didn’t recognize anything. The one regret I have is not being more in the loop about what’s popular at the moment before visiting, because it probably would’ve made my shopping experience more fun.
Next to Ikebukuro station was Parko, another multi-level shopping center (mostly with overpriced streetwear) that included a beautiful, well-kept Neon Genesis Evangelion store. I picked up a cool Rei hotel keychain and this pack of odd note stickies with the characters looking like russian dolls. The basement area also had one of the many Marvel pop-up stores we came across. I admittedly spent too much money at these Marvel shops, but I just really loved how unique all of the merchandise was. The US tends to use either a lot of vintage comic imagery or specifically make them appeal to 8-year-old boys, so it was amazing to see so much creative, and often feminine, artwork. I adore these cute washcloths I got, but my favorite is definitely the Winter Soldier bento box and chopstick set. There was so much Bucky Barnes merchandise, which really warmed my heart because he doesn’t get a lot in the States despite being a rather popular character. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse was being heavily promoted in Japan at the time, which was a huge plus for me because it’s one of my favorite movies ever. I love wearing my Gwen and Miles socks and I can’t wait to properly display all of the acrylic keychains and stationary when I have the room! (Side note: These pictures are from all 4 of the Marvel pop-ups I visited, not all of these were available in Ikebukuro.)
As for cafes, most of the ones Jaclyn and I visited were for shows she was interested in. She adores Japanese voice actors, also known as “seiyuu”, and it was very endearing seeing her get mediocre churros and strange meat buns for Diamond no Ace and Mob Psycho 100 exclusives. (All in the name of Takahiro Sakurai.) Seiyuu in Japan are as popular as A-list Hollywood actors in America, so it felt very surreal to see something that I’ve always had such a keen interest in be the complete norm in this other country. I could only dream of having billboards and themed drinks for the likes of Troy Baker and Laura Bailey here! Japanese voice actors don’t have massive fanbases in America, though. It still fascinates me how there is so much of a cultural divide, even in the way western audiences consume Japanese media.
Finally, we visited a Banana Fish exhibit that gave a lot of insight into how the studio Mappa adapted the series from its 80’s source material. The set-up and sketch designs were really fun to look at, and I loved that the flow of the rooms led you through New York City train stations, the kitchen where Ash and Eiji shared simpler times, and more. Unfortunately there were no English translations, but my sister’s friend, Sonja, was kind enough to translate whenever I was curious. At the end, I picked up some cute keychains and a clear file, plus snagged a bunch of photos so I can look at them whenever and internally cry over how beautiful and tragic the series is.
As I wrap up this first post, listening to Susumu Hirasawa’s flawless 1997 Berserk soundtrack, it’s amazing how many emotions are flowing back in. So many little things in this trip have affected and stayed with me, molding my heart, leaving an impact that will last forever. (There I go getting all cheesy again.) I am filled with a lot of gratitude as I write this and think about how lucky I am to have had this opportunity at all. Thank you to anyone who actually read this! I can only hope that my own story will inspire you to visit Japan as well. If I do visit again, I think I would return to Ikebukuro because the convenience from the airport, overall safety, and proximity to so many fun places made it very worth it to me. In my next few posts, I will be talking about Odaiba, Shibuya, Osaka, and more, so stay tuned. And…I will close this out with my favorite picture I took the entire trip: