Japan, part one: Ikebukuro

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.

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Can you tell who my faves are?

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.

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Elusive sister and I waiting at the train station. Ft. My tragic haircut.

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.)

 

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Pop-up cafes and carts offer keychains and coasters (picked blindly) in exchange for food and drink purchases. It’s v addicting!

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:

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Colon is #1 husbandu.

Momocon 2019

A Japan post is coming, I swear! But for now, I want to talk about the great time I had at Momocon in Atlanta. Despite the brutal heat (Saturday afternoon reached 96 degrees and I literally burned my hand touching my car door), I couldn’t pass up a weekend of beautiful fan art, engaging panels, and the best people watching spot imaginable. I actually went to Momo last year but didn’t review it, mainly because all I did was play arcade games with my boyfriend and met Troy Baker and Nolan North. It didn’t feel like a full experience, but this time, I feel like I have a better understanding of what this con is about.

Momocon is 4 days, but once again, I went Friday and Saturday. Admittedly, this con is still very focused on a younger crowd (I’d say ages 14-22) and most people attending are there to party and cosplay. I’ve never been drawn to that type of con experience, but I can tell Momo is trying to create a better environment for introverts like myself who are more interested in relaxing and meeting some creators I really love. If you’re the type of person who just wants to shop, check out a few panels, and meet a voice actor or two, I would recommend going for just 2 days.

When I arrived Friday morning, my first stop was a panel with two anime YouTubers I really enjoy, Gigguk and Sydsnap. The appeal of streamers is mostly lost on me (a bold statement from someone who is far too obsessed with Critical Role, I know), but I love how personable and honest these two are. Gigguk has been creating anime-related videos for a decade now, and the amount of work that goes into them is truly impressive. Sydsnap, well, she reviews hentai and is utterly hilarious. I ended up going to their signing a few hours later and after sharing a moment of Euphoria survivor solidarity with Sydney, they both signed my badge.

Afterwards, I did my favorite part of any con: shopping in the artist alley! This streetwear-inspired Ranma 1/2 shirt by Jellymomoshop on Etsy was too cute to pass up, and of course, I managed to snag whatever Critical Role fan merchandise I could. The Fjord and “fight me” patch are by Cara McGee and the small Caduceus print is by Inkforwords on Etsy. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the artist’s name who did the bigger poster. I also snagged a few random stickers and enamel pins, plus an adorable Snorlax plush in the vendor hall. More and more I’m running out of room to hang and display art, so I’m getting pickier and pickier these days.

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I swear I’m the happiest person in this picture!

Later on, I ended up going to a Supergiant Games panel, which was honestly a major reason why I attended the con. Darren Korb (Music & Audio) and Logan Cunningham (Voiceover) mainly focused on Transistor, which is arguably in my top 3 video games of all time and helped me through a really weird patch in my life. The game turned 5-years-old this month, so the two of them talked about production and the process they went through to piece together the signature music and narration of the game. Transistor‘s soundtrack is gorgeous and I highly recommend listening if you ever want something like Blade Runner‘s soundtrack infused with Radiohead’s Ok Computer. I ended up meeting Darren and Logan Saturday morning, but…unfortunately I look very annoyed in my photo? Sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I kind of just lock my expression so that I don’t look like a mess, but instead I just seem pissed off here. Promise I’m not. I was internally screaming with joy.

Around Saturday afternoon I started to feel a little sick, so I promptly made my way through the comics area of the con. Momocon really stepped it up with their comics guests this year, and it was cool to see people were actually interested in them. Last year was a little rough and even though there were a few artists that I was a fan of, their tables had very little traffic. I’m not sure what changed, but I like that the artists they did feature had heavily-inspired anime styles, which would be more appealing to the demographic at Momo. I first approached color artist Matt Wilson, which was really overwhelming for me. The Wicked + The Divine was the first western comic I got into (I grew up reading manga) and the Black Widow series he worked on with Chris Samnee was the first superhero comic I really connected with. I was a little too nervous to convey this to Matt, but he was super humble and appreciative, which made me fall in love with the WicDiv team even more. Rico Renzi signed by hardcover Spider-Gwen book and even  sketched a little doodle inside, which was a cute surprise. There were a ton of cosplayers for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, which was a really great surprise to see that level of western animation appreciation bleeding into an anime atmosphere.

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Finally, I met Brenden Fletcher, who writes Motor Crush and Batgirl with an artist I really love, Babs Tarr. I talked to Brenden a little bit about how long it took me to get into western comics because I grew up with an anime and manga background (and the weird difficulties that come with enjoying two totally different comic styles), and to my surprise, he said he was the same way. It’s interesting how I’ve managed to gravitate towards these type of comic book creators, unknowingly, but it’s almost like I’m conditioned at this point to find an anime influence in anything and latch onto it. Even though my interactions with the artists were short, they were the highlight of my weekend because of how grateful, kind, and insightful they were.

Overall, I had some really great moments during the weekend, even if it wasn’t jam-packed with things to do. I may not be your typical Momocon attendee preparing for the midnight rave in My Hero Acadamia cosplay, but I simply love anime and sharing a few, pleasant moments with people who feel the same way. As for the rest of the year, my convention plans include Gen Con, Anime Weekend Atlanta, and Dragoncon. I’ll tell you all about them later!

Personal favorites of 2017

I typically don’t write year-end lists, but man, 2017 was kind of a dumpster fire. So many terrible things are happening in the world right now, but the art of storytelling makes me believe in a better future. Maybe that’s naive of me to think, but I also feel like it’s more important than ever to talk about the things we love. I didn’t go too deep here, but the following list contains my three personal favorites from each category, including some rambling thoughts. Happy 2018, everyone!

Movies

  1. The Shape of Water. I was totally that weird, grown woman in the theatre softly crying throughout the whole movie. Guillermo Del Toro is known for his dark fairytales, but none of them have captivated me this much since Pan’s Labyrinth.
  2. Baby Driver. A lot of “fun” movies are usually too cheesy for me, but Edgar Wright’s work might be the exception. From the opening 6-minute car chase to the very end, I was completely immersed in Baby’s story and had the biggest smile on my face the entire time.
  3. Dunkirk. I also don’t really care for war movies, but Dunkirk is one of the few exceptions. Everything was so gorgeously done. Christopher Nolan has mastered his craft and it’s one of the few blockbusters I’ve watched in a long time that truly valued the art of “show, don’t tell.”

TV shows

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not exactly fun to watch, but it almost feels necessary. Margaret Atwood’s story resonates more than ever, and I think we’re only a few years away from our country potentially falling into the same trap. Also, this scene with Alexis Bledel’s character (warning: there is a hanging shown onscreen) was the most affective thing I’ve seen on TV in years.
  2. Legion. One of the first shows in a while where I truly had no idea where it was going, which somehow made the experience even better. Aubrey Plaza is a queen.
  3. Big Little Lies. Everything about this show was on-point. The directing, cinematography, soundtrack, acting, everything. To see a story so focused on the nuances of marriage, abuse, and motherhood was also very refreshing.

Video games

  1. Horizon Zero Dawn. Ugh…this game, man. It’s so perfect. Everything from the open world design, to its addicting combat system, to Aloy’s quest for answers made this one of the most riveting titles I’ve ever played.
  2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. This somehow managed to improve on the small imperfections in the first installment and exceed all of my expectations. Don’t let the loot box controversy deter you–this game fucking rules.
  3. Nier: Automata. I’ll admit, I wasn’t as immediately smitten with this game as everyone else, but it has lingered with me months after playing. The story will leave you questioning just about everything, but Yoko Taro knows how to craft a story that will challenge and reward you all the same.

Records

  1. Lorde – Melodrama. My favorite pop record of all time. I tried writing something and I honestly couldn’t. It’s just perfect. Favorite tracks: “Supercut”, “Liability”
  2. St. Vincent – Masseduction. There’s a lot of Prince and Bowie worship on here, but Annie Clark continues to be a dazzling creative force in her own right. Favorite tracks: “Fear the Future”, “Los Ageless”
  3. SZA – Ctrl. One of the most personal records I’ve heard in years and SZA reminds us to keep it real in the way we express ourselves–even if that means being selfish or manipulating. Favorite tracks: “Prom”, “20 Something”

Comics

  1. Saga. Alana, Marko, and Hazel dealt with the aftermath of Alana’s miscarriage, which led us to a new, Spaghetti Western-esque planet! We got a peak at what The Will has been up to! Ghus is also still alive by the end, so I’d say it’s a good arc.
  2. Snotgirl. Get hooked on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s storytelling and stay for Leslie Hung’s gorgeous, anime-influenced artwork. Lottie continues living it up as a somewhat popular blogger in Hollywood, but there’s still some murder and obsession to worry about. The slow build-up of this comic is such a treat and I can’t wait to see where it goes.
  3. The Wicked + The Divine. The Imperial Phase closed with what was probably one of the best issues I’ve ever read in a comic book series. Seriously, Kieron Gillen is on some next level storytelling and WicDiv‘s upcoming, final arc will be one you can’t miss.

Live performances

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. I’ve gone to a few hundred shows at this point, but nothing could prepare me for the intense, blissful experience of what this band had to offer. I was in such humbled disbelief the entire night, constantly shifting from ugly sobbing to screaming with utter joy.
  2. Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest in Chicago, IL. Trent Reznor and co. have been taking it easy on shows, but thankfully they made room in 2017 for Riot Fest. NIN are known for their tight, well-constructed live sets, and it was such a gift to finally see it happen during a beautiful, warm Chicago evening.
  3. Paramore at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA. Paramore has changed so much in the 10 years since I’ve first seen them, but their energy and passion onstage is unrivaled. The highlight of the evening was a stripped down version of “26”, dedicated to the shooting victims in Las Vegas. I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the room.