My trip to TGS was of a very different tenor than my first journey to Japan lo those many years ago, for many reasons. Not least of which being the fact that it was a five-day trip for work rather than a 10-day vacation. I was, you know, working. Even the trip to Akihabara was ultimately for work purposes. (Which is a shame, because I would have spent a lot less money if I’d been going just to browse.)
In other words, we did very little that wasn’t TGS-related. We didn’t even have time for sushi, always in a rush and forced to wolf down quick food (curry, ramen, tonkatsu). Still, a little awesomeness found its way into our lives:
- Ladylike Desserts: Apparently men are not allowed to eat anything sweet in Japan, which I guess is why Men’s Pocky exists. “It’s cool,” Glico is saying. “You’re still rugged and masculine even if you enjoy this frosted cracker stick.” So I already knew that part, but what I didn’t realize is that some Japanese restaurants are more or less intended for men only, or women only. Skeevy ticket-redemption noodle joints cater to haggard salarymen; and it was sort of a surprise to grab a quick to-go sandwich from a place below our hotel only to discover that the shop’s entire clientele was female. Except the one guy sitting patiently with his girlfriend. “It’s a sight you’re unlikely to see anywhere else on the planet,” in the words of Mr. Belew. Gender roles are pretty set in stone in the U.S., sure, but generally it involves clothes and the toys you get to play with as a kid, not food. Even Working Girls Café down the block from my office happily proclaims “Boys welcome” on the sign.
- Props from the Top: When I mentioned to Lunar Knights’ director that I enjoy the Boktai series enough to have imported and played the Japan-only Boktai 3, he actually leaned across the table and shook my hand in gratitude. Bonus: Suck on that, Bettenhausen.
- Glorious Ramen: Sam took us to a ramen joint that I can only describe as the restaurant equivalent of a glory hole. Seriously: it was a weirdly anonymous experience. You walk down a seedy-looking set of stairs into a basement where you enter the restaurant, pay for your choice of food (ramen or nothing, basically) at the ticket machine and wait for the light board to indicate an empty seat. Then you step inside the eating area to discover the place consists of two narrow aisles with about ten seats per side, a kitchen dividing the rows. You sit alone in a booth, fill out a piece of paper that describes how you want your ramen, and press a button to let the kitchen know you’re ready to complete your order. You face the kitchen as you sit, but you never actually see the people inside because there’s only about a foot-high opening that allows them to take your ticket and order slip and deliver your noodles a few minutes later. Once the noodles arrive, they close a little shutter across the opening. When you finish your noodles, you quietly leave and the shutter opens, allowing a disembodied hand to snake through and wipe down your booth before indicating your seat is empty via the light board. Possibly the weirdest eating experience of my life, but damn if the noodles weren’t amazing. Clearly everyone in Tokyo agrees, because when we left, the line to get inside ran out the door, along the entrance way, up the stairs and onto the sidewalk.
- Hitoshi Sakimoto: We interviewed the composer of FF Tactics, Vagrant Story and FFXII in his studio, which is also his house. That in itself was pretty rad, but the fact that he lives in one of the city’s crowded residential areas — individual houses situated in a dense grid of alleyways — made it even better. The cab took us through a labyrinth of concrete walls, and it’s a wonder that we actually made it through intact since there were a few spots in which I’m fairly positive the alleyway was actually narrower than the car. Bonus: Sakimoto dropped a few hints about secret upcoming projects which sound 100% fabulous.
- Eat fresh: Did I mention that I love (LOVE) Tokyo’s mass transit? Yeah, fine, it’s crowded and standing-room-only at certain hours, but where isn’t? I’ve ridden metro lines all over the world (including San Francisco, NYC, London, Berlin, Prague, Osaka) and Tokyo is 100% the best — cleanest, fastest, most efficient. And pretty inexpensive, too. I think I need to kidnap the people who run SF MUNI and take them to Tokyo and force them to ride the trains until they begin weeping in shame and promise to make our comparatively modest and tiny system even half as effective as Tokyo’s. Bonus: I totally get the Japanese obsession with train simulators now! (Densha de awesome.)