Japan: My Journey to the East

Yesterday my life changed forever, after years of believing it wasn't possible due to various circumstances my wife and I finally had a child. The introduction of my daughter is obviously a life altering event and late the next day has me becoming more reflective over my past. It is 4:04am on the Saturday as I write this, a piece about my dreams and aspirations as a child.

A couple of years ago I finally fulfilled a dream I've had ever since I was a child of 8, I went to Japan! Japan has held me in awe for so long due to a variety of factors. I was (and still am) a huge Mysterious Cities of Gold (MCOG) fan, which I found out was a specific style of animation called anime. For me the series had it all; relatable characters, amazing adventures and a thrilling story line. I found out much later that the series was only 39 episodes long but back then it seemed to stretch on forever, like Dogtanian, Ulysses 31 and Willie Fogg; all large sequential series that showed on BBC 1 and ITV weekly and then in large chunks in the morning during those looong summers.

Whilst wondering through our local WHSmiths (a newsagents here in England) I saw Manga Mania on the top shelf, next to the more salacious magazines. The art seemed reminiscent of MCOG so after seeing it a few times over the next few days I finally picked it up and fell down the rabbit hole. I vividly remember going over the next few months with my friend to WHSmiths and reading Fire Tripper, a lesser Rumiko Takahshi work but for me at the time I didn't know any better and it was perfect! My uncle who was only slightly older than me, saw that I had an interest in manga and gave me Devilman and Akira to borrow on VHS- not bad for a 13 year old kid enthralled by this new genre. At the time Akira blew my mind, I didn't understand it then and don't even pretend to now but I knew that I was watching something special.

This was the cover of the first Manga Mania I bought, in the letters section it had a comment about the 'Mysterious Cities of Gold' and I remember being excited to see my favourite show mentioned.

There was a local comic shop in our town called 'Rodneys Books and Games' which sold games, VHS films and books too, every Saturday my best friend and I would go to browse and occasionally purchase something.  Even though I knew they sold anime and manga it wasn't until I'd been given the films by my uncle that it clicked, these were the same genre and style that I'd liked- for all those years I hadn't noticed them but now I was all about them. The first series I worked through and completed was The Guyver, getting only a couple of pounds a week it took me a couple of years to complete the entire 12 part collection. Even now I have the series, unwilling to part with it even though I do not have a video recorder to play it on. My interest in manga peaked at the same time of the Marvel and comic boom in the early to mid 90's and I soon forged a group of friends who became Japanophiles and comic buddies, recording and swapping recordings off the Sci-fi channel and Channel 4 late on Saturday nights.

I loved the Guyver series, although it ended only a third into the manga.

For my friends and I Japan was a fantasy place where everything came out first and it was all amazing. This reached its zenith  with Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, two of the greatest series of all time. The late 90s were a difficult time in Japan with its economic bubble bursting. High unemployment and soaring suicide rates were featured prominently on the news and this soaked into the media coming out at the time. Being a teen with all the difficulties that entails I enjoyed the nihilistic and over the top mayhem of films like Battle Royale, which showed the anger and desperation of youth and a society trying to figure itself out.  But GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka) showed another side, it made me laugh. I remember getting the last trade paperback and reading it on the train home. I stifled  laughter and a Japanese passenger who sat opposite me looked at me quizzically until I showed the cover, he then smiled as if he understood. Yup, there was no doubt about it... Japan was a huge deal for me.

Evangelion is still everywhere in Japan, the cottage industry that grew out of the series is unbelievable. Even in England the amount of Eva related stuff you could buy was mental!

So with only a few months to go before we were going to leave Cambodia where we had been teaching for two years Japan was booked. Even though we only had a little bit of cash it was now or never, my wife and I agreed that this was the time to do this- we would probably never be closer to the country geographically! Excitedly I told my oldest friend, the one I used to go to WHSmiths with regularly and share manga comics and films. In a weird case of serendipity he had booked to go near the same time as we had booked, there would be a couple of days overlap where we would be able to meet up. Considering he had emigrated to Australia and we would be moving back to England this was unbelievably lucky, almost like destiny. Neither of us had been to Japan and now after 32 years we had booked to go to Japan and there would be overlap. Wierd!

So having reached Japan, I can honestly say that it was every bit as amazing as I thought it would be. We stayed in Shinjuku and walked around the red light district Kabukichō, in the heady days of the economic boom unbelievable amounts of money passed through here. Now it is slowly recovering, highlighted by the fact that there was a robot fighting show opening that week, all at a reasonable price of £50 for admission- bargain!

A great book for a great megalopolis!

On the first day we explored Shibuya and Harajuku. Harajuku I knew through various quirky fashion magazines and Fruits books which I'd bought in Forbidden Planet in London. My wife and I explored the area for the day and loved it, the uniqueness and individuality of the products on sale were beguiling. Living in London where chain stores rule and very few independent stores exist or survive it was refreshing to come across a country that appreciated individual shops as well as the big chains. For lunch we had a quick MacDonald lunch and saw that people were there with their ipads, macbooks and tablets but when they needed the toilet they just left it at their table and off they went. The crazy thing was that when they returned their property would still be there, pretty much unthinkable in London yet here it was happening in a city of 20 million plus!
Working our way through Harajuku my wife bought a lot of makeup and trinkets and I bought a few skate stickers which I knew I'd put on my recently bought macbook pro.
Yoyogi Park was nearby so we headed down there, I was keen to see the cosplayers out in force as it was a Sunday. We saw a few but what really stood out for me was the peace and quiet I felt whilst in this  small park within a huge megalopolis. The temples were beautiful and I loved getting pictures around the Dori gates, now I felt like I was in Japan!
We travelled to Shibuya and I went into Mandrake, a well known anime and manga shop, whilst my wife went mall shopping.

The highlight of the journey for me was visiting Akihabara, the gaming and manga mecca. My friends and I had heard about this hallowed place in the 90s but being there alone seemed a pity for me. My wife is not a gamer and so had little interest in going with me, so I  deposited her in a nice French style cafe (after trying to persuade her to wait for me at the Gundam Cafe- which she didn't like). Walking around Aki with a pupils borrowed copy of the 'Guide to Japan for Geeks' book I walked around the various computing and manga shops in thrall to just ALL the stuff that was there. Much I recognised from my childhood but a lot I hadn't seen before. I bought a few games and an original Gameboy but wish I had more money to buy a lot more. I went to Namco Museum Arcades and Sega Gaming Parlours and played a few games including the Persona beat em up but it being a school day and just past midday there were very few people there. I loved the experience but just wished I had someone to share the experience with. I went into a pachinko parlour and left very quickly due to the amount of noise, even for an old gamer like me, someone who is used to arcades, the noise was deafening.  Akihabara held its allure for me but I know that if I had gone to Japan at the peak of my interest in anime and manga, then it would have been a much bigger deal.

We had booked tickets to go to Kyoto and I was very excited as I wanted to go on the Bullet train. However the cost was wayyyy to much for a return so we decided to go by bus and arrive back in Tokyo by Bullet train. The bus was extremely comfortable and cheap so that was a bonus and once we arrived we travelled to the Kyoto temples, the largest number of buildings under UNESCO in the world. The temples really didn't disappoint, the most spectacular being the gold temple and the famous Kiyomizu Temple.

The journey back by bullet was a real pleasure but to be honest having travelled by Eurostar it didn't have a wow factor that I thought it would. However it was great to see the Japanese countryside drift by at speed.

The last day in Japan we spent walking around Tokyo some more and caught up with my best friend for our overlap day. We walked around Shinjuku and chatted away and it was the first time that they had a chance to meet my wife. All in all Japan was amazing but make sure you take someone who likes hustle and bustle and the city as it is a very fast paced city with courteous and friendly people.

So why did the birth of my daughter lead to to think about this Japan trip from a couple of years ago? Well, I think its due to a couple of things. Firstly even though I had visited Japan I hadn't written about the trip until now... a bit of unfinished business I suppose. But also I guess I was just ruminating about what my life was and how now it is going to be very different from now on. It's now no longer about just me and my dreams but about my whole families- life is never going to be the same but that's okay... I am really for the next exciting part of my life. Gods in his heaven And all is right with the world.