Watching Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster, a wide-eyed ten year old, at the Santa Monica Criterion theater. Biting into my first piece of salmon sushi. Voraciously reading James Clavelle's Shogun. Working on blueprints for Tokyo Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Discovering that "tentacle porn" was a thing.
At what point did I realize, fully, that going to Japan was not just a dream, but my destiny? Hard to say. The Land of the Rising Sun has long been on top of the list of places I wanted to travel through. But after reading the Theme Park Review reports from their 2011 expedition, the decision was made: I was going to Japan with TPR the next chance I got. That chance came this past summer.
June 23rd until July 8th, two solid weeks. A lot can go wrong in two weeks – lousy weather, ride breakdowns, crappy meals, who the hell knows what – but nothing went wrong. To put it more precisely: sure, there was a little rain, a couple of borked coasters, but it all went right, magically, all of it. Because: As I'd been promised repeatedly in the months leading up to this experience, 1) TPR trips are so much fun, coming back to the real world will make you want to kill yourself, and 2) Japan is so mind-blowingly better than everywhere else, in every way possible, coming back to wherever you call home will make you want to kill yourself, unless, of course, you live in Japan and if you do, then damn you to hell, you lucky son of a bitch.
This trip was not inexpensive. However, dollar for dollar, I cannot imagine a better value. As I'd also been promised repeatedly by TPR trip veterans, all you have to do is show up on time, and don't lose your rail pass. That's it. Robb and Elissa take care of just about everything else, up to but not including chewing your food for you. This trip was the most stress-free travel I've ever experienced, and that was just the beginning of what made it so great, because everything else did include more special surprises than I can count.
And how do you put a price tag on the memories, holy crap, so many splendid memories: the bullet trains, the sushi dinner we had in Kyoto, the Rusutsu dive-loop Ultra-Twister, the Spider-Man walk-through, Kawasemi (everything you've heard, it's all true), the Harikata Japanese Jesus/headphones dark ride, ALL the dark rides (so many!), Pooh (INSANE), Journey to the Center of the Freaking Earth, 20K Freaking Leagues Under the Freaking Sea, the Freaking Little Mermaid show (seriously, AMAZING), the whole day at Fuji-Q – that's right, freaking Fuji-Q was FANTASTIC... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
And so many great new friends, truly priceless. I miss you all a ton!
In brief: impossibly high expectations were exceeded mightily.
Part One: Arrival and The First Day
I departed from L.A. on June 22nd, arrived in Tokyo the evening of the 23rd. The bonus pre-trip add-on days did not start until Tuesday, June 25, but I wanted to get in a little ahead of things to start adjusting to the crazy time change, and to have a full day in Tokyo to just explore and soak up being in Japan.
I'll give praise here to The Guidebook. This is the huge document we all got well before leaving that was crammed with schedules, maps, packing tips ("buy cheap socks and throw them away each day to have more room for souvenirs" – genius!), helpful Japanese words and phrases, a list of all the parks and roller coasters on the itinerary, unique etiquette rules we'd be wise to learn ("don't blow your nose in public"), what to do in case of an earthquake... an indispensable resource. And it detailed clearly, with illustrations, where to go and what to do as soon as we stepped off the plane and gathered up our bags.
I was completely exhausted and in a country where I barely spoke any of the local language, but got through customs, had my Japan Rail Pass activated, and was on the bus to the hotel without a minute of confusion or concern. Total piece of cake, and it was primarily thanks to The Guidebook. There are guidebooks, and then there is The Guidebook. The Guidebook dominates.
The Shinagawa Prince Hotel was the base of operations for the early arrivals and it was really sweet, one of the nicest I've ever stayed at. (All of the hotels were class joints). I was so giddy that night, even with the jet-lagged brain fog.
After I got settled in to the room, took a shower, I had to go walk around a little.
Almost a stone's throw from the hotel entrance is the Tokyo Aqua Stadium. It was closed at that hour, but this pathway out front was all lit up, glowing and dreamy. Four ladies traveling together saw me with my camera and asked if I would take their picture with their camera; I did. We had a brief, awkward, but very pleasant multilingual conversation. They were from Okinawa and urged me to visit that area the next time I was in Japan. I promised that I would.
I passed a row of below-street-level bars and restaurants, all flying these banners out front. Holy Motherloving Christmas, I'm in Japan.
A street sign, at a bus stop I think, with the current temperature. (That's 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit; it was a very pleasant evening.)
My first vending machine! They are everywhere, as you've no doubt heard, and they are the bee's knees. I think I vended several hundred bottles while I was there. Water, Pocari Sweat, hot coffee, cold coffee, flavored teas, all kinds of drinks, and really inexpensive! Japan wins.
Two trains passing by.
The graphic on the street in front of the train crossing. Japan wins, I tell you!
Eventually, I stumbled into a restaurant, managed to order some food in my pathetic approximation of "Japanese," went back to the room and collapsed.
The next day, I slept in and had the buffet breakfast at the hotel, which was enormous and superb. The goals for this first full day were to see the Senso-ji Temple, and visit Hanayashiki, Tokyo's little old-school amusement park, both in Asakusa. (A big group was headed to Tokyo DisneySea on this Monday, but I wanted to save that experience for the very end – the epic dessert of this incredible feast.)
Still pretty dazed by the jet lag, but fortified by several cups of coffee, I ventured into the subway system.
And I managed to make it to Asakusa. Just outside the subway stop was this fantastic structure, the Kaminarimon, or "Thunder Gate," the outermost gate for the Senso-ji Temple.
Right behind it is the Nakamise-Dori, a famous shopping street that leads to the second gate. I did venture down here a bit, but I wanted to get off the beaten path (and I didn't realize that this market was quite famous, centuries-old, actually), so I walked over to one of the parallel avenues.
Looking down every side street was like opening a little gift.
Just an ordinary lane. But I had a stupid smile on my face no matter where I looked. Holy Motherloving Christmas, I'm really in Japan.
Oooh, what's that way down down there??? Turns out, that's the Tokyo Skytree. More on that later.
Almost everywhere you turn, there are reminders that Japan is both very old and very new.
A storefront I particularly loved.
Wait, the Japanese like video games? Who knew?!
This is a ryokan, a Japanese-style inn. I do hope to stay in one of these on a future trip (many trips back are planned).
And here's a "love hotel!" Did I get this "credit?" No, I didn't...
OR DID I?
No. I really didn't. Some day, though.
If Japanese schoolchildren aren't the best behaved schoolchildren in the world, then I'd like to see which schoolchildren are.
These rows of paper lanterns over the streets, I think they were made out of paper, anyway, there were a lot of these and they are awesome.
Here's another set of them, so cool.
Only well after I'd returned did I learn that you can tour Asakusa by rickshaw. And: "rickshaw" is derived from the Japanese word "jinrikisha" which means "man-powered vehicle." Which it most certainly is.
This guy does not appear to be enjoying space, or sunshine, but I can't read the text, so I may be wrong.
As The Guidebook made clear, smoking is still prevalent in Japan. Can you remember the last time you saw a cigarette vending machine in the States? I can't.
Japanese calligraphy (all Asian brush calligraphy, for that matter) is so beautiful. I wish I could read their written language.
I remember being really puzzled when I first learned that Tokyo Disneyland's "Main Street" would have a glass roof over it. Of course, there are a million precedents all over Japan, something I did not understand until taking this trip.
Last edited by robbalvey on Mon Sep 16, 2013 8:32 am.
These covered shopping streets are everywhere. As are bicyclists.
In Tokyo, you don't have to look very hard to find a bus that looks like a dog.
Even their earth-moving equipment is cute, for crying out loud.
Not cute, but mega-awesome, is this statue, very close to the temple, dedicated to Meiji period kabuki actor, Ichikawa Danjuro. Asakusa was once an important entertainment district, with a lot of kabuki theaters and a red-light district (a detail that will be important further along wink nudge), and this guy was a legend, apparently. Sure looks like a badass, doesn't he?
"I see that your Schwartz is as big as mine" because "Spaceballs" jokes will never, ever get old.
But, seriously, that face: awesome.
The Senso-ji Temple gardens are quite pretty and serene, as one would assume they'd be.
Koi, you gotta have koi, right?
If you need an escape from the sensory overload that is so much of Tokyo, this is the place to go.
I don't know nearly enough about Buddhism to tell you much about the many little shrines here.
I believe some (most?) of them are omikuji stalls, but don't quote me on that. Many are remarkable, though.
Look at this dragon carving; wow. <3
Hondo, the main hall, is damned impressive.
Out in front, there is a huge incense pot...
...which people stand beside, waving the fragrant smoke over themselves, saying prayers, etc.
I didn't realize until after snapping away happily that photos of the interior space are frowned upon, but a lot of people were also taking photos, and I just assumed... anyway, here's a shot of the ceiling just inside the main hall, so beautiful.
This shot was taken standing on the main hall steps, looking back at Hozomon, or "Treasure House Gate," where cultural treasures are indeed stored (though out of view from the general public).
Another shot of Hozomon, with the Skytree on the left.
On either leg of this side of the gate are these huge "sandals." And I mean huge; look at that guy on the ladder. Heeeyoooog.
Another angle on Hozomon, with the five-story pagoda on the right.
Love the pagoda. I wish the world had more pagodas.
This is just a detail shot of ginormic lantern hanging in the Hozomon gate. Our Latin alphabet is so frickin' boring.
I wish I knew what sort of sacred object this thing was, but behind it is the Asakusa Shrine, or "Shrine of the Three Gods," in honor of the three men who founded the Senso-ji Temple. This shrine is right next to the Temple grounds.
Again, no idea what this was all about, but the banners, loved 'em.
And these critters are "komainu," or "lion dogs." They stand in pairs, generally guarding the entrance to shrines and such, and I saw a goodly number on this trip. They are all, to the last, mega-awesome.
See? Mega-awesome, no question.
Okay, time to move on to Hanayashiki. (FINALLY, right?)
If you're anywhere nearby, you'll find Hanayashiki; just look for the S&S Space Shot tower or this unique "floating candy shack" contraption.
It's been around since 1853, which makes it Japan's oldest amusement park, and one of the oldest in the world. So you could argue that it's a culture credit, right? Or maybe not. Anyway, there are two entrances into the park and this one is the Asakusa Gate. The other is the Shounkaku Gate.
FYI, they sell a POP wristband for somewhere around $22, if I recall correctly, and on a slow Monday afternoon, you'll have no problem getting your money's worth, and then some, in an hour or two.
The Space Shot is fun, if unremarkable, save for the view at the top. I was facing in the direction of the Skytree, which rocked.
There are a few things just for the ankle-biters, like the adorable Swan ride...
...and the "Kiddy Taxi" ride, which looked from above like it had an interesting layout. I kind of wanted to try it out, but after seeing how small the vehicles were, I gave up on that idea.
They really cram the rides and snack stands and tiny outdoor theater and whatever else into a very small footprint and that gives the park a real honkytonk, urban atmosphere. But Hanayashiki does have this nicely landscaped little "mountain" in the center, with a pond and a bridge and stuff.
I'm only guessing, but I'd say that this part of the park goes way back, perhaps to its earliest days even?
The bridge is actually called "The Bridge of Happiness." And hidden away inside the mountain is the Thriller Car dark ride!
There's a kind of cave through it, too; you can see one end of the cave in the photo above.
Here's the "cave" from the other side. The things in the walls? No clue what the deal is with those.
Whatever this ride is, it didn't look like it was going to open while I was there.
Roller Coaster, that was down, too. Disappointing, but only a very little. I knew there were credits aplenty in the next two weeks, and there's no question I'm coming back to Tokyo, and this park, some day. Plus, there were several goodies that made up for it, the first of which was:
The Surprising House! Do you dig Vekoma's "Mad House" attractions, like Great Adventure's Houdini's Great Escape? I do, very much. Turns out they have these mini-Mad Houses at a fair number of Japanese parks ("Surprising House" seems to be the generic in this country). Hanayashiki's is themed to the Three Little Pigs and it was a blast. (There's an even better Surprising House at Hokkaido Greenland.)
The "floating candy house" ride is actually called the Bee Tower, and you can't not ride it because it's a terrific way to scope out the general area, and also because it's very Japanese.
I wonder what the rent is for one of those apartments over there... Anyway, is it called the Bee Tower because if you built a little shack out of candy and flowers, it would attract a lot of bees? Or because the candy shacks fly in the air like bees? I didn't have the language skills or the nerve to ask anyone.
This photo only begins to illustrate how they don't waste more than an inch of space here.
The Senso-ji Temple pagoda, and a floating candy shack. I love Japan so much.
This multi-level structure is where you can find four rides: the Roller Coaster, the Space Shot, the Sky Ship, and the Helicopter. The Sky Ship is a hanging pirate ship ride, which was also closed. And the Helicopter is a pedal-powered ride, another type of attraction we found at several parks. Hanayashiki's Merry-Go-Round, with the red and white top, is to the right.
This is the park's rooftop Shounkaku Shrine "Burabo" and had I realized I could have gone up there, I would have. Next time fo shizzle.
Another photo of Senso-ji Temple and the Skytree for no good reason at all.
Again, I am completely illiterate in Japanese, but I'm pretty confident that the bottom row of symbols reads "Thriller Car."
Reason No. 68,302 Japan is better than [INSERT THE NAME OF ANY COUNTRY YOU'D LIKE HERE]: every park in Japan has at least one dark ride and/or walk-through. Well, okay, I don't know that for sure, but every park on this trip sure as hell did. Every. Park. Even Sea Paradise! And almost all of them had more than one; some had SIX!
Hanayashiki has more than one scary attraction and for a park so small, that is simply miraculous. Best of all, one of them is really, really good. Thriller Car is not the good one. But I'm of the opinion that there are no truly ugly babies and there are no truly bad dark rides. Even the "bad" ones are a hoot, and when they are "bad" and in Japanese, well, you've got something special. Thriller Car is, indeed, special.
Right out of the gate, Thriller Car takes you through this I don't know quite what to call it, this "patio furniture" tunnel, with two big openings on the left-hand side (the photo above is taken through the second of them). You think they could have made this tunnel fully enclosed, a little darker, edged it a little further towards being, you know, "thrilling," but that didn't happen for some reason. Maybe if tiny kids start to freak, parents can toss them out to a non-rider, before the ride actually does become "thrilling?" Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, it does make a right turn into the mountain and for a little bit, it is pitch black, and there are some loud noises. Not "Persons With Heart Conditions Should Not Ride" thrilling, but moving in the right direction.
For the next few minutes, we trundled around in the dark, passing by several stunts, most of which were so poorly lit, they could hardly be seen. But there were some ominous sound effects, and some Japanese muttering and groaning and wailing, and it was goofy and silly and AWESOME. I rode three times, yeah, that's right, go ahead and laugh, I don't care.
This is the entrance for the walk-through, the Haunted House. If you like the scary, do not miss this attraction. For my money, Haunted House is the best reason to visit Hanayashiki. (It's in the building over the Shounkaku Gate, on the second floor? I had to go up stairs to get there, I think.)
As luck would have it, I went through alone (pretty certain that I and the poor guy sitting out front were the only two people on the whole floor). To get from one space to the next, you have to find and then slide open a door, like a classic Shoji screen, closing it again behind you. And it is DARK in there. I had so much trouble finding the first door, I almost gave up. Seriously. And that got me very jumpy.
But I made it in, and for realz, my heart was pounding. Moody, super-creepy, and genuinely frightening, I came out of there shaking like a leaf. And I'll never respond to the sound of a crying baby the same way again. SWEET!
There is at least one more scary attraction here (!!!), called Ghost Mansion, but that, too, was closed. Turns out we did get to experience a number of these types of things on the trip, which are simply dark rooms where you sit and listen to a spooky story with "surround-sound" audio effects through headphones. Some were better than others, but all were good for a few kicks. I imagine that Ghost Mansion would be at least okay, at worst.
Last, there was a 3-D theater that the map included as part of the "Mystery and Panic" selections, but it was down as well. Still another reason I'll come back to Hanayashiki some day.
So four scary jobbies, at this teensy-weensy little park. That KICKS ASS.
All in all, I had a swell time here, a nearly perfect way to ease into the insane amusement park dork-orgy that the next two weeks were going to be.
Mid-afternoon, I realized I was starving, so I went right over to this noodle shop about a block away from Hanayashiki and had a 600 yen bowl of heaven. It was gone in ten minutes.
Feeling much stronger, I set out for the Skytree. It turned out to be about a half-hour hike that included taking a bridge across the Sumida River.
There were many quiet residential streets on the other side of the bridge. I loved how they painted the names down the middle of each lane.
It was about 20 bucks to go up to the observation decks and I didn't bother (but we did get some amazing views of Tokyo the last weekend of the trip, from another very tall building, so those photos are coming).
The Skytree itself, though, is pretty damn wicked.
It is tall, 634 meters to the tippy-top. That's almost half a mile up.
Zooming in on the upper decks.
I'll bet the engineering behind this thing is really fascinating.
At the base of the tower is a very upscale mall, I'm sure very much like so many other upscale malls all over Tokyo. This one did have a confectionery shop called "Tokyo Banana Tree," and the stuff they sold in there looked mighty appetizing.
And there was this place where you could have your own custom candy made right in front of you. Suck it, Cold Stone Creamery.
Inside the mall, there were lots of places to find out more about the Skytree itself. I think, somewhere, it said how many of these units were used to put it all together. Like, a trillion. Or maybe less, it was a lot, that's for sure.
At the J:COM Wonder Studio, there was some kind of robot demonstration going down. The robot was called "Zac," or "Zach," or perhaps, "Zack?" And this was the best picture I took of said demonstration FAIL.
Had a cup of Joe while relaxing in the plaza at the Skytree's base. One end of the plaza overlooked this nifty-looking park of some kind. I thought the triangular grass panels had a bit of a Logan's Run vibe.
On the way back to the bridge across the river, I passed another shrine, this one called Ushijima and it had more excellent komainu.
There was almost no one here, so it was really quiet, really tranquil.
This is right across the street from another unassuming row of apartment houses. Incredible.
Had I not been so wiped out, I'd have spent more time here, just chilling. But I had a ways to go before I got back to the hotel.
But it was a nice little stop on the way back.
Japan. I mean, come on. The best.
I'll spare you more a whole lot more yawn-inducing photos of city streets, except for this one with the pink lanterns. And a few more...
So I'm walking along, figuring I'll just head generally in the direction of the train station, not worrying too much about following any particular route, when I come upon this row of buildings that look... unusual.
Moulin Rouge. Interesting. Looks like a club of some kind, with some live entertainment, perhaps?
Wait a minute... THE RED-LIGHT DISTRICT! IT'S STILL HERE AND I FOUND IT! By chance, totally, I swear. Really. (Can't lie, though: I was very curious to find out what was going on in a place called "Violence Soap." But also a little afraid to find out, because I've seen my share of manga and hentai... you know what I'm saying...)
I did also pass another club called something like "American Cheer Girls," but I figured conspicuous picture-taking, by an obvious foreigner, might be an un-good idea, so I put the camera away for a while.
After some more aimless strolling, it became clear that I was pretty lost. But good old Skytree was a terrific landmark by which to navigate and I did manage, eventually, to get back to the Asakusa train station.
Had a quick dinner at a little steakhouse near the hotel and went upstairs and collapsed, again. Big, BIG day the next day, my first Intamin Mega-lite.
I think too many coaster geeks go to Japan and spend all their times on the tours at parks -- and if they stay extra time, they spend it at Disney. That's certainly what I did on my first Japan trip, and it's probably one of the reasons I didn't enjoy the trip as much as I might have.
While more time at Disney is always a good thing, I think it's important to take some time to just wander around some of Japan's cities and soak in the culture. I made sure to do that on my visit last fall, and appreciated Japan so much more for having done so.
Ironically, one of the best places to soak in the culture in Japan is Asakusa, which happens to have the country's oldest amusement park! Double win!
I get the feeling, though, that the rides are often closed there. I missed at least two of the haunted attractions you hit on my visit. They weren't on the English map I got either, so I'm guessing they were closed for the time. I'd been to the park before, and I remembered them having a bunch of haunted attractions. I specifically remembered a walkthrough, though it wasn't there and/or open for my visit. And I specifically asked for it. Just curious. Was that the one that ended with the peeing statue, or was that a different walkthrough? I distinctly remember that from my 2005 visit. I also didn't get to ride the indoor dark ride, although I did ride an outdoor one that you didn't seem to. I don't think it was the same one as the one you rode, which started with an outside section, because I seem to recall it being totally outside. I even asked several people there about scary rides, and all they said they had were the outdoor ride and the attraction with the headphones. I did do that one, but I thought it wasn't as good as the one at Joypolis. (Admittedly, both of them would probably be much better if I knew what the heck they were saying!) However, I did get to the park shortly before closing, so it's possible that those attractions were open, and I missed them.
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