My First Visit To Japan
Born and raised in the UK, I fell in love with Japan towards the end of the eighties and discovered a culture that was to change my life forever. My first contact with Japanese culture was through anime (specifically Macross) and games (specifically Strider for the Mega Drive).
I started to self study Japanese and as I was doing so discovered that Japan was not just about anime and games but was also a rich culture that had so much to explore and learn. I saved up enough money through my part time jobs which enabled me to visit Japan every year in the Summer to absorb the culture - each visit just fueled me with more passion and focus to fulfill my goal at the time which was to live and work in Japan.
I managed to dig up some photos during my last visit back to the UK at my mums place and thought I would share them with you and reflect how some of the past relates to what I've been doing in the 15 years that I've been living in Japan. These photos are taken during my visits to Japan which started in 1993.
I remember my first trip to Japan distinctly. On the train heading into Tokyo I pressed my hands and face against the window as I saw city views come into view. It was so exciting to see Japan with my own eyes - it was just like what I saw in anime, manga and dorama.
It was as if I landed right in the middle of Blade Runner. Neon signs everywhere, electric doors, taxi doors that opened on their own and toilets that would shoot you with a jet of water.
For the first time I could hear Japanese everywhere and not just repeats through the games, anime or music that I listed to back in the UK. I already didn't want to go back to London. While I did try to enjoy as much of my time in Japan, I inevitably spent some time contemplating the day that I would have to leave.
I would always say to my Japanese friends that they were so lucky to live in Japan ^^
First photo - at the Shibuya Hachiko crossing. This is what it looks like today but even without all the huge screens that show videos and commercials, the atmosphere back then was special too and I spent a lot of time sitting here thinking about the future - a future in Japan.
Just over 10 years later, I would be dressed up in a Stormtrooper outfit trying to shake some booty around the crossing - this is the most recent video though ^^
And this is where I would sit outside Shibuya Station - there was a ledge that people could sit on right outside the entrance - its not there today though. I would sit and watch this incredible city for hours on end.
I wanted to take some of Japan back to the UK with me and some how preserve the time I spent here so that I could re-live it.
Video cameras at the time were the size of rocket launchers and cost a bomb too. I got myself a Mini Disc recorder which I used to record the sounds of Shibuya and capture all the hustle and bustle of the crossing which included conversations of folks standing nearby waiting for friends.
Still in Shibuya - this is the South Bus Terminal which still looks pretty much the same today. Little did I know back then that I would be working here in Shibuya doing stuff with something called "The Internet" - a matrix that connected people around the world who had a need to buy stuff "online" - I was to run web development as Website Manager at Amazon Japan - the headquarters were a stones throw away from this spot at Shibuya Cross Tower.
Unlike Akihabara, Shibuya Center Gai is the same today as it was 20 years ago filled with shops and restaurants. Vehicles are only allowed here in the morning to drop off stock and for the garbage trucks to do their thing.
Check out the Shibuya Photo Posts to see what it looks like today.
Now we travel along the Yamanote line to the next stop which is Harajuku.
Harajuku has always been the center of street fashion in Tokyo. As with 20 years ago, today you will find a large population of young ladies here looking for fashionable apparel and accessories.
You can keep yourself in the loop with the latest in Harajuku fashion by following the Twitter account @tokyofashion.
This is the entrance to Takeshita Dori Street. While some of the shops may have changed (The Mcdonalds is still there), the street is packed as usual on a weekend. This is what Harajuku looks like today.
This was one of the reasons why I spent a lot of time in Harajuku - to get hold of Nama Shashin [生写真]. The direct translation would be something like "live photos" but in the Idol world it specifically means photos of Idols. If you take a look on the walls you may be able to make out photos of SMAP but I was here to get photos of my fave Idol groups and singers like Nishida Hikaru, CoCo and Ribbon.
Crepe Corner midway into Takeshita Dori. Today they are still there - order from either and you will get great tasting crepe.
Even back 20 years ago the bridge outside Harajuku station was filled with fashion type bods. Not sure what sort of fashion this is - looks like some tartan punk fusion or something. You are more likely to catch this crowd on a Sunday or public holiday.
Pachinko is mesmerizing to watch - not the actual game but of people playing it. Its like something you would see in a sci-fi movie. As there is only a knob to turn, most people sit motionless in front of these machines where ball bearings are hurled up the board and trickle down.
These days most pachinko machines have display's inside them which keep the player entertained with short animated clips.
They dont usually let you take photos inside the Pachinko parlors if you ask though. That's *if* you ask...
Shinjuku 20 years ago. Most of the shops have changed including Sakuraya which I used to love shopping at for electronic goodies.
For the major electronic stores like Yodobashi, Bic Camera and Yamada Denki, if you take along your passport to prove that you are just visiting then you are usually exempt from paying local consumption tax which is currently 8%.
Also, make sure to make a point card when buying stuff as for most items you get back 10% of what you paid for. So if you buy a camera for 100,000 yen then you get 10,000 yen in points that you can use for your next purchase.
August 1994 was when Street Fighter the anime hit the big screens. While I could speak conversational level Japanese at the time, I remember the movie being filled with a load of difficult dialog ><
While I still can play Street Fighter, I prefer the King Of Fighters series more as I feel that the Street Fighter 3D character renders lost its Japanese look and feel of late.
The skyscraper area in Shinjuku. Not much change here over the years. The loan folks Acom branding remains exactly the same.
Just over 10 years after this photo was taken, I joined Microsoft Japan as a Product Manager managing some of their online services - their offices are located just around the corner from where this photo was taken.
Whenever I saw huge walls with cute girls on I would take a photo with them ^^
Now we head to the other side of Japan to visit Hiroshima. We start by visiting a charming little island called Itsukushima [厳島] which is also known as Miyajima [宮島]. There are frequent ferries that one can take from the mainland which takes about 10 mins.
And when its high tide you can see the "floating" Toori gate.
Back then I visited Hiroshima a few times but have not had the chance to go since. Was planning to film there for Culture Japan season 3 but lets see how it goes ><
For some reason I used to pull my jeans up really high all the time - I think I done some damage ^^;
The island of Miyajima has deer here n there going about their own business.
If you are planning a trip to Japan then stick Miyajima on your visit list - it's so tranquil out here!
A view of the town from up above.
More snaps taken on Miyajima island.
Photo taken at the Genbaku Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome - its the only building that stands in after the first ever atomic bomb was dropped in the area on August 6 1945.
I made my own T-shirts at the time just like this one of Hikaru. All I did was to take a magazine clipping to a local photocopy shop where they would print it on a Tee for me.
Together with my friend at Hiroshima station as his brother is about to board the Shinkansen bullet train. Back then I took a night bus which departed from Tokyo station in the evening and arrived at Hiroshima 12 hours later in the morning.
I love rollerblading and have been doing so for a number of years now. Back then I would bring them to Japan to skate along the river banks like this one.
I've only fallen down twice while on roller blades but when I fell I fell hard...
This was the first time I fell - I can still feel the pain and still have the scars ><
The other time I fell was quite recently actually and was when a stalker turned up at the doorstep of my house - I get quite a few... ToT
The stalker in question showed up with a huge rucksack. I knew where this was going so promptly put on my rollerblades and headed back to the station with him but he asked "shall I leave my bag here" - I was like "WUT?!"
I guessed correctly that he expected me to give him not only a job but lodging too...
He started to talk about dreams with angels and rays of light and how I called out to him. I explained why I could not hire him and left him at the station but as I turned around to head back home I tripped and fell - or rather one of those angels pushed me over for leaving him there...
Japan is all about good food too! This lady is in the middle of cooking some Okonomiyaki for us. Its kinda like a pancake filled with cabbage and other stuff like octopus or pork depending on what filling you go for.
Visiting a popular spot - Kintaikyo Bridge in the Yamaguchi Prefecture built back in 1673.
About to catch the night bus back to Tokyo from Hiroshima. Saying goodbye to friends always involved tears ;-;
Bento lunch at Mount Fuji. Memories of my first few visits to Japan are always revived by some Calpis water in the Summer.
The bottle holder on my belt was something I made to keep cold drinks in - I wanted to hang them off my belt but didn't want my trousers to get all wet from the condensation or people would have got the wrong idea.
It was made of suede on the outside with lamb hide on the inside and had a logo for Mamono Yoko Hunter who I discovered through the Mega Drive game.
If you want to try more than just touristy stuff then hiking in Japan is well recommended!
21 years ago back in 1993 was my first time in Japan. When I asked my Japanese friends where I should visit they would normally say places like Harajuku, Shibuya and Akihabara.
At that time, I met most of my Japanese friends at the language exchange club that I attended back in the UK. The chap next to me is somebody I met while waiting in line for a Nishida Hikaru concert. I just reached out to speak to him and we became good friends ever since. It was easy to reach out as we already had a common interest - we both were fans of Hikaru.
Meeting new folks is important in life - some bring friendship and support while others bring new opportunities. Whenever you have the chance to reach out to folks, be brave and make the first move - the worst thing that could happen is that you get ignored while the best thing that could happen is that you find a friend for life.
While there was a moe and anime presence in Akihabara, most of the shops focused on electronics, PC parts and games back then.
Back then, Super Famicom and Mega Drive cartridge based systems where still popular and the Playstation 1 just came out in 1994. Even today I still listen to the PS1 title Ridge Racer R4 music while driving the Mirai-mobile.
As mentioned earlier on, the Sega Mega Drive (pictured in the left of the photo) by was one of the reasons why I discovered Japanese culture. 20 years on, I was to work with Sega on 2 projects - The Mikunopolis concert and the Sega Sammy anime Twin Angel website.
Back then in Akihabara, many of the shops sold games that we now call "Retro Games" - now there is major 1 shop that sells those same retro games and that shop is called Super Potato.
20 years later I was to do a special feature on retro games at Super Potato on my morning Japanese TV show called "Check Time" which was broadcast on Tokyo MX TV.
While I do enjoy modern games, most of my play time is of retro games. Am currently replaying Metal Gear Solid for the PS1 and have been playing a load of Metal Slug too.
Kinda ironic that I'm playing retro games on a new generation console - but there are only a few games which I enjoy that are made for the Vita which include Gravity Daze and Dragons Crown.
This is what eroge looked like 20 years ago! I've always loved 2D Japanese girlies and was fascinated as to how cute the Japanese made them look. My first love was Minmay from the original Macross series although I was torn between her and Misa ^o^
Apart from the original Macross movie, other anime titles that I enjoyed at that time was Ghost in the Shell, Project A-KO, Fist of the North Star, Dangaioh, Lupin, Ranma 1/2 and all the other Ghibli titles in that era.
This is what the UDX building area in Akihabara looked like 20 years ago. There used to be a huge car park where in the evenings young folks would gather to indulge in some basketball and skateboarding. The Konami neon sign would then light up when it became dark.
Today this area is filled with modern buildings, the AKB48 and Gundam cafe. They also hold the annual Maid Uchimizu event right in this very spot.
Looking back, I realized that most of my fave game titles are by Konami which include Axelay (SFC), Castlevania (SFC), Contra Spirits (SFC) and Metal Gear Solid (PS1). While recently replaying MGS, I realized just how much Japanese I learned from that particular game as there was plenty of dialog.
In 2011, I started to consult for Konami and built them a website for one of their game titles called Love Plus.
I told them that I would make the website for free if they could put Mirai as a cameo in either Love Plus or Metal Gear Solid - they said that they would think about it.
They got back to me after asking the Love Plus team and Kojima-san and said that they would rather pay for my work instead ^^;;
But remember - its always worth asking as you never know until you do! For example I asked comrades at Sega if they could cameo Mirai in Twin Angel - they said yes and she appeared in one episode.
I also asked comrades at King Records if Mirai could cameo in Mayo Chiki and she ended up in 4 episodes ^o^
Photos of Akihabara from 1993 - 1995. Not a single anime billboard in sight unlike Akihabara today. There are no figures or dolls either. They may have had some Gundam kits but I wasn't interested in them at the time.
By the way - my T-shirt (bottom right corner) says "Any 2 T-shirts for 1500 yen" - It wasn't for sale and was just used to advertise the real T-shirts on sale. When I saw it in Harajuku I just had to have it and begged the stall owner to sell it to me ^^;
With comrades after taking a dip at some waterpark - can't remember which one though ><
Tokyo Disneyland 20 years ago - have not had the opportunity to go back since ><
Although after I left Microsoft back in 2007 to start Mirai Inc, I consulted for Disney Online and frequently spent time at their headquarters in Meguro. They offered me a full time position with their online team which I was interested in but they told me I had to get rid of the idol website that I was running at the time. I declined ^^
I think this was the last time I rode on a roller coaster as they leave me dizzy ><
This was the Shuttle Loop also at Toshimaen.
I lost contact with my comrades sitting at the front but managed to get in contact with them after 20 years - one of them found me on Facebook after she saw me on the TBS TV show "Ima Kono Kao ga Sugoi."
Living in the UK at the time, I was used to unreliable train times and the occasional "No service today. Please seek alternative methods of travel" signs at the entrance of train stations.
Then I visited Japan and was amazed at how one could set their watch by the train times because they were so spot on. 20 years later and they are still spot on time - only when somebody chooses not to jump ><
Check out some of the Japan Rail commercials back in 1994.
Tokyo has a great view from above which you would normally only get to see if you visit observation decks such as Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo City View at Roppongi or stayed on one of the high floors in a hotel.
If you want to avoid the queues however, you can always try the shady method which is to look for emergency stairs by the side of a building - then you can get up onto the roof with a view just like you see in Japanese drama and anime.
Beware that most (not all) of these buildings will have "do not trespass signs" but would you be trespassing if you was looking for Tanaka-san?
Anyway, the only reason I'm sharing this info with you is because you would take a load of photos of Japan's citiscape and share it with comrades to show them how cool Japan is so that they will want to visit too ^^
I never came across railway crossings growing up in the UK so the Japanese ones were the first I experienced. There is something really nice about them - the design and the chime that rings when they start to close. The crossings are called "Fumikiri" [踏切[ふみきり]] in Japanese.
Enjoying some Karaoke with comrades. The song that I always choose is the Macross 7 OP Seventh Moon.
How many of you are Karaoke buffs and what Japanese tunes do you choose to make your friends ears bleed to?
And this is what my typical loot looked like back then - filled with useful Japanese learning material as you can see ^^;
The photo books of my fave idols were called Shashinshu [写真集[しゃしんしゅう]] and were really popular back then - not so much these days as you can now download your fix in jpegs ><
The CD’s were of my fave idols which were mainly Ribbon and Nishida HIkaru. The manga you see here and there are Sailor Moon and Ah Megami Sama. The games in the photo are Street Fighter for the Super Famicom, Streets of Rage for the Megadrive, Gradius II and Valis for the PC Engine.
The photos of Hikaru in her bikini were those Nama Shashin that I was talking about earlier on that I got from Harajuku.
Did you take a photo of your first ever Japan loot? If so show us!
Strapped for cash? No need to eat out all the time as the convenience stores have a load of good food too! This is my Summer fave - soumen noodles.
There are many grocery stores or supermarkets that sell freshly made side dishes. If you want to go cheaper then head to the supermarkets late evening where you will see discounted food items which they need to sell otherwise they end up throwing it away.
Anyway, everything else on the tatami is what I would typically carry around with me at the time - no Internets and no mobile phones for the masses back then either. Japan used something called Pocket Bell to communicate with each other which is basically a pager.
As you can see, I got to take a load of photos with Hikaru ^^
Meeting Hikaru was also another one of my dreams. While in Tokyo one year, I waited for Hikaru at the backstage entrance of Kousei Nenkin Hall in Shinjuku and managed to pass her some presents of Marilyn Monroe that she liked.
That night, I got a bunch of flowers and waited outside the hall for her concert to finish. I had rollerblades on and the plan was to chase after her car and catch her at a traffic light to hand her the flowers.
However, the guards at the hall didn't like the look of me and just before her car came out, 7 or so of them rushed and pinned me to the ground until her car was out of site.
After Hikaru's car was off and away, the guards left me in the middle of the road. I got up dizzy after being hit and kicked. The flowers still looked decent so I nabbed them and skated in the direction of Hikaru's car as fast as I could. Fate was on my side and her car was stuck at some traffic lights. She winded down the window with a sorry look and accepted my flowers. I don't think it was her decision to set the guards on me - or at least that's what I like to think ^^;
I tried the same thing the following year at the same time same place but this time I hid well out of sight. Unfortunately this time round fate was not on my side and the traffic lights were greener than green - I remember chasing her car on my roller blades through Shinjuku in the middle of the road with this bunch of flowers until my lungs started to burst - my asthma got the better of me.
I retreated to sit in front of a pachinko parlor crying my eyes out until a lady came up to me and asked if I was alright. I said I was fine and offered her the flowers - this was the photo I took at the time.
Photos of some of the places I stayed at and perfect examples of how you should not make a mess!
Here is a checklist of that you should not do if staying with a Japanese friend or family.
- Don't make a mess - keep your stuff tidy in your bag where possible
- Don't bring a ton of suitcases - you do not need to bring your kitchen sink. Don't get in the habit of "I'll bring this just in case I need it because you most probably won't (need it). If you are going to bring a load of suitcases then stay in your own hotel instead.
- Don't stay in the shower for ages - if you do need to for whatever reason then make sure you do not leave the water running for the whole duration.
- Don't give your underwear or socks to the host family to wash even if they do offer - wash it yourself!
- Don't come back late - if you are staying with folks then get back home early at about 8.
- Don't sleep with the aircon on all night - its damn rude.
To summarise - be frugal with your host family's time and money. You are staying for free so be considerate.
Here I'm holding a yellow plastic bag from Kinokuniya bookstore. 20 years later my mascot character Mirai Suenaga (I'll speak about her later) became a mascot for Kinokuniya and her illustration is currently used on their Malaysian and Singaporean store membership cards.
This photo is taken in a Shotengai - we didn't have them back in the UK. A Shotengai [商店街[しょうてんがい]] is a street which has a concentration of shops and restaurants which are usually located near a train station and typically contains supermarkets, hairdressers, pharmacies and all the other usual daily stuff.
Shotengai is also a great place to experience a slice of Japanese life. Check out the Shotengai photo post or the video below of my local one called Musashikoyama Palm.
Computers back then took up half a table. Here visiting a business school that one of my comrades attended.