Saturday, December 02, 2006

Going Home (帰国)

This concludes our broadcast…

While I was away, the bathroom in my Seattle home got a new addition. Staring at this Toto Washlet toilet in my American bathroom, a mirror image of what my rear graced countless times while in Japan, I cannot help but feel that all things come full circle...

A typhoon hit Tokyo during my last week. Tokyo Disney Sea was wet, but when departure day arrived, waves of water rolled down the street near my Asakusa Weekly Mansion and the howling wind was easily audible outside my window. I needed to wire money to my host brother in Kyoto to close out my mobile phone account, so I braved my way through the torrential onslaught, trudging through ankle deep water to a nearby convenience store ATM.

Even with written directions from my host brother on how to transfer money to his account (displayed on my cell phone in Japanese characters), I was still completely baffled by the electronic process and had to enlist the help of the friendly store clerk. He was very patient and I eventually got the money sent after several unsuccessful attempts at punching buttons on the machine myself.

Japanese ATMs also have no deposit or withdrawal limits, so I was able to take all of my summer internship earnings with me in a huge stack of cash – just like an international drug dealer. I left a hundred dollars in the account to keep it open. Now, when I become a super villain, I can rightfully say that I have an “offshore account.”

After the banking was taken care of (and I was thoroughly soaked from the roundtrip), I was ready to check out and head to the airport. Leaving my Asakusa Weekly Mansion was a painless affair. There were no additional charges on my account, so I signed a piece of paper and walked out the door. I can’t say that I was particularly sad to leave my broom closet prison cell.

A special train line runs directly from nearby Ueno to Narita International Airport. The ride was very quick, clocking in at only a little over an hour, but the train cars were absolutely packed with people. I had to stand for ¾ of the ride, smashed in between people and pieces of rolling luggage, as the train sped through the icy rain. Luckily I had shipped my luggage ahead to the airport so I only had to deal with a backpack.

United Airlines only allows two pieces of checked baggage, so I had to pay the equivalent of $170 in yen in order to check my third bag. I was infuriated at the astronomical cost, but there was nothing I could do – the airline had me over a barrel. I spent my time in the airport looking in the shops (they have a whole mall in the airport). There is also an observation field with benches and tables where one can sit and watch the planes take off.

I don’t remember how long the flight back was, but it was certainly shorter than the trip over. I watched several movies and ate the same crummy vegetarian pilaf. Before I knew it, I was staring at a blue customs declaration form on my tray table. I had no idea what to write on the form as I was bringing back suitcases filled with CDs, DVDs, and videogames. Most of my booty was personal gifts or unmarked audio / video product samples from Columbia, so I didn’t know how to accurately estimate their value on the form. I filled in some ballpark prices and took a gamble that the customs agents wouldn’t care.

In customs, one particularly annoying male agent decided to harass any person under the age of 25. He paced around the group and interrogated any college-age kid he could find. Things went well once I told him I was a Stanford student and started gushing about my summer internship at Columbia, after he asked me to describe what I did in Japan. Not knowing anything about Japan, the agent quickly disengaged me. He stared at my blue form with the itemization “CDs / DVDs = $500” and then stared at me. “Five hundred dollars huh? That’s how much it cost? You’re not bringing back like hundreds of CDs are ya?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was actually correct – Instead, I told him that CDs and DVDs are very expensive in Japan (which isn’t a lie). All things considered, customs was just fine. The only things the authorities seemed concerned with were powdered or liquid curry packets. Since I didn’t have either, I was home free.

…I am now in my senior year at Stanford, and busy myself with advanced coursework in Japanese language and literature, preparing for the Ministry of Education’s national proficiency exam. I am also writing an honors thesis for my major on the subject of the all-female Takarazuka Revue Theatre Company.

I hope that my stories were funny and entertaining when they needed to be, but also educational and inspiring as well. If you enjoyed my adventures and learned something new about Japan, then I did a good job. Japan is truly a country unlike any other in the world and a place that I love dearly. I urge all of you to experience it first hand. What are you waiting for? Make your own adventures!

Finally, I would like to thank all of the friends, family members, and strangers who read, commented on, and enjoyed A White Boy in Japan. Usually blogs like this only benefit school friends and grandparents. I feel privileged to have had people from all over the world reading my musings.

This blog will remain active and open from now on. It is now possible to read my entire adventure from beginning to end! While frequent updates on the site will drop to a minimum, I will post any and all new information regarding my senior thesis, Japan job search, and future Japan trips on this website, so please don’t forget the address!

I will leave you with my favorite Japanese quote, straight from the special edition DVD poster:


“When you forget who you are, watch Disney’s The Lion King.”

Thank you for reading.

Most Sincerely,

Benjamin Evan Whaley
A White Boy in Japan

Coming soon to an American bathroom near you!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A shot of my plane back to America in the torrential downpour. Tokyo's typhoon season puts Seattle rain to shame.

A quick shot of the Tokyo Tower on the way to the airport.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Closing Time

My last week at Columbia Music Entertainment (CME) was spent divided between the Intellectual Property Rights Division and the Human Resources Department. My time in IPR was largely spent receiving lectures on copyright law and the intricacies of licensing agreements. CME owns the rights to and is currently licensing a large selection of songs from Japan’s most famous and beloved folksinger Misora Hibari. Though she died of cancer in 1989, her likeness and music continue to sell products and grace billboards throughout the country. The agreement I looked at dealt specifically with licensing her music for use with a new electronic pachinko machine that bears her likeness. Cha-ching!!!

The IPR division had me translating addendums to licensing agreements between CME and Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store. Understanding legal jargon in English is hard enough. As expected, translating the thick legal jargon from Japanese to English was quite a challenge, but valuable practice for me. In order to concentrate, I found that I needed to be in a completely silent environment while translating documents.

It didn’t help my concentration that my desk was located next to my internship coordinator and head boss Okano-san in the Human Resources area of the 10th floor. They didn’t have a free desk on the other side of the floor where the IPR division was located. Because of my close proximity, Okuno-san would occasionally override the tasks given to me by my boss in the IPR section, and ask me instead to spend 30 minutes looking over and editing the PowerPoint file he would present to the American investing board later that afternoon. I would then have to spend an additional hour going over the corrections with him in person, during which time he would ask me mind-bending English usage questions such as, “What is the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’?”

I spent the second half of my last week at Columbia in the Human Resources Department, right where I had begun my orientation two months ago. I didn’t even have to change desks and Okano-san was gracious enough to treat me to lunch during each of these days at our favorite nearby fish restaurant! In between trips to the fish restaurant, I sat at my desk and created a sweeping PowerPoint presentation that documented my internship experiences at Columbia. I had just a few days to go before I was scheduled to present to the chairman and CEO of the company, Hitose-san.

Friday arrived before I knew it. Okano-san had warned me that Chairman Hitose-san could only spare 45 minutes from his busy schedule to attend my internship presentation. Everything would be fine, assuming we got the ball rolling on time. Due to a room scheduling conflict, I found myself dressed in my best business casual, laptop hugged to chest, waiting for the executive boardroom on the 11th floor to open. When the black suit clad Japanese businessmen finally filed out of the room fifteen minutes later, it was my turn at bat. We got the projector hooked up to my laptop and working in record time: 10 minutes! We were already seriously behind schedule and this only added to my anxiety and pit stains.

Chairman Hitose-san is a self-proclaimed “ojisan” (old guy). He is close to seventy years old, with a mole spotted bald head and thick black glasses. His wrinkly skin is usually covered by blue jeans and a white polo shirt – today was no different. His office is filled with stacks of CDs that nearly reach the ceiling, and framed pictures of him posed with the company’s young pop stars adorn his walls. Co-workers told me that he has a Harley but can’t actually ride it. Imagine a grandfather, who is desperately trying to be as hip as his teenage grandkids; that is Chairman Hitose-san in a nutshell.

As I began delivering my final presentation in Japanese, Chairman Hitose-san closed his eyes, leaned back in his over sized leather chair, and promptly went to sleep. He would sleep for the entirety of his time in the room, mouth hanging slightly eschew, waking about thirty minutes later in order to silently leave the room and never return.

It is difficult to deliver a presentation to someone who is sleeping. I didn’t know quite what to do or who to direct my speech to. I took the tact of looking up at the back wall and pretending I was delivering a proclamation in an amphitheater. This was because the other eight random attendants at my presentation were at the complete other side of the massive boardroom table. If you can recall the scene in Batman where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale sit across from each other at the giant dinner table, then you have some idea of my misery.

I plowed ahead as best I could, flipping through slide after slide of pictures and Japanese text as sweat beads collected by my sideburns. I was determined to energetically recount my internship experiences for the yawning faces that I had never met. The only saving grace in the room was Okano-san and my friends from Human Resources, who listened and genuinely looked interested in what I had to say.

Okano-san had insisted that I put a section in my presentation that can best be described as “The White Boy’s Suggestions for the Company!” He thought this would be avant-garde. Thus, I spent ample time trying to articulate my interesting suggestions for business and marketing strategies in Japanese. This was the only aspect of my presentation that I felt was a complete waste of time. I felt awkward giving suggestions about how to run a company I had only been a member of for two months, and I don’t believe that any attendees in the room actually cared to hear my suggestions (even though some of my ideas were quite good).

I finished my presentation and received the obligatory compliments from people who yawned and wiped their eyes as the lights came up. Okano-san made an excuse on behalf of Chairman Hirose-san as I disconnected my laptop from the projector. I am proud that I delivered a full presentation entirely in Japanese to important company executives, even if they were less than engaged.

I spent the next several hours making my rounds throughout the company and saying goodbye to the real treasure of CME; the people who work there. My first stop was the studios on the sixth floor. I had spent time there goofing around on the digital piano (the only one I could find in the entire company) and cutting together some cell phone ring tones featuring the old Masked Rider show theme songs. The kids who work in the studio are my age, and they always have snacks there which I help myself to. We chatted about Japan and America and the possibilities of studying and living abroad. They wished me safe travels back to America, saying they were jealous and wanted to join me. I said I was jealous of them and wanted to live in Japan. We added each other as friends on MIXI (a Japanese social network website like MySpace), so we could stay in touch.

I popped into the sales and advertising divisions but most of the people were off working various live events, so the floors were desolate. Since I didn’t exactly bond with the people in these sections nearly as much as with my friends in Enka and anime, this wasn’t overly disappointing.

My last stop was the hardest one to make, the eighth floor, home to the Enka and anime divisions. By and large, the wonderful people in these two sections are responsible for giving me a truly once in a lifetime opportunity that I will carry with me till the day I die. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with these people that I can now legitimately call my friends.

Many commemorative pictures were taken with my coworkers from both sections, and I will post them as soon as my friends in Japan email them to me. As I was taking a picture with the youngest and most attractive female employee in the Enka division, Boui-san (pronounced boy), my three older female friends kept yelling at us to get closer together. “Put your arm around her Ben! Okay, good…yeah. Boui-san stop laughing! Good. Okay, just like that…like you’re gonna kiss. When you show this picture to your friends in America, tell them this is your girlfriend!” They cackled as they snapped the digital stills.

By the time I left the eighth floor I was towing along two bags, bursting at the seams with gifts of all sorts. Much like an airborne virus, the realization that this was indeed my last day at Columbia, slowly swept across the eighth floor, affecting all those within its reach. My three female friends from the Enka division became my talking shadow, following me around the floor as I shook hands, hugged, and said goodbye to many people. My parting words were always followed with the interjection, “Don’t you have anything to give him?!” Once any of my female bodyguards interjected this remark on my behalf, panic would shoot across the face of the coworker I just said goodbye to, as they began to frantically rummage through their cluttered desk in search of a gift.

I made out like a bandit! My bags were chock full of dish towels, CDs, entire anime DVD sets, and stuffed animals, just to name some of the items. A few coworkers gave me some neat retro Japanese toys and figures. Another friend, nearly tipping over his desk lamp in a panicked frenzy, thrust his own glasses case at me with outstretched arms. “Here, take it! I want you to have it. It is from Kyoto.” I tried to refuse but he insisted again and again. I now have an intricately decorated purple and green flower print glasses case in my dorm room at Stanford.

I left the eighth floor, walking backwards and waving goodbye. My eyes were damp but I kept it together. Chairman Hitose-san had gone home for the day, but I did my samurai duty and brought my gift for him, a book about Seattle, up to the executive floor and left it with his secretary. I wrote a personal note in Japanese thanking Hitose-san for providing me with this wonderful internship opportunity and attached it to the gift.

I walked back to my desk on the tenth floor and returned my magnetic keycard and laptop – it was time to go. Okano-san and my friends in Human Resources insisted on an old fashioned “miokuri” or send off, accompanying me in the elevator ride down and all the way out to the front of 21 Mori Building. Outside there was a light rain falling and it was already dark. I presented Okano-san with a parting gift to show my appreciation – a Seattle smoked salmon with a similar handwritten note of thanks in Japanese. We all shook hands, bowed and hugged.

I walked up the stairs to the blue sky bridge and crossed over the cars whizzing by on the four lane street below. I stopped halfway across the bridge, turned around and waved my final goodbye. As I expected, my coworkers were still huddled together in front of the building’s entrance, waiting for me to disappear out of sight. Before I knew it I was on a train heading home, my time at Columbia Music Entertainment already behind me.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tokyo Disney Sea!

“You’ve just completed an internship at Columbia Music Entertainment, it’s your last full day in Japan…what are you gonna to do?”

“I’m going to Disneyland!!!”

…actually…Tokyo Disney Sea Resort to be accurate. Naoko, me, my friend Inoue and his girlfriend all headed to Disney Sea in Chiba for the day. The theme park, which just celebrated its 5th anniversary this year, is actually about twenty minutes outside Tokyo, located right next door to Tokyo Disneyland.

Disney Sea is a relatively new “themed” theme park much like Disney’s California Adventure. The theme here of course is sea travel. The park features “ports of call” in lieu of the traditional “lands.” Examples include Mermaid Lagoon from The Little Mermaid and the Arabian Coast straight out of Aladdin. All of your favorite Disney friends can be spotted at the park too, except they are all in sea apparel. There’s Captain Mickey, first mate Donald and pirate Goofy, just to name a few.

In order to maintain an atmosphere that feels foreign and magical (i.e. not Japanese), all the writing on signs and in brochures in the park is either in English or bilingually printed in both English and Japanese. Also, 1/3 of all the music lyrics and recorded voice material is also in English. All the park employees are required to speak fluent English, and, upon careful inspection, one will see that there are no vending machines in Disney Sea. There are also no opportunities to buy Japanese food within the park.

The gateway to magic is the “World Bazaar;” Disney Sea’s version of Main St. It is a big plaza area which houses tons of souvenir shops and restaurants. Behind the entry way is Mediterranean Harbor, the large man-made lake that serves as the backdrop for the park’s shows.

The show we saw at Mediterranean Harbor was the large nighttime show entitled “The Legend of Mythica.” Inoue and his girlfriend had a spot staked out to the right-hand side of the lake, but Naoko and I got swallowed up by the swarms of people on the way back from the bathroom. It didn’t help that you couldn’t simply walk from the bathroom area to where he was; we had to ascend and descend various staircases in a giant castle that blocked our way.

Mythica told the story of Captain Mickey and his Disney crew’s voyage to the magical island of Mythica. All the Disney characters spoke a mishmash of Japanese and English during the show, but their characteristic voices sounded the same. Once at said magical island, our Disney friends discover magical unicorns, phoenixes, and other mythological creatures (each represented by convincingly animated water floats). Actors on decorated Jet Skis zoom around in the water as illuminated kites sail high above in the air. Everything is great…until the Fire Dragon arrives! The climax of the show came as Captain Mickey, riding on the back of his new friend the water dragon, did battle with the evil Fire Dragon to protect the Island’s magical crystal.

Fire and water jets shot across the arena at each other. At least I think they did. I couldn’t quite tell, because I was in back of a father hoisting his child up on his shoulders. By this point in the show, Naoko and I had abandoned our effort to rejoin Inoue and his girlfriend, and were pinned against one of the walls of the giant castle, enjoying the show as much as we could.

The trademark Disney fireworks erupted over the park as a voice proclaimed that the secret crystal of Mythica was really love and friendship. Who’d have guessed? Then, the bright calypso orchestra boomed in for one final rendition of everyone’s favorite song. This time I could sing along to the English lyrics, having heard the piece several times during the show:

“It’s the beating of our heart
It’s been there from the start
It joins all of us in harmony”

Due to some lapses in communication and a generally slow start, our group didn’t arrive at Disney Sea until the early afternoon. Since the coming Monday was the national holiday “Old People’s Day,” the park was absolutely swamped with families (send some of these people to Disney Paris!). We also encountered monsoon rain during the last third of our park visit. I was happy to see that Tokyo Disney Sea patrons also bought and utilized yellow Mickey Mouse ponchos.

The waiting time for the rides was pretty awful, even with the Fast Pass system. We waited two hours to ride “The Tower of Terror.” I had already been on this ride at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it was a newly completed attraction at Tokyo Disney Sea, so everyone in my party clamored to go. The actual ride was the same as in Orlando, except it featured cutesy Disney skeleton characters instead of a Twilight Zone theme. The other translated ride we did was the Indiana Jones Adventure. This was Naoko’s favorite ride. It was the same as the ride from the California park, with the exception that Indy congratulated us in Japanese once we escaped the giant rolling boulder and made it to the exit of the temple.

The rest of the rides we did were Japanese originals. They included:

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” – A ride where you climbed into a miniature submarine and peered out the windows in order to see alien-like underwater sea creatures. I think we battled some sort of white squid create and obtained a magical crystal (this seems to be a beloved story format at Disney Sea). I don’t know for sure though, because I started to feel really nauseous as the ride went on.

“Storm Riders” – A motion simulator where you rode in a weapon enhanced blimp. Our goal was to fire a missile into the heart of a raging twister in order to disarm it. When our missile backfired and crashed into our ship, holes appeared in the theater walls and water started to spray us in the face.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” – A Splash Mountain clone, where you dive deep into the earth to a land of mole people while riding in a mine car. At the end of the ride you blast out the top of the volcano Mount Prometheus to escape the explosion of lava. Too bad nobody gets wet!

I was surprised by the fact that the food in the park was actually pretty darn cheap. The four of us ate a light dinner at an all-American themed restaurant in the American Waterfront port of call. Nothing but baked beans, corn bread, meat, and taters. YEEHAW PARTNER!

As the torrential rain got stronger, we decided it might be a good idea to head back instead of more souvenir shopping. My only souvenir was Mickey Mouse Senbei (rice crackers - see picture below). Inoue and his girlfriend were nice enough to buy them for me. The four of us traveled as far as Shibuya Station together in Inoue’s car. We said our goodbyes and I headed on a train back to my place in Asakusa. It was the last time I saw Inoue and Naoko. Naoko offered to come with me to the airport, but I told her to enjoy her day off. I would leave Japan the next day.


This giant globe welcomes you to the Tokyo Disney Sea Resort in Chiba Japan. Disney Sea celebrated its 5th anniversary this year. The park is right next door to Tokyo Disneyland. Instead of Main St., Disney Sea has the World Bazaar shopping area with lots of souvenir shops and restaurants.

Here is the Temple of the Crystal Skull from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride.

Here is the Mysterious Island port of call. Unlike Disney Land which features different lands like Adventure Land and Tomorrow Land, Tokyo Disney Sea features different Disney themed ports of call. For instance, there is Ariel's Mermaid Lagoon and Aladdin's Arabian Coast.

A mine car sticking out of the side of the mountain at the ride "Journey to the Center of the Earth." This was the star attraction at Tokyo Disney Sea. It was basically like Splash Mountain, except instead of a waterfall you shot out of the top of a volcano.

Me and Naoko in front of the golden Mickey photo spot at Tokyo Disney Sea.

Here is a picture of me with my friend Inoue-san (left) and his girlfriend (right).

Here is my souvenir from Tokyo Disney Sea - Mickey Senbei or rice crackers. Aren't they cute? They came in shrimp, soy sauce, and seaweed flavors. The seaweed flavored ones were the best.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Here is an awesome picture that I stole from my friend Ev's Japan blog featuring a crane game where the prizes are live shrimp!

Ev' is currently working as a JET Program ALT in Tsushima.

Living the Dream: Part III - “Could I have a little water?”

…And now for the conclusion of my adventures with Psychic Lover.

My last encounter with Psychic Lover came when I attended the Summer 2006 Superhero Spirits (SHS) rock concert at the Zepp Tokyo live house in Odaiba. SHS is an annual music event that brings otaku from all over the kantō region together for a one-night only superhero theme song rock concert extravaganza.

I rode the monorail to Odaiba with my anime section friend Inoue-san. When the two of us arrived at Zepp Tokyo, Tanemura-san (also of CME’s anime division) was waiting at the entrance to give us our special VIP badges and usher us inside. I was wearing my black Psychic Lover shirt (the only piece of anime related apparel I own). Inoue-san was wearing regular street clothes and looked generally disinterested by the entire setup.

The three of us took a quick peak at the ground floor in front of the stage on our way to the dressing rooms. The bottom floor was already filled to the brim with hundreds of people (all standing since there were no chairs).

The three of us proceeded backstage to the dressing room area thanks to the VIP passes. I stored my bag with my digital camera and newly purchased aquamarine Nintendo DS in a spare room before the show started, which explains why there are no pictures of the live house itself.

One by one, almost as if we were reenacting the NHK enka television show filming from my first days at Columbia, Tanemura-san knocked on three sets of dressing room doors and took the time to expose aging Japanese rock stars to a white boy.

The first door we knocked on opened and four Japanese men were on the other side. It was the elephant graveyard. They all looked the age of my Kyoto host father, except they were sporting blonde highlighted hair, torn jeans, glittering jackets and multiple pieces of finger bling. It quickly occurred to me that these guys sang the old theme songs to the Power Rangers shows in Japan and were here to perform in tonight’s concert.

The rockers seemed quite uninterested with Inoue-san, but they all stared in awe at me. Once I introduced myself in Japanese, the rocker who would later sing the opening theme to “Bird Squadron Jet Rangers” came up to me and shook my hand. It wasn’t so much a handshake as it was a test of strength power clasp. The two of us locked arms as if we were about to arm wrestle. Our singular limb unit shook back and forth as he squinted his beady eyes, gnashed his teeth and said “BEN-SAN!!! NICE TO MEET YOU!!!” in powerful Japanese, emphasizing every word. I think singing superhero television show theme songs for twenty years had convinced the guy that he was a real life Power Ranger.

Behind door number two was the MC for the evening’s events. This man was quite overweight (a fact he would make light of in his self-deprecating comedy bit) and wore khaki shorts and a gray SHS T-shirt. A white headband caught the beads of sweat that rolled down his plump forehead. He asked me if I liked Japanese superheroes and anime. I explained that I watched Power Rangers and Masked Rider on TV in America, but that I didn’t really know any of the Japanese theme songs. I confided that I love Japanese videogames much more than anime. He asked me if I am a “gamer,” using the English word. When I said yes, he burst out laughing. Go figure.

The final dressing room was the fountain of youth. Inside were the youthful Yoffy and Joe as well as slightly more refined Nob. Nob is also a CME artist. He sings the opening theme to the current Power Rangers series in Japan and seemed disinterested in everybody present.

Yoffy was sitting on the couch with a nauseous look on his face, but managed “hi” and a smile as I walked in. Joe came over and flipped open his cell phone as he said “hi.” He showed me a picture of the ass and legs of a Japanese schoolgirl displayed on the tiny LCD screen. The dress was blue, the high cotton socks were rumpled, the legs were bent at the knees. “Isn’t she a little bit sexy?” he asked me. “Just a little bit sexy?” he whispered slowly.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“She’s ME!!!” he blurted out through a laugh, zooming out and revealing the entire picture. Indeed, it was Joe in complete schoolgirl cosplay (costume). “You make a really sexy girl,” I said. Everyone in the dressing room nodded and agreed. *You can see the pictures of Joe below this post.

The performers were on their standby cues as the concert was just about to begin, so we said goodbye, wished everyone luck, and took our seats on the second floor balcony of Zepp (this area actually had chairs).

The space grew dark. Spotlights illuminated a hanging black curtain, which was torn away in a burst of bass to reveal the stage. Red lights flooded the performance area and fog began to fill the stage. The crowd of hundreds erupted.

The following two-hour performance was a large-scale version of the Psychic Lover concert I had attended earlier at the Ginza Pasela Karaoke Hall. The music was all superhero television show theme songs (Power Rangers, Masked Rider, etc), and the audience members all pointed jumped, and punched through the songs. One after another, the heavyset MC would introduce a new (old) singer, who would take the stage and do physical things that a mid-sixty-year-old Japanese man should not be doing.

As the halfway mark of the show approached, Inoue-san’s head rested on his chest and his quiet snores were audible. How anyone could fall asleep in the midst of nonstop booming superhero music is beyond me. I, on the other hand, was awake, alert and constantly astounded with how energetic, in shape, and generally “genki” the older rock stars were. Not only did they look the part, they showed up some of the younger stars in terms of physicality. One gentleman, dressed in what can only be described as a sparkling blue tracksuit, did a full disco dance routine, spinning around on stage as he sang his song.

The singer who power shook my hand was rapid fire punching and kicking his way through an entire karate kata during his theme song. He finished the song, visibly winded, and asked the MC for a glass of water. He took gulps of the water and panted into the microphone. “Thirty years ago, I didn’t have to ask for a glass of water.” The audience erupted with cheers.

Psychic Lover performed their two Power Rangers themes Dekaranger and Boukenger (デカレンジャー and ボウケンジャー) and Nob sang his contribution while hoisting the microphone stand above his head in a display of cool bravado.

After the younglings did their thing, all the rockers took the stage to sing two final numbers. The first was some sort of American country music inspired superhero song. The artists all wore cowboy hats and strummed acoustic guitars. It seemed very out of place with the rest of the hard rock show (as hard rock as superhero songs can be for that matter…just don’t tell the fans).

The final song was the theme from the original Power Rangers series, Secret Squadron Go Rangers (秘密戦隊ゴレンジャー). And with that, everyone filed out of the hall, as silently and orderly as they had come.

The three of us made one more swing past the dressing rooms and congratulated everybody on a job well done. I was losing my voice (from a cold, not from screaming during the concert), so it was probably good that there was no after party.

That was the last time I saw Psychic Lover. Some might say it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, but I disagree. While I was sitting in the audience watching the SHS concert, something unexpected happened; I was moved.

Fathers and mothers stood next to their children in the cramped ground floor, all singing the lyrics to their favorite superhero songs together. Parents grew up with the series and characters that their children are now watching on TV; everything continues. Parents cheer when they see that a singer their age can still pull off the dance moves. Kids shriek when the ultra cool Psychic Lover and Nob take the stage. Everybody enjoys the music together, no matter what age, no matter what background. This is the power of pop culture in Japan.

Everything continues. I left Zepp Tokyo with a warm feeling inside. Thanks Psychic Lover for all the great memories!

The End


The set-up.

The reveal.

Here is the candid pose.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


SMAP (which stands for Sports Music Assemble People) is the original Japanese boy band. Having debuted in 1988, these Japanese Backstreet Boys are the longest running and most successful Japanese boy band in existence. The absolutely packed Tokyo Olympic Stadium, where I saw the concert tour for their new album “Pop-Up SMAP”, was a testament to their continued popularity.

I am not a SMAP fan and I don’t really know any of their songs except for this one that is featured on a commercial. When I first traveled to Japan in 1999, the group had just released their album entitled “Birdman.” I remember that the music video was constantly on TV. Seven years later, they are still going strong with their chart-topping new album, “Pop-Up SMAP.”

Their new album has a 3-D theme and our concert tickets came with a complementary pair of 3-D glasses, which we were instructed to put on during various parts of the concert. We were then treated to semi-comedic videos of band members doing goofy things like throwing cards and hitting ping-pong balls towards the audience members, thanks to the effects.

I went to the concert with two coworkers, both older than me by a minimum of ten years. The older of the two was Murata-san, the die-hard SMAP fan. The younger coworker, Takegawa-san had just agreed to come along to see the spectacle.

Our group’s first stop was the souvenir area. The area most closely resembled a never-ending line of those wooden fireworks stands that they set up outside supermarkets during the 4th of July. Each stall sold a different item. From circular fans featuring your favorite band member’s face for $10 a pop to hats and shirts for $50 each, everything was on sale. Murata-san was busy loading up on SMAP extra long bath towels and cell phone straps when a Chinese woman approached me.

She was lugging a giant plastic crate on wheels beside her, packed to the gills with programs, posters, and plastic folders featuring the fab five. She asked me in English if I would go up to the nearby stand and buy ten posters for her because there was a limit to how much any one individual person could buy. I refused, knowing that she was only going to resell the stuff online.

The concert was held in the open-aired Tokyo Olympic Stadium. The day boasted at least 95-degree sunny weather, which made the duration of the three-hour show a bit uncomfortable. Even though I am not a diehard fan, I must say that SMAP puts on a great show.

The five members zip-lined down to the stage to start the show off. There were also giant rising platforms that came out of the stage, fireworks, trampoline action, and of course, inflatable palm trees. It was like Nickelodeon’s GUTS meets N’SYNC.

The music was mostly all unmemorable Japanese pop (this was likely because I didn’t know any of their songs going into the show). The one song I do remember is the title song from their new album "Pop-Up SMAP" which sounded very similar to Spiceworld from the Spice Girls. Every now and then, individual band members would do slower solo songs, and there were also large group numbers with a hefty amount of backup dancers.

On a whole, I would say that the band members were quite off key while singing. This was very evident whenever a single band member would sing a love ballad to a slower tempo. While I was cringing as his voice cracked at the high notes, all the female patrons were undeterred, clutching their Kimtaku fans to their chest as they gazed with loving eyes down to him on the stage.

It should have been written on the ticket that a “penlight” was required for the show. A penlight is a light up glow wand that one waves back and forth for the duration of the three-hour show without stopping. It was lucky that Murata-san had brought several of her spares. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out! While the sight of some 60 thousand people waving neon blue and pink penlights in the nighttime air was definitely amazingly beautiful, the searing pain in my arms after hours of robotic waving was not.

Also, people stood on their feet for 95% of the concert. I guess penlight waving is best conducted standing up, so that one has a greater arc in which to swing their arm. Perhaps the event’s artistic directors wanted all the patrons to be “Sports Assemble People” right alongside with SMAP. Indeed, my head was throbbing after hours of waving, jumping and standing during the concert. Soaked in my own sweat at the concert’s end, I felt as though I had just undergone the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. *I never was fit enough to get the T-shirt*

I have found that Japanese concerts have a set number of encores that the artists decide to perform before they wave goodbye and it is time for everyone to shuffle out. Thus, there is no calling the artists back to the stage for more music. Thankfully, SMAP only performed one encore – during which they rode around in circus animal cages pulled by pickup trucks.

Leaving the stadium was hell, due both to my woozy, sickly condition and the fact that you were smashed in a solid mass of human flesh. As with the Asakusa fireworks show, I was deathly afraid of being trampled to death.

I rode home on the train. I had to stand because the cars were packed with SMAP fans. Even the air smelled like SMAP. I finally got a seat ¾ of the way through my ride. Girls with vinyl “Pop-Up SMAP” tote bags, energetically reminiscing about the concert we had all just seen, accompanied me all the way home.


Here is a picture of SMAP. I only know Tsuyoshi Kusanagi who is the guy on the far left. He was a guest personality on a television program about Japanese history that we watched last year in Japanese class. He also recently appeared in the summer blockbuster 日本沈没 in Japan. Second from the right is the insanely popular "Kimtaku." Don't ask me why this is the case, as I am not a Japanese female.

Here is the outside of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, where I saw SMAP's "Pop-Up SMAP" tour 2006!

A shot from the inside of the stadium awaiting the concert. It was at least 95 degrees and the stadium has no roof, so we took refuge inside so as to not die from heat exhaustion.

Here is the Tokyo Olympic Stadium (国立競技場) where I saw the SMAP concert. This stadium was built for the 1964 Summer Olympics. There were actually no cameras allowed in the stadium, but since the security lady did a bad job checking my Mao sidebag that I bought in Beijing, I was able to smuggle in my camera and snap these top secret shots.

The show had some sort of jungle theme as is evidenced by the inflatable palm trees. SMAP made their entrance by descending down on parallel zip lines with their matching capes blowing in the wind.

A picture to show the unbelievable number of people present for the SMAP concert. By the time the concert actually started, there wasn't an empty seat in the house!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Denny's is just a little bit different in the land of the rising sun.

Here is my Japanese Denny's Grand Slam. Instead of eggs we have rice - instead of bacon we have tempura - and instead of pancakes we have a hot bowl of udon. They hardly changed it at all!

Here is a red dragon I took a picture of at the outdoor "fall festival" nearby where I work. The fall festival celebrates the new harvest and I was told that these dragons are used in special dances. That's right, Japanese people also perform both lion and dragon dances similar to Chinese people. One of CME's new artists was present to sing a few songs on the main stage so a bunch of us came out to watch.

This dragon wants to give you a smooch. Pucker up!

Here is an artistic shot I took looking up at the Roppongi Hills Tower through the skylight below. Dear Michel Gondry - if you read this blog and are in search of a new cinematographer, please contact me! I think we can work something out!

Look Roger! I found your old car in Tokyo!!!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wanna buy some CDs from the White Boy?

Here I am with Loco Roco. This was my post during the sales event today in Ikebukuro (as you can see, we were in the bottom of the train station). Since the Loco Roco theme song (Imagine, "It's A Small World" X 10 in terms of annoyingness) was on continuous loop, I made the giant inflatable Loco Roco dance back and forth to the music for hours on end. This delighted tons of small Japanese children who would run up and touch, hug, or punch Loco Roco.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Japanese Costco (コストコ)

**The Countdown Has BEGUN! 10 Days remaining in JAPAN!!!**

This past weekend I went to Japanese Costco. I know that some readers may label a trip to the world’s premiere wholesale warehouse store as wasteful, but I find no shame in proudly proclaiming that I love Costco. My mother and I go to Costco every week in America, and we have also been to Mexican Costco in Los Cabos.

Costco is very easy to get to from Tokyo, provided you don’t mind riding the train for over an hour. While I was sitting on the train waiting for it to depart from the platform, A Japanese man entered the stalled train car, walked up to me, and asked, ‘Where do you live?’ in Japanese. I responded ‘Asakusa.’ He shook his head and said ‘No…no, I mean what country are you from?’ When I told him America, he mumbled something in Japanese that sounded like either Indiana or Italia. He then bowed and left the train car.

I peered out through the window to see the Japanese man return to the side of a thin, golden haired white woman, who appeared to be over six feet tall. They looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back. Then the train doors shut and I was on my way. I wonder what that was about.

The area Costco is located in is called Tamasakai and it is quite unlike any other place I’ve been to in Tokyo, since it is jam-packed with warehouse style stores of all different varieties.

Costco was largely the same as its American counterpart. I would say 85% of the items sold were identical to the stuff you could buy in America. All the books in the store were sold in their original English print and all the DVDs were of western films as well. There were a few slightly discounted J-pop CDs, but no videogames to speak of.

By far, the most interesting area of the store was the refrigerated / pre-prepared food section, which had sushi and fish of all different varieties. Sample stands were not as frequent as they are in American Costco. This is probably a good thing, because the Japanese people would queue up in line for 10 minutes in order to taste a single bite of warm mini-quiche.

More than anything else, Costco Japan was a low budget amusement park for families. Children seemed to comprise half of the customers in the store, and they poked, shook, and touched every item within their reach.

The most popular selling items included potato chips (both American-made Lays Brand and Japanese varieties), maple flavored cookies, and huge bags of American Candy. Every five seconds you would hear the tortured shriek of a young Japanese child as the giant bag of candy they had been hugging to their chest was placed back in the display box by their parents.

I ate good old fashioned Costco pizza for lunch, with the added bonus of Japan-specific Lemon Fanta soda. As with most things about Japanese Costco, it looked and tasted the same as back home.


I don't want to have my good taste food unless my dog can be right there beside me, lopping up his steak smoothie while I eat.

I didn't even know they had these in Japan! I am not looking forward to the lobster lunch that only costs about eight bux. What kind of meat are they using?

I went in here to see all the puppies and kitties that were in their special puppy and kitty glass terrariums.

Too bad I'm not a golfer. My head boss at Columbia has asked me about ten times if I play golf. I always reply no. He told me he played golf with the CEO of Japan last week. I told him I foxy box with Bill Gates.

Here is the auto superstore "Auto Wave." I can't help but think that you would have enjoyed looking around in here Roger.

A neat rim if I do say so myself.

More sporty rims. Btw, the latest "Fast and the Furious" movie is set in Tokyo.

Here is the Japanese version of Home Depot. I wonder where this company comes from. I have never seen this chain in America.

There she is, Japanese Costco Tokyo in all her majesty. Costco currently operates five stores in Japan, and has plans to build more in the future.

Here is the food court at Japanese Costco. If you want to get an idea of the prices, just use the conversion 100 Yen to the dollar. Clam chowder (far left) was a new menu item in Japan. This area was so crowded with families that I almost didn't have a space to sit down and eat.

Shot #2 of the food court. You will notice the mango smoothie as a new menu option not found in the states.

Small fish called "shishamo." These fish are filled with baby fish eggs and don't have any hard bones to speak of. Japanese people throw these on the grill and you munch on them when you're drinking beer. You just pop them in your mouth like they're fries.

Squid (ika)...nuff said.

A mixture of "small female fish" (I am just reading the Japanese kanji, I don't actually know what type of fish it is) and walnuts. This looked really good! I wanted this for dinner over white rice.

Packs of Unagi (eel) ready for the feasting!

Fresh ikura or salmon eggs (just like the kind you find in sushi). Isn't it neat how they come in these long logs? I really wanted to buy one, but I knew it wouldn't keep.

Here is the small sized sashimi pack at Costco for around $10 U.S.

Here is the main Costco sushi platter. It certainly looks a lot better than the congealed California Roll packs they sell in the American stores.

Packs of fresh futomaki roll.