Monday, May 25, 2009

Feeling The Pinch (不景気)

I was at the Book Off home store a week ago, browsing through the various like-new junk, when I spotted the unthinkable!

There, neatly re-packed in its original box, was Sony's AIBO. This first-generation man's best friend carried a sticker price of just over 500 bux.

You know it's hard times when families are forced to sell their robotic dogs...


Speaking of penny pinching...I was at a flea market this Sunday. Here is a shot of the neat-looking Martial Arts Center out by the stadium.

The building up close.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Universal Studios Japan (USJ)

Did they really need to include the "Japan"? Considering that Universal Studios Japan (USJ) is currently the only park operating outside of the United States, why not just call it Universal Studios?

Was there a real fear that guests were likely to become so enveloped in magic that they would actually mistake their surroundings?

"Look honey, it's Charlie Brown. Well of course he's speaking's America!"

But I digress.

Since Osaka loves to play, "anything you can do I can do better" with Tokyo, it is only fitting that the city would develop its own answer to the Disney theme parks. I've been to Universal Studios Hollywood many times with my family. While USJ was largely the same as the California park, I still had lots of fun.

Here are my impressions from the rides:

Hollywood Dream -

USJ's premiere thrill ride. While a bit tame as far as coasters go, it did provide a decent drop at the beginning. The best part of the ride was that you could choose one of five song selections to have blast through the in-seat speakers while you were riding. I chose Eminem's Lose Yourself. Somehow, Let It Be was just a little too tame for loops and corkscrews.

Spider-Man -

"Supida sensu tinguringu!" Spidey speaks fluent Japanese! Who knew? I had never been on this ride in America. It's a combination of 3D video and motion simulation. I thought the interaction between the vehicle and the 3D characters was pretty cool, though the ride itself was super jarring. At the end, the Japanese kids in my car were screaming "Let's do it again!," while their parents looked like they were about to hurl.

Jurassic Park -

This one was a carbon copy of the American version. I guess John Hammond has been going to the same Japanese language school as Peter Parker.

Jaws -

A Japanese actor (posing as a tour guide) leads your boat through Amity Island as the famous great white attacks! I don't know what was worse, the overly dramatic, scenery chewing actor, or the mother seated next to me, who was gyrating and screaming for the benefit of her two small sons. Either way, I seriously hoped Jaws would eat them both.

Snoopy's Great Race -

This child coaster lasted a mere 18 seconds and was completely not worth the hour I spent waiting in line. Still, the Peanuts theme is one that never gets old...even on constant loop.


This 30-minute show was an incredibly condensed version of the hit Broadway musical WICKED. They managed to hit all of the main songs from the Wizard of Oz musical, while axing most of the characters and plot. The cast was a Western - Japanese hybrid. The actress playing Elphaba (Wicked Witch of the West) was American, but the actress playing Glinda was Japanese.

All the song lyrics, as well as the actual lines, switched between Japanese and English at random, oftentimes in mid sentence. The result was incredibly hard to follow for me - like trying to watch a movie as someone toggled the foreign language track on and off.

I wasn't sure whether the Wicked Witch actress could speak fluent Japanese or had simply memorized her lines phonetically. Either way, her pronunciation was excellent. Glinda, unfortunately, got few laughs from the stone-faced Japanese audience.

I always wonder how theme park actors and actresses describe their jobs to others. Of course they could simply describe themselves as "actors".

But, I think the following is much more fun -

A: "What do you do for a living Mary?"

B: "Me? I'm the Wicked Witch of the West."

(cue smoke cloud)


I'm humming the theme music...are you?

Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.

I made sure to ride the jet coaster first, before the line got horrendously long.

That correspondence course sure paid off - Spidey speaks Japanese better than I do!

I didn't know the Daily Bugle had an overseas branch in Osaka.

Snack time! Everyone knows that Americans love strawberry churros with strange globs of frosting and random sprinkle placement. Seriously, this thing looks like a kindergartner's art project.

"Hold onto your butts!"

Spared no expense.

Lunchtime! After months upon months of waiting, my mouth was finally host to a slice of honest-to-goodness American style pepperoni pizza. I'd like to point out the absence of yakisoba noodles, canned corn, or squid ink.

Dinnertime! It's common knowledge that Americans eat hulking cheeseburgers every night for supper. Well, this one does anyway! I'm not quite sure why the fries are tinted red...

Oftentimes browsing the gift shops can be more fun than the actual rides. This is because souvenirs at Japanese theme parks are in a class of their own. Search the blog and you will find pictures of my Mickey Mouse Senbei (rice crackers) from Tokyo Disney Sea.

This was the #1 ranked gift item at USJ - Spiderman Cup Noodle!

Spiderman, Spiderman, Does whatever a noodle cup can!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eat 'til You Drop (道頓堀)

Osaka's Dotonbori is a dangerous place.

The attitude and atmosphere of this lively food district is epitomized by the Japanese phrase, "kuidaore". "Kui" means to eat, and "daore" means to fall over. Put the two together, and the basic idea is that one will literally die eating.

Hey, there are worse ways to go right?

For me, "kuidaore" took the form of wandering from food stall to food stall, stuffing my face with a never-ending stream of savory street food. Then I ate dinner. Afterward, I returned to wandering and began stuffing my face again, this time with sweet desserts.

Aesthetically, Dotonbori is quite famous for its flamboyant signage. Ever since the Kani Doraku Crab and Kuidaore Taro doll arrived back in the 1950s, the district has positively exploded with colorful characters and neon lights.

The neon signs, especially those around Ebisu Bridge, are said to have influenced the set designs from the Sci-Fi classic Blade Runner.

Please enjoy the pictures below.

If you visit Dotonbori, be sure to bring your appetite!


Welcome to Dotonbori - where diets go to die!

Kani Doraku is a well-known chain of crab restaurants across Japan. This 6.5 meter mechanized crustacean is one of the most famous images from Dotonbori. Its huge popularity soon spawned numerous imitators throughout the food district. It is now a battle to see which local eatery can create the most adventerous and memorable mascot.

Since the giant mechanical crab sign was already taken...

This lantern marks the entrance to Zubora-ya, a famous fugu shop.

Mr. Tanuki wants you to buy some delicious okonomiyaki!

The Kinryu (Golden Dragon) ramen restaurant has a pretty neat mascot.

The flamboyant signage doesn't stop with animals and dragons...

This angry chef is the mascot (and actual owner) of the Daruma kushi-katsu restaurant in Dotonbori. I ate here for dinner. Kushi-katsu is basically an assortment of items which are skewered, battered, and deep-fried.

I accidentally ordered the largest kushi-katsu set on the menu, and thus had to ingest no fewer than 22 fried skewers all by my lonesome. Upon finishing (and I DID finish!), I felt like I was going to explode.

I just suddenly got a craving for Carl corn puffs! I wonder why?

Also popular around Dotonbori are depictions of Ebisu, one of the seven gods of good fortune.

Another jolly Ebisu. This time he's cradling the Don Quijote penguin. Don Quijote, or "Donki", is a famous discount chain store throughout Japan.

Some mascots...

...Are just plain...


What would a trip to Dotonbori be without food? Osaka has many local specialties, such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and kushi-katsu. Pictured here is my mini-okonomiyaki. They put the actual pancake on a big ebi-sen, or shrimp cracker, thus making it portable. The combination of the crunchy cracker and soft pancake was particularly delicious.

Takoyaki (octopus balls) with green onion - a winning combination!

Kuidaore was a massive eight-story beacon of gluttony. More famous than the restaurant itself was the mascot clown doll, named "Kuidaore Taro". You can see the character perched atop the sign in his trademark striped suit.

A few Osaka natives have told me that visitors rarely ate at the physical restaurant - they just showed up to pose with the doll. Sadly, the restaurant was forced to officially close its doors last year.

Just in case you were wondering, here is what the actual Kuidaore Taro doll looks like. I spotted this advertisement in Amerika Mura, but the actual doll was nowhere to be found. I wonder what happened to poor ol' Taro?

The Glico neon sign (pictured) is one of Osaka's most famous landmarks, dating back to 1919. Glico is the Osaka-based confectionery company most famous for producing Pocky.

The Glico Running Man is the mascot of the company's original caramel candies. It is said that one caramel square provides enough energy to run 300 meters.

A more complete shot of the famous skyline near Ebisu-Bashi.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Born in the U.S.A. (アメ村)

I've never wandered around the Puyallup Fair high on LSD, but I imagine if I did, it would probably be a lot like a trip to Amerika Mura.

Amerika Mura (American Village), or "Ame-mura" for short, is Osaka's answer to Harajuku. This is the place where one goes to watch Japanese kids decked out in the "latest" fashion trends. In this context, the adjective "latest" can best be defined as, "comprehension defying".

Honestly, I don't think I could create an outfit as crazy as these kids, even if I spent hours rummaging through my entire wardrobe and selected only the most nonsensical items.

After thoroughly roaming the streets of Ame-mura, I am confident that there is literally NO possible way to create a fashion faux pas in Japan.

Neon green and pink plastic jacket over a Cookie Monster tank-top?

Fine by me!

Eggplant purple Converse, knee-high yellow striped socks, and a kilt?

Did that last week!

Fashion combinations in Amerika Mura are truly only limited by what the mind can dream up while under the influence. It is actually a bit empowering to watch so many people strut about with no apparent understanding of how utterly bizarre they look. At least it would be, were these styles not the epitome of high fashion the world over.

I was happily enjoying my stifled laughter and scoffs, when it dawned on me. Here, in this environment, it was ME, with my department store jeans and pink polo shirt, that was the odd one out. No doubt the Japanese kids were watching ME, scoffing, and wondering why this white boy was wearing such plain threads.

This realization prompted two distinct responses inside me.

First, it made me fear for our human race as a whole.

Second, it made me desperately want to find my puke green "Attack of the Giant Slug" sweatshirt from elementary school. That thing's bound to be art gallery material around these parts!


Welcome to Amerika Mura (American Village) or "Ame-mura" for short. There's no place like home!

This is the famous clown from "Tom's House", a fashion store in Ame-mura. There used to be a giant disembodied clown head adorning the building's roof, but it doesn't seem to be there anymore.

I know this is what my closet looks like in about you?

The woman at this shop kept trying to get me to buy shirts. I would always say that it would look absolutely ridiculous on me, and she would counter by selecting a new shirt and telling me to try it on. We repeated this pattern about five times. I never bought a shirt.

Artistic underpants seem to be all the rage these days.

This trippy artwork begins my series of scenery shots from Ame-mura.

The question you should be asking yourself is; "Why shouldn't my pooch be styled by pink gorillas decked out like 50 Cent?"

Hello lamp-post,
Watcha knowin'?
I've come to watch your body growin'.

Most places are either voted "Best" or "#1". This place was voted "Best #1", so you know it's gotta be good!


Famous Roy Lichtenstein painting ["Vicki," 1964] on the side of a building in Osaka.

Coming soon to a state fair near you - the Ice Dog!

You don't pass up an opportunity to try the Ice Dog!

YUMMY! The bun is fried, so it contrasts well with the cool soft serve. The mouth sensation is that of eating ice cream and doughnuts. The only downside is that, at the approximate size of a Twinkie, the Ice Dog is done rather quickly. Luckily I ordered two!

Okay, one more picture of the creepy clown. I just can't help myself!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Takarazuka City (宝塚市)

While in Osaka, I went on a second personal pilgrimage to the city of Takarazuka.

During college, I wrote my honors thesis for the Japanese major on the Takarazuka Revue. For those who don't know, the Takarazuka Revue is an all-female Japanese theatrical organization that performs stage musicals of both Japanese and Western origin.

At its base level, Takarazuka offers patrons the chance to watch women prance around on-stage in glittery costumes and act like guys. This is shortchanging the tradition to no end. For me, the Revue is strange and wonderful and fascinating and magical, all at the same time.

Takarazuka has always seemed to be a very obvious dialogue between Western and Japanese cultures. This dialogue is by no means confined to the stage; it permeates nearly every aspect of modern Japanese culture. I happen to find this topic fascinating.

But I digress. I had originally planned to visit Takarazuka with my host mother while living in Kyoto, but we never made the trip. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to visit the city this time around.

I've written a fair amount about Takarazuka on the blog in the past, so, for those who want to learn more, please search the archives. There are also some Takarazuka links on the right-hand side of the blog as well.

The musicals really must be seen in-person. I highly encourage anyone traveling to Japan to be brave, stake out a seat at the theater, and experience the magic of Takarazuka!


Welcome to Takarazuka City in Hyogo Prefecture. Takarazuka is located around 20 minutes from Osaka by express JR train.

Hankyu department store and Hankyu Railways station in Takarazuka. Also present is this weird, vertical musical sculpture thingy.

The man with the plan - Kobayashi Ichizo; former president of the Hankyu Railway Company, and founder of the all-female Takarazuka Revue.

Kiyoku - Tadashiku - Utsukushiku.