In my list of things to do and experience in Japan—see the cherry blossoms, go to Studio Ghibli, see Tsukiji, cross the Shibuya intersection, see the cityscape of Tokyo, check the cos players in Harajuku, ride the bullet train, walk the streets of Akihabara, sing in a karaoke box, see a geisha, eat where and what the locals eat, and get my fill of beautiful temples, shrines and castles—getting pissed drunk and waking up with the worst hangover I’ve ever had was certainly not included. (Though I should have known it would be a consequence, what with the amount of things I wanted to do.)
Every time I would lift my head in an attempt to get out of bed sent me back to horizontal position as the room felt like it was spinning. The fact that we downed more shōchū after we left the dry noodle place the night before suddenly came back to me. C wanted to show us this tiny bar a few meters away called Bar Dr. FeelGood (the name of which I only remember because of the photos), where he also knew the owner—a tall, lanky, long-haired Japanese who also played in a band and tended the bar himself.
While the bar was dimly lit, you could tell that almost every inch of the walls were covered in posters and postcards of music festivals, bands, art exhibits, different beer brands, and even tattoo places. Polaroid snapshots of people were also there somewhere. And before we really called it a night, Dr. FeelGood bartender/owner snapped a picture of us, and tacked it on his collage of a wall. So somewhere in a bar in Tokyo, there is a photo of me, my husband and C, happy, feeling good (but not for long), and far from sober. Another unexpected addition to the growing Japan list of “done that.”
When I finally managed to get out of bed without the room seeming to spin as much, I realized there was no way we were going to have enough time to check the flea market in Hanazono-jinja in Shinjuku and the cosplayers that descend Harajuku on Sundays as we have planned for the morning. (I really had an ambitious itinerary.)
We needed to have our seven-day Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) exchange orders exchanged for the actual passes in the JR Station Information Center in Shibuya for our shinkansen ride to Kyoto the next day (and more importantly, reserve seats), then head to Akihabara for a guided tour after lunch.
While I prefer to explore a place on my own, P wanted to make a pilgrimage to Tokyo’s geek center for electronics, gaming, manga and animation with a knowledgeable guide in tow. The fact that the Akihabara tour he stumbled upon online had a guide dressed as Goku (a character from the anime Dragon Ball) made him instantly book the tour.
As the Japanese are known for their punctuality, we were there in the JR Yamanote Line of Akihabara Station an hour before the designated meeting time. We had a quick lunch at a casual Japanese curry restaurant outside the station, which served the tastiest and perfect-for-the-cold-weather katsu-karē or breaded deep-fried pork cutlet with curry sauce that we’ve ever tasted. (Though our taste buds might not have been the most reliable since we gorged down the hot sticky rice, katsu and spicy curry in record time.) Once we polished off our plates and stuffed ourselves ready for the tour, we walked back to the station where we found our guide Patrick Galbraith in his Goku cosplay costume and spiky Super Saiyan hairpiece waiting for the tour group, which would be composed of a family of four from Spain, an American teenager with his mom, and a Japanese magazine crew of three.
A PhD candidate at Sophia University in Tokyo, our guide tells us later on that the tour was going to be his last, because he needed to finish his studies, appropriately on otaku (“geek”) culture. And if you wanted to behold geek culture in Japan, Akihabara (or Akiba as it is often called) is the place to go to.
Though cosplayers and street performers have been banned from its streets in an apparent attempt to uphold a cleaner, more normal image (a consequence from past disreputable antics and the tragic knife attack in 2008), Akiba still house a dizzying concentration of stores and cafés catering to the otaku; because beyond its many electronic shops, it has also become a mecca of stores featuring a mind-boggling array of anime and manga goods and video games. I swear I heard my husband let out a squeal more than once, trying to contain the giddy, geeky boy inside him for finding his own little piece of heaven.
We went inside several hobby stores and toy stores that held different manga and anime-themed toys of all kinds, including P’s favorite Mask Rider, Classic Ultra Man, and Gundam models. Many were for sale; some were personal collections being displayed for fellow otaku to appreciate. This included dolls in underwear or French Maid get-ups. There was a store that sold those French Maid outfits. A gallery called Art Jeuness with paintings of doe-eyed anime-looking girls in slinky outfits in exhibit. Oh, and the maid cafés.
Included in the tour was a stop at one of the many maid cafés that, not surprisingly, had its supposed start in Akiba. We stopped at Café and Kitchen Cos-cha, which I later found out was in CNN Go’s list of best maid cafés in Tokyo, where the maids wore P.E. uniforms that included swimsuits and short shorts. But don’t let the outfits fool you.
While the female dolls and paintings we saw earlier screamed sexual fetish, maid cafés are supposedly more wholesome. All sexual undertones are buried (though probably not deep enough) under cutesy messages written with ketchup on your omelet, under the guise of serving you food, being sweet and obedient (or bossing you around, depending on the type of café you go to), playing board games with you, engaging you in animated conversations, and cutesy singing and dancing. No overt hanky-panky allowed.
When we were each served drinks, our cute maid would kneel or bow down in front of us, hold the straw to our mouth, and we’re supposed to take two short sips and one long one, while she chirped something that sounded like “Choo, choo, gulp!” It was childlike, amusing and unsettling at the same time. I think I heard my husband and the other guys in the group laugh nervously.
After you get past the unsettling bit, you can join the other customers (many of whom are otaku) who frequent maid cafés to generally geek out, relax, and, in Cos-cha, occasionally get slapped. Since photography is generally prohibited in maid cafés, to get a picture with your maid there are games and gimmicks you have to participate in.
At Cos-cha you cough up a fee to engage her in a game of rock-paper-scissors, while she makes a concoction of raw egg, stinky fermented soy beans, wasabi, soy sauce and other Japanese pantry staples not meant to be mixed as a cocktail. And win or lose, you have to drink the mix she makes. If you’re still standing after you gulp the god-awful drink down, the maid spews out what seems like cheery congratulations, then without warning slaps you across the face. Patrick took one for the team and even though he stood more than a foot taller than the delicate-looking Japanese girl, the slap sounded pretty solid. Made me wonder how much practice she gets in a day. For that slap, one of us got a Polaroid photo with the her. It was the little girl in the group who eagerly raised her hand. Having her grinning next to the maid ended the whole slapping episode on a wholesome note.
In the same vein as the maid café service, but with an even more confounding concept is a salon that Patrick pointed out to us near Cos-cha. The Akiba-based salon called Moesham offers a menu of shampoo and haircut services that range from Y2,000 to Y8,000 (PHP1,000 to PHP 4,000). Pretty steep especially when you find out the punch line. The maids offering these services are not at all adept at cutting and styling hair. The cuter and younger the maid, the least skilled they are, but the more expensive the service is.
At the end of it, you get a cute maid smiling and apologizing profusely at your disaster of a haircut. But it is that kind of experience that you actually pay for. And in a country with an endless list of “only-in-insert-country” moments that range from the charmingly quirky to the unpleasantly weird, it is no longer surprising that there is actually a market for it. Though that doesn’t make it any less puzzling.
It may be this same fascination for inexperience or a kind of naïveté (not entirely sure whether fabricated) that a group such as AKB48 thrives. At the top floor of the Don Quijote (Donki) department store, Patrick led us to where the immensely popular Japanese girl group performs. Composed of 48 teen-aged girls, they are not exactly the most talented bunch, but it is supposedly their lack of singing and dancing skills that endear them to their devoted fans. So many of whom were in attendance at Don Quijote that Sunday afternoon that the theater was packed and a lot of them had to watch the performance on the TV screens in the lobby outside. It was another phenomenon that baffles.
For in spite of attempts to normalize Akihabara (at least on the surface), navigating through its many buildings crammed with stores for every obsession—anime, manga, video games, rare toys, robots, maid cafés and girl groups—it is still where you can find the bizarre heart of Japan, beating fervently.
After we left Akihabara, we took the Hibiya train line to go to Roppongi to drop off some Philippine pasalubong for a friend, then we took the Oedo line to Higashi-nakano, a few stops past Shinjuku, to meet C for dinner. Whether it was simply the appeal of an efficient transport system or because I could glance into the lives of the Japanese in transit while being afforded some views of the city, riding the train around Tokyo became one of my favorite activities.
During weekdays, they are all in dark suits and coats, an army of salarymen snoozing either early in the morning or late at night. When they are not sleeping, they are texting in their flip phones (not a single BlackBerry or iPhone in sight) or reading manga. From students to middle-aged salarymen, manga knew no age or gender that it’s enough to warm a bookworm’s heart. The seats of the train also brought warmth, but not to the heart; the heated seats were such a comfort after walking in the cold outside. While we often tried to avoid taking the train during rush hour, I noticed that even in the crush of commuters everyone seemed so polite and respectful of personal space. I totally forgot that groping of female passengers was reportedly a problem in the crowded trains of Japan.
On a Sunday night, the train ride from Roppongi to Higashi-nakano was far from crowded. When we got off, only a handful of people seemed to be in the station. And by the third or fourth set of stairs and escalators heading up to the exit, P and I wondered how deep into the earth’s crust was the platform we got off from.
We met C on top of the last set of stairs. Nakano was his old neighborhood and he wondered if we wanted something non-Japanese for dinner, because there was a really good pizza joint he wanted us to try. Have good pizza in Japan. An unlikely food to try in the country of sushi, but it was going on the list.
Pizzeria GG looked like a no-fuss family pizza joint. C tells us that the owner trained in Naples and makes pizza the way they do it in that Italian city—simple thin crust wonders cooked in a wood-burning oven. We ordered the Margerita, the cheese less Marinara and the four-cheese. All the calories we burned walking in Akihabara all afternoon and climbing those endless stairs in the station were making their way back, but it was worth it. As we waxed poetic about the crust, tomatoes and the cheese, C kept assuring us how much we would love Kyoto. We were taking the shinkansen (bullet train) the next day and heading to Japan’s former capital and trove of temples and tradition. “You’ll like it better than Tokyo.”
A Japan Rail (JR) Pass can be a real travel bargain for foreign tourists planning to explore the different cities of Japan within seven, 14 or 21 days (the different types of passes), BUT it can only be acquired outside Japan. How do you do it: (1) You buy an exchange order in authorized travel agencies in your country. (Here’s a list from the JR Pass website. We bought ours at Universal Holidays, Inc. in Makati.) (2) When you get to Japan, take your exchange order, along with your passport, to a JR Station Information Center to get your pass. ONLY do this if you already need to use the train or shinkansen to travel between cities. At around Y28,000 for a mere seven-day pass, it is not a bargain if you’re simply staying within the same city. It comes close to paying off if you have to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back (around Y26,000). Taking the shinkansen to nearby Nara, Osaka, Kobe or Himeji once in Kyoto makes it a real bargain. (3) Assuming you acquired your JR Pass to ride the shinkansen, make sure you reserve a seat. There’s no additional payment and you can make the reservation at the Information Center as well. You will receive a reserved-seat ticket, which you need to show the train inspector after you’ve boarded the train. If you don’t reserve a seat, you might end up standing in the unreserved section of the train during the entire ride.
Akihabara stores to check out: Kaiyodo Hobby Lobby Tokyo and Kotobukiya, in the 4/F and 1/F of Tokyo Akihabara Radio Kaikan bldg, respectively; a few steps outside the JR Akihabara station.
Take note! When buying any electronics in Japan, always check the voltage and other technical differences as well as the language menu. We saw the camera a friend wanted to buy for a cheaper price, but the menu was just in Japanese.
Café & Kitchen Cos-cha 2F 3-7-12 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku; tel: 03-3253-4560
Moesham 2F 3-6-17 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku
Don Quijote 4-3-3 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku; AKB48 performs two shows on weekdays and three shows on weekends
Pizzeria GG Higashi-Nakano 3-8-3; tel: 03-6426-0309