A Short Trip to Akihabara by way of Thailand

I took a vacation with my wife Hitomi for a few weeks in Thailand on an organized tour with the Intrepid Travel company.  This was an "active" trip and you can find more about it from the web site.  I would highly recommend this sort of trip to people interested in both active and responsible tourism.  It involved very little anime or otaku culture.

However, there were a couple of anime-related things we discovered in Thailand. We visited the Karen hill tribe near Chiang Mai, and were asked to sing with the children as part of their weekly routine. Hitomi is Japanese and I suggested she sing the theme from Doraemon. All the children apparently knew the song for Doraemon, though in Thai. They weren't really able to follow along with the lyrics, but did their best by clapping along. Many Karen people still live in wood huts with woven leaf roofs and bamboo flooring, although there are TVs in the village which receive their electricy from solar cells or generators.

Some of the toys we gave the children had manga-style illustrations on the packaging or printing.  I assume some of them were copied from Japanese illustrations (unlicenced) and some were original Thai works. One manga character Hitomi and I saw most of all (besides Doraemon) was Ultraman, often depicted in (what seems like) a Thai-original variation, often as super-deformed. You can find Ultraman everywhere on Tee-shirts, car decals, watches, etc.  Crayon Shin-chan's main character Shin-chan we found drawn minus pants, pointing to his exposed "elephant", and usually had something in Thai in a word balloon above.

One thing I noticed visiting temples and sites are the decorated tour buses.  There are often decorated with large illustrations, airbrushed on the side.  The designs often incorporate Disney characters, colorful tropical scenery, mythological beings, but sometimes include anime or manga characters (with a rainbow of hair colors). The airbrushed art is hand drawn, and I assume some artist (similar perhaps to a tatoo artist) uniquely decorates each one. The lines of the characters are done in a Thai style, with the same sort of curly lines that might be found in traditional Thai design.  I saw buses with the cast of One Piece and Bleach, and some with characters from classic anime shows, such as Doraemon.

When staying at some of the resorts, we often watched television to relax. All the animation we saw was dubbed-in-Thai anime. I didn't see any Thai original animation. As for the quality, I don't know Thai, so I can't say how good it was, but it seemed like voices matched the characters age and attitude pretty well.

The last day of the trip we spent in Bangkok. Before our trip to Thailand, Hitomi found on the Internet that there was actually a Maid Cafe in Bangkok. It was near the modern (tourist) downtown area, and so we made a quick trip to the cafe. We actually went into what was really just an anime store with a few tables in a sectioned-off area, serviced by a few Thai women dressed in maid outfits. We didn't really feel like sitting down in that area, as it was empty and without windows.

While purusing the store, and constantly bumping in people, Hitomi and I noticed that Thai otaku are fairly similar looking to both Japanese and American otaku. That is, awkwardly dressed in baggy clothing and if not runtish, slightly overweight or tall and stooped over. Actually aside from the extreme cases, many normal customers were there as well, though these were mostly teenagers in school uniforms. It was New Year holidays, but I guess Thai students (like the Japanese) like to hang out with their friends dressed in their school's outfit.

What the store sold was similar to what you might find at Animate in Japan, though the printing for the (licenced?) goods seemed a bit cheap, with color bleeding obvious. I suppose Thai buyers aren't used to high quality Japanese printing, but to me it was bootleg quality, assuming they weren't bootlegs to begin with. (Let's hope one of the few anime stores in the biggest city in Thailand does not sell bootlegs.) I didn't write down prices, but I'm guessing DVDs sold at about 400-600 baht, the equivalent of about $12 for a set of episodes.  These were licenced, by a company that claimed (in English) they were the "biggest" in Thailand.

The day after our visit to Bangkok downtown, we flew on to Japan, and then took the train to Tokyo then Akihabara.  It was about two years for me since visiting the area.  Last time I came, the Akihabara station remodel work was just underway, and now it was mostly complete. In addition, a couple of very new buildings were recently built, including the new Yodobashi Camera store east of the station and a restaurant and office complex to the north. Akihabara is looking a lot nicer, and a bit less sleazy around the station; although fear not, plenty of slease was still for sale.

In Akihabara, the general trend is less computer and electronics shopping, and more manga and anime goods.  Especially Doujinshi, which seem to be even more popular than ever.  Personal computers aren't that special anymore and the market has mostly consolidated, margins are less, etc. You can still by these things, but by and large it is more of a cultural rather than purely commercial district.

We stayed at a very reasonably priced business hotel called Dormy Inn, which features a partially exposed rooftop spa.  For less than $100 for a couple (more for a double), it's a fairly inexpensive way to enjoy a (fake) onsen, and still be in convenient distance to all of Akihabara and Tokyo.  You don't get to see the city from the outdoor hot pool, since there is a roof perimeter wall, but it was fun to relax under the winter sky and listen to JR trains coming and going. Take pictures when you're in the tub and fool your family into thinking you're experiencing traditional Japanese culture.  (Pictures inside are forbidden, but you might get away with a few if nobody's looking.) Incidentally, there were laundry and dryer machines available.

And I know this is starting to sound like an advertisement, but the hotel was actually much better than any of the other (admittedly cheap) places I've been to in Tokyo. there's free Internet and and a flat screen, HDTV and satellite channels in the rooms. I also noticed subtitles (in Japanese) are available for some anime programs.  I noticed video in ports, so bring your own DVD player or game console if you like. The toliets are very nice as well; I would like to get a washlet myself at home if I could.

Just about a minute from the hotel is a 7-11 and also a maid-run beauty parlor.  Hitomi wanted a hair cut actually, but they were quite busy during the weekend and was unable to get an appointment early the next day.  I'm not really sure why she would spend an extra 1000 yen over normal hair cut prices to get her hair cut by a maid. She might actually like them more than me.

The agenda for our first full day was:  Mister Donut for breakfast, some shopping, a visit to the Animation Museum in Akihabara, and to meet some Sakura-con guest relation staff (Japanese) around 1PM.  Later, we would go to the Suginami Animation Museum and meet Akitaro Daiichi, a friend of the Sakura-con convention staff, and meet some of his friends.

For those new to Japan, it is interesting to see how Japanese take American foods and expand the concept to fit the Japanese taste. For instance, Mister Donut sells curry filled pasteries and soups. Thus, it is an entirely satisfactory place for a balanced meal. I also spent countless evenings in 1998 with my girlfriend (now wife) at a Mister Donuts near the Sendai station.  We would almost always stay until midnight, when the store closed, drinking free refill coffee.

After finishing coffee the predicament was where to each start our shopping.  First of all, I wanted to see some of the unusual shops.  In particular, there was an Elemetry and Middle School idol shop nearby called "Junior Idol".  Although I had a pretty good idea from various Internet sites, I wanted to see the real thing.

Junior Idol was decorated to make it look like an elemetary school room, with blackboard and desks. A class number (like they have in Japan) also is over the entrance. The very professionally made goods (picture albums, DVDs, image CDs) are arranged all around, although I didn't tell if by age or some other factor. The girls (pictured) often wore normal athletic wear but many are in bikinis, some dripping wet and a bit lewd I would say for their (sometimes) pre-teen age.  Some of the girls donated or more likely sold their own Shikishi (sign boards) to the store.  And although the professional pictures in many respects made the girls look somewhat mature, the handwriting and drawings made the girls seem very much like children. The customers I saw were mostly older men (20s), but I noticed some 40s or 50s men purusing the store. I don't recall any male who looked like an actual teenager in there.

I don't know if I feel that sorry for the children and parents, as they signed up and are getting paid.  Let's hope the kids aren't getting stalked.

The new Akihabara UDX building houses the Tokyo Anime Center and an anime-only theater.  It is free admission to go to in museum, and about a minute from the station, so it is worth a look, even though it is really mostly a museum store and promotional events area. The museum had some computers and information on older shows, but mostly it showed trailers and information on upcoming and current anime films and shows. Still, there are supposedly some cool events that take place here, voice actors visit, etc. It was around New Year's holiday so not much was taking place.

The anime theater was showing Blood: The Last Vampire and a new Pokemon 3D short film.  We wanted to see the Pokemon film, which was preceeded by an older (2002?) 15 minute Christmas-themed Pokemon cartoon.  To watch the 3D show required polarized glasses, which were sized a bit too small for adults.  The audience was (except for us) families with children. Hitomi enjoys Pokemon, although the Pokemon company itself gives her the most grief at Nintendo when she's working on their packaging.

Splitting up, I headed out alone for shopping for ero manga and videos. Hitomi went out for CDs and books. I ended up at Tachibana Shoten, which has a limited but current selection of ero manga titles and AVs. They allow for credit card purchases, though I brought plenty of cash. (Speaking of cash, I would recommend to all the foreigners to skip any and all currency exchange services, and instead get cash in Narita from the Post Office ATM.  I got 10,000 yen without any hassle.)  For saving yourself from embarassment, the person at the counter is screened so he doesn't see you and you don't see him. Usually, as a foreigner the embarassment is often the other way around, as the clerks wonder why somebody like myself is looking at Japanese porn.

Back to the hotel:  The Sakura-con guest relation person, Masaki, and his girlfriend Michiru (her cosplay name) were late.  Masaki I have known since helping with the convention, and his girlfriend has come in the past few years.  Michiru is an avid cosplayer, and actually pretty well known in the Japanese cosplay community. I feel a little sorry for Masaki since he said his little Tokyo apartment is packed full of the many costumes she has to wear. In addition, the costumes, accessories, and wigs themselves are not cheap. On the other hand, assuming Masaki has a particular fetish for women in costume, it's of course a cost he just has to bear.

Lunch we had a maid cafe called Mai-lish (Mai pronounced "May" as in "Maid").  The last maid cafe I went to was a few years ago, called Little BSD, but this was in October and the maids were dressed up in Halloween outfits, and thus weren't really maids.  This particular Saturday there was a special birthday event for one of the maid staff and the line to get in was quite long.  Some U.S. friends from Sakura-con happened to be in Tokyo on a combined vacation and merchadise acquisition trip. One of them owns a business that sells at anime conventions, the other was there to help and as part of a vacation. They said they only spent a few hours in Kyoto, which is a shame, before heading back to Tokyo. They had called Masaki earlier, and later joined us in line.  The wait in line was about 30 minutes, it was raining outside, but luckily the line was mostly covered, but it still was quite cold in Tokyo that day.

Inside, there were a variety of male customers, though also a few women. I noticed at one table a group of about six men dressed in suits and drinking champagne, obviously there that day to celebrate the maid's birthday.  I believe when I saw them in line, they were holding bouquets of roses.  There was a special menu for the occasion, the waitress also brought over an English menu.  The waitresses (maids) were actually not all in the same outfits, one wore a tight short skirt, others mostly wore various girly long dresses with different collars and headbands, all in a Victorian – not French – style.  I wouldn't say they were exceptionally beautiful or sexy women, but the proper costume and attitude is most important. The pay at these places, according to Michiru, was not very good.  Working at a hostess bar might pay a bit more, though I imagine dealing with drunken business men and the constant sexual harassment might be annoying. The customers in maid cafes are never rude, I would guess.

Michiru actually was recognized by one of the maids at the cafe.  Actually, a maid cafe is probably a fun place for a young cosplayer to work.

I can't say the food was exceptional, but that really wasn't the point of going.

We all six took a walk to the Kanda train station.  We went to the Suginami Animation Museum, which requires a taxi ride or bus ride from the Suginami train station.  It is free to enter. There are materials in English as well as Japanese, and English subtitles for some videos, but most everything is in Japanese. As part of the year-end events, they were giving away calendars and merchandise to lucky raffle winners. Hitomi won a Bleach 2007 calendar.

The first part of the museum lists the major movie and TV works by year since animation began in Japan in the early 1920s or so. Along the timeline, they included some correspondly old TV models as well, showing opening animations or excerpts of shows of the era.  There was also a section in the museum on how anime is created, from concept and storyboards to photographing the painted cells. Like the Ghibli museum, they showed an example animator (key frame animator's) desks and had interview videos going of various anime staff. As a particular example, the films discussed how Jin-Roh was put together, and had some special mention of the effects and also some of the layering techniques used in one shot.  There was also some computers showing how digital animation tools work and a simple workshop area where animation or effects or 3D elements are combined.  Upstairs was an exhibit on 50 years of Toei anime. There was an anime theater, showing various old anime including Galaxy Express 999.  I had recently seen "Taiyou no Ooji, Horusu no Daiboken" and recognized it playing outside the theater on a TV.

After the museum closed, we headed back to the JR station.  We went to a suburb called "Asagaya" where Daiichi has his own (small) studio called "Tahiti", which is basically a studio in a large apartment room.  A women was there finishing up some dubbing work on an English horror movie, it looked like some sort of a B-movie, which she described as close to Blair Witch Project. The place seemed more a collection of "stuff" than an studio, though as a director I imagine it's mostly used by him as a meeting place. Hitomi and I were pleased to find, though, that our metal cutout of Tohru we gave him a few years ago was mounted on the wall in his washroom. There is actually another cut-out of Jyuubei he keeps somewhere.  Lots of videos, CDs, and various things were around the room, including some from some U.S. conventions.

Even though it was Saturday night, Daiichi was just finishing up on some work.  Nagahama-san, the director of Mushishi and the assistant director with Daiichi in the past, was busy that evening with Mr. Nakano (VA of Ginko) and notified us by phone he was unable to come to dinner.

Dinner was at an American hamburger restaurant in walking distance of the studio.  It purported to be authentic and did indeed have an American pub-like atmosphere.  I mostly listened in on the discussion, most of which happened down the table from me. Daiichi had just finished up the TV anime Bokura ga Ita and was tired. (It was Saturday just after New Year's and I thought it a bit sad.)  He says he doesn't want to work on directing any more Shojo anime series and would like to work on a live action project next. He said there were also plans for him and some others to go to Las Vegas this coming year.

After parting ways around 8PM, the six of us took the train to Don Quijote outside of Shinjuku. If there's only one store you get to visit while in Japan, this is the one you want to go to. It's essentially a discount grocery, gift, clothing, home improvement, car care, electronics, media, toy, costume, and porn shop combined into one building.  Yes, the toys are kept right next to the vibrators and personal lubricants.  Masaki bought socks for his work, my wife Hitomi bought food and bottled tea.  I looked at the electronics and of course porn videos but it was a fairly limited selection of both.

On the way to the main Shinjuku station, we passed by a love hotel area, with some women (prositutes) waiting around with their cell phones. They actually didn't look at all like your average prostitute.  On the way was a series of sex shops, one selling of a variety of costumes.  Inside, I found a Doraemon vibrator, which looks fairly similar to the Hello Kitty one discontinued some years ago.  We passed up on it.

Parting ways with the group, Hitomi and I returned to Akihabara and had a quick bite at Mos Burger.  It was late and they were on the verge of closing, but I got a "Fresh Burger" and shake, which was more like chunky ice cream, and she had one of their new sausage-foccata sandwichs.  (Incidentally this trip, we noticed McDonald's in Thailand had recently begun selling a rice burger, which Mos Burger was selling back in 1987.)  Their menu seems to expand and contract every so often.  They also follow the common trend of restaurants in Japan in offering seasonal-only and location-specific foods.  Their soups and desserts, for instance, are seasonal choices.  You do see this happen with many fancy restuarants in the West, but how many fast food places do this?

The last day of our short trip to Japan was focused on shopping.  First stop for us was a used music and games store.  Used, as it turns out, does not dramtically reduce the price of many goods such as video games or popular CDs.

Just a few stories under the store, Hitomi and I ventured into art gallery exhibit featuring well-known CG (and ero-Doujinshi artist) "Tony" at Jeuness. One of the staff spent about 20 minutes talking to us about Tony and how the art is printed using a new digital process that's superior to Lithography.  Mostly, what is on display are "Moe" art works.  Incidentally, they are all printed works, though in limited edition.  As part of the process often sparkles (of different colors) are added to elements to give them more depth.  The going price for many of the works is about 300,000 yen.  (Compare this to Range Murata's prints at GoFA which sell for are 40-80,000).  Through artfully framed and matted and behind nice glass, still I wonder if those prices are reasonable.

I thought of having a few signed prints up in my living room or to replace the simple posters I have now.  The problem though, was to both convince my wife (who liked some of the works but of course not the same ones) and convince myself to part with the money.  There is also the thought of buying essentially "cheesecake" versus fine art.  And as for content, Hitomi likes the very girly and innocent illustrations, while I of course prefer the saucier one.

Hitomi went to hunt down a Futon drier (unavailable in the U.S.) and I headed to Tora-no-ana and Animate.  First of all, I wanted to see if there were any nice art books, which are usually sold at 50-100% mark up at U.S. anime conventions.  And I wanted a look at the ero manga section and 3 or so floors of doujinshi.  This Sunday around noon appeared to be the busiest day of the week and I had a hard time moving, let alone shopping.  The ero manga area had a lot of people standing around reading.  I've come to learn why manga in stores is wrapped, not just because the store wants to protect the material, but to keep those useless customers who read and not buy.  Luckily had titles organized by author so I didn't need to crawl around.  The doujinshi section had everything wrapped, but was ten times worst than the ero manga area in the basement.  It was like being at a rock concert or in the mosh pit.

I haven't been following the doujinshi scene.  Actually, it turns out to make quite a large amount of money for people.  For instance, according to the Jeuness art gallery staff, "Tony" made enough from his sales to buy a pretty nice mansion for himself.  Certainly, selling without a formal editor or publisher seems to work well for many.  However, from a sampling at Comike, I found that work tends to be fairly inconsistent (short, unfinished, full of filler), if only because making a complete manga is actually quite hard.  Doujinshi also tend to be self-referential of the community they are borne from, which in part comes from the fact they are "same character stories".  And even within the same circle (group of artists) there are often half-baked works.  If I came prepared that day, I might have tried to swim through the crowd of otaku and bought something, but instead retreated.

Incidentally, Hitomi made Doujinshi in a manga club in high school.  She didn't keep her works and it's likely her mom tossed them out.  Which is a shame, since I would have liked to have seen them.  I would think she'd still be into the scene, but recently has developed a strong aversion to pornography and not a boy love fan, which comprises roughly 80% of the male and female comic markets respectively.  She does read a lot of manga, just no doujinshi.

I went to the "AV Factory" (http://www.avf.co.jp/) store, which I assumed was one of the largest AV stores in Akihabara.  I've really enjoyed the "Indie" makers more than the mainstream titles and this place had a couple of floors of the latest and best selling titles.  The entire store comprises about 4-5 floors of AVs, divided roughly into mainstream, indy, fetish, and used titles.  Indie was divided further into studios, which in addition to just different packaging, have their own presentation styles and stars.  Sometimes titles are divided by AV star, sometimes not.  With probably a thousand or so titles a year, it's rather hopeless to keep up with the times.  Luckily, the staff provide recommendations and indicate best sellers.  The only hope is that their tastes match yours.

And so, with a stack of AVs and manga, we headed back to Tokyo station and then Narita, then home.  The only remaining thing I worried about was getting passed the customs agents.

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About eliasross

Blogging before the word "blog" was invented.
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