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Josiah's Japan Travelogue #7
May 13 - 29, 2024
May 12th (Sunday) - May 13th (Monday): Japan Tour Round 2

Last year's Japan tour was a huge success and my colleague and I always hoped to make it an annual thing. And, before we knew it, it was time for year two. Well, not really before we knew it. A lot of time was spent over the last few months getting everything ready. I'll note that the main contents of the tour are pretty similar to last year so I'll be glossing over some stuff to avoid getting repetitive. And, as before, I can't go into too much detail about the game studio visits for privacy reasons.

A couple other things to be aware of... This year I'm going home right after the tour, so the travelogue will be shorter (though I will have a different trip to write about a bit later in the summer). Also, I'm experimenting with taking most of my photos with my phone instead of my camera. Mainly since my camera is a bit old and getting kind of worn out. That said, while I do have one of the nicer phone cameras, the interface and zoom just don't match up to a stand alone. On that note, I'm hoping to get a new camera soon, just having trouble finding the right one.

Ok, all that aside... I set of for Japan on Sunday. This year, I decided to spend the extra money and get a non-stop flight. There were a couple reasons for that. One was because I had some issues with my connections last year. The other was that I realized that, the way things work, there's absolutely no benefit to not spending most/all of my travel allowance. I flew ANA, which is a Japanese airline. It was a long flight, but I feel like they give you more leg room then the major US airlines do these days and I was able to pass the time fairly pleasantly between my Switch and some movies (the new Spy x Family movie and Godzilla -1, both of which were good). I flew into Haneda Airport, which was a first, though I didn't get too much of a chance to look around (I'll do that when I fly home). But it was easy enough to get through customs and catch a train to the Asakusa, where I'm staying just like last year. I will note that trains from Haneda into Tokyo are cheaper than from Narita, despite a similar travel time, though they seem to run a bit less frequently.

After getting to Asakusa and checking in to the hotel, I decided into head into Akihabara and go to Yodobashi Camera to look at cameras (and nothing else). I still couldn't find a camera I was entirely happy with, but I did pass a Pepper Lunch, which was always one of my favorite local chains when living in Japan, so at least I got a good dinner out of it. Since it wasn't too late yet, and I'd spent a lot of time sitting, I ended up walking all the way back rather than taking the subway. While it's not something I do often elsewhere, walking around after dark is rather pleasant, and I never need to worry about safety here in Japan. By the time I got back, it was finally time to get the rest and prepare for the start of the tour.

May 14th (Tuesday): Here Come the Students
I woke up rather early and couldn't get back to sleep (like last year) so I took an early walk around Asakusa, getting some exploring in before it got busy. I tried to focus a bit more on streets I hadn't explored much before. Though as the morning wore on, I also ended up going around the shopping arcade to look at all the usual tourist shops and snacks. By late morning, I had to return to the hotel and spend a while going over things with the other professor who does the tour with me and a rep from the travel company we're using this year. Once that was done I went back to the shopping arcade to grab lunch at a neat new ume (Japanese plum) focused restaurant I had spotted earlier. Then it was off to the airport to meet students.

With the students coming into two different airports at a variety of times, myself, the other professor, and the travel agent split things up. I ended up with the Narita group. Which was fine, except for the fact that the students were coming into two different terminals and running back and forth between them proved both annoying and time consuming. But eventually I got my group to the hotel and, after a short rest, we took all the students out for a late dinner at a nearby sukiyaki restaurant (reserved in advance by the travel agency, as opposed to the haphazard way we did group meals last year). Tomorrow, the tour starts in earnest.

May 15th (Wednesday): Asakusa and Nakano
I was up early again, so I took a stroll along the Sumida River. I came across this walking path last year, and it's a really pleasant place for a stroll. I'm not entirely sure how far it goes, but it looks like it probably goes most/all the way to Tokyo bay in the south and possibly even all the way out of the city to the north. It's reminded me just how walkable Tokyo can be. Well, to a point. Some parts of the city really are too far apart to walk between in a reasonable time.

Moving on... Despite staying in Asakusa, we never had a proper tour of it last year, which bugged me a bit, so I worked in a short one this morning to give everyone a overview of the area and some basics about Japan. Or at least everyone who was awake. I decided it would be best to keep it optional in case some were struggling with jet lag. So I introduced them to the main sites and let them explore for a bit. I've written about Asakusa pretty extensively in the past, so I won't do so again here.

After lunch, we met up for out first game studio visit at Keywords. They were our "opener," so to speak, last year as well and we once again had a great visit. Finally, since we weren't too far away, and a lot of students are always eager to start with the shopping as soon as possible, we swung over to Nakano Broadway. I spent a while browsing and found a couple things I'd been looking for. Then I headed off into the side streets to find some dinner. Not the most English friendly set of restaurants (some are, many aren't), but there's a lot of good places and it's just a cool place to walk around after dark.

Random Japan Comment: Masks in 2024
Japan dropped its masking recommendations last year a bit before my trip and I never had to wear a mask. That said, there were still quite a lot of Japanese people wearing masks. By now though, the percentage of mask wearers has gone down to normal (remember, Japanese people generally wear masks when they're sick or dealing with pollen allergies). It's nice to be able to see people's faces again.

May 16th (Thursday): Shibuya and Harajuku
Today started off with a walking tour of Shibuya. Last year, I played tour guide but this year, since we're working with a travel company, we decided to have them provide someone instead. Unfortunately, while she was nice and picked a decent walking route (which included some lesser known streets), she focused a bit too much on the walking part and didn't really talk much about the things we saw. Though she did know of a nice viewpoint I hadn't been aware of.

After that, due to space restrictions, we split into two groups with half the students going to Harajuku and half going to 84hashi. You might remember that 84hashi is a bar run by a former Nintendo employee and filled with some of the coolest video game memorabilia in existence. I first visited it myself last year just before returning to the US and thought it would make a good addition to the tour. Fortunately, we were able to work things out and it was great. The 84hashi team is fantastic and the students loved it. I highly recommend the tour to any Nintendo fans. After that, the first group headed off to Harajuku while the other students got their turn at 84hashi.

Once both groups had finished their 84hashi tours, everyone was free for the day. I'd heard of a restaurant in nearby Shinjuku that specialized in mapocurry (a mixture of curry and mapo tofu) that sounded interesting. I could have taken the train, but I had some time to kill so I decided to walk there instead. On the way, I decided to pass through Miyashita Park, which had interested me since I saw it in Neo The World Ends With You. It's pretty new, so much so that it wasn't around when I first lived in Japan. You can think of it like a shopping mall with a park on top and it seems to be quite the popular hang-out spot. For the heck of it, I also took a slight detour through Harajuku before finally ending up in Shinjuku. If you're wondering, the mapocurry was good (I'd say it leaned a bit more towards the mapo tofu side in terms of flavor). Certainly worth the walk. Then back to my hotel to prepare for the following day.

May 17th (Friday): Tokyo Sky Tree and Akihabara
I walked around a little bit in the morning before our group activities started, and spotted some festival preparations taking place around Asakusa. But more on that tomorrow...

We started off with a walk to the Tokyo Sky Tree. This was my fifth or six time up the Sky Tree, if I remember right, but the first time it was clear enough to see Mt. Fuji, which was pretty cool. I've gotten plenty of nice views of Tokyo before, but it's usually too hazy to see all the way to Mt. Fuji. After enjoying the view for a while, it was down to hang out in Sky Tree Town (and check out the Kirby Cafe Store and Pokemon Center, of course) for a while. Still wasn't able to get a reservation for the Kirby Cafe, but I'll give it another try next year.

After giving the students some time to explore and get lunch, we headed off for a studio visit to ArsTech Guild (complete with a nice view of Tokyo Tower along the way). This was the first time we visited ArsTech. As usual, I can't say too much, other than that they specialize in graphics design for games, especially high end CG, often helping other studios. It was a very interesting visit and I expect to ArsTech will become much more widely known in the coming years.

Finally, we headed to Akihabara since I felt it would be best to give the students a bit of an intro to the area before their first free day. Since I don't shop on shabbat, I had to wrap things up by sunset so I only hit up a couple of favorite stores before heading to the food court in Yodobashi Camera to get some sushi. It was fun, and I found some CDs I wanted, but I barely scratched the surface so I'll have to go back another day to check out some more shops.

Since it wasn't that late, and I hadn't done all that much walking yet, I decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. But unlike last time, when I stuck to the streets, I decided to take the Sumida River path most of the way back. That ended up being a good call. It's peaceful and gives some great views of the Sky Tree all lit up. Honestly, if I had an extra day to kill, I'd be kind of tempted to just walk it all the way to the end (or at least as far as I could). Not this year, but maybe next time...

May 18th (Saturday): Sansa Matsuri
Like last year, Saturdays are free days for the students and, by extension, for me as well. I had originally planned to head into the mountains and do some hiking (also like last year) but after arriving in Tokyo, myself and my colleague learned that, since this year's tour was a bit earlier than 2023's, we'd be there during Sansa Matsuri, one of Asakusa (and Tokyo's) biggest festivals. The festivities stretch over the weekend, but our tour schedule would prevent us from seeing much on Friday or Sunday. And, since I actually never attended that festival before (the timing just didn't line up quite right with my previous stays in Japan), I decided to skip the hike and spend Saturday taking in the festivities.

From the moment I headed out, lots of people were getting ready. The day starts with the various neighborhoods in the Asakusa area carrying their mikoshi (small portable shrines) down the streets towards Asakusa Shrine (the generally forgotten Shinto shrine sitting right next to the much more famous and impressive Sensoji Temple). Mikoshi feature in many Shinto festivals and are often paraded through the streets with lots of cheering and music. If you're wondering why they need such a large group to carry one mikoshi, it's because they actually tend to weigh between 2000 - 4000 pounds. (Something I didn't realize until I looked it up.) That makes the carrying a lot more impressive (and potentially dangerous).

Meanwhile, the area around Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji Temple had been lined with typical Japanese festival booths (snacks and games). I started out watching the opening ceremony, which involved some Shinto priests doing a blessing of some sort, but that wasn't especially interesting. Moving on, I grabbed a spot behind the temple and waited for the first mikoshi to arrive. Then another, and another, and another... While I didn't count, there are supposed to be roughly 100 mikoshi used in the festival, all with their own carriers and spot set out behind the temple. Far, far, far more than at any festival I've ever attended before. Most were a similar size and design, but there were some little ones for kids as well. It took a couple of hours for all of them arrive and not long after, they began to depart. Specifically, they would go through the shrine, get blessed by one of the priests, and then be paraded around a bit on the way back to their respective neighborhoods.

As the mikoshi began to set off, the crowds slowly but steadily thinned out to the point where I was able to leave the area without too much trouble (it would have been kind of hard earlier). There was a while before the next even, so I headed back to my hotel and took a little break. When I returned to the shrine a couple hours later, they were still blessing the last handful of mikoshi. Fortunately, since people were focused on the mikoshi, I was able to easily grab a spot infront of the stage where the musicians were. A little while after the last mikoshi departed, there was a series of traditional dances by Shinto shrine maidens. The number of dancers, and the items they used, changed each time. Once they finished, there was a short break and then the members of a local furusode (a type of kimono) club came and did some traditional geisha style dances. Neither type of performance is one you get to see very often so I'm glad I went.

After the dancing, the main events were all done for the day. At that point, I had a bit of time to kill and, while I'd been standing outside nearly all day, I felt like I really hadn't moved much so I decided to take the Sumida River walk to Akihabara then do dinner and some shopping there after sunset. And that was my free day. Tomorrow, it's back to the tour.

May 19th (Sunday): Ueno and Odaiba
I was up a little early and, while walking around, caught the beginning of Sunday's festivities for the Sansa Matsuri, which involves several large mikoshi processions parading through the Asakusa area for the entire day. But, after watching for a short time, I had to get ready for our first activity of the day, a tour of Ueno Park.

I've spent a lot of time in Ueno Park in the past but our tour guide still managed to find a couple of places I'd missed during my previous explorations such as Ueno Kiyomizu, a temple inspired by the much larger Kiyomizudera in Kyoto (which we'll be visiting later in the week). As far as temples go, it's nothing too amazing, but the view is nice. There were some more familiar stops as well, like Ueno Toshogu (the smaller, but still pretty, copy of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko). On a side note, our guide this time was much better than the Shibuya one and gave good explanation of the things we saw.

After finishing the guided tour, we split into smaller groups to do some other things in the Ueno area. My group went to the Ueno Zoo. I hadn't been there since I first lived in Japan so it's been a long time. It's the oldest zoo in Japan and, while it's not especially large, there's a nice pagoda and a fairly decent collection of animals. Of course, its most famous attraction is the pandas, which are in the second half of the zoo (across a bridge and by the pond). But seeing the pandas can require waiting in a pretty long line, especially on weekends, so I skipped them. Instead I took a pleasant, though relatively quick, stroll through the zoo since I was getting hungry and wanted to hit up Ameya (Ueno's market streets) for lunch.

After eating and walking around there for a while I met up with the students and we headed to our second destination, Odaiba. Last year, I only got to spend time in one of the main malls (Diver City), so this time I only took a quick peek in there (after showing students the life size Gundam) then headed to the others, passing the Statue of Liberty along the way. Aqua City was much as I remembered it, with its movie theater, shops, and restaurants. One new addition though was an aquarium called GAKYO. That said, it's not so much an aquarium as an art gallery featuring live fish. Kind of modern art plus traditional Japanese aesthetics plus fish. So if you just want to see a wide variety of fish it's not the greatest, but there are some interesting ones, often in unusual and artistic displays. Such as fish in a kaleidoscope. Or, if you ever looked at my pictures of Fushimi Inari Shrine and thought "that places needs more fish," GAKYO has you covered. Anyway, it was a bit strange, but kind of fun as well.

Moving on, Decks Mall added a big kids play area. Fortunately, it still has the cool old timey Japan themed area on the top floor. The big Joypolis arcade is still there too. I really should go there some time... Maybe next year. Anyway, after exploring for a while, I decided to head back to Aquapolis to eat. I remembered there being a bunch of restaurants on the higher floors but, on my way there, I stumbled across a themed area that I never saw before (not sure if it's new or I just missed it) featuring a half dozen fancier restaurants and I ended up getting soba and yakitori in an old Japanese style place.

On a side note, I mentioned Diver City, Aquapolis, and Decks but if you read my previous Japan travelogues you may remember another mall as well. No, I didn't forget, but I'll be visiting, and writing about it, at a later date...

Anyway, I happened to arrive back in Asakusa in time to see the tail end of one of the parades. They actually scrunched up the big lantern beneath Kaminarimon in order to get the mikoshi underneath it, acting as a sort of capstone to the event. And a nice way to wrap up my day as well.

May 20th (Monday): KMD and Historia
This was a studio visit day. We started at KMD (Keio Media Design), a graduate school with a focus on tech and development.  Not strictly gaming related, but they do some things in that area. Specifically, we visited a lab where they focus on developing various types of haptic feedback tech as well and robotic avatars. Very interesting stuff though, as usual, I can't go into too much detail. After that is was off to Historia (which we had also visited last year), Japan's Unreal Engine experts, for another good presentation. Both places where great for the students, and I found some of it quite interesting as well. But not much to write about for the travelogue.

Once we were done, I swung by Akihabara for dinner and to visit a last couple of stores. Then, back to the hotel to pack for tomorrow's trip.

May 21st (Tuesday): Kyoto and Fushimi Inari Shrine
Today marked the start of the Kyoto portion of the tour which meant getting everyone packed up, checked out of the hotel, and on the shinkansen. This year, we hired a truck to bring everyone's luggage to Kyoto rather than taking it all on the train, which simplified things quite a bit, and we got everyone to Kyoto without any problems. Then, in the afternoon, it was off to Fushimi Inari Shrine. We had a tour guide this time, who gave us a nice little tour of the shrine itself and the first part of the tori gate hike. After which, we split up and I led a smaller group through the rest of the hike while the guide took the others back to the hotel. I hadn't planned to take many pictures this year since I've been to Fushimi Inari several times already. But the place is just so scenic that I couldn't help it. Maybe next year I'll wake up early one day and try and get some good photos of the lower areas before all the tourists arrive.

After finishing the hike, and freshening up back at the hotel, I headed out to meet some old friends from back when I used to live in Japan, who just happened to be in Kyoto at the same time. It was great seeing them again but kind of strange thinking about how it had been around seven years since we last met in-person (when I came here with Connie, Zack, and my parents) and considerably longer since I lived in Japan. Makes me feel a little old... Anyway, it was nice catching up and hopefully it won't be nearly as long before we see each other again.

May 22nd (Wednesday): CyberConnect2 and Platinum Games
After breakfast it was straight to Osaka for a pair of game studio visits. First up, CyberConnect2, known for the .hack franchise and a number of popular anime based games (many of the best Naruto, DBZ, and Jojo titles, for example), among others. They actually only just opened up a new office in Osaka to compliment the ones in Tokyo and Fukuoka so they're still setting up and staffing up, but it was a cool visit. We even got to meet the CEO for some Q&A.

After that, we headed to the Umeda Sky building for lunch, since they've got a cool old time Japan style food court in the basement. Then it was off to Platinum Games. There was a lot of Q&A there too, with focus groups for different disciplines, and even a raffle. Naturally, the students loved it and got some great information as well. Got to say, while every game studio we've visited has approached things a bit differently, they've all hit it out of the park in one way or another. Even as one of the people planning and running this tour, I'm continually impressed by how fantastic an opportunity it is for the students.

Once we'd finished at Platinum, it was time to take the students to Dotonburi to give them that classic Osaka experience. As for me, I walked around a bit and ended up finding a good okonomiyaki restaurant a bit off the beaten path (and far less crowded as a result) then eventually made my way to Den-Den Town (Osaka's equivalent of Akihabara), though I only had an hour to so to browse before the shops started closing for the day. That was ok though, I need to get up early tomorrow so I really didn't want to stay out too late anyway.

Random Japan Comment: Exchange Rates
The general rule of thumb is that 100 Yen is equal to around $1 US. When I lived in Japan, it tended to range between 100 and 120 per dollar. Last year though, it was around 140 and this year it's a rather impressive 155 or so. Now that has some pros and cons as far as Japan's economy goes, and getting into the reasons behind all that would take too long, but what is means for non-Japan people is that this is a really good time, financially, to visit Japan. With such a great exchange rate, most stuff feels rather cheap and I've splurged a little bit on food and other purchases as a result. Will the Yen go any lower? Hard to say, but it likely won't be too long before the trend begins to reverse and the Yen gains value again so take advantage of the current rates while you can.

May 23rd (Thursday): Universal Studios Japan
Like last year, we decided to take the students to Universal Studios Japan for a day. Sure there are more uniquely Japanese theme parks, but between Super Nintendo World and the various anime collaborations, USJ is a hit with the students. Since Super Nintendo World still requires timed entry passes, we got an early start (though, oddly enough, this actually wasn't the best train to take). For various reasons, there were a few people who arrived late and I had to hang out near the entrance and get them their tickets so it took a while for me to really get started exploring the park. Once I was free, I ended up running across a Kuromi concert and stopped to watch to for a bit. I will note that my knowledge of Kuromi (and the whole Sanrio universe in general) is pretty limited but it was kind of fun and there were a number of pretty hardcore fans. From there, I starting heading towards Jurassic Park but happened to spot a fancy Demon Slayer themed restaurant (one of this year's anime collaborations) and decided to give it a try (I know, I know, not really the right hat for that scene). While a bit more expensive than many of the other restaurants in the park, the food was really good. I got this fancy looking make your own sushi meal of sorts (all plant based too, with some very interesting combinations) and dessert was an artistic take on traditional Japanese sweets. Aside from the restaurant, there were a number of other Demon Slayer things as well, including snacks, a ride, and this overly elaborate popcorn bucket. If you're wondering, the other main collabs this year are Detective Conan (same as last year, I believe) and My Hero Academia. But I didn't have time for those since I had gotten a ticket for the Monster Hunter XRWalk (a collab that I'd heard good things about last year). It's an elaborate VR game that has teams of four going on an adventure based on Monster Hunter Iceborn. You create an avatar, choose a weapon, then get suited up. In addition to VR goggles, you get a vest and glove setup that reminded me a bit more of Ghost Busters than Monster Hunter. The cool thing about XRWalk, as opposed to playing with my Quest 2 at home, is that you're not limited to a little play space. While there are barriers, you're basically walking through a large environment complete with cold wind and other effects to compliment the VR. You also get to physically swing your weapon around to block and attack. While the whole thing is only 10 minutes or so long (not counting setup), it's easily the most fun I've ever had with VR and I've love to see more dedicated VR experiences like that.

After slaying the monster and saving the day, it was time for Super Nintendo World. We were able to get an earlier time slot than last year, but the fact that, despite getting our passes shortly after the park opened, the earliest entry time available was 1:20 PM says something about how popular it still is. Unfortunately, the opening of the new Donkey Kong area was delayed so I didn't get to see that. However, I took advantage of the extra time to really explore and do some things I missed last year, such as clear the Bob-omb and Thwomp mini-games. I also got a much better look around Bowser's castle while waiting in line for the Mario Kart ride, which was fun in an of itself (make sure to read the book titles in his study). I also went a round on the Yoshi ride, ate at Toad's restaurant, and defeated Bowser Jr. twice (earning two sets of keys along the way). I also paid more attention the app, and used it to help complete a bunch of achievements and find assorted hidden stuff around the park. Though completing all (or at least most) of the achievements would probably require at least two or three more visits. Despite the crowds, I had a lot of fun and ended up staying in Super Nintendo World until close to closing time. Really looking forward to Donkey Kong next year. Though at some point I really should hit the major rides in other parts of the the park...

May 24th (Friday): Walking Around Kyoto
Although we arrived in Kyoto on Tuesday, we hadn't actually spent much time there so far Today though, was our main Kyoto sightseeing day. Of course, Kyoto has way too much to fit into a single day, but I wanted to get the students to at least some of the highlights. We had another tour guide today so I wasn't entirely sure how things would go (though I had given the company my original plans). On a side note, I was supposed to lead a similar walking tour last year, but we got rained out that day. Fortunately, today the weather was fine.

Anyway, first stop was the former Imperial Palace. Fortunately, our guide was pretty good about explaining the history and such. I've written about the palace a couple of times before. It's interesting, though you're unable to go in the buildings so there's a limit to what you can see. Nice garden too (though once again you're limited in where you can go). After that we walked though Gion (the former geisha district, though the ones in Kyoto were known as Geiko and Maiko (apprentices) instead), just to get a bit of the history and atmosphere.

Gion borders Yasaka Shrine, which is famous as a spot where the emperor once held a large festival to try and appease the gods in the midst of a pandemic. It's a nice shrine and it backs up to the scenic Maruyama Park, where we stopped for a rest (our second one of the day; this year's group, on average, is not as athletic as last year's). But hey, more time to enjoy the scenery. From there, the path led to the Higashiyama district, and old part of town filled with shops and restaurants. There are a number of temples and shrines in the area, and I'd originally planned to stop at a couple on the way to our destination but the guide skipped over them, possibly due to the time. On that note, after reaching a good spot, the guide left and everyone broke for lunch. Fortunately, while the streets were very crowded, the inside of the shops and restaurants wasn't too bad. I had lunch with some students in a nice beef place and then ended up trying some shiso ice cream (decent) and buckwheat (soba) cookies with takesumi (bamboo charcoal).

After a while we met back up to see our final destination of the day, and the main attraction of Higashiyama, Kiyomizudera. It's a very famous Buddhist temple and one of Kyoto's top attractions. While I went there once before, it was way back during my first visit to Kyoto with my mom (and she skipped it due to the weather). Then when I came here with family back in 2017 we ended up not going inside since it was towards the end of a rather long day plus much of it was undergoing maintenance. And last year that part of the tour got rained out... Anyway, this year I finally went back (though with only about half the students; the rest were too tired and went back to the hotel). It is a very nice temple and is famous for several things, once of which is the view from its deck. There's also a pair of stones you try to walk between with your eyes closed to boost your romantic luck (that part was still under maintenance) and the three fountains. The fountains represent success/fortune, romance, and health and drinking from one is supposed to grant you the related blessing (drink from more than one and the gods will think you're greedy and not give you anything). I don't do things like that, but some students gave it a try. A couple others also walked with me to a little pagoda at the far end of the temple grounds and then on to small temple and imperial mausoleum bit further on. The three of us ended up walking back to the hotel together as well. The reason being that there's quite a lot of major tourist spots in Kyoto that you can't actually get to by train or subway and the busses can get pretty crowded sometimes.

It was a nice day, though I'll need to lower my expectations of students' average physical fitness in the future. I ended up going to the food court on top of Kyoto Station and finding a restaurant Connie and I ate at a few times during that last family. I also managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Starbucks Tea & Cafe before sunset. If you're curious, it's a special type of Starbucks with a focus on tea and a lot of neat drinks you can't get anywhere else. There's only a handful of them scattered around Japan and the one by Kyoto Station is brand new. I stumbled across it by accident the other day and have been making a point of trying lots of different drinks, likes the limited time matcha and hojicha drinks made with young tea leaves, the unique matcha chai latte, and the Yuzu and Citrus Lavender Sage Tea frappuccino. If you ever happen to be near one, it's worth a visit.

May 25th (Saturday): Ghibli Park
I've been to the Ghibli Museum a couple of times and I would love it add it to the tour, but so far I haven't been able to figure out any way to get the necessary number of tickets. The Ghibli Park, however, is an entirely different place and it only opened recently. It's in Nagoya, which is within easy day trip range of Kyoto, at least if you're ok paying for a shinkansen ticket. However, it's worth noting that the park itself is on the outskirts of the city, about an hour away from Nagoya Station via bus or subway. Fortunately, tickets seem to be at least a bit easier to get than for the Ghibli Museum. While tickets for the Ghibli Museum tend to sell out within minutes (at least when ordering via their English online service), I was able to get my Ghibli Park ticket a week or two after they went live. That said, it was still a month and a half in advance and I was only able to get a regular ticket, not the premium one (more on that later). If you do get tickets, I should note that you need to choose an entry time, but that's not for the park as a whole, just the Grand Warehouse. You can enter all the other areas whenever you want. That said, the Warehouse is one of the largest parts of the park and has quite a lot to do so I'd aim for an earlier time if possible.

Anyway, I set off early so I could get there around when the park opens. Just after exiting the train station, I ran into this fancy elevator...which I ignored other than the photo since, it's a fairly easy walk down the hill and I didn't want to wait in line. Neat design though. Now, it's important to realize that Ghibli Park isn't anything close to Ghibli Disney World. First off, it's made up of several different locations scattered throughout a much larger public park, which also features things like a skating rink, playground, museum, kids' center, etc. Walking through the park is free, and you can get a look at some of the Ghibli areas that way, but actually entering each area requires a ticket. My warehouse time wasn't until 1 - 2 PM, so I started off going clockwise from the elevator to see what I could find.

The first area I encountered was the Hill of Youth. It contains recreations of a couple of buildings and other structures from various Ghibli movies such as The Cat Returns and Whisper of the Heart. The biggest part is a recreation of The World Emporium from Whisper of the Heart, but going inside there requires that premium ticket I mentioned earlier. It was fun to look around a little and pose for a photo or two (one of the main activities throughout the park), but there was no reason to stay at the Hill of Youth for very long.

Continuing on through some trees and flower fields, I found a cat bus station. You don't actually need a park ticket to ride the cat bus, but you do need to buy a separate bus ticket either way. It runs between some of the most distant parts of the park, though you can always ignore it and walk. There's also a fairly large cat themed playground if you have kids, but that also costs extra. Right past those, however, was the next area, Mononoke Village (based on Princess Mononoke, obviously enough). That statues are eye catching (one even doubles as a slide for small children), and there's a snack stand. But the main focus is Tatara-ba. In addition to being rather picturesque, if you go inside you can pay an extra fee to learn how to grill gohei-mochi (a type of sticky rice on a skewer, covered in sauce), which you can then eat.

Back by the cat bus, you can also buy a cheap ticket to go to the overlook for the Valley of Witches. Note that it's just an overlook. The valley itself is included in the park ticket and is entered elsewhere. But it doesn't cost much, you get your choice between a short hike and tram, and it's a nice view. I took the tram up, hiked down, and then walked over to the Valley of Witches. The Valley is the largest area and the only one you can re-enter after leaving. There's a nice looking restaurant (which had a very long line when I passed), along with some snack stands and the bakery from Kiki's Delivery Service if you want something to eat. If you're not looking to eat or buy some souvenirs, it also has the park's only two rides (if you don't count trams and the cat bus), though they're aimed squarely at kids. But the main draw is all the neat buildings, most of which are recreations of places from various Ghibli movies (mainly ones with magic, hence the Valley of Witches). I was able to enter some of them, but several, including the Okino Residence (Kiki's family's house) and Howl's Castle require the premium ticket. That was a bit disappointing, since Howl's castle especially looks fantastic from the outside and I'd love to go in. In case you're wondering, these premium ticket buildings don't contain rides or anything, they're just highly accurate recreations of buildings from the movies, so you can step into the worlds of your favorite characters. Even without the premium ticket, I did have fun exploring the valley and there was a lot more to see and do than in the previous areas.

Next up was the Dondoko Forest, but that one is a bit remote compared to the others, requiring a 600+ meter walk through the forest. It's also pretty small. There's a big Totoro that kids can play inside and there's a recreation of Satsuki and Mei's house from the same movie, but that's about it. Unsurprisingly, the house requires the premium ticket, but there is a free view point in case you don't have one. The forest is also next to a nice little free Japanese garden, so I took a different route back, going through the garden and around a pond or lake before returning to my starting point for my warehouse entry.

As previously mentioned, the Grand Warehouse is the only part of the park that requires timed entry, though once you're in you can stay as long as you want. And you'll probably want to stay for a while. Despite being indoors, its larger than most of the other areas and much more densely packed. Upon entering, you're given a ticket you can use to go see one of a handful of exclusive Ghibli short films. It's the same selection as at the Ghibli Museum and they rotate periodically. The current film plays throughout the day and you can go to any show, though only once. The current one (which I fortunately hadn't seen before) was about a lost puppy making its way through town in order to find its way home. Very cute. There's also some exhibits. I'm not sure if they're all permanent or some rotate like at the Ghibli Museum, but when I visited there was one focused on "everything Ghibli" and one on food in Ghibli movies (which once ran for a limited time at the museum). There was also the long promised adult sized cat bus. The warehouse also contains a pretty large children's play area, some shops, a cafe, and an actual warehouse where they store old display stuff. But most of it is dedicated to recreations of scenes from various movies, such as the robot from Castle in the Sky, Arietty's house and garden, and many, many more. In fact, there was at least one major photo spot for just about every Ghibli movie. Many had a bit of a line, but the most popular by far was this one from Spirited Away. Getting that picture with No Face required 30 - 40 minutes of waiting.

I spent quite a while wandering through the warehouse (longer than in any other part of the park), and by the time I had seen everything and gotten the photos I wanted, it was mid-afternoon. I briefly considered heading back to Kyoto a little early, but I'd been seeing a giant ferris wheel in the distance all day and decided to go give it a try. On the way, I passed by a really nice looking water playground (a free part of the main park) and an indoor children's play center. The ferris wheel turned out to be at the far end of the park, clustered together with a small collection of kiddy rides and crane games. The wheel itself is pretty cheap (and you get a discount if you have a Ghibli Park ticket) and very much worth it for the views of the park and the outskirts of Nagoya. Conveniently, it's also near a train station so I didn't have to walk all the way back to my starting point and made it back to Kyoto just in time for sunset and dinner.

Over all, I had a very nice day and enjoyed both the Ghibli Park and the greater Expo Park quite a bit. Just don't go in expecting Disney World levels of attractions, rides, or the like. If you're fine with a more low key experience full of tranquil scenery, recreated movie environments, and tons of great photo spots, you won't be disappointed.

May 26th (Sunday): Back to Tokyo
With the tour nearing the end, it was already time to return to Tokyo for the last leg. However, there was a decent amount of time to kill between checking out of the hotel and meeting up for the shinkansen so, after one last stop at Starbucks Tea & Cafe, I decided to check out Kyoto's new Nintendo Store, which just opened last fall. It was pretty nice, perhaps even nicer than the one in Tokyo, with a wide variety of different items from various Nintendo franchises (primarily Mario, Zelda, Splatoon, and Animal Crossing). I couldn't resist grabbing a few things, but the visit was also worth is just for this photo. Since I still had some time, I also swung by the Kyoto Pokemon Center, which was pretty close by.

The trip back to Tokyo went smoothly and we were able to grab our luggage (which had been sent on ahead) and check into the hotel immediately upon arrival. There was a group dinner scheduled later that evening but I once again had some time to kill first so I decided to try following the Sumida River walk north for a while. It goes quite a long way (further than I had time to walk) and gets into more quiet and residential areas as you continue.

Finally, I took a train back to Asakusa for the group dinner which was at a restaurant that, despite being in an old Japanese house, specialized in fairly authentic Italian food. A bit odd, but good.

May 27th (Monday): Game Studio Sprint
Today was the last day of the tour and we ended up cramming in three game studio visits. Normally, we wouldn't really want that many in one day, especially since they were all in completely different parts of Tokyo, but we had to work with their availability and that's how it played out. Our first visit from FuRyu. We, unfortunately, couldn't stay with them quite as long as last year given our pack schedule, but it was a good visit. Reynatis is looking pretty cool. From there we had to rush all the way across Tokyo to Bandai Namco, our biggest and most famous studio of the year. They had a very nicely polished and informative presentation and we got a quick look at their offices as well. Then it was across Tokyo again (though this time in less of a hurry), at which point we finally get time for a very, very late lunch break (linner, maybe?) before our final stop of the day at Reazon. We finished with them last year as well and both times it's been a great way to wrap things up. So yeah, a very full and interesting, though rather hectic, day.

May 28th (Tuesday): Immersive Fort
Most students were scheduled to leave Japan today and the ones staying longer are basically on their own at this point. My colleague and I, however, don't leave until tomorrow so we can help out just in case anyone runs into problems with their departure. So I hung around in or near the hotel for much of the morning, saying some good-byes and offering advice on trains to the airport. But once most of the students were safely on their way I headed out (though I was frequently checking my phone for the rest of the day just in case).

My plan was to check out the new Immersive Fort in Odaiba. Back when I wrote about Odaiba a bit earlier in this travelogue, I briefly mentioned another mall besides the three I'd visited. There used to be one more major mall (or maybe two, depending how you count it), the combination of Venus Fort (a fancy European themed mall) and Pallete Town (which had a Toyota showroom, car museum, and big ferris wheel). Well, they closed during the COVID lock-downs, though I'm not entirely sure if it was the the loss of business due to the lock-downs that did it, or if they were always planning to redevelop the area. At this point Pallete Town is completely gone and being replaced by a big sports center and arena. I believe Toyota is going to be putting something new in there as well (right now, there is a go-kart track if you really need to get something car themed in.

Venus Fort, meanwhile, is still there but has been turned into Immersive Fort, a rather unique indoor theme park. Once inside, you enter into a European town whose idyllic appearance hides a conflict between to mafia families (though there's clearly a good one and and a bad one). Basically, the staff are all actors playing different roles and you can interact with them and potentially get caught up in different parts of the adventure. For example, I wandered around a bit after entering but was soon kidnapped (along with some others) by one of the members of the bad Mafia group. We were eventually rescued by one of the good guys, leading another group of visitors, and it involved defusing a bomb and running down a dark alley with bullets flying (or at least special effects to that extent). There are a number of events in the mafia storyline that take places in different parts of the park throughout the day that you could be potentially caught up in. The whole kidnapping bit was fun, though naturally it's a little hard to take it entirely seriously when you know it's all part of the show. I should note, the mafia stuff is all in Japanese, though they actors were certainly happy to incorporate foreigners and throw in some English words. I knew enough Japanese to follow along easily enough, and I suspect many of the events you can work out by context, but non-Japanese speakers could struggle a bit at times.

In addition to the ongoing mafia events, there's a number of separate self-contained attractions as well. The first I ended up trying was Immersive Stories, which has you walking through the story of Hansel and Gretel. This was, honestly, the least interesting thing in Immersive Fort. You're just walking from room to room, watching the story unfold via sets and CG. On the plus side, through the use of a free app, it does give you a complete and perfectly synced set of English subtitles. There's no real interactivity, but you do get to choose if you want to watch the story from the perspective of Hansel and Gretel (which tells the classic fairy tale pretty straight) or the witch (which is a bit more interesting). I did both back to back, since it was fairly short and simple. Next I tried out Identity V. That one's a game where you and several others need to escape from a creepy mansion while avoiding a big clown monster guy who is roaming around. It's short (you're only given several minutes per run) but fun and there's multiple possible layouts. You also get scored on your performance. I only had time for one round at first, but I came back to give it another go later in the day. Didn't quite clear it, but my team the second time came pretty close. As a note, they have an English set of instructions for the game but the story (not that it's very important) is only in Japanese. One other smaller attraction (though I didn't get to it myself until much later in the day) is Jack the Ripper, which is basically just a haunted house where you walk through the backstreets of London while getting jump-scared by Jack. I think I've mentioned it before, but haunted houses don't really do anything for me. Though I did think this one was fairly well done rather than just throwing endless blood and gore at you like a lot of them do these days. The opening movie that sets the story has English subtitles and after that there really isn't any other dialogue.

Anyway, after trying out Immersive Stories and Identity V, it was getting close to the time for my first major attraction. Yes there's the mafia stuff, and the smaller self-contained attractions I mentioned above, but there's also a few bigger shows. These are larger, longer, and most of them require an additional timed entry ticket (purchased separately). That said, they're also essentially the highlights of Immersive Fort and, if you go, you really should try some of them. Two are anime cross-overs, based on Tokyo Revengers and Oshi no Ko. But neither are series I'm especially familiar with and there wasn't enough time to do everything in one day, so I skipped them in favor of the other two.

First was The Sherlock. Dubious grammar aside, it's a murder mystery staring Sherlock Holmes. Basically, a very larger chunk of Venus Fort has been sectioned off and turned into Holmes era London. There's a series of murders taking place and Holmes is called in. Think of it like a 90 minute play. Except that different things are happening in different locations all at the same time and it's up to you to explore and see what you find. For example, I happened to witness two of the murders (purely by chance), saw a bit of a circus, and eventually stumbled across Holmes and Watson (took me a while to find them). While you can certainly stalk Holmes, or any other character, the actors often walk very quickly and occasionally disappear into employee only areas, so at times you will have to go exploring. I also noticed some visitors getting pulled aside by some of the actors, though I wasn't one of them so I don't know what went on there. There were also many times when I was following one character only to see or hear something interesting happening elsewhere and change tracks. It would probably take at least several visits to see everything though the entire group does get herded together for the climax. With the possible exception of the people who got pulled aside, The Sherlock is non-interactive. You're told at the beginning not to interact with the actors (or even speak at all). You're strictly an observer. Still, it's a pretty cool experience, between the atmosphere and the ongoing events. That said, the number of people (up to 180 per show) detracts from it a bit. While everyone is split up so it rarely gets too crowded, peeking through a window as a murder takes place or tailing a suspect through a dark alley is a bit less compelling when there's 20 or 30 people with you doing the exact same thing. Unsurprisingly, the entire show is in Japanese. They do have an audio guide of sorts that provides an English dub, though I believe it only covers Sherlock's route (so to speak). I actually didn't get one, though in retrospect I wish I did since a lot of the dialogue was spoken pretty quickly and they tossed around some crime vocabulary I'm not familiar with.

After finishing The Sherlock and doing a little bit more around the rest of Immersive Fort, it was time for my other major attraction, Tales of Edo Oiran. It takes place in the Geisha district of Edo (Edo era Tokyo) and is limited to only 30 people, adults only (don't let the 18+ requirement throw you, it's not a strip show or anything like that). It's also much more interactive and supposedly has multiple ways the story can play out (though, having only done it once, I can't say how much it changes). There was easily the best attraction in the park. It has the story and immersiveness of The Sherlock, but the smaller group and interactivity brings it to the next level. Unfortunately, it also has very little English support. They gave me an English paper at the start which explained the backstory, but everything else is pure Japanese. I did ok, but non Japanese speakers, while they could follow along and get the general gist of things, would miss out on a lot. Beyond that, there's not much I can say since they actually make you sign a NDA before you go in.

The day wrapped up with a conclusion to the mafia storyline, after which I decided to go to the nearby Diver City for dinner. I also killed a little time in the arcade there and somehow won a big super mushroom from a claw machine. But, finally, it was time to return to the hotel and get ready for my own departure the following day. I had to treck back through a lot of wind and rain, but that did lead to a cool view of the Sky Tree.

Some general notes on Immersive Fort. I recommend it for Japanese speakers, it's unique and some of the attractions in particular are really cool. I wouldn't mind going back again. For English speakers, it's a tougher recommendation as the English language support is spotty. You'll still have fun, but expect to have trouble following many of the stories. Finally, I should note that I would not recommend it for younger children. Many of the attractions have age restrictions (generally 12 and up) and even the ones that don't tend to be a bit creepy and/or scary at times so I'd actually say mid-teens and up would be best.

May 29th (Wednesday): Returning Home
My return flight wasn't until mid afternoon, so I had a bit of time to kill in the morning. There wasn't anything in particular I wanted to do, so I wandered around Asakusa for a while, just to enjoy the atmosphere a little more. Spotted a couple of interesting looking restaurants and a nice capsule machine store I hadn't seen before too.

After a while I got my luggage and headed to Haneda Airport. As previously mentioned, this trip is my first time flying through Haneda. I didn't get to see much when I arrived, so I wanted to take a bit of time before departure to explore. I spent all my time in Terminal 3, which is where nearly all of the international flights go. It feels a lot newer than Narita and has a good old time Japan shopping and dining area right past the check-in counters (before security). There's also the small but more modern style Tokyo Pop Town area, divided into two different zones, with some additional shopping and dining. Alternately, if you really love planes, you can spend your time watching them from the large viewing deck.

Past security, it was more of a typical sorta fancy airport. While there were plenty of shops and some more food options it was, strangely enough, rather lacking in regards to good coffee and tea places. But there was a Pokemon vending machine tucked away at one end of the terminal, containing Haneda Airport exclusive merchandise like pilot and stewerdess pikachua plushes.

My return flight was operated by United and it was fine, though the ANA flight on the way to Japan had more leg room and better ammenities. And that was the trip. Kind of interesting to note that this has easily been my shortest stay in Japan. On the one hand, I would loved to stay longer. That said, I've got my family waiting at home and another trip coming up (which will get its own travelogue). Plus, it's looking more and more likely that this Japan tour will be an annual thing, so I'll hopefully be back next year.