November 28

I packed in the morning, waking up at 6:20 in order to finish some laundry.  Unfortunately my clothes were still wet even after 2 hours of drying.  (I later found out that the dryer coil was tangled up.)  Not the greatest start of the day, but it could have been worse.  I finished packing my clothes (my khakis were still a bit wet) and headed out.  I took the red line to the blue line then off to the airport.  For just 5 hours of sleep, I was pretty well awake.  Apparently I was the last one to the airport, though I found the group at about 7:55.  I was probably the only one who took the El.  We went through security pretty quickly and ended up waiting for a long time for the plane.  I ended up eating at McDonald's (Bacon, Egg, Cheese biscuit meal).  Josh was going to eat at McDonald's, but then ended up abandoning us in favor of eating "healthier" options.  The group sat around talking with others as we waited for boarding.  Lauren was taking some interesting pictures of Domo-kun, which I thought was a fun idea, so I also took one of it.  We talked about some Japanese cultural things to expect and also about Matt's speaking habits.  Josh said he tended to make everything he said into more of a question, which I think is about right.

The flight was longer than I expected.  The last time I went to Japan it took about 10.5 hours there and 12 back.  This one ended up being roughly 14 hours.  The food for all the meals was pretty terrible.  It's kind of disappointing that a budget Indian airline I took to London had much better food than American Airlines.  I tried sleeping, but usually wouldn't fall asleep for more than half hour or an hour.  I listened to some music, watched episodes of the Office, read a little bit of my Game Production book, and made Caleb play a bit of Final Fantasy VI. 


November 29

We arrived at Narita with it being 3pm locally.  After getting through customs (which was pretty barren, fortunately), we started to get bombarded a bit with Japan.  I tried to get money from the ATM machine, but it rejected my card.  I wasn't too worried since I had backups, but I had a lot of problems in Europe with ATMs accepting my card that I was hoping to avoid.  We eventually got on the bus that would take us to our hotel.  One thing I began to notice was how loud our group was.  Part of it was the excitement for finally being in Japan, but I think we were kind of being obnoxious and rude.  Nobody else on the bus was really talking.  There wasn't much scenery from the aiport.  It was mostly trees and roads and then a bit of an industrial setting before approaching Shinjuku.  The traffic was pretty unbearable, and it ended up taking about 2.5 hours to get to our hotel from the airport.

Our hotel was pretty nice - four stars.  We were in the south tower, eleventh floor.  First thing after putting our stuff away was to get cash from the ATMs at the post office.  The machines happily accepted my card, and I finally had some cash.  We ventured around the Shinjuku shopping area near our hotel. A bunch of us went into Club Sega to take a look at the arcade there.  Many people were smoking in the basement.  I had become so spoiled from Chicago's ban on smoking, that seeing it more often in Japan was a little startling.  Steve played Street Fighter IV (not released yet in the US) and made it through the story mode pretty quickly.  We ended up eating at a random place not too far from the soba restaurant that much of the study abroad group initially went to.  We were directed downstairs to eat after some confusion that there actually was a downstairs.  I ended up just ordering french fries since I didn't know what kind of meat was in the pictures, and I couldn't read the kanji on the menu.  Steve had a bit of trouble ordering since he wanted just the plate, though apparently he could have gotten a set that came with rice.  The waitress did not speak English, but I was able to sort out the ordering pretty easily.  We ate our meal and then left.  On the way out Dan tried to say gochisosama deshita (thanks for the meal), but stumbled a little bit.  The cook grinned and finished the phrase for him, which I thought was pretty funny.  We headed out and wandered a little bit before finding other group members.  Dan was trying to find DDR, but evidently it's too old and nobody plays it anymore.  He really wanted to ask some Japanese girl to "dansu" with him.

Caleb and I turned on the TV back at the apartment.  We thought Japanese television was pretty terrible.  We found it interesting that a lot of the channels had an obscene amount of text on the screen, in addition to often having a PIP of some guy's reaction of the program.  I'm curious why there are often subtitles for programs.  Is this because of the amount of homonyms in the Japanese language?  Do Japanese people just like reading TV?  I'm not sure.  Anyway, we went to bed.


November 30

I ended up waking up at about 3am, slept a bit, then woke up at 4:30am. This time I didn't feel like going back to sleep, so I just surfed the internet a little bit.  Caleb finally woke up at about 7am.  Since we were up, we decided to wonder a bit.  I wanted to find a business card case and some Calpis / Calpico drinks.  We wandered quite a bit further trying to find a food department, but everything was closed being early in the morning and Sunday.  We ended up at a 7/Eleven where I found this mixed fruits Calpis drink.  I really enjoy this drink and wish it was more prominent in the U.S..  I only see it at Mitsuwa and occasionally Chinatown.  It's pretty amazing to see every tiny alley is filled with more stores and people.  Alleys in Chicago are just filled with trash and bums.

Walking by the Embassy was cool.  There were people exercising there.  When we walked by later, a small orchestra was playing. It reminded me of the way Millennium Park functions, though I guess the same sort of things seem to happen at big buildings all around the world.

The breakfast buffet sucked.  Except for the potato animals.  But otherwise, it was pretty bland and a terrible take on American food. 

Square-Enix pretty cool.  I actually had a lot of the merchandise already, so I didn't buy very much.  Square-Enix had finally brought an online store for the U.S.  The only caveat was that it took a month to actually receive any item from them.  They apparently shipped all the orders at one time to somewhere in Washington where they were reshipped out in the U.S.   It was need to meet Izumi Tsukushi and Yasuhiro Takamatsu.  They were more knowledgeable about development within Square-Enix than I thought they would be.  Square-Enix is a very interesting company in how corporate it has become.  Many of the other companies we visited seemed to have a more casual vibe. They did give us these nice branded pens, though.

The train map was pretty overwhelming throughout the trip, though I eventually figured out how it all went together.  This was really our first time on the trains.  Of course, being on any other train in the world that is not CTA, reminds us how bad the CTA really is.  Japan's public transportation system really is top-notch, even if the map is a confusing mess.  We never had to wait long for a train.

Akihabara was cool that last time I had been to Japan, but it really didn't seem all that special visiting it a second time.  There really wasn't anything I wanted to buy.  Maybe some of the problem was that the group I was with seemed to want to just go to arcades.  Again.  Though, I really liked Yodobashi Camera because of its huge size.  I ended up buying some Final Fantasy sheet music there since I did not find any at Square-Enix due to apparently some licensing agreement.  The piano book is pretty nice.  It's a "best of" collection that manages to have all my favorite songs.  Everyone managed to have a good time at Akihabara, and I think it was nice to revisit, even if it didn't have the same level of excitement.


December 1

This was the first day that I actually woke up to blog about things.  Before that, I was being kind of lazy, but my memory tends to be good enough that I can recall what I need to later on.

After eating, I went and bought some more Calpis --this time Strawberry Vanilla.  It was some sort of "premium" brand and was really good.  I couldn't tell how it was different from their normal line of drinks.  As a group, we went to the Sony Playstation Showcase.  It was nice looking, but kind of disappointing.  I've played most of the games they had displayed since the same demos are available in the U.S.  It seems like most product showcases tend to show outdated material, but maybe it's just because I keep up on video game news pretty actively.  It did look nice as a lobby for the building, though.

On our way to Tokyo Tower, we stopped inside a very somber temple.  Outside was a tree planted by George H.W. Bush.  It didn't seem very strong though, it had a lot of support holding it up.  We cleansed ourselves before entering the temple by pouring cold water on our hands using these cups with long handles.  We ended up seeing them before pretty much every temple.  Cleanliness is a very important virtue in Japan, it seems.

Going up Tokyo Tower was fun.  It's pretty amazing to see how expansive Tokyo really is.  I was trying to get an idea of just how big Tokyo was compared to Chicago before the trip, but I couldn't really find a definite answer.  After going up the tower, I still don't have an answer.  I couldn't actually see an end to the limitless supply of buildings and towers.  It's kind of a touristy thing to do, but I still haven't gone up Sears Tower.  My mom can't believe I haven't done it yet.

We had to eat quickly at McDonald's so the 6 of us could go to Ark Systems Works.  The meeting was very fun, and I was extremely impressed by the company.  The people seemed pretty laid back.  One of the most interesting parts of the meeting was when one of the lead developers talked about how he preferred western games when I asked him if any western game had a lot of influence on him.  It's interesting because he makes a definitively eastern-style game.  When I think about it, a lot of developers in the U.S. seem to be inspired to go into the industry because of Japanese games.  I never really thought about it going the other way as often, but maybe there is a large amount of Japanese game industry people who were inspired by western games. 

We later talked to the American intern who was working there.  He seemed like a really compentant programmer, though it sounded like he was working on a shovelware title for the Nintendo Wii.  I guess it makes sense for development companies to try making low-budget titles for platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare, since it helps broaden their portfolio and the risk is relatively low.  We got a lot of swag from this company (except Noriko), which really impressed us.  They were really nice, and I'm very thankful that I got picked to go to this company.

The train was supercrowded, though it could have been a lot worse.  Nick looked like he was going topass out or puke because of the smoke smell and piling of Japanese people into the train.  We took a lot of transfers to get there, but finally made it back alive.  Some of us went out near the red light district where we found a Don Quijote store.  It's open 24/7 and sells practically anything you can think of.  Each floor had different items, like clothing, food, electronics, and even one floor of expensive designer watches and purses.  After that, we went into the Taito Game Station where I decided to play the Silent Hill arcade game and Mario Kart GP.  Mario Kart was fun as usual, but kind of expensive for the little amount of playtime that you get.  I was hesitent to play too many arcade games while I was in Japan since the cost really adds up.  It felt like I was putting in a quarter when I played, but truth be told, every coin was about $1.10.


December 2

I turned 21 day. I didn't really do much that morning.  Some of us wandered around the hotel a bit and just looked up information on what we could do for the next day since a few of us would not be going to visit Production I.G.

We went to Toei, which was a pretty cool company.  They seemed to have their standard tour all worked out since apparently they have about 1000 visitors a year.  It was interesting to see the Stylus HD program they were using to do their keyframing.  I'm not much of an artist, but when I do stuff, I work in Fireworks which is vector-based.  I don't often do any kind of animation, but I can do quite a bit with vector-based graphics despite my lack of drawing ability.  We moved on to talk with the women who were coloring and adding additional effects like blush and highlights using Adobe Photoshop.  It was kind of funny how the woman next to the one doing the speaking was talking to us and showing us things, even though the group on that side really couldn't understand what she was saying.  She seemed very proud to be working there and excited to have us visiting.  The place seemed decently relaxed for such a large company.  The guy who did special effects was pretty cool. It's interesting to see all the different layers being worked on separately.They have a gallery of all the different animations they have worked on over the years. It was a pretty large display. It wasn't just limited to the gallery. All over the building they would show different animation cells, figures, and other drawings. They really show it off.

There was a room set up with some of their older equipment. One was used for filming animation on multiple planes. Listening to the representatives from the company talk was pretty interesting. Earlier they had showed us an anime that is being released soon that is a mix of real-life footage for backgrounds, with CG animation. What is interesting is how the CG animation retained typical Japanese-style animation. I had asked about piracy, but I think he had dodged the issue. He basically just said that the Chinese seem to steal a lot from them.

Nakano Broadway was pretty cool. We passed by an interesting sock store called Copo that displayed "Here we have all kinds of socks." It was no joke. It looked like they had a few hundred different styles of socks in that tiny store. Upstairs there were a lot anime-related stores. A lot of the stuff they were selling was cheaper than at the Square-Enix store. I had figured that it would be cheaper elsewhere, but I wasn't sure which items I'd see again.Later that night, we ate at some touristy Italian resturaunt. Part of the group had been there the night before, but I didn't find it all that great. Splitting a pizza was at least cheap, but I've definitely had better Italian food in America. Afterwards, we wondered around a bit and went to the Krispy Kreme restaurant/factory where we were given a free donut while waiting in line. That kind of satisfied my appetite, so I ended up only buying one donut when I actually got inside. All around that area was the Shinjuku Festival of Lights. It was pretty neat-looking. There was this one gazebo where two people are supposed to go up and press any two of the buttons on the display together. It would then randomly pick a fortune and light up the gazebo based on your fortune. There were a lot of people in line. We also found a Mexican restaurant that we planned to eat at on another night.


December 3

I woke up and went to Glass Court first time today.  It was pretty much the same as American place, but a bit fancier. Apparently all of the places there served about the same food, at least for the breakfast buffet.

We went to Grasshopper Manufacture which was an unbelievably cool place.  The staff was surprisingly young.  There were also about 8 foreigners working there which was pretty interesting. The company itself wasn't that big, so I wasn't expecting really any non-Japanese people to be there.  They make Japanese style games but target the western market with them.  One team is currently working with unreal and Maya, so they can spend more time on the development of the actual gameplay instead of on an engine.  I think it would be great to work at a company like that.

Telecom was a bit old in comparison to Grasshopper, but the guy talking to us was really laid back.  We were prepared to take off our shoes but ended up not having to since they didn't have enough space or racks.  I think our group had an interesting and insightful conversation about the difference between Japan and western animation.  Their demonstration wasn't so technical, but Toei had that covered, so it was nice to see some different areas. We also had some students from Okinawa touring with us.  This time our questions seemed a little better.  I got tired of all the "Do you prefer this or this?" questions people were asking, or questions that have come up in countless interviews. Telecom was interested in hearing from us what we like to see in an anime.

Since space at Production I.G. was limited, 6 of us did not go.  Apparently it was a good decision not to go, since the company was very secretive and didn't really show much of anything.  The general group consensus sounded like it was a waste of time to go.  However, they went to Mos burger which made me upset since I wanted to try it out.

Some of us went as a group to the east side of Shinjuku but then shortly after going anywhere, three of them decided to go back to the hotel.  It seemed kind of dumb.  Before that we went into Isaten which was a really upscale department store.  the basement had all sorts of the top foods and chocolates around the world.  So Dan and I just explored more of the area.  We went to the time square area and went into a book store and then to First Kitchen where I had carbonara.  A few others met up with us after Production I.G. to explore the same area. We went into Uniclo, which had a lot of decently-priced clothes. Then we went through the east part of shinjuku again and went into a Taito game station briefly.  Ari spent like 16 dollars but finally won this blood bear thing.  Then we went into a used game store and we kept kind of losing people as we left.  Finally, we made it back to the hotel.

December 4

We started off early by going to the Ghibli museum.  We took a small bus to actually get there from the train station. The museum was pretty great. It showed a lot of the old animation techniques like a circular setup that when matched with a strobe light, created a stationary, yet animated-looking display. Another example used slits in a connected piece of paper that when moving, produced an animated effect. There were a lot of kids there, and the museum was pretty friendly towards them. There was this set of winding, circular stairs to the top that was pretty cramped for adults. On top of the building was this garden that had a giant robot and a weird cube. We also watched a short film that had cat buses and totoros. I haven't actually seen the Miyazaki films that used these characters, but I probably should. I've only seen Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. I'm glad we got to keep the ticket because each one had an animation cell from the film. The food was too expensive, so we didn't eat there. It was something like $5 for a hot dog.

Microsoft Japan was pretty nice but it was mostly power point type stuff. I guess that doesn't really surprise me. I asked the FeelPlus (Lost Odyssey) representative a question about the opening sequence, which I enjoyed a lot. I was curious why at the beginning there is a seamless transition between the opening cutscene to the first battle. Apparently it was only eye candy. It's a shame that they didn't do it more, but from the sounds of it, the development was so split up that pulling that off with their current strategy would be near suicide. Later on in the Microsoft presentation, we broke into groups and did a marketing exercise. Our group came out with second place. The winning team's idea was pretty funny - pair up with BOSS coffee and have Tommy Lee Jones fight Master Chief to promote Halo Wars. Later that night, we went to the Mexican restaurant that we had spotted earlier. The food was really good. I normally don't enjoy Mexican food. What was interesting about that night was that we ran into the English people who had been working at Grasshopper. The company wasn't even near that area, so the chance of meeting them seemed pretty wild. They told us that if we were seriously considering working in Japan, that we really needed to learn Japanese. Afterwards, we saw a bit more of Shinjuku, but mostly stuff that we had went to before.

December 5

This morning we got to sleep in a bit before we visited Namco Bandai. This company had one of the greatest buildings I've ever seen. They had a waterfall and small rock pond with large rock platforms that lead to the "Fun Theater". This is where a bulk of the presentation took place. They had us split up and go to different parts of the tour, like the sound studio. There we heard a mix of the Soul Caliber 4 opening. The sound guy showed us the different track layers and what it sounded like when you took out the foley sounds. He showed us a video of how they captured a lot of the sounds. It was interesting how they would experiment with footsteps and methods of getting a cane hitting the ground to sound right.

Afterwards, we went to their arcade area in the lobby where we played a Gundam game they had made recently. The arcade game was pretty unique in that you would enter a rather large pod that had a large projected screen as if you were inside of a gundam. I didn't find the game all that great, however. It gave me a headache after playing because of the abundance of noise and the large screen with blocky graphics. Also, the normal playing price was $5, which I find to be way too expensive.

The motion capture studio was pretty neat to see. There were a bunch of cameras inside the building that would be able to capture the actors. It seems like it would be hard to act without a real environment, but they seemed to be able to pull it off. We returned to the "Fun Theater" where we got to have a Q&A with Namco and representatives from the company that developed Ace Combat.

After Namco Bandai, we went directly to Karaoke. It was a great experience. We sang stuff like Anyway You want it, Bohemian Rhapsody, Knights of Cydonia, Wannabe (spice girls), and some video game songs. I tried a Japanese song by L'Arc~en~Ciel, but I found it hard to read the characters that quickly. Afterwards, we explored a little bit more, but by that point we had seen most of the area already. We did find a bowling alley, which we wish we would have seen earlier in the week.


December 6

That morning we went to the Character Goods Street. It had a ton of specialized stores and areas for characters like Doraemon, Legos, Peanut Gallery, and Domo-kun. It was really neat to see all the different specialized merchandise that I didn't really see at a lot of other stores.

We went to Harajuku and expected to see some Japanese teens dressed up in stuff like cosplay or lolita fashion, but they didn't seem to be there that day. We popped into a lot of different stores, but didn't really find much.

We decided to walk to Shibuya since we wanted to see the famous crossing. It was quite a sight. We walked through it and then went up into the train station so we could take pictures from a higher distance. After that, we at an Italian restaurant where I got carbonara pizza. We decided to leave Irvin since he decided to get his haircut while we were there. It was to take a few hours and cost quite a bit of money. The rest of us went through Yoyogi park. It was a very nice park with a lot of people out and about. It was getting pretty dark, so we decided to head back to Harajuku. As we were leaving we became hungry and had some crepes. It's interesting how popular crepes are in Japan. I don't really see them much in the U.S. After that, we headed back to our hotels to sleep.


December 7

Matt and Ian woke up late so we left a bit late to our train to Kyoto. We still made it on time for our departure, though. The Shinkansen was pretty fast. Mt. Fuji was visible practically the entire time, thanks to Japan's flat land. It felt like no time at all before we reached Kyoto.

We were supposed to all go to this sushi place, but three of us (Dan, Dan, and I) did not like Sushi, so we went to the Mos Burger across the street. The burger was pretty good, though I guess I was expecting more. It was pretty much like any other fast food burger.

After that, we went to an elementary school where we had a Taiko/Koto lesson. We learned to play the Taiko drum as a group. It was pretty hard to do, only because we had to try to keep our form balanced while we were playing the drums. I think if we took that out of the equation, it would sound better. We had to form smaller groups to make up an original performance. I partnered up with Dan and David. Our song was okay, but we spent a lot of time just trying to think of something to do.

Lindsey had learned to play the koto while we were doing the drums, and later made a performance with the sensei. She had learned quite a bit in a small amount of time. After the Taiko part of the lesson, a few of us took a brief koto lesson. The rest of us talked to the college students that had came in to perform on the Taiko drums. The faculty there had brought us all donuts from Mister Donut. They were really delicious. As the lesson came to a close, the teacher told us about the area and how the river there was named after the milky way. It was a very nice opportunity to visit the area, and was a real cultural treat. I'm glad I got to experience it.

After that, we at the train station after going back to our hotel. We then looked at the Bic Camera store there, where I bought a Final Fantasy Dissidia book.


December 8

Today was a big day for sightseeing. Kyoto was pretty different in comparison to Tokyo. It seems like there is a lot more historically cultural things to see.

The first place we went to was the Kyomizu temple. We had to walk up this street first that had a lot of vendors. It seemed very touristy. However, the temple area was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. The colors of all the scenery seemed very vibrant for late fall, and the view from the top of the hill was very nice. I was able to experience drinking some of holy water there. I had to reach out using one of the cups with the long handle and fill it with water from the waterfall above. This place was probably my favorite place in Kyoto.After that, we traveled to Sanju-Sangendo. It was a neat temple that had 1,000 soldier statues along with around 30 different diety statues. It was an interesting remind of how much the Final Fantasy series uses different mythological creatures in their games and was interesting to see some of the origins.

Kinkakuji was also very nice, specifically for it's Golden Pavilion Temple. This place had actually been a desktop wallpaper for my Macbook for a while, so it was instantly recognizable when we had finally seen it. We left there and went on to Toei Uzumasa Movie Land. The first thing we saw was their huge gift shop. After that, we walked around a bit and saw the different sets where they had filmed some Samurai movies. On a few occasions, some Japanese kids would say "Hello" to us in English and then run off. It was kind of weird, but funny. A bunch of different areas could be found, like the jail, an old-time marketplace, and several other buildings. There was also this dragon thing that would pop out of a small pool every now and then and spray mist. We stopped in to this samurai filming comedy show, but we couldn't really understand what was going on. After that, we went to another Samurai show where Dan Loane was invited up on stage to do some different samurai moves. It was pretty funny and I got it on video.

Afterwards, we went to the arcade area in Kyoto and then found this Japanese restaurant nearby. I had this deep-fried pork dish with leeks and cheese. It was pretty delicious, and I was happy with the restaurant selection. We had to sit on the floor with our feet underneath the floor board. It seems like restaurants in Japan tend to be empty a lot, or we just eat at the wrong time. I'm not sure why this is. Similarly, Chinatown restaurants in Chicago seems to be empty a lot of the time. I don't know how they don't go out of business. Maybe they have a lot of delivery? Anyway, we headed back to our hotel to sleep.


December 9

Caleb, Dan Loane, and I decided to wake up early to do some sightseeing before our scheduled cultural event. We decided on the Fushimi Inari Shrine since a lot of people online said it was a must-visit. We were very happy with our decision. The amount of orange gates that were there was pretty staggering. We decided to see how far we could climb before we had to leave and were able to make it to the top.

When we got back, we went with a few others to Lawson to buy some of the Final Fantasy potion drinks that had just came out to promote Final Fantasy Dissidia. There were 16 different art styles on the can, and two different flavors - light and dark. One tasted a little like Mountain Dew Pitch Black, while the other one was like 7-up.

Afterwards, we went to go wear kimono's and do traditional Japanese dance. I did not participate, but took lots of pictures and video. It looked like an interesting experience. Kimonos seem kind of complicated to put on.

For dinner, we got to experience shabu-shabu. Basically, we threw in a bunch of different ingredients into a boiling pot of water and then would dip thin strips of meat in to cook and eat them. After eating all the meat and vegetables, we would then eat the soup that was left. It was surprisingly good and something I'd recommend others to try.


December 10

We were all kind of worried about going to Assemblent. It was an extremely small company of a few employees. However, their company ethic was pretty interesting. They don't believe in a heavy amount of hours per work week. They basically assist companies who need additional help but don't need to hire full time employees. We played a SNES game that the company's president, Abe Kouichi, had worked on, which involved the SNES and a super scope. The super scope works similar to how the Wii controller works now.

Afterwards, we hit up a bunch of the different shrines in Kyoto. Later that night, we returned to the same restaurant that I had went to a few nights prior. Noriko came with us. This time, they set out appetizers which we weren't aware we had to pay for, since we did not ask for them. However, it is often custom in certain restaurants to have these dishes as sort of a cover charge and the staff there expected Noriko to know this since she was Japanese. They did not do this to us the night before because we were all foreigners. It was an interesting experience, but we eventually got it taken care of.


December 11

This day wasn't all that exciting, we basically packed up and left, however I went on to my aunt and uncle, where they are stationed at the Yokota Air Force Base.