Thursday, February 9, 2017

Animated films by Yuriy Norshteyn @ Nagoya's Cinematheque

A scene from "Hedgehog in the Fog" grabbed my attention when I saw it on Nagoya mini theater Cinematheque's monthly flier for a series of short works by the Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn. The named seemed familiar, and as I read the film synopsis I realized that Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki had probably praised the animator at some point in his writings. It's not everyday that you hear Miyazaki praising other artists - in Starting Point he disparages over the sorry state of animation and lack of imagination in the industry, so praise doesn't come cheap from Japan's greatest. I like animation and was curious to see something different: you don't get many chances to watch Russian animation in a movie theater either, so I made my first trip to a prolific mini theater nearby.

Cinematheque is a tiny cinema in Nagoya's Imaike that I walk past often. There's great ramen nearby(Ichibanken, really, everything is good), the live house Tokuzo(havent been there in a while but great bands frequently stop by), a record store that opens until midnight(the owner is nice, and I picked up a lot of cheap 80s idol music here), but I could never catch the films I want to see at Cinematheque, located at the end of this street on the second floor of the Star building.
The hallway leading up to the cinema has a Chinese food store, an interesting used book shop, and is plastered with countless posters for a variety of Japanese and foreign films. The viewing space is small, probably no more than 50 chairs, and most of the seats were filled. I went to a few screenings at the other indie cinema, Cinema Skhole, and there was never more than handful of people. Seeing the auditorium populated was a surprise.

The program was a collection of works by Norshteyn that were originally released in the 1960s and 70s but were touched up and remastered. Each film was presented on screen in jarring clarity making that rendered them in high definition - it was hard to tell that these were produced decades ago.

Of course, this isn't just about the surface, and perhaps what really makes his images seem so real on screen wasn't the touch up work at all. The Russian animator's attention to detail in all of his films took meticulous work and an eye for perfection, all of which spoke through the vivid movement in his worlds. Norshteyn's prowess as one of the world's greats is easy to see in any of the films. His techniques makes the characters lifelike but they also possess a quality about them that still feels surreal, make believe, and animated without feeling unnatural.
While the quality of the animation itself was consistent in all the films, his fairy tale-esque narratives were more eye catching and entertaining than his early films. "25th October, the First Day," captures dealt with the Soviet Union, and "The Battle of Kerzhenet" was based on historical events, using church-style paintings. Perhaps animation just works better with the fantasy motif, which the rest of the films were based on. "The Fox and the Hare," is a folktale with a style that looks picked right out of an elegant children's book. I found myself laughing out loud at the love story in"The Heron and the Crane," a timeless tale of the back and forth attraction between two indecisive lovers. His renowned "Hedgehog in the Fog" lives up to its praise. Norshteyn renders the trek in the forest in beautiful dark tones that best represents the terror of this vast, unknown, and barely visible space. He mixes in a little bit of humor with the ever prying owl who tries to frighten the hedgehog and adds the mystic image of the unicorn into the film as well.

His longest film rounded out the program, "Tale of Tales," a 30-minute animation that was much more abstract and difficult to follow - made even more incoherent to me because I couldn't read all the subtitles in Japanese. It's story is based on a nursery rhyme that expands into a world of symbols and signs, weaving together the realism of his first films with the make believe works of his fantasy shorts. A lot of the scenes are etched in my memory - the child breastfeeding, the yak standing upright, and the symbols of war.It's a contemplative piece that some deem not just the director's best work, but one of the best animated films ever, though I would have to see a properly subtitled version before I give a more in depth analysis.

Most of his work is on youtube and I've embedded all of the films I saw at this showcase though they might not be the remastered versions I saw in the theater. Norshteyn's work is amazing, and his current project, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," has been in the works for decades. Let's just hope his strives for perfection and attention detail roll out the finished film soon!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Satoko Shibata (柴田聡子) / Lee Lang (イ・ラン) @ K.D. Japon 2016/11/22

I'm a big fan of Satoko Shibata but I have to admit that when I heard she was doing an event with a bunch of other acoustic artists in Nagoya I wasn't immediately sold on checking out the gig - she's a fantastic artist but not one that resonates with me on, say, an Omori Seiko kind of level. What did get me on board had nothing to do with the music - it was the venue. I've been to quite a few nice little basement dives that allow an unheard of degree of intimacy (see Mir's studio gig - the first and only time I saw the mythical Tokyo three-piece) and interesting decor, but the ambience complimented the experience - my primary purpose always being to see the artist/s in question, with the venues being the icing on the cake. This time I felt strangely drawn to the event after I saw the K.D. Japon website and read a little about it online. Its wooden walls with a stage just an arm's length away from the audience, in a little space that looked more like a log cabin than a live house - how cool is that? There was a loft on the second floor too, and a wide array of drinks and food that made it seem more like a restaurant than a music venue.

KD Japon is tucked right below the tracks to the JR Line trains near Tsurumai station, and it's an easy find if you follow the railway. It isn't too far from my dormitory and I ended up taking my bike there and parking it by the roadside.

I had the pretense that the show would be small, intimate, and I could enjoy the night sitting down a few feet away from the artists, basking in the dim lighting. Instead, it was packed: Shibata Satoko and the rest of the artists had drawn quite the crowd. I should have thought about that before being fashionably late, which ended up earning me the coveted spot between the bulky entrance door and the counter at the very back of the club (not to mention being accidentally squished a few times by other late comers). I would later get to walk up to the loft but it was equally full, with no one willing to budge, and I slunk back down the rickety winding staircase to the first floor. After every act people would disperse a little bit, giving me just enough room to inch closer and closer to the front, but I never did win access to the little stools that were laid out for the audience and positioned right in front of the stage

The night was host to a collective of acoustic musicians, the former two acts being male, neither of whom I was familiar with, and the latter two being the headliners, Satoko Shibata and Lee Lang from Korea. Shibata was fantastic, and performed quite a few new and old songs, cute as a button and all smiles during the entire gig. Lee Lang performed with a friend who accompanied her acoustic guitar with a cello, adding yet another dimension to her solemn songs. She tried her best to convey things to the crowd in broken Japanese, often leading to some hilarious MCs and comments that were a little too honest("Shibata is so cute, I decided to take a bunch of candid pictures of her to sell on auction sites!"). It was a fantastic night for music, and even more so for enjoying the place itself. I had a bowl of curry at the bar and sat up top on the loft after the audience had cleared out. Situated under the train tracks, the sound of a train passing overhead was audible during each performance, something that added to rather than distracted from each act's acoustic numbers. It's a superb place to see some music - and eat some really tasty curry - so I hope I have a chance to stop in again soon. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

ラブリーサマーちゃん / Lovely Summer-chan mini-live & CD signing @ Nagoya Parco West 2016.11.23

Bedroom composer ラブリーサマーちゃん / Lovely Summer-chan's major label debut came as quite a surprise when it was announced out of the blue(quite literally, look at the cover) on her homepage. She's always seemed entrenched in the independent music scene, a very down to earth musician. She started on soundcloud and never released much officially nor did she boast a reputation on the live circuit - often how a lot of musicians get their name out there. She's also notoriously camera shy, so I didn't think that people picked up on her just because she was a pretty face. In some ways it seemed like she didn't want to get too far out there.

But when I hum the melody of her songs to myself it's easy to hear her potential despite the small catalog she has released. Her pop songs are pure pop, infectiously catchy, and boast a kind of amateur charm that's hard to resist. Her vocals are cute but they easily find themselves at home in a catchy chorus as they do in her more melancholy numbers. She gets it from a background of modern pop and rock music, a lot of which you can see her post to her twitter but that also sneaks its way into obvious nods on her CDs. I didnt immediately recognize the blue background with four caricatures that compose her "Part-Time Robot" jacket, but one listen to the song itself and Weezer's Blue album comes into focus. Not to mention the obvious nod to the astronaut of Soutaisei Riron, Yakushimaru Etsuko's ivocals are an obvious inspiration to LSC's whispery, cute, sound.

I tried slapping a label on Lovely Summer-chan but neither idol nor singer songwriter fit quite right...which is fine. She can get by without being stuffed into a bag with similar artists. She may not be that unique, and her songs certainly don't reinvent any genres, but she's a budding artist and a great songwriter who shows tons of promise and makes some adorable pop songs.

I was late to the in-store event for Lovely Summer-chan's major debut album in Nagoya. It was hosted by Tower Records but not in Tower Records, and ironically was held outside the West Parco building, in a little corner facing the busy street. I took a spot on the side in front of a Christmas tree and watched her perform through a hole in branches until a guy walked right up to it and stood his ground. I stared at a Christmas tree for about 30 minutes.
Nevertheless, it was difficult not to be as excited as she was during the short concert. She sang along to backing tracks for "202 feat. Izumi Makura" and "Watashi no Sukinamono," and the audience got to participate in call backs for the latter. Plenty of people showed up, too, and the steps leading down to the lobby where she performed were full. Passers by would flock down for a second to watch as well.
She sang the rest of the songs to piano accompaniment, giving up on her bright red guitar after some feedback issues. Suisei sounded beautiful, and she gave the signal for the crowd to unleash the bubbles she handed out at the start of the show in time for "Anata wa Tabacco, Watashi wa Shabon." "Since the event is outdoors I've always wanted to do this" she said, and giggled while bubbles  landed on her and got all over the audiences before blowing back into the wind. It's a shame pictures weren't allowed at the event - it would have made for some interesting photos.

It was a colder than normal day, especially after a few days of sudden warm weather. The outdoor location of this in store event meant that the post-concert CD signing had to also take place outside. The que was rather long and I was at the back too, but the staff and her manager were nice enough to apologize every chance they got for fans having to endure the cold outdoors.
When I got closer to the front I could see Lovely Summer-chan behind the table shaking each person's hand and signing their CDs while making small talk and exchanging laughs and smile. They felt genuine, too, and my predictions of a forced event with an artist reluctantly greeting fans began to fade into something much more pleasant. When it was my turn she asked me something I didn't understand about the little pouch I brought my CD and quickly realized I wasn't from Japan. We talked about Guam and she laughed when I told her I couldn't even remember how I had heard about her music. The cold was awful, and when I shook her hand to leave she apologized again for the wait. I had forgotten about the cold, and didnt realize my hands were probably freezing.

If you haven't listened to Lovely Summer-chan, you can preview tracks from her major debut album spliced into the music video for Kimi wa Tabacco, Watashi wa Shabon :

Some of her indie releases, a few singles and an EP, are also floating around CD shops. Her soundcloud account is also still up, and she will be doing events around Japan to celebrate her album.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

大森靖子 / Oomori Seiko (band set) @ Nagoya Club Quattro 2016.10.14

Oomori Seiko kicked off the second wave of shows in her TOKYO BLACK HOLE tour with a gig at Nagoya Club Quattro. This concert is the first featuring Seiko’s new backup band of talented musicians from across the board performing what I predict is quite a varied set list than what she has done thus far during her acoustic shows that started the tour. 
Last year's show at Nagoya Club Quattro
About ayear ago I saw Seiko for the first time on the same stage (officially, anyways, since last time she was just a guest for another act), and this marks the second time I would have the chance to see her in concert. I thought this a funny coincidence, and Seiko herself commented on her previous visit too, only she recalled something much more profound. She remembers that during the performance she was carrying her child, who just turned one, something that noone in the audience was aware of until weeks after when she made the news public. “I wasn’t bouncing around as much last time because my baby,” Seiko said in an MC, “but now I can really go all out.”
Unfortunately, it was the audience who was having a little bit of trouble bouncing around this time around. I was a little disappointed that Seiko’s on stage antics were met so passively by the crowd, who simply stood there in place not so much as moving an inch to the swells of sounds flowing from the speakers. Last time I fondly remember being swept up in a mass of people and ended up right at the front, but this time it seemed like the crowd was as careful as Seiko had been a year ago, albeit I doubt all of them had a growing baby inside their tummy’s.

The stoic aura had little effect on Seiko herself, who delivered a brilliant performance of songs new and old, with a bulk from the Sennou and Tokyo Black Hole albums. The title track of the latter had less of an impact when performed live(although it still brought yours truly to tears), and I’m not sure if this was because of the lousy sound system, the downer mood of the crowd, or something internally with the musicians at work behind the goddess herself. Pierre Nakano of Rin Toshite Shigure, for all his drumming prowess, seemed less of a stage presence than I imagined, unless most people are just dwarfed by Seiko's aura. On the contrary, I’ve finally become a fan of Tokyo Black Hole’s final tracks, which some fans praised but I could never quite accept as being very good. These were performed during an interlude in which Seiko took the stage alone and performed some tracks acoustic, proving that anything she does is gold, with or without the bells and whistles of a fancy studio recording mix, and in this case made the aforementioned tracks all the better. Other highlights include the band throwing down their instruments for the thumping pop portion of “Watashi wa omoshiroi zettai omoshiroi tabun” and dancing in unison, and Seiko’s “pretty manager” coming on stage to help sing the intro for “Gekiteki Joy~ BeforeAfter.” I didn’t catch their names, but the women who are part of the backing band were superb on their respective instruments, and it was nice seeing some gender diversity on the stage behind the goddess. 

Seiko never fails to awe in crowd involved even at the larger shows at less intimate venues, despite her being a major label artist that's almost cosigned to ignore her fans altogether because of her ascension to another plane of existence. Instead, she incorporated the crowd into sing-a-long chants to the chorus of "Zettai Shoujo," separated into groups of girls and "old guys," and even let one lucky girl, the winner of an impromptu rock-paper-scissors showdown, to sing solo. During the bridge of one song she passed the mic into the crowd and commanded everyone to yell in it to their heart's content. At the beginning of the show the audience was given a printout of lyrics which we were told to read to ourselves while the band sang along to it on stage, further solidifying this sense of community between ourselves and the band we were watching on stage, and feeling a lot like we were all back in grade school music class.  
"Orion's Belt," sang with piano accompaniment by the band and audience. 

I never thought that being packed into a hall with a bunch of people I’ve never met would incite more of a sense of belonging than any other environment or event I’ve been to since arriving in Japan. Yet here I was, bobbing my head to some of my favorite songs without a care in the world as to who was watching, keenly aware that no one would judge me with as sharp a point as they would if I were to step outside the doors of the live house and onto the street. We were all here to enjoy the same music, so we were all “weird,” and quite frankly I doubt anyone really cared. Given how ill I was feeling in the week leading up to the event, it felt like the therapeutic kind of experience I needed, giving me a time to relax, unwind, and feel somehow more connected to these strangers via an invisible string of fate, no doubt weaved up, around, and through us by none other than Oomori Seiko. 
All I could do to say thank you was pick up a cool tour T-shirt (the pink one I plan to invest in when she returns to Nagoya in November) and a shopping bag with her beloved Nana that touts a curious illustration of Seiko's world that I doubt I will ever use for anything practical. It is, however, nice to look at. 

Until next time. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Then and Now - Japanese exchange programs

Most of the posts in this blog are musings about Japanese music, a majority of which are (way too long) posts I did of shows I went to while on an exchange program at Okayama University in Spring and Summer of 2011. There isn't much going on in Guam but I've gone to Japan enough times to generate a little bit of content in between...but now that I'm back in Japan as part of another exchange program I - hope - I can post a little bit more and become more useful. It's a little out of the ordinary but I thought I could take the time to differentiate between the program I'm on now and the one I did five years ago. Now that school has officially started I always catch myself thinking back to the first program I did and how it compares and contrasts with this one.

Both are very different indeed. Five years ago I was part of a half a year course in Japanese language and culture. Besides a Japanese class I took just about everyday, all of the classes were taught in English on various topics in Japanese culture: political science, literature, history, etc. It was all streamlined and coordinated by the office and easy to do. This time, I'm a research student in a graduate program, and I'm not even too sure what I'm supposed to be doing! The Japanese course I've been enrolled in is a mix of students from various disciplines, but definitely none from my group of exchange students or my neighbors at the dormitory. Although my Japanese course is set, my other classes this time revolve around obtaining my degree and have been recommended to me by my advisor. Thankfully, these are few and far between and most are in Japanese but contain a reading list consisting of many academic books in English. It's still not a nice, ready-made little program, but at least this time the content is catered to be more specifically geared to my interests/academic research. It's a little more independent, but given that it's been five years and I'm a graduate student already, it's a given that I should be able to figure all this out on my own - it isn't hard, really.

Besides the programs themselves, there's also the fact that this time I've arrived on my own without any cohorts from my school or in my department. A few other students are enrolled in my program and are starting this semester, of course, but they not only live in a completely different area than my dormitory but seem to be under a different jurisdiction too. I go with a completely different group of students to register and such, and I don't know any of them very well. The last time it was much easier having two people come along from my university, one of which was already a long time friend, giving me someone to talk to and experience all the confusing things together. In addition, there were only a few other schools participating and it was easier to make friends with everyone even if I arrived in the middle of things. Otherwise, it's mostly me doing my own thing this time.

I haven't been to many foreign student parties or excursions and it's not exactly because there are a shortage of them but moreso because I'm just not interested. There are plenty being announced and even if I can't keep up with them ALL, it just isn't a priority of mine to go to this festival or this museum with the other people in the program. Maybe I'm just REALLY antisocial, have my own priorities, lost interest altogether in that kind of thing...or maybe I'm just too old. It's also less attractive if I have to go alone. Last time, having friends with you makes going to these things less of a hassle.

Finally, I realized that it's been a grand FIVE whole years since my last program and I've gone from an undergraduate to a graduate student, but mostly I've grown tremendously as a person. There is way too much that's occured in these past five years for my to possibly put down here, but through all of it I've taken on a completely different outlook on life. I might not be as enthusiastic about things as before but I feel like at the same time I'm trying my best to put myself out there and not worry too much about what people think - let's face it, I'm probably a lot older than everyone else in the classroom. I was a lot more lively back then and even if I am now, I guess I have a more pessimistic view of human relationships. I don't trust people as much as I did before and I suppose that's a little bit sad to think about. By no means do I expect anything out of anybody I meet. It feels like I just don't even care to meet people because it would amount to nothing like it usually does. Still, it's funny how in terms of what I'm doing in my free time, little has changeed. I'm still going here and there trying to explore, getting lost on my bike in every corner of downtown, and buying a ton of books, manga, and CDs that I probably won't ever use. Arcades are still a must every once in awhile and there isn't one in the city that I have yet to go to (at least that's how it feels at this point). I've tried just about every kind of ice cream at every convenience store. Mos Burger and ramen is about half my food pyramid. And I just discovered how exciting ordering things online is when you get them the next day - as opposed to waiting weeks or even a month on Guam. I haven't been going to concerts as much, in fact, none so far, but I'm not as in tune with Japanese music as I was before and haven't an idea about the music scene in Nagoya itself. I'm sure when I'm a little more well off financially I can start diving into live houses a bit more.

So in a nutshell that's what life's been like so far here in Nagoya. As time passes everything will, hopefully, become a lot more clear to me and allow me to write off all this unease and confusion as being simply part of the process of starting everything in a new place. I expect to post less of stuff like this in the future and definitely more of the usual pop culture kinda stuff. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Perfume Party People! - Perfume 11th Birthday Isetan Collaboration Concept Shop in Nagoya

I arrived in Japan just in time for Perfume's 11th anniversary of their major label debut. Has it really been that long? Sure! Just last year, I was in Japan for their 10th anniversary - for the last of a four day concert in Nihon Budoukan. This year isn't as commemorative, but Perfume still managed to churn something for their fans: a pop-up shop in collaboration with the Isetan Haus department store. Isetan was the same group responsible for the Perfume Dance Heels, replicas of the girls signature heels and crafted to perfection.

This year, Isetan commemorates Perfume's 11th anniversary with a small concept shop entitled Perfume Party People! which sells exclusive collaboration merchandise from designers, inspired by or produced by Perfume. There are a number of goods and a wide variety of them, too. Besides staples like T-shirts (my favorite being the Chocolate Disco design), totebags, and keychains, you can also find some other novel choices. Perfume stockings and - who would have thought Perfume perfume! You may not want to actually eat the Perfume sugar cookies - especially when you see how much they are. Stock is limited by location and while supplies last, and you can check out more at the official website. There is also a blog about the Shinjuku pop-up shop where you can see pictures of all the goods on display. Merchandise from the Cosmic Explorer tour are also on sale at the event and are a lot more affordable than the collaborative goods.

Isetan's Nagoya store is located right outside Nagoya station, easily accessed from the shinkansen or the many subway lines in the city, and was running the shop for about a week right after I arrived. From the station exit, it's literally a crosswalk away to the department store and from there just an escalator to the basement floor where the concept shops are located.

I felt a bit embarrassed because the basement floor was empty when I arrived and I was clearly excited, had my camera out, and came dressed in my Cosmic Explorer T-shirt. Thankfully I wasn't alone for long, as people would start trickling in with just as much as enthusiasm as myself, taking pictures of the exhibit and pointing out all the peculiar goods. Quite a number of people stopped in, even if it was just to take photos. The exhibit itself was very small and took up nothing more than small corner space.

The front had a model sporting one of the new T-shirt designs: a shirt with the words Chocolate on the front and DISCO DISCO DISCO DISCO at the back. I had my heart set on getting one here at the exhibit until I looked at the price tag and thought otherwise. At 7,500yen ($75) it's about the price of admission to see them at Nagoya Dome. I passed.

I didn't notice at first but the balloons had the members names on them, with colors to match.

A shirt rack had all the shirts for sale on display if you wanted to check your size or have a closer look at the design.

I was especially pleased with the illustration above this shirt. The shirt was rather plain: a Supreme brand parody that read Techno-pop in Japanese letters instead. Again, it was 7,500yen.

If you wanted CDs, they had some too! There were socks and other goods that I saw at the Cosmic Explorer goods table.

Unfortunately most of the exclusive merchandise like the stockings, pens, notebooks, and the like, were already sold out by the time I arrived. A friend who visited the shop before I did told me that the Perfume pens were especially popular and sold out quickly. It's probably best to get here on the first day if you're interested in any of this stuff. Otherwise, the high-end merchandise was still available.

Perfume stockings, pens, notebooks, and other items that were limited to the shop were completely sold out, even if they were limited to one per customer. These Perfume cookies that were going for almost $20 a pack were still in stock. I wonder why....

The exhibit might be traveling throughout Japan to other Isetan stores in the future, so be on the lookout for another chance to grab some of the exclusive items! Until next year!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Kicell ( キセル ) - toki wo hanarete ( 時をはなれて )

If there's anything I've learned over the years, it's that when it comes to films, books, or music - any kind of media - I can't be forced to get into something. Someone can recommend something to me to the highest degree and even if I know I might like it, I can't just sit there and enjoy it if there isn't some kind of force pulling me towards it on my end. I've also learned that sometimes you can't force stuff on other people either, and they, too, will have to take your best recommendations whenever they find it comfortable to them. I stopped being offended if someone got into something I introduced to them at a later time because I kind of learned the hard way when the same thing happened to me!

Kicell was one of those groups that I had heard so much about and was recommended so many times by both friends and by music websites like but could never quite listen to. I guess there wasn't quite something there that intrigued me about them and whenever I did listen to one of their albums I was unimpressed. But what would you know - I just suddenly felt compelled to look them up years later and I find them to be particularly pleasant, an excellent companion to a group like Quruli who I've been fond of for years.

I used to always play the group's albums from the start and find myself falling out of it in no time. Youtube is convenient in that it gets me into some of their singles, arguably their more accessible tunes, and pairs them with a music video to keep my attention so it's a lot easier to get into.

The above video for their track 時をはなれて (toki wo hanarete) reminds me a lot of the kinds of videos I liked before, too, around the time many years ago when I first heard of Kicell. I was really fond of stuff that showcased the scenery of small town Japan and everyday life rather than all the flashy MTV kind of stuff so it felt almost nostalgic, a reminder of a lot of my favorite videos from Onsoku Line. It paired great with the really mellow music.

It also reminded me a lot of the last airbnb I stayed in while in Japan - a spare room in a couple's condo who lived on the outskirts of Tokyo in the suburbs. It was a high rise apartment complex with not much else around it. The river bank was straight out of a Japanese drama or manga, and it was a great place to unwind.
But what it really struck me as was a perfect accompaniment to a Haruki Murakami novel or short story. The strange faces on the characters and the humdrum of everyday life, plus the meeting of the man and woman at the very end in the cafe.

Enjoy more Kicell.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Japan Fall 2015 - Love Live! Part 3: Kanda Myojin

The Japanese word seichi junrei translates to "sacred pilgrimage," but commonly refers to taking a trip to the real life locations found in anime, manga, or video games. The name comes from the fact that it takes a great deal of time and navigation to get to some of these out of the way towns which often require navigating through a maze of small, local trains to towns you never knew existed outside the city, not to mention a lot of time sitting and looking out at the countryside while you ponder how much you spent on train fare. Sometimes the places are so obscure, like the locations in Okayama prefecture which served as the basis for characters in the Tenchi Muyo! series, they require a car and some hiking to get to. My own trip to Toyosato elementary school, which was the model for the school used in K-On!, was quite a way from Tokyo and even required a trip aboard the bullet train.

Thankfully, Love Live! fans have it easy. The series is conveniently set near the otaku/electronics capital of  Akihabara and the neighborhoods surrounding the nearby Kanda Shrine, all easy to access from anywhere in Tokyo by regular train and are very affordable. Forget the sense of accomplishment: you won't miss the expensive train fares, having to navigate through never before seen train stations in a sparsely populated town, or spending hours sitting in a train looking at nothing. Trust me.

The school idols frequently visit Kanda Shrine, easily accessed from Ochanomizu station (NOT Kanda station, as I had to learn). It's a short five minute walk from the station to hill leading up to the shrine's main gate. It's simple to figure out with maps...or if you're like me you can always be on the look out for fellow fans and follow them inconspicuously. They won't mind and believe me, it works every time. Going to an event? you'll never need a map again if you look out for keychains and band t-shirts.

Kanda Shrine is a shrine first and a mecha for Love Live! fans second so you can actual see quite a bit of culture here, even if you did end up coming for to see your favorite member of muse. Wash your hands off to the side once you enter and make a small offering at the main shrine. The girls met up here during New Years with the members of A-rise.

Sit down for a little while and appreciate the architecture, take a break, then pull your shrine fortune from a box to see if you've gotten good luck. This gives you a good excuse to talk to one of the mikos (female shrine helpers) working at the temple. Nozomi was often seen tidying up the grounds of Kanda Myojin in the anime in her miko outfit and Kanda Shrine had some special Nozomi Ema (wish boards) and Omamori (good luck charms) available for sale. You can read more about Miko in this photo-heavy post and this informative article. 

An ema is a wooden plaque for wishes that you post at a shrine. Love Live's popularity has resulted in a sea of ema you can see posted all about the shrine adorned with messages and sometimes expertly drawn renditions of one's favorite member of muse. You can write a wish on the special Nozomi ema in the above picture, or get a plain one and decorate it however you want!

Instead of leaving the shrine through the main gate, head right past more ema boards to a stair case that leads down.

This appears everywhere in the anime, most notably in the race between Honoka and Nico that two friends tried to recreate right after I took my pictures. No fall included!

Once down the stairs, the main street to Akihabara's electric town district is a short walk away! Welcome back to civilization! Just kidding. You aren't that far out in the sticks.

Even if you aren't a fan of Love Live!, the shrine itself and the serene neighborhoods around it make for a nice getaway from the crowded concrete that densely overrides the Tokyo cityscape. Escape for an afternoon, enjoy a nice stroll around town, and if you really must get back to civilization Akihabara is literally right down the hill.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Japan Fall 2015 - Love Live! Part 2: Minalinsky Birthday Cafe @ Akihabara Cure Maid Cafe

To continue in the series of Love Live! posts from my Fall 2015 Japan trip, we have a visit to the Kotori Minami...or rather, Minalinsky Birthday Cafe held at Cure Maid Cafe in Akihabara!

After I saw the Love Live! School Idol movie at a small theater in Shibuya, I took the train back to Akihabara to line up for the cafe with a friend. Kotori's birthday had just passed, and Cure Maid Cafe hosted a special menu as well some limited edition merchandise to go along with the event.

Cure Maid Cafe is of particular interest to Love Live! fans because it served as the model for the maid cafe which Koto...erm, "Minalinsky," the nickname she takes up while on the job, works for during the animated series. The inside of the cafe looks similar to how it does in the episode and the long maid dress Kotori wears is the same as what all the servers wear.

I went on the last day, so the line to get in to the cafe was long. Located on the sixth floor, customers had to wait along the dreary staircase on the side of the building leading up to the cafe. The wait was a brutal two hours long on an already cloudy, gloomy day, but it was worth it to finally arrive at the top of the staircase to pretty young women in maid dresses.

The atmosphere of Cure Maid Cafe was much different from what most people would expect--myself included--out of one of Akihabara's most popular tourist attractions. This place was much farther from the cutesy, moe-type maid cafe's that Akihabara is known for. Instead of mini-skirts, wide-eyed contact lens, and speakers blaring denpa songs for the maids to dance to, Cure Maid Cafe embraces a totally different outlook on the maid culture that is much more sophisticated. They serve tea, the muscat grape was delicious, and for the event they played all of Kotori's solo songs from the Love Live! series, albeit on a much lower volume. The maids are much more composed, calm, and seem very professional. While they won't infuse your food with super cute powers, ala this hilarious Tommy Lee Jones commercial,  they will be glad to pour your tea for you and make you an omelette that probably tastes just as good. While it's a different atmosphere the no-pictures policy is still enforced, but you can get an idea of how the inside looks from pictures on the internet, like the above one from their official site.

Kotori's favorite food is cheesecake and Cure Maid Cafe offered a special slice decorated with her signature bird face as part of their special menu. They also had omelettes and other desserts on the menu but this cheesecake was too cute to pass up. It was also delicious, especially with the muscat tea. Some of the voice actors also paid a visit to the cafe and left a signature board for them to frame. The post cards below it were presents for ordering items off the special Kotori menu.

Although it was a painful wait to get in, the entire experience was well worth the visit. Even if you find yourself in Akihabara looking for an alternative to a typical maid cafe with a more relaxed atmosphere, pay a visit to Cure Maid Cafe. Check out their official website for directions, a list of events, and the menu. It's located in the same building as a store with nothing but gachapon machines and isn't very hard to find. Cheers!