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!

Japan Fall 2015 - Love Live! Part 1: LaForet Harajuku Hybrid Mind Market

In a previous post I mentioned how enjoyable it was seeing Suiyoubi no Campanella's One-man concert at a time when they were not just at a pinnacle in their career, reaching a wider audience and gaining immense popularity, but more importantly because I was so engrossed in the band that the gig a lot more fun than if I had just went on a whim. It was timed perfectly, and so was another interest of mine during my fall trip: the idol anime Love Live!.

If it wasn't already apparent in my last post where I mention seeing the film not once but twice, I'm actually rather fond of the series even though it's a kind of guilty pleasure. This trip was timed perfectly to coincide with the film release, which gives a solid conclusion to the series and also meant that Love Live! fandom was in full swing just about everywhere you looked. There were plenty of things to do for die-hard Love Live! fans around Tokyo and since I did quite a few things related to the series, I decided to multiple posts about it. I went to LaForet Harajuku's Hybrid Mind Market shop dedicated to Love Live! Then, I went to the Kotori Minami birthday event at Cure Maid Cafe in Akihabara. I saw the film twice in two different theaters, and, finally, I was able to take a "pilgrimage" trip to the Kanda Myojin shrine near Akihabara, a real life shrine that appears frequently in the series and is frequently visited by eager fans.
Hybrid Mind Market @ Harajuku LaForet

A friend of mine met up with me in Harajuku to go shopping for clothes and on the way we passed this huge billboard which stopped me in my tracks. I had to go!

In the basement of one of Harajuku's flagship stores, the LaForet buulding, is a shop called Hybrid Mind Market which frequently collaborates with the most popular animated series and sells a plethora of merchandise online and at their store in Harajuku. It's a little out of place seeing a store dedicated to anime in a neighborhood known more for clothing brands and street fashion but its worth the change of scenery. I just so happened to be here at the right time, too!

A staircase leading to the bottom floor let out to displays of many new and unreleased Love Live! figures on display in a well lit showcase.

From there was the shop which featured all kinds of apparel, stickers, and other merchandise to tie in with the film. Some of this was exclusive to the store. I picked up a T-shirt to wear to the movie the next day and a draw string bag with my favorite member Hanayo. Among the merchandise was this outfit from the movie and a banner with Umi's AIDORU written in kanji:

The shop then transitioned into an exhibit of more merchandise and close to life size cutouts, notably the street scene at the end of the film. There were also large collages for each member. You can see Hanayo's below.

Thanks for reading! See you in Part 2.

Monday, January 11, 2016

岡山 cafe moyau

Don't let the aging architecture deter you - cafe moyau is a cafe/restaurant in Okayama prefecture that embraces its antique look to create an almost dreamlike atmosphere, evoking both familiarity and nostalgia. Even if we don't all live in a picturesque shack right by a river it's hard to not think of it as feeling like home - or at least establishing what home is supposed to feel like.

The cafe faces the Asahigawa river, lying on the outskirts of downtown Okayama, positioned right between the office buildings and skyscrapers of the business district the two biggest tourist cultural tourist attractions a bridge away: the Korakuen Garden, one of Japan's best, and Okayama Castle. Moyau's location in between the tourism and business sectors feels symbolic, offering an escape both from the concrete jungle to its left as well as the busy commercial tourism and sights on its right.

The wooden entrance door rattles as it moves into place and the steep wooden stairs to the second floor loft creak underfoot with even the most careful step. The chairs and tables look slightly worn but are obviously clean and well kept. The furnishings lack the uniformity of most restaurants and cafes in favor of picking and choosing what looks to be the most comfortable over the most symmetric. The lights are dim and you call the servers, all whom looked to be at home here as well while dressed in their own attire, with a small bell placed on your table. The menu is made of bound, decorated cards and is hand written. The smell of stewing curry filled the room from the first time I opened the door and  conversations were short and sweet among the men getting off work and the woman with her two children sitting across the way. The mood seemed to always hover just slightly above the ground, being neither too gloomy and quiet nor too festive and rowdy. It was just right.

A small library with shelves of books is located just to the side of the cafe in a separate room where you can also enjoy your drinks or lunch, with windows facing the river. The sun was just setting when I was there and I saw a girl enjoying her lunch outside the window on a chair she pulled up by the small road in front. I chose a short story collection by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo and skimmed through a novel by Ryu Murakami. There are a variety of drinks and food on the menu and the whole place smelled of delicious home stewed curry, but what caught my eye the most was the azuki coffee. It arrived at my table with a topping of whipped cream and the expected red beans fashioned on top.

One of the reasons I was so inclined to go to cafe moyau when a friend suggested it was because the name sounded familiar: Oomori Seiko stopped by just a few weeks before I was there to give an intimate acoustic concert in the event space located in the basement of the cafe. They seem to do a variety of interesting events besides live shows, too. I spotted a signed vinyl record of singer-songwriter Shibata Satoko's EP on the way out.

If you ever find yourself looking for a nice place to relax off the beaten path or after a days worth of sightseeing in Okayama city, cafe moyau is a convenient place to unwind. Okayama is a city best explored by bicycle, the transportation of choice for most of the city's inhabitants, and rental bicycles for non-residents are available from a number of places. Cafe moyau is a short bicycle ride from Okayama station, although it can be a little longer on foot. For directions and more information, check out the cafe's official website as well as this handy google map location or the map posted on their homepage.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

水曜日のカンパネラ (Suiyoubi no Campanella / WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA ) @ Ebisu Liquid Room 03/29/2015

Because I don't live in Japan, perhaps the biggest inconvenience to me is not being able to see all these great concerts that go on for artists I like when I want to see them. Concerts are sometimes great leaps into the unknown that unearth numerous musical discoveries or opportunities for me to reaffirm my love for an artist I used to obsess over. But nothing beats going to a gig when I'm completed and utterly obsessed with an artist, when my interest is at its peak.

So imagine my chagrin when the perfect day for a Suiyoubi no Campanella / WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA concert occurred during my trip and the tickets sold out in just two hours. A friend of mine apologized - even he couldn't get tickets to a small Suiyoubi no Campanella show days before at a local club - and I was disappointed I would be missing the one artist I had listened to so obsessively in the months prior to leaving to Japan. Not only was my interest at its highest point, but Suiyoubi no Campanella was also reaching a milestone in their career and becoming a lot more popular. The sold out gig in question took place at Liquid room, a pretty sizable concert hall in Tokyo that followed an equally successful(see: sold out) tour of Japan, plus getting spread about on the net via word of mouth (kyary pamyu pamyu helped and is supposedly a big fan). The concert would mark the artists departure from the confines of the underground club circuit and into the ears of many more people. I myself had been listening in to the artist as this was all unfolding and I had savored every music video and every track on their prior EPs, doting on each release and never wanting the music to end.
It was terrible that I couldnt see them...but then came my saving grace - a kickstarter-esque website was created to give people the chance to pledge for rewards related to the show. You could pledge for images, an audio recording, or HD video footage of the concert and I opted for the complete package, thinking it was better than not being able to go. On the top there was also an option to pledge a paltry sum of 1000yen($10) for a chance to win one of 10 extra tickets to the gig. It wouldnt hurt, I thought, so I kept that day open in my schedule. Then, miracle would have it that one day at work I glanced down at my phone to an email with a vague title - containing a winning ticket to the gig. I guess I'd be watching it from my computer and attending afterall.

I rushed back to Tokyo from Nagoya after seeing two shows there, with the Suiyoubi no Campanella gig to round out the weekend. I stopped first in Ueno park after hearing the cherry blossoms were in full bloom before heading to the gig later that afternoon. The dress code for the show was red or blue, the theme was to have the audience dressed like the Onis(Japanese demons/monsters) that were the theme of the show's title "Take me to Oni island!". On the subway I saw a few people in the train dressed in matching colors who I would later see at the show and felt a little out of place with my plain, faded red jacket.

Plenty of people had already gathered inside the venue well before the gig was to start and I lined up to grab a poster and some CDs, then wandered around the neighborhood for a bite to eat before they let people in. Since I won my ticket, I was the last to go inside the venue and by then it seemed like an endless stream of people had already been inside.
The stairway was lined with posters of a fake film starring the group, styled like an old Japanese film poster. Once inside the hallways blared tribal music and had two folks in Oni garb greeting people entering. It was sweltering hot and the crowd made it difficult to move, but I wiggled to grab a drink, downed it, and finally went inside. Being last, the entire floor was already full as was the back of the stage but I was keen on getting as close as I could and found a spot on the floor to squeeze into. From font to back the place was completely packed. But it wasn't long before the loud hum of the crowd was silenced as a movie came on screen and signaled the start of the gig; see below.

I've always thought of Suiyoubi no Campanella as a kind of chimera - as a group, they seek to engage multiple senses while also having so many different facets to them, so many things to appreciate, that it feels so encompassing to be a part of their experience. It's not just an aural experience comprised of music, it's visual, ala their attention to detail on music videos. It's not just komuai's vocals, but Kenmochi's track making. It's not just about a unique live performance as it is about the studio recordings. This idea was cemented at the very foundation of the gig, with a combination of komuai's stage performance, antics, vocals, and background videos moving the performance along and making for a unique live show.

Then of course, you had various highlights, like seeing "Mitsuko" (above) with an accompanying stop motion video taking us through Tokyo's winding streets and right up to the Liquid Room venue. A similar new approach was also done for Marie Antoinette where Komuai struggle to throw   Or in "Inca" when the group of performers came out and had a tussle with Komuai on stage. There was also a semi-failed attempt to live broadcast the merchandise table from just outside the concert hall - there were some technical difficulties and Komuai ended up just bringing the shirts out and showing them that way. She leapt into the crowd after a few songs and took a Go-Pro strapped to her microphone around the entire Liquid Room, weaving in and out of the crowd while trying to sing "Dracula," giving just about everyone in the large room a chance to get close to her.

Things started to wind down and personally I was getting a bit tired myself when the entire stage changed and some unknown music started blaring on the speakers. This was another far out experience provided by a musician who would later be announced as Oorutaichi, a producer for one of Suiyoubi no Campanella's new tracks. His set dragged on a bit, again, probably just because of my fatigue, but my favorite part was his use of this laser animation that reminded me of the targeting computer stuff from the first Star Wars film. Afterwards, Komuai joined him on stage to perform their new track, "Yuta," which also had a really neat background movie that was broadcast across the stage and ceiling.

The night rounded out with Diablo, a track off her new(at that time!) Triathalon EP, featuring the aforementioned track by Oorutaichi as well.

It was a pretty great night, albeit a very tiring one, and I was a little disappointed I didn't get to hear Janne da Arc, especially because the accompanying performance involves Komuai getting onto a makeshift cardboard bus and riding it through the audience...but I was already pretty satisfied with getting into the show of my dreams, being able to catch every single song that came on, and getting to see an artist I probably won't be able to see again - at least because Suiyoubi no Campanella has grown exponentially in popularity since March of last year and has sold out many of their shows.

Anyway, cheers to the next time they decide to do something really ambitious again. It was fun!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Going to a Japanese movie theater

Look up for a surprise on the way to Toho Cinemas in Shinjuku
Even though I watch a lot of Japanese films and was part of a film club at my university that screened films regularly on campus, the notion  of going to the cinema while on my trips to Japan to experience these films on the big screen rarely occurred to me. When I was going to school in Japan I was thinking about going to the cinema to see the latest Ghibli film at the time, From Up on Poppy Hill, but decided not to...and again when I was there last year I had thought about seeing another Ghibli film, When Marnie was There but that didn't pan out either. In the limited time I spend in Japan and with all the moving around and going to concerts, events and the like, a two hour excursion to the theaters just never really fit into my trip planning. Plus, the obvious language barrier was always there and I never wanted to sit down and pay for a film that I wouldn't understand.

Small movie house in Shimokitazawa
This time, though, I suddenly decided to make up for lost time and planned to see some films in Tokyo, given my Japanese has gotten better over the years too. In the process, I discovered a wealth of interesting places via the internet for people looking to see any kind of film while in Japan. A Cinephiles Guide to Tokyo is a great start, and then there was the interesting double-bill art-house theater called Waseda Shochiku which you can read about in this great article. There was one theater that held some overnight events from 10PM to 5AM in Ikebukuro and other art-house places that catered to all tastes, too, both in foreign classics and recent underground Japanese films. Unfortunately there aren't too many out there, but the guide I posted above is a pretty good run down of where to see independent and classic films in Tokyo.

I saw the Love Live! movie here at the Piccadilly cinema in Shinjuku
Unfortunately I didn't venture to any of these revival cinema houses while I was on my trip, although I most definitely wanted to. Instead, I saw three recently released animated films in four different cinemas across Tokyo (I saw one film twice, Love Live!). Each had its perks, but across the field there were a couple of general differences between the movie theaters in Japan and those back at home so I thought I would share some of them here for those that might be planning to check out a film in Japan and might not know what to expect.

A few things about Japanese cinemas that surprised me:

Ticket stubs are nothing fancy. Notice the letter and number on each ticket for the seating assignment. 
1) You have an assigned seat that you have to choose when you purchase the ticket. The attendant will show you a little card or digital menu with the seats in relevance to the screen and tell you to pick one that's available. This can be difficult if you don't know how large the screen is or what the layout is like and it was especially puzzling since I hadn't been to any of the theaters before, but I got by with decent seats by just choosing somewhere in the middle, half-way between the back and the screen. Where I'm from, anyway, seats aren't assigned and its first come, first served.

2) Tickets are expensive. I paid 1800yen (about $15) for each film and that's almost twice what I would have paid normally for a movie on Guam. I'm not sure how that compares to other countries but to me it was a little do get some cool goodies depending on the movie. For the Love Live! movie, they gave me a randomly packed film strip and I got a special little card and handout for The Anthem of the Heart.

The class in The Anthem of the Heart put on a play and you receive a mock program book and autograph board with all the students' signatures upon entering the theater. 
3) The theaters here are notorious for blasting the air conditioning so they feel like freezers - making it mandatory to bring a jacket or something to warm you up. Theaters in Japan weren't cold at all - in fact, they felt kind of warm. I stopped bringing a jacket to the cinema after my first film there.

4) You usually have to wait in the lobby until about 10 or 15 minutes before the movie starts and then they start letting people into the theater. As I mentioned before, seats are assigned so trying to get in early to get seats isn't a big deal.

Randomly packed film strip I received from the Love Live! movie
5) You can purchase tickets online in advance at almost all the places or you can just arrive a little early to secure your ticket. I didn't see any world premiers or first-day showings, but some shows did only have a handful of seats open when I got the box office half an hour or so before the show. If you can, get them online or just pass by the theater before you have lunch and come back for the showing to be sure you get a good seat. I didn't use any of the online reservation systems while I was there so I unfortunately can't explain how they work, but a few theaters did have automated ticket machines that guided you through the process of choosing a seat and paying for your ticket without any of the hassle that comes with human interaction.

6) Thankfully, previews and advertisements were kept pretty minimal. There were only a few ads and a few previews per film, whereas the cinemas I usually frequent at home are known for serving up so many commercial you run out of popcorn. Then again, maybe it was quality over quantity...the jingles and cartoons at the Toho cinemas were absolutely atrocious, appalling, and easily some of the most uninteresting animated gags I had ever seen in my life. Nobody laughed and I'm thankful I had a whole film ahead of me to forget about them.

That should probably cover anyone fretting about seeing a film in Japan. Whether you're looking to see some Japanese films before they premier anywhere else or simply looking to see a Hollywood film you may have missed, I hope this guide helps.
Stay tuned for my coverage of the films and cinemas I went to in later posts.