anthropology of the arcade

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IMG-2404A moment of stillness in a usually hectic arcade.

One quintessential Japanese institution that I’ve, shockingly, come to love in my time abroad is the arcade. Growing up, I was never one for video games of any sort; there are no discarded cartridges for Mario Kart or Grand Theft Auto in my attic, my feet have never rested upon the glowing platform of a Dance, Dance, Revolution rig. At one point, I came to possess a secondhand GameBoy but I barely burned through a full charge before passing it on to a younger relative. I knew distantly that arcades, and gaming in general, were fairly popular in Japan due to the large number of franchises developed in the country as well as the populace’s need for an outlet after long days at the office, but didn’t think much more of it.

IMG-2415A friend who is less remedial and subsequently more enthusiastic about arcades that I am on any given day.

For all the misrepresentations of Tokyo in Western media (looking at you, Sofia Coppola), one thing they truly get right is the endless sea of neon that overtakes the city after dark. Signs, in both Latin characters and the various Japanese alphabets, are stacked one on top of the other on every street corner, the same chains frequently recurring and thus burned into memory. Karaoke joints are prominent in every part of the city, and though by this point I’ve become partial to Uta Hiroba (which translates to something like “songs for all,” I believe), another chain’s red-lettering against a cerulean backdrop always jumps out at me. Second place to karaoke signs, although not as widespread, are those for arcades.

 

In Japan, multi-story arcades are the norm, a far cry from their American cousins which, in my limited exposure, seem to be more or less a single, grotto-like room. Many are open twenty-plus hours a day with brief cleaning intervals, and in some cases offer their visitors the option to enjoy full meals, aged whiskey, and rental pajamas, without moving more than ten feet from their console of choice. On my first arcade visit, to a mega-complex in Akihabara, I had thought coming at 11 am on a Tuesday would guarantee me a relatively calm introduction to the concept, with few fellow customers interrupting my picture-taking. I was wrong: already salarymen on their lunch break dominated the pachinko floor and patrons were arriving by the minute, 7-11 bags stuffed to the brim with energy drinks and onigiri. Having trekked out there, I played a few games with varying success and hit the road before I had the chance to witness any fights over the single Pac-Man machine.

Many arcades have themes and, according to a reliable source, tend to attract less serious gamers and more tourists. In turning my research to those arcades, I discovered (on my very first google search; again, I’m not into gaming) what has become my personal favorite, Anata No Arcade.

IMG-2919Most doors in Anata No Arcade open automatically and are accompanied by sound effects/gusts of mist, which is convenient but also terrifying.

Located just outside of Tokyo in Kawasaki, where TUJ students in the Musashi-Kosugi dorm technically live, “Your Arcade,” as it translates, is designed to look like the Kowloon City slum of Hong Kong. It is the definition of techno-orientalism, with components of a street market and space ship merged together. Its designer meticulously studied images of the now-sanitized Kowloon City, and in some cases brand new arcade games were dirtied, scuffed, to better fit the aesthetic.

IMG-3008This portal actually just goes to the parking structure.

While I can’t say I’ll be entering a tournament or staking out a spot before the doors even open anytime soon, I must say that arcades can be a fun way to kill a few hours and, of course, get some good pictures!

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Week 11: Nara

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Nara Tourist Information Center

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Deer Walking the Streets of Nara Park

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Students Interact with Deer

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Deer in Nara Park

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Students Feeding Deer

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Himuro Shrine

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Path to Todai-ji Temple

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Nara Deer-Themed Souvenirs

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Nandaimon: Entrance to Todai-ji Temple

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For Dinner, Ochazuke: Tea on Rice

a night at the movies

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After the first half of the week tricked me and the rest of Tokyo into thinking we were comfortably entrenched in spring, at last, the weekend brought a total reversion, complete with icy rain. Always one to let the weather get the best of me, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to catch a movie at one of the city’s many cinemas.

I had read about the extravagancies of Tokyo theaters, luxurious recliners and blankets and whole meals served during the show,  but no one in my immediate circle had gone to one yet so I would have to do further searching on my own. After reading through one article which listed theaters showing mostly arthouse or dated films in English, I felt like an idiot when I clicked on the Toho site on accident and discovered that just about every current U.S. release screened there is shown with English audio and Japanese subtitles.

Of course.

I settled on the Shinjuku location (known for a Godzilla head peaking out of its higher levels, Google it) and Black Panther for the movie. Although IMAX 3D and 3D MX4D (which purports to make the audience “feel” what happens on screen, something I’m not sure you’d want when watching a movie that is 75% punching but to each her own) weren’t much more than the standard showing, spanning a spectrum from 1,500 to 2,000yen, I decided to keep it simple. After classes on Friday, I set out from TUJ with three friends by my side for Shinjuku.

When we arrived to buy tickets at 5:45, with our showtime at 7, the rest of my party was a little anxious for reasons I couldn’t understand. We had an hour and fifteen minutes; what was there to stress about? As we purchased our tickets from the self-service kiosk, expressions of joy at the student discount quickly souring when it became clear there were almost no connecting seats left and those that remained were in the front row, I realized that seeing a movie in a small town is entirely different from seeing one in a big city. No chance of having the theater to yourself or waltzing in during the previews; seeing a movie in Tokyo requires planning.

We settled for the four connecting seats in the front and went to get dinner before the show, slightly worried by the number of moviegoers already camped out in the lobby when no new showings were being seated until 6:30, all times staggered by three hours instead of occurring according to running time. Upon our return, things had become even livelier and entrance was being permitted by theater number, not the free-flow common to U.S. theaters; ours was screen #4 and there must have been another film showing with four (yon) in the title because we twice queued up to enter after hearing yon only to be shooed away.

I had just entered the snack line when we were finally called and was haunted by my loss though pleased to see the front row wasn’t practically pressed against the screen like in U.S. theaters. Let me say, I have never in my life purchased movie snacks and was raised to bring a tote bag full of dollar store treats with me to all theatrical outings. But, I had my heart set on a reasonably priced churrito. So after ten minutes of trying to figure out the theater’s policy on re-entry (they hadn’t torn our tickets but it’s easy to seem suspicious as a foreigner, especially when tiptoeing around something you’re uncertain of, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts), I went for it.

IMG_2869Yes, I know this isn’t a Star Wars screening; let me wield my churrito in peace.

And, even if I had been questioned, it would still have been worth it.

getting the perfect shot

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Without stepping on my photoblogging counterpart’s toes, I feel it’s my duty to offer some tips on taking photos in Tokyo for those of us with less artistic inclinations. I strive to get pictures of everything in preparation for old age, from food to candids of friends to blooming flowers, and this is a lot less embarrassing than it is back home because even locals love to photograph the city’s wonders. And, if a picture is worth a thousand words, what better way is there to explain your semester abroad? Answer: there isn’t one.

  1. Find a cool background

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This especially works with food and beverages; see the countless “______ (food/beverage) in the air” accounts on instagram. This can be difficult with particularly tasty treats, because you end up eating them before snapping a picture, and crowded streets, where no one cares about your excitement for what claims to be the richest matcha gelato in existence. However, with some determination, you can prevail.

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Coordinating colors always make for a cool picture. Sure, it’s just a piece of penny candy but with a coincidentally matching train stop behind it? Art.

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And of course this applies to street art and sticker-blasted walls more than anything. Without this backdrop, Caroline appears uncomfortable, like she’s holding back her thoughts. But thanks to the “heartless” banner adjacent to her head, we know she’s truly smug, shoulders back as she takes on the line for conveyor belt sushi today, tomorrow the world

2. Appreciate the mundane

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Sure, the lights of Yokohama Chinatown are cool, the tins of dim-sum mouthwatering, but what about the people who keep the streets running? Here you can see one chef on break, one at work in the window, people passing by oblivious, all bookended by industrial items like crates and Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines. (Deserving of far more attention than they receive.)

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This shot, taken through the window of my train and that of the train next to it during an emergency stop, is the epitome of the Friday rush hour. Blaring red scrawls notifying passengers of their train’s movements and destinations, sleeping passengers, the teal light making everything feel like slogging through an ocean current.

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The above image would likely inspire a Pixar short, if shown to the right people.

3. Shadows and profiles, people! “Head on” is for migraine relief, not photographs!

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Open markets selling knick knacks and produce cover dozens of streets from dawn till dusk. You can find all the colors of the rainbow framed by gritty lights and damp alleyways. Why capture a bowl of fruit when you can have a whole stand?

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Again, vending machines are ubiquitous in Tokyo, on every street corner, so find one with an inventory that compliments your lipstick and click away.

4. Go close up or far away

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Crowds are a given, wherever you go, but you don’t have to settle for pictures taken over the top of a sea of blurry, moving figures. Go for a close-up of wood work instead of the whole shrine; no one will be in your shot though you might end up in someone else’s.

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Or embrace the business and get the whole picture with some help from mirrors or shop windows. The above arch, at a Harajuku department store, is beyond cool with its web-like effect but a shop-window selfie with passersby forming a human horizon line is just as good.

So there are my tips for capturing Tokyo, no filter required.

 

elements of style

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Though I’m no fashion victim, I strive to sport a fairly consistent style. This is especially relevant at my home university, where there is an unspoken policy of “class dress”: not always business wear (for presentations and exams this is the norm), but never sweat pants. My wardrobe is very middle of the road at Sewanee, a mix of current trends and thrift store finds, though it strays a little as a consequence of my northern origins in that I have an excess of black clothing and an intolerance for the hideous footwear that’s as common as grass on campus. (I’m talking Chacos, Birkenstocks, and any shoe meant to seamlessly transition from dock side to boat. Just bad all around.)

Before arriving in Tokyo, I knew blending in was not within the realm of possibility. Even if I weren’t a bottle blonde and 5’5, the U.S. average for women which allows me to see cleanly over the heads of most Japanese women (and some men) in the vicinity, my clothing surely would give me away. And it has but not for the reasons I thought it would.

Japanese style previously fell into two categories in my mind, for young adults at the very least. The first, which can be summarized as “bubblegum gaudy,” as appropriated by Gwen Stefani and also embodied in generically popular anime, was all bright colors (for hair and make up as well as clothes) and shiny materials, while the second, with no official moniker, was very much inspired by the techno-orientalism of films like Blade Runner and red carpet pictures of J-pop idols, mainly black with lots of sleek outerwear. The former category contained the Lolita subculture and could be captioned with kawaiidesu, while the latter could contain the gothic Lolita sub-subculture, and was meant to be worn in sterile government buildings and semi-scary bars.

 

If this was your first thought of ‘Japanese fashion,’ you’re about a century behind

Both of these semi-imagined styles can be found in some iteration or even merged together in Tokyo, usually hanging around the busier intersections of Harajuku. But for the most part, current daily fashion is very different and much more classic. Crisp colors and classic cuts are the norm, with longer hems and higher heels than I’m used to.

Uniforms are prevalent among high schoolers and college-aged Tokyoites dress in a more adult manner than you would see in the U.S. Seeing someone clad in all black is rare and bright accessories will be used to balance darker looks. Hats are also popular and necessary with the winds that whip around the city’s skyscrapers and send what little litter there is flying as well as loose hair.

 

How everyone keeps their sneakers spotless while walking everywhere I don’t know.

My favorite Tokyo trends thus far include the sleek backpacks ubiquitous among travelers of all ages and, most importantly, high waisted, wide-legged pants!

 

Sadly, all patterned pants were sold out in gaijin size.

What would go for $70 or more in the U.S., if you could even find it, can be found in just about every women’s store for half the price! UNIQLO is a favorite among Japanese and foreigners alike, due to their well-made products and inclusive sizing. I was even more shocked when these pants fit than I was when the fitting room attendant pulled the shirt guard over my head without warning.

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The above is by far my most inconspicuous outfit, a mix of old pieces and recent acquisitions, though the boots (and, again, the blonde) still make me stand out. I’m sure by the time I head home I’ll be struggling to pack a slew of new items but for now it’s a matter of just taking notes.

tokyo joe

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tokyo joe

Like many college students, I suffer from an unfortunate addiction: caffeine. From fourth grade on I have started my day with two cups of coffee, less if I’m traveling or busy, usually more when classes are in session. Since I was sixteen, I’ve been a barista, so between shift drinks and employee discounts, I’m rarely without espresso pumping through my veins. My life is just killing time, sandwiched between waking up from a caffeine withdrawal headache and struggling to sleep hours later because I’m vibrating from the day’s tea, coffee, cola. I knew this habit would not be sustainable in Japan and I made a conscious effort to prepare ahead of time. I stopped drinking coffee first, switching wholly to tea even though it meant I was drinking ten or so cups a day. Then I gradually reduced my tea allowance, avoiding it later in the day so I could get to sleep and thus need less the next day. All of winter break at home I managed with only a cup, two maximum, which certainly did not help me get myself organized for my trip. But I did it, I weaned myself off of coffee.

Only for jetlag to knock me right back to where I started.

As previously mentioned, $6 dollar cups of coffee are de rigeur in Tokyo which is certainly not sustainable on a college budget. But I’m not sustainable without coffee so another solution would have to be found.

My first try was instant coffee, picked up at the dollar store known as ‘daiso.’ I was proud of my thriftiness, of my toughness, having previously eschewed instant coffee on the grounds that, well, it’s disgusting. (Get it, ‘on the grounds’ like coffee grounds?) But I told myself this was a necessary sacrifice, part of being abroad and getting outside of my comfort zone. So when the first cup was too water-y, I added more powder. When the result was like a brick of grit going down my throat, I ran to the store for milk. And when, five rounds of modification later, I knew that this wouldn’t be a pleasant or even practical solution, I made sure to at least finish the mess I made.

IMG_2819.JPGPoison

Luckily, the conbinis of Japan stock an insane number of beverages—coffee, tea, aggressively advertised energy drinks, hot, cold, with or without milk, sugar, flavor, fresh made or bottled—and can be found on every corner.

IMG_2818.JPGThe good stuff

Plain old iced coffee quickly became a part of my routine, unsweetened so I can save my calories for mochi. Most stores stick to a color-coding policy of blue carton for sweetened, brown for unsweetened. However there was one instance where I picked up a brown carton and nearly gagged from a mouthful of what tasted like dirt and butter had a baby. I still don’t know what that was to this day as I ditched the carton immediately. Individual latte cups are also a nice treat but with their sky-high sugar content and the waste that comes with their single-use packaging, I try to stay away.

Like most things in Japan, extreme care is put into every facet of coffee. The beans are expertly selected, the milk never burned, and the latte art award-worthy.

A confused westerner who is trying to assimilate by photographing her beverage

And with that in mind, of course, sometimes you just have to get the $5, $6, $7 cup of coffee and enjoy the perks that come with it. Tokyo baristas, while in my experience less friendly than the rest of the country’s seemingly peppy work force, are generally pretty chill and it is guaranteed that purchasing a beverage comes with hours of sitting unbothered in a trendy café, free Wi-Fi enabling you to write blog posts to your heart’s content. I wrote this and many other posts in one of these such cafes in Omotesando, sipping on a matcha latte with Coldplay drifting through the speakers.

IMG_2841An afternoon well spent

Latte: 600yen

Train fare: 124yen

Being in the background of every teen girl’s hipster photo shoot: priceless