As my plane once again touched down at Narita International Airport, I switched gears — my mangled amalgam of Korean and English would now be replaced by an equally broken mishmash featuring Japanese. Although my experiences in communicating with the Korean people were reassuring, I still found myself a little nervous in approaching others within my new surroundings. Still, just as the case had been at Incheon, there was a task at hand that would thrust me into my first exchange with the country’s inhabitants: I had to convert my currency to Japanese yen.
The sign advertising the best exchange rates in the terminal sat next to a lonely little window denoting Mizuho Bank. Compared to other such services catering to travelers, there was practically no other English in sight. It was for this reason that I was abruptly caught off-guard when the elderly Japanese man at the window spoke.
“Hello!” he greeted.
Taken aback, I peered at the smiling man who seemingly glowed apart from the depressingly barren office space behind him. It was not so surprising of course — it was only natural that the man had learned the language after doubtlessly seeing scores of English-speakers on a daily basis. Yet I was then surprised a second time as I began to talk to him; with his warm, wrinkled smile never leaving his face, he stopped me by shaking his head to indicate that he did not, in fact, speak English. Curiously, through this experience I found myself on the receiving end of an amusing misconstruction I had been party to so many times in Korea; although I had performed my due diligence in learning helpful foreign questions/phrases prior to my arrival, the command of language required to actually comprehend any meaningful responses was not among my developed skillsets. My attempts to speak the language would often be the source of this, and, a particularly notable such example would come to pass in Akihabara before the end of my trip. At one point, a sidewalk maid correctly figured I was lost and although I successfully managed to ask her for directions to the train station in Japanese, the cluelessness emanating from the placid smile on my face gave away the fact that I could not understand her response. With a polite laugh, the girl compensated by switching to (rather proficient) English and her desire to communicate properly was wholeheartedly appreciated.
Unfortunately, I was unable to accommodate the man before me by switching to Japanese, yet we still had a mutual desire to communicate. With an embarrassed laugh, I could not help but feel charmed by our encounter and therein commenced a curious game of charades. It was a wordless conversation denoted by smiles and gestures — I would place my money on the counter and he would accept it with a small bow. He would count the money with a machine and point to the display readout for me to confirm that it was the proper amount. Whipping out an old-fashioned calculator, he would pause at each step of his calculations and hold it up for me to see. Upon noting my nod of assent to the final amount, he stamped a few documents and provided me with the calculated amount of Japanese currency. Sure it took longer than the average transaction, but our mutual patience, courtesy, and desire to connect in fleeting communication, was enough to meet each other halfway. I left, bidding the man farewell with a stumbled “arigatou” (ありがとう) — thank you — and in the process once again clumsily leaving out the “gozaimasu” (ございます) adjunct denoting the expression as a formal one.
I found my experience at the bank quite typical of my encounters in Japan. Absolutely everyone I spoke to received me with politeness and patience — everyone displayed an earnest desire to help, even going so far as to pull out Google Translate on their phones in an effort to communicate with me. Though among the crowds of people I stood out yet again, I was always made to feel welcome.
Obtaining a Suica electronic money card and Japan Rail Pass to gain access to the country’s enormous rail system was relatively straightforward as the transit staff was well versed in dealing with English speakers. As I boarded the first-class “green car” aboard the N’EX Narita Express bound for Tokyo, I was able to sit down and relax as I watched the Japanese countryside flutter past. The ride was peaceful with me being the only passenger aboard the private green car and the rustic scenery was a beautiful sight compared to the urban surroundings in Seoul. Per the monitor displayed above the doors, the train lived up to the Japanese reputation for punctuality and the images depicting the train’s position along its route were English-friendly. Even in transferring to the Yamanote Line, then later the Ginza Line, the signage at the train stations was clear and their schedules followed the information provided by Google Maps exactly. Before long, I began to see the Tokyo Skytree looming in the distance as the train approached Asakusa, the site of my hotel.
The Gate Hotel雷門 was located a mere two-minute walk from the station and an even shorter distance from the lively Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. Although the crowds gathering at the temple’s “Kaminarimon” (雷門) or “Thunder Gate” proved tempting, I first had to make my way to the hotel to drop off my baggage. As a testament to the limited real estate in Tokyo, the first floor of the hotel was elegantly minimalistic — instead of a lobby, only a small depiction of the hotel’s logo adorned the room alongside two elevators. From above, light shone through transparent containers of water in the ceiling, casting rippling shadows across the room. And then, when one would board the elevator, they would note that the only button that functioned without a keycard was the 13th floor. Once the doors would finally reopen, the true lobby is revealed, one constructed with immense glass windows offering scenic views of not only the streets of Asakusa down below, but also the Tokyo Skytree high above. Everything about the building expressed an otherworldly degree of luxury and even with the bar set high, my hotel room did not disappoint either.
Given the time of the day however, I did not spend much time settling into my room. Having traveled quite comfortably in the morning and still charged with the adrenaline from my new surroundings, I decided to explore the area. The most obvious choice for my first destination was Sensoji Temple, and the attraction was bustling with all sorts of tourists. Just as it cannot be assumed that every American has visited Times Square, one must remember that Japan also encompasses a vast population and as such, even domestic Japanese tourists have plenty of sights to visit. Sensoji Temple was a prime example of this and not only could numerous foreigners be seen taking selfies, but local Japanese visitors adorned in traditional kimono garb were also partaking in the area’s activities. I certainly adored the lively atmosphere and enjoyed visiting the temple grounds that had been visible to me from my hotel’s lobby. Still, I decided not to stay too long given how easily I could drop by again, especially because I wanted to visit someplace else first.
Standing as nothing short of the tallest tower in the world, visiting the Tokyo Skytree was a must; now an iconic feature of the Tokyo skyline, its observation deck situated 350 meters above the ground draws visitors from all over the world. In fact, the entire area around the structure was packed with things to do, with the Tobu Skytree line directly servicing the area’s aptly named Tokyo Skytree Station. As I entered the base of the tower, the ticket in my possession actually allowed me to fast-track my ascension to the observation deck by skipping the queue and riding on the most beautiful elevator that I have ever seen. Additionally, once arrived, I also had access to the second observation deck located on the 450th floor, an additional 100 meters higher than the previous one. The neofuturistic design of the Skytree alone was a sight to see, but the panoramic view of Tokyo stretching as far as the eye could see was absolutely breathtaking — the imagery down below was not unlike that observed from an airplane making its descent. Curiously, there also appeared to be an Avengers themed event occurring at the tower as numerous displays depicting the titular characters adorned the decks — I found it endearing to see how excited the Japanese were over a product from my home country.
The timing of my presence atop the Skytree was opportune — as I stopped by the Skytree Cafe on the 340th floor to order a snack, the sun had slowly begun to set. It was quite the feeling to sit at a counter enjoying my cute little themed parfait while facing an immense window overlooking the entirety of Tokyo. I had started my day in a different country and, after spending all afternoon moving about, it was here where I could finally feel myself start to relax. The picturesque shades of twilight somehow predicated a sense of normalcy — no matter where one is in the world, the sky serves as a biological clock to dictate the pace of society. The Tokyo down below was starting to slow down as it approached the end of its working day and soon I would be joining its scores of locals in turning in for the night.
Still, the night was young and I had some time to explore Tokyo Solamachi, the shopping and entertainment complex connected to the Skytree. Even though the sky was now dark, there was a degree of liveliness as visitors flocked to the stores to get some last-minute shopping done and the various restaurants to grab a meal before heading home. I took my time taking in the sights, visiting the cozy little planetarium, Skytree Town’s real-life Pokémon Center, and the various themed cafes present in the complex. Eventually however, I too wanted some dinner to fill me up after the day’s activities and I ended up deciding on an udon place that had an English menu displayed outside its entrance. In all honesty, though the smells and the decor of the restaurant certainly played their part in making me crave noodles, a part of me was nervous given that I had never been able to master the necessary implements required to properly enjoy such dishes: chopsticks. Yes, somewhat hilariously, despite my best efforts, I was never able to employ chopsticks to any satisfactory degree in America, even after attempting to follow various tutorials. I knew that in Japan it would be culturally off-putting to immediately request a fork for one’s dish but I held out hope for the chance that tourist-heavy locations may offer them for incompetent foreigners such as myself. Unfortunately, as I found out once the waitress brought my dinner, I had no such luck at this restaurant. Though I was ready to employ my contingency plan which involved me utilizing rubber bands from my travel pack to fashion the chopsticks into tongs, I decided to make one attempt… and perhaps it was my desperation in hunger, the culture from my surroundings seeping into me, or even the cosmos taking pity on me, but somehow, I began to use my chopsticks!
I recall feeling terrified that this was to pass as a singular, once-in-a-lifetime event — I thought that if I put my chopsticks down, I would not be able to pick them up to use them again. I gripped the utensils like my life depended on them and in a short yet savory twenty minutes, I had finished my meal. Satisfied both in satiating my appetite and the awakening of my latent special abilities, I went up to the counter to pay using my Suica. Just as I was starting to leave however, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and I turned around.
Based on the uniform she was wearing, the girl had to be a high school student. Using both hands, she was holding something out to me and appeared to be struggling to find the right words to say. As I looked closer, I noticed that she had in her hands a white card that looked a lot like my… hotel key?! Patting my pockets, I realized that I must have dropped it somehow and she was trying to return it to me! Since I clearly look like a foreigner, the girl must have realized that I did not speak Japanese, and I too found this a shame as I could only thank her over and over again in English after having so thoroughly been surprised. As I left with her bidding me a small wave and a smile, a memory from earlier that day flickered through my mind: Angel’s story about kindness. Thank goodness for the high school girl’s kindness — I was saved from having to deal with a potentially nightmarish scenario of being locked out of my room, unable to adequately explain the situation with spoken language. Back in Asakusa, as I walked out into the cool night air and paused at a gently-lit row of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines for a refresher, I found myself smiling at the encounter — I hoped the girl felt good about aiding a helpless foreigner.
Returning back to my hotel, I decided to drop by the restaurant & bar that was located on the 13th floor adjacent to the lobby. Like the rest of the floor, the restaurant’s walls were also made almost entirely of glass, offering a astounding views of both the Skytree and Asakusa’s horizon. If the view from inside was not enough, an outdoor patio was available for patrons and, if one still desired more, an exclusive rooftop terrace also offered seating to enjoy the Tokyo night air alongside a second, more compact bar. Opting to relish in the hazy, peaceful atmosphere indoors, I sat myself at the bar and ordered a peppermint tea while soaking in my surroundings. The lighting was elegantly dim, the staff was impeccably attentive, and, in the corner, a live pianist played a soothing ballad. At times she would accompany her music with singing, filling the room with slow, dreamy tones covering equally whimsical songs familiar to the audience, such as When You Wish Upon a Star and Beauty and the Beast. It was a sleepy, yet unilaterally luxurious atmosphere, and a perfect way to wind down before heading back to my room.
On the 12th floor awaited room variant “C” — Classy. The accommodation spanned 37 square meters, offering an immense king-sized bed and two sets of sleep robes neatly folded atop the covers. Off towards the side of a room was a smooth black countertop with a mini-bar accompanied with a small complement of glassware, tastefully illuminated by recessed lighting. If one were to walk across the room, a modest angular sofa was placed so as to offer seating next to a large window directly facing the Skytree, now lambent with its nighttime accents. As the room itself was decorated in elegantly muted tones, the twinkling city lights from the Tokyo night cast a gentle glow over the plush carpet, reflecting the life from society down below. After showering in a spacious bathroom that also presented a window of its own, I changed into my robes, dimmed the lights, and sat down in front of the sill as the glimmering lights from outside washed across my face.
Welcome to Japan.
Curiously, I was not the only one in Japan that summer — at least three other people I knew were vacationing in the country at the same time as me. I do not know if Japan is far more a popular travel destination than I thought or if my plans just so happened to align with those of my friends, but I knew that it would be a waste if I did not make an effort to at least meet with some of them. Starting off my morning with a delightful Eggs Benedict breakfast dish served with salmon, I left the hotel restaurant towards the Tokyo Metro to take the train bound for Akihabara.
Thousands of miles from our collective home country, I was meeting up with Balance and Isabel to hang out as if it were completely normal. Balance, a long-time friend of mine, had already arrived in the country about a week prior as the trip was a present from his sister. Isabel, on the other hand, was someone who I actually had not met before, but had been mentioned to me in the past as an online friend of Balance. Considering that Isabel was spending her last few days in the country as part of a cultural exchange program, we were letting her run the show as we were content simply in meeting. Since Isabel was a massive Gundam fan, it was only natural that she wanted to meet at Akihabara’s official GUNDAM Café, an immersive little shop themed after the titular anime. From there, we visited shop after shop as Isabel flit around the electric town’s considerable otaku offerings.
As the puppy-like Isabel took the lead, I marveled at the surroundings. Back in 2014, I played a game called Akiba’s Trip, a magnificently dissolute beat ‘em up for the Playstation Vita that presented a meticulous recreation of real-life Akihabara as the story’s setting. Having wandered around in-game running past various buildings, it was a strange sense of déjà vu to actually see the very same structures for the first time in real life; Yodobashi-Akiba, Sofmap, Bic Camera, TAITO STATION, Radio Kaikan… everything was familiar and located exactly where I felt they should have been, yet I was laying eyes on them for the first time. Once Isabel had to leave and rejoin her group at 13:00, Balance took me to some of the SEGA arcades and, with lunchtime abound, opted to introduce me to a limited-time Persona 5 themed café that he visited a few days earlier.
In fact, there was quite a lot of Persona 5 branding displayed all over Akihabara. Given that the the area was renowned for its embrace of otaku culture, one could easily find advertisements for popular anime, manga, and video games — of which Persona 5 had proven itself to be quite the hit. In all honesty, I was quite fortunate in the timing of my visit. The truth is, my knowledge of anime and manga is, for the most part, permanently frozen in 2008; though the likelihood was high for the prominent displays in Akihabara to feature series wholly unfamiliar to me, I visited at a time where Steins;Gate 0, Darling in the FRANXX, and of course, Persona 5 dominated the Chuo-dori — all franchises that I was miraculously familiar with. And while I most certainly enjoyed the Persona 5 x SEGA Café collaboration event (in which I ordered Morgana- and Makoto-themed menu items), it was the availability of Darling in the FRANXX merchandise that truly took hold of me.
For whatever reason, for the first time in years, Darling in the FRANXX drew me in with a tenacity unmatched since the airing of Code Geass over a decade ago. It is well known among my friends that anime recommendations are often wasted on me and, in the event that I do decide to watch a series, it can literally take me years to finish a single show — my interests are simply directed elsewhere most of the time. The currently airing Darling in the FRANXX somehow proved to be the exception however, and my inexplicable obsession with the series was quickly noticed by my friends; even months after the show’s conclusion, I was gifted merchandise from the anime and (hilariously) signed prints from cosplayer friend Leyzee dressed up as Zero Two for my birthday. Thus, it should come as little surprise when, upon spotting a gachapon (ガチャポン) machine vending can badges depicting Darling in the FRANXX characters, I went nuts. Really. I would have Balance hand me money that I would deposit into the machine, immediately examine the resulting contents, and thrust the used capsule back at him, shouting (yes) “again!” By the time we had run out of coins, I had obtained every variant except for one, with only a couple duplicates that Balance got to keep for his service to me. However, once the two of us left and began to walk in the direction of atré Akihabara 1 near the JR East Akihabara Station, we quickly realized this was just the beginning.
Of all times, we had managed to visit while atré 1 was hosting a Darling in the FRANXX exhibition. And, of all days, we happened to drop by on the one day when an official Zero Two cosplayer was present to hand out stickers to fans.
I was in a frenzy. See, we did not realize any of this was happening at first. I think we ended up entering atré 1 through some weird back way since we somehow missed the signs, but I recall all of a sudden recognizing Darling in the FRANXX music playing overhead. As the two of us scrambled around, we eventually spotted the event’s Zero Two cosplayer outside one of the entrances!—only to learn that they were in the process of wrapping up. Additionally, (as I later confirmed online) photos of the cosplayer were not permitted by the organizers, leaving us with nothing to show for our encounter. As Zero Two was ushered away to (presumably) change out of her costume, our momentarily dampened spirits were quickly cast aside even despite the roads outside beginning to dampen with rain — I was much too excited to see all the Darling in the FRANXX goodies all around me!
Excited enough to go out into the rain. Alas, as I blindly charged forward to take multiple excesses of photos showcasing atré 1’s event designs, Balance dashed after me, desperately holding his umbrella over my head to keep me dry. Balance would later write on his blog that “[he] would find [me] taking 10+ pictures of the same Darling in the FRANXX stuff” over and over again, even as he was thoroughly buffeted by the rain, and yet my uncontrollable obsessive behavior somehow continued unabated. To his relief (and possibly that of others), I eventually dragged us both back indoors. After all, we had only briefly glimpsed the second floor earlier, the site where a number of merchandise were displayed for purchase.
The second floor of atré 1 showcased a variety of items themed after Darling in the FRANXX. The most popular products appeared to be the T-shirts, posters, and Blu-rays, though what appeared to be event-exclusive acrylic stands depicting each of the FRANXX units also garnered frequent purchases. Indicative of Japan’s preference for small collectable items too was the presence of more miscellaneous offerings such as screen cleaning cloths and plastic folders stamped with the anime’s main cast. As part of the event, for every ¥1,000 spent, you would be presented with a random postcard adorned with a still from the animation. Perhaps this spectacle proved overwhelming for me then, as I do not remember the next few seconds — all I know is that Balance turned his back for a moment and, when he turned around to look at me, a stack of, well… everything was in my arms. To my credit, after giving the shelves a forlorn stare, I did end up placing everything back, but the next shelf proved too much to resist. Just as I was about to pounce however, that’s when suddenly, she was behind us.
There was a loose crowd of people gravitating around her of course, but for some reason, the Zero Two event cosplayer from before — the one who we had so narrowly missed — had come to us. Having resigned ourselves to the fact that we had lost our opportunity to see her up close, we were completely taken by surprise!
As it turned out, she had arrived on the merchandise floor to take some promotional pictures with her manager for social media. As I had been buried deep within the shelves a few seconds prior, I quickly moved aside to make way for Zero Two and yes, actually caught a couple photos of her in the process too — it was too much to resist! But then, she left as quickly as she had arrived and once again the floor was quiet. With the slightest of semblances of normalcy restored, I scrambled back to the shelf that caught my eye earlier. There was a small basket filled with items individually wrapped in metallic foil next to a laminate sign displaying acrylic keychains featuring each of the Darling in the FRANXX characters. Blind-packaging merchandise. It was the gachapon all over again.
In the end, the series of events that followed unfolded about exactly as one would expect, with numerous trips to the cash register to purchase more and more keychains until a desirable distribution of characters was obtained. Once again, we somehow managed to receive only a couple of duplicates, with me receiving all of my favorites (including both Zero Two costume variants). Additionally, after having bought so many items, I was pleased with the bonus postcards that I received — most of the artwork featured scenes and characters that I liked from the series. With this lull in my bewitchment, Balance took the opportunity to surprise me by gifting me one of the acrylic stands featuring Strelizia, the main FRANXX unit featured in the show; needless to say, I was surprised and a little embarrassed as I gratefully accepted the present. After having spent hours in that area alone, I was finally satisfied enough to peel myself away from the floor, but compensated by insisting on visiting every other floor in the building to scout out any other Darling in the FRANXX items that may be hidden. Although this bore little fruit, we enjoyed noting the numerous wall displays in the building depicting cutely drawn “yonkoma” (4コマ漫画), or four-paneled comics, depicting humorously hyperbolic scenes from the anime.
Still, there remained one final task to make our visit complete. Tucked away near the stairwell on the ground floor was a massive Strelizia figure that had been curtained off earlier due to the space around it being used as a changing area by the cosplayer. Now freely accessible, the 3-meter tall Strelizia FRANXX along with its striking, eye-catching design, was an exciting sight to see in person; I estimate that we must have spent about another hour in Strelizia’s presence as the both of us took numerous pictures from various angles. At one point, I was crouched down low with the fisheye lens on my camera aimed upwards towards Strelizia’s weapons. Though I was hoping to use the angle and the distortion of the lens to create a photo with dramatic effect, Balance burst my bubble by mentioning that I looked like I was trying to take an upskirt shot of the decidedly female-looking mech. I WOULD LIKE TO STATE FOR THE RECORD HOWEVER that Strelizia is pretty much walking around pantsless in the first place and that the “pleats” of her immobile, disjointed “skirt” are in fact thrusters, thank you very much. It was a hilarious realization though and Balance repeated my pose for comedic effect. However then, another fan must have mistaken Balance’s performance as a good idea as he shortly after began taking pictures the same way!
After spending the better part of the day at the exhibition, we finally took our leave (though not without a bit of prodding from Balance). We decided to pass the evening in Shibuya on account of it being a faithfully recreated location presented in Persona 5 and enjoyed watching the famous Shibuya scramble crossing from a vantage point within the train station, itself a “hideout location” from the game. As a photographer, Balance also insisted on traveling down to street level so that he could snap photos of me navigating the bustling crossing. With the rush of the busy urban atmosphere carrying our spirits, before it got too late, we headed back to the station to bid each other farewell as Balance had previously planned to depart for Kyoto that evening. Always one to spoil me, Balance outdid himself yet again by presenting me with various souvenirs that he had accumulated from his time in Japan before heading off to Tokyo Station. This was not farewell however and Balance knew this; I too would be headed to Kyoto during the afternoon of the next day and, as we would later find out, the day’s events were just a prelude to the outlandish happenings that awaited us in the Kansai region.
Balance is someone who I have known for years yet every single time that he has come and visited me, we find ourselves caught up in hijinks where all sensibility is thrown out the window. There is something about Balance’s spacey easygoingness and earnest desire to help, along with my talent for self-assuredly marching headfirst into potentially problematic situations where regard for consequences is substituted with mangled pseudoscience, that creates an unholy recipe often resulting in us scrambling around like characters from a comedic skit. Given the disproportionate frequency that such capers only seem to unfold in my presence, Balance has long since termed the uncannily opportune availability for hilarity the “Nightmaren Effect”. The previous day’s happenings were more than enough to justify the continued existence of this phenomenon, and evening too would surely provide its share of filmesque excitement.
During the morning time however, I first wanted to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Himeji for a roughly four-hour trip towards the western part of Japan. To most first-time visitors to the country, the choice of Himeji for a day-trip would strike as somewhat unusual compared to the more popular tourist attractions. However, visiting Himeji had been something of a personal dream of mine ever since my days of playing Ragnarok Online with my guildmates long ago. As part of the developer’s Global Project campaign, the game introduced Amatsu, a town styled after ancient Japan, to join its already immense world map. I largely credit Ragnarok Online as an MMO world that lit the fire in my heart for adventure, and it did so because of its mastery in making faraway lands in-game feel, well, far away. Compared to the kingdom of Rune-Midgard, Amatsu was a land where cherry blossoms fluttered across the screen, tatami mats were laid out to bask in the morning sun, and serene streams of water flowed between stalks of bamboo sprouting amidst lush foliage. Even the music exuded serenity that was unmatched by the main continent, with the atmosphere proving so calming that my guild could often be found sitting around the various stalls in the small town when away from our home base in the deserts of Morroc.
All of this was dwarfed, surely, by what was no doubt the centerpiece: Himezi Castle. The magnificent palace served as a home to the castle lord who sent you on a quest to cure his mother’s possession by a Nine Tails, and only upon completing this task could one gain access to a hidden gate within the castle to areas that had long been sealed off for the town’s safety. This was the entrance to a dungeon deep within Himezi Castle, leading the player first through the Tatami Maze (a labyrinth with rows upon rows of rooms where seemingly solid walls were sometimes illusions that were used by the shinobi to their advantage), a mysterious underground garden with otherworldly elegance, and finally, a cursed shrine sealing an ominous aura of the great Samurai Specter of old. My guild spent countless hours navigating the dungeon, particularly the Tatami Maze, as we fended off the hauntingly beautiful Miyabi Dolls and the terrifying Firelock Soldiers.
“Himezi” Castle is of course a none-too-subtle nod to the real-life Himeji Castle, the obvious model after which Amatsu was patterned. The present-day Himeji Castle has the distinction of standing as the largest castle in Japan, and is considered the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture. Given its brilliant white exterior, the palace is frequently likened to a majestic white heron. Although not a standard tourist hub like Osaka or Kyoto, the comparatively smaller city of Himeji offered me a chance to see a slice of Amatsu in person.
Once I boarded the Tōkaidō Shinkansen “Hikari” to settle into one of its Green Cars, I leaned back in my seat as the train gently accelerated to speeds upwards of 250 km/hr. Judging by the rate at which the serene mountainous scenery whipped past the windows, the speed of the bullet train could be likened to an aircraft barreling across a runway. I was quite surprised however to realize that although we were traveling at such speeds, the ride was incredibly smooth — none of the turbulent jostling from airplane takeoff. Despite traveling such a long distance too, the train arrived to Himeji with punctuality down to the minute, and in no time at all I was disembarking to arrive at the castle town.
I am someone who has always been partial to summertime weather and, if someone else stepped out of Himeji Station that day, they may have groaned. Although the castle, in all of its majesty, could be seen from afar in a straight shot from the station, it would be at least a twenty minute walk amidst the blistering summer heat to even reach the castle grounds; given that the central road and its walkways were made wholly of concrete, the heat bounced around in all directions. The walkways were also shared with numerous pedestrians and shopping stalls offering locally sourced cuisines. With the scents and festival-like fervor of the local community clearly endeavoring to welcome visitors to the obvious pride of their town, Himeji Castle, I found the summer weather charmingly appropriate. In fact, my arrival to the castle gates was actually quite refreshing as I stopped to grab a strawberry ice cream cone from a vending machine — absolutely delicious in the afternoon heat! The castle itself was splendid as well, and I took my time exploring the ancient architecture that far predated even the oldest structures on American soil. As I stood inside the now-barren main keep, I imagined what feudal life would have been like within the castle, and considered how terrifying a real-life Tatami Maze would have been. I also took the time to visit the neighboring garden of the Lord’s residence and imagined how ethereal its meticulously kept grounds would have appeared at night, once again allowing myself to liken my sights to ancient Amatsu. Even with the structure itself commanding an air of austerity, the castle’s vicinity was simply a lot of fun to be around and I soon left contented with my visit.
After boarding the Shinkansen for the second time that day, I arrived in Kyoto close to 17:30. In truth, I was on a bit of a time-crunch; I would have to take care to catch the last Shinkansen back to Tokyo before 20:00 otherwise I would find myself stranded in Kyoto. Still, I wanted to stop in Kyoto for an opportunity to spend some bonus time with Balance after he arrived in the city the night prior. Balance was previously unaware, but there is a famous shrine called the Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) built at the foot of Mt. Inari which is notable for its thousands of shrine gates, or “torii” (鳥居) sprawling up the mountain. With torii after torii lining the main path as far as the eye can see, the resulting veritable “tunnels” of torii create iconic imagery that has gone on to be featured in numerous anime series and films. With Balance in tow, I figured it would be the perfect place for us to explore. I made this decision too with full knowledge that it takes approximately two hours to ascend the mountain and return, counting on the fact that we could travel with haste.
Once Balance and I met up at Inari Station, we set off for the sacred grounds intent on scaling the mountain in its entirety — we simply were not going to settle for anything less! After a brief pause to purify myself according to Shinto tradition, I suggested that we push past the crowds of tourists at the foot of the mountain as we were bound to see fewer people up the path. Just as we approached the trail however, we spotted a small glass box shrine with a “saisen-bako” (賽銭箱) or offering box in front. As I peered through the glass to examine the sculptures enshrined within however, I was shaken to find two immense horses peering back at me; with the entire complex dedicated to Inari, the Japanese divinity of foxes and worldly success, the sudden presence of equine — not vulpine — imagery caught me off guard. I widely recount this encounter as an ominous foreshadowing of events taking place later that evening.
See, there is a running joke among my friends that horses, particularly those in the video game world, are relentlessly out to get me. Over time, my continued plague of horse-related misfortunes prompted one of our online friends to tell us about tikbalang, a mythical creature in Filipino lore. According to legend, the tikbalang is a slender humanoid creature with the head and hooves of a horse. Generally found in sparsely populated areas with dense foliage, the being plays tricks on the senses of unsuspecting travelers to lead them astray from their path. Despite its terrifying description however, it is noted that the tikbalang rarely hurts or kills people, instead coming across as a mischievous creature who is merely toying with travelers.
It is said that delirious town folk who have stumbled their way into town after long absences tell of how . . . [they] suddenly . . . find themselves alone in the woods, plunged into darkness; the sun long set. The path home, recalled by the few who return after a disappearance, is hampered by a severe sense of disorientation and a forest that seems to curl in on itself repeatedly.
Given its supernatural abilities, the existing inside-joke between my friends expanded to include “tikbalang” as the ringleader of all horses out to get me. Yet, I recalled much of this folklore after the fact — had I made the connection then, I would have likely attempted some of the purported tikbalang countermeasures, such as flipping my shirt inside-out or loudly asking it for permission to pass. However, as Balance and I instead slighted the horses before us by donating a measly ¥1 to their donation box (rather than the ¥100~ish that I would typically toss into the boxes), our fates were sealed.
Once again, at that time, we had no knowledge of what was to befall us that evening, and the two of us admired the beautiful torii as we climbed the never-ending steps up the pathway. Indeed, Balance and I both consider ourselves fit individuals, but the hike certainly winded us both — at one point, we came across a sign that indicated our position on the trail and, despite feeling that we must surely be nearing the summit, we were shocked to find that we had only made it halfway! With my tight schedule in mind, we had certainly been climbing with enough urgency to both make good time and properly enjoy the sights, but it was clear that we would have to redouble our efforts. I suppose the safe thing to do at this point would have been to turn around and head back towards the town, but Balance knows that this is not the way I function — unsurprisingly, I insisted that we press forward to reach the top. At this point too, although we were traveling with even greater haste, we still took the time to examine the various altars and foliage as we ascended the mountain.
Our efforts were rewarded — by the time we reached the summit, not only had the crowds of tourists thinned out, but the sun was also beginning to glow brilliantly as it showed the first signs of the evening’s approach. The view along the mountainside was breathtaking and, glistening in distance, the city of Kyoto could be seen past the dense flora below. As it was comparatively quieter than the rest of the trail, the sight of fellow travelers relaxing before such beautiful scenery warmed the atmosphere. We made certain to relax amidst the peaceful sight before us but, with my train’s departure time growing ever closer, the two of us soon decided to descend, this time down a separate trail extending behind the summit.
What happened next was, for lack of better term, otherworldly. After just a few minutes of hiking, we noticed that it had become deathly quiet as we were somehow alone on the path — from this point onwards, we did not see a single soul in our time at the mountain. I distinctly remember a fog of sorts, and as I pulled out Google Maps to check whether I was on track to reach the train station on time, I was unable to do so because the GPS signal had been knocked out. This was somewhat disconcerting as it was also beginning to get quite dark and the ground was starting to feel… wet? The path we walked on was now nothing more than ill-fitted cobblestone which was covered in moss and water from a seemingly unknown source. Although the torii themselves had become quite sparse along the trail, the few that we would come across were, well, creepy as their paint appeared faded even under the dimly-lit darkness. Despite everything, in the spirit of the bad decisions made that evening, we still would pause on occasion to take photos of our surroundings. But truly, it was at this point that we began to worry and our brisk pace became a concerned canter. Inexplicably, we passed what appeared to be an ornamental outdoor shower, several mini-altars, and even a lonely little motorbike leaning against a tree, but no humans at all. Eventually, the path before us disappeared altogether and we were flat-out running through the woods as our feet splashed across the muddy ground beneath us.
I cannot overstate then, the feeling of relief as we somehow burst out of the woods to find ourselves standing in a quiet Kyoto neighborhood. As we stood there in disbelief, what struck us was how bright the sky shone; despite the creeping darkness we experienced moments earlier, we were now staring up at the calm pastel tones of orange and pink. It was like a still from a placid anime neighborhood: birds were chirping, cats were lazing around, children could be seen playing in the street, and as I pulled my phone out in an attempt to get our bearings, it was then when its GPS icon blinked back to life. Still, I was not completely out of the woods just yet — given our present position, I would still be able to catch my train with ten minutes to spare if we avoided any additional delays.
We jolted from our reverie with a start, breaking into a mad dash down the residential streets. I led the way, the tie from my smart casual attire fluttering in the wind as I shot glances down at my phone to ensure that we were following the route provided by Google Maps. Balance ran alongside me with his camera out.
I did a double take as I kept running.
Yes, in true dedication to his passion as a photographer, Balance was running alongside me, snapping away. I can only imagine what the neighborhood residents were thinking, of which we passed a fair number, as their quiet evening briefly gave way to a foreigner bolting down the street with some Asian guy somehow matching his speed from across the pavement while clicking his camera like his life depended on it. We navigated the twists and turns of the neighborhood, passing a “Kuroneko” Yamato Transport truck and various entryways until the roadways finally began to feel familiar — at long last, we had made it to the vicinity of the train station. In actuality, there were two stations servicing the area and the one I needed to use was different from the one Balance needed. We hastily bid each other farewell knowing that this would be our final meeting together in Japan and I quickly passed through the ticket gates.
Breathing steadily from the day’s workout, I glanced at my phone and suddenly looked back towards the station gate.
Imagine then, for the nth time that day, a scene out of an anime:
Balance slowly walked in the opposite direction to catch the train back to his Airbnb. There was no reason to hurry on his part. The scene cuts away to the sound of footsteps before focusing back on Balance, leisurely pulling out his phone to browse through the day’s social media. Again, the camera cuts away to a pair of shoes splashing through puddles as its owner dodged both pedestrians and vehicles. And as the scene once again settles on Balance, he finally begins to realize a steady beat of footsteps is beginning to grow louder before hearing—
Out of nowhere, I appear and somewhere between now and a few minutes ago, I had crammed my Japan Rail Pass into my mouth to quickly access it when needed. Balance immediately begins running alongside me as I mumble between my teeth that I found a quicker route from his train station, and once again we are off, scrambling to our destination. As I bound up the station’s stairs like an anime schoolgirl running late for class with toast in her mouth, we eagerly board the platform to await the train servicing the Nara Line. We waited… and then we waited… and just as it became time for the train to make its approach, its departure time on the overhead digital timetable flashed red.
It was delayed. Japanese trains are renowned for their punctuality and train delays are exceedingly rare. This is the country that somehow maintained an average delay of 0.6 seconds along the Tōkaidō Shinkansen in 2012 and issued a public apology when a commuter train departed 20 seconds early. Yet here we were, the train was delayed by over six minutes. I briefly debated running back to the other station, but decided to go with my gut feeling that the train would surely turn up soon.
Thankfully, it did. I recall bidding Balance farewell for the second time that day, mumbling something about his remaining days in the country certainly paling in comparison to our adventures, and rushed to find the ticketing for the Shinkansen as soon as the train arrived at Kyoto station. Gasping from my sprint, I asked the attendant for a ticket to Tokyo between breaths and she calmly handed me a ticket with a smile: the 19:58 Tōkaidō Shinkansen “Hikari” — I had made it with 7 minutes to spare. Although in the United States, one would not even entertain the thought of reasonably catching a train with such little time remaining, the Japanese clearly thought otherwise as no one was in a hurry to reach the platform. Sure enough, in exactly 5 minutes, the “Hikari” was present and awaiting passengers. In exactly 2 minutes, the train was departing the platform.
For the first time since our adventure at Mt. Inari, I sighed with relief. You can absolutely bet that, as soon as the attendant came around with her trolley, I ordered several drinks as well as some ice cream to treat myself. As I sank into the luxurious padded seat, I finally allowed myself to relax, still marveling at the day’s events. To this day, nobody can convince me that we did not encounter “tikbalang” at Fushimi Inari that evening, and, despite everything working against us, we had managed to escape its clutches. With the train safely bound for Tokyo, I leaned back and enjoyed the rest of the quiet night.
As much fun as I had during the past two days, I was thankful for a chance to spend my remaining days in the country unaccompanied. As I stumbled to navigate my surroundings by myself just as I had on my first day, my interactions with the local population felt all the more personal and organic. Yet, it is because of my friends that I was able to elegantly get thrust so quickly into the cogs of everyday Japanese society — I felt capable traveling about, I would comfortably stop by the “konbini” (コンビニ) NewDays to pick up snacks (of which I learned which were tasty with the assistance of the helpful shop attendants), and, I felt remarkably content in mingling with others as I wandered around. Rudimentary as it was, I was starting to live in Japan.
Every day I stepped out of my hotel, I became a little more adventurous and endeavored to explore my surroundings to their fullest. Indeed, I made the most of my final days as I made day-trips ranging from excursions to the mountainous regions of Yamadera to detours into the narrow alleyways of Sangen-Jaya. Yet despite experiencing fanciful sights every day, perhaps most ordinarily, it was during this time when I truly fell in love with Akihabara.
Since visiting Akihabara is a must for all fans of anime and manga, many among the more culturally-adjusted visitors to Japan would sigh in bated frustration upon hearing that one’s favorite part of their trip was Tokyo’s otaku district. It is true — Akihabara can hardly be seen as representative of Japan as a whole, and in fact remains a largely niche destination even within the country itself. In many ways, the subculture within the district is a warping of “true” Japanese culture and to use it as a characterization of the country’s reach history would be an ignorant diminishing of fact. And knowing this, while I am grateful to have experienced the diverse beauty of Japan — both in its culture and its scenery — Akihabara persists as a warm, glowing memory for me because of what it came to mean to me personally.
As I mentioned, I am someone who generally has not kept up with anime fandom over the years. I was lucky in my current visit, but the fact remains that the novelty of the seemingly limitless scores of anime merchandise available throughout the district was mostly lost on me. Yet, this was the place where it all started — even years before when I had not even set foot into region, I had visited Akihabara in my imagination vicariously through Akiba’s Trip. After settling in after my flight to Japan, my first full day of adventure was spent alongside my friends as we darted around the Chuo-dori. Given its proximity to my hotel, sometimes I would spend time exploring the shops on my own — some of which would awaken long forgotten nostalgia as they played old songs (such as the Chobits theme) dating back to the time when I would actually pay attention to anime series. Although I never insisted on spending an entire day there, I did visit often, particularly after day-trips. As my trip drew to a close, my final memory of Japan took place in Akihabara, and I left the country contented with the experiences I had.
Silly as the game was, one of the central themes in Akiba’s Trip was Akihabara’s distinction as a means to provide an escape from reality. In a place where the boundaries denoting the fictional world are blurred, Akihabara provides a unique place for people to revel in their (often niche) hobbies free of judgment; it was a place to be oneself, outside of who they are in the real world. Having made friends, spent time with others, marveled at its sights, and with it all feeling uncannily familiar, Akihabara felt like home to me.
Even so, I absolutely adored my time in the country as a whole. Everything from my interactions with the hotel staff, to desperately running through the woods in Kyoto, to chance encounters with friends I made, to my quiet walks amidst the calm Japanese night — I loved everything about my experiences in Japan. I thought about all of this during my flight home, and for days my mind was filled with memories from both Korea and Japan. Not knowing when, or even if, I would ever be able to head back was a persistent melancholy as I soon settled back into my everyday routine, but I also did so with a fresh perspective. As someone who works in health care, my time abroad re-reminded me of the meaning behind my work on a daily basis; I recalled the relief I felt when I spoke with someone who made an effort to speak with me in English, I thought about the way the carefree cat maids in Zettai Ryōiki laughed as they played with customers, and I recollected the tinge of pain I felt when I saw a Korean man clearly afflicted with Down syndrome hobbling along the Seoullo 7017 with his caretaker. It is something we all know, but it is helpful to be reminded from time to time — no matter what corner of the world we are in, we are all human. We all laugh in happiness and cry when we are in pain. We all have our own unique lives and our own unique ways of making it through this existence and, when we need help, we can certainly persevere through the human kindness from others.