Friday, December 5
I was up early, making sure I was packed and ready to go. Although Hakodate Station was just across the road, my train was scheduled to depart not long after 8am. The first leg of the trip would be about two hours to Shin-Aomori with a twenty-minute stopover before my Shinkansen departed for Tokyo.
The scenery on the way out of Hakodate: Snow everywhere!
As is my norm, I got to the station with about fifteen minutes to spare, so I grabbed some breakfast-like foods from one of the station shops and boarded the train. What greeted me in the car was an information card chained to the seat in front of me. This card explained the leg of the journey from Hokkaido to Honshu. The train would enter a tunnel about 54 kilometers long (about 33.5 miles) which would take the train to a depth of 100 meters under the 140-meter-deep floor of the Tsuruga Straits, to pass under the 23 kilometers (14.5 miles) of water that separates the two islands. And all of this would only take 30 minutes of the overall journey.
The information card on the Super Hakucho train illustrating the crossing from Hokkaido to Honshu.
The journey from Hakodate to the tunnel took about 50 minutes, and was a pleasant journey through snow-laden countryside. Snow fell for much of the trip, and after transiting through the aforementioned tunnel to get back to Honshu, I was greeted by more beautiful countryside and snow. The snowfall got progressively as we approached Aomori.
After a short stop at Aomori Station the train backtracked a little and headed to Shin-Aomori station. I had just enough time to grab lunch and drinks for the Tokyo leg.
The Hayabusa shinkansen service is the most express train along the Tohoku Shinkansen line. It covers the 675-kilometer (419-mile) journey in just under two-and-a-half hours, and uses what is currently the fastest shinkansen model in service in Japan (though when the maglev trains enter service next decade, these will seem like suburban trains in comparison).
The trip to Tokyo was uneventful. Less than an hour outside Shin-Amori there remained no trace of snow, and I spent the time watching the scenery outside.
Upon arrival at Tokyo Station, I sent a message to Tim Eldred to say I’d be at Shinjuku in the next 20 minutes or so. I headed over to the Chuo Rapid platform and got on the next train; no mean feat when you’re carrying three bags and still feel like death warmed up. The pain was tempered by the fact I was just a short while from meeting up with Tim in person for the first time.
Arrived at Tokyo Station!
For those who haven’t been to Japan, and those who haven’t read my previous accounts of visiting this station, Shinjuku is the busiest train station in the world in terms of passengers handled. It’s ridiculously huge and handles not only JR trains (including the Narita Express) but also trains run by private companies. It’s massive, and even for those who’ve been there before, it’s not difficult to get lost. Fortunately, it had only been three weeks, and Tim told me to meet him and Roger Sorensen at the display stage where I photographed the Evangelion-themed Orochi sports car on the first day of the trip. The most prominent landmark is the Studio Alta building, upon which the image of Takuya Kimura (the live-action Kodai) still watches everyone for a mile around.
Finally meeting up with Tim Eldred and Roger Sorensen!
I managed to get through the throng of people to find Tim and Roger waiting for me. The only piece of the puzzle missing by then was our friend and my co-author on the Yamato 2199 episode commentaries, Luis Cotovio, who couldn’t make it due to having run out of vacation time. Hopefully, the three of us will meet in Japan to see the next Yamato premiere. And hopefully we’ll also be allowed back into the country afterward. We all have yet to meet in person, but it still didn’t feel complete without Luis there.
We headed back to the hotel for a bag drop, but it was panic stations for awhile since my luggage (which I’d sent directly from Sapporo three days earlier) had not arrived. The concierge said he’d investigate, and then just as I got to my room he found my suitcase out back. Well, that drama was short-lived.
The first afternoon back in Shinjuku began by meeting up with Sonchori Ha (a.k.a. Cat Hands Agent), Tim’s buying agent for those things you need a Japanese address to order, like stuff from the Yamato Crew fan club. I began buying this sort of merchandise through Sonchori-san as well, on Tim’s recommendation back in 2013.
A while back, Tim had told me he planned to take Roger on a day trip to Osaka, and asked if I’d like to come along. I said that I would like to, since I hadn’t seen anything of Osaka past my previously-chronicled journey there to see Yamato 2199 events. Sonchori-san offered to help Tim find some discount shinkansen tickets, and we investigated various ticket dealers in and around Shinjuku Station.
The plaza had a big poster for the movie, but nothing else yet.
While they were looking around, it occurred to me that aside from really needing a down-day to rest and recover, it would also provide an opportunity for me to visit the Oyama Railway Museum. So I decided that I’d stay in Tokyo that day, and pointed out that without me coming along, they could travel on the Nozomi service, which I couldn’t use with the Japan Rail Pass, but is the most frequently-running train.
After they secured their tickets and booked their seats, we jumped on a local train down to Shibuya, which had a Mandarake store to explore as well as a cinema showing A Voyage to Remember with Ark of the Stars opening the next day.
After walking around Shibuya a little to find the cinema and buy tickets for the screening later that night, we started hunting for food. Eventually settling on a western-style cafe, we ordered food and discussed our journeys so far. After a nice meal of pasta, we headed to the main time-killer until the movie, the Shibuya Mandarake store.
The Shibuya Mandarake is underground. Way underground. I lost count of how many steps on the way down, since I was thinking it would not be fun on the way back up. It was well worth the trek though. Like all Mandarakes, there was treasure just waiting to be found. The thing about these stores is that you’re exposed to pop culture entities you never knew existed. You see just how diverse the industry is and how far along it’s come.
I didn’t have much on the shopping list, but I thought it might be nice to find a relatively inexpensive copy of the original series silver books I thought they would be super-rare, since forty years had passed since their release. I got distracted by model kits and diecast toys of mobile suits and Valkyries and space battleships and so forth, and then Tim mentioned that he’d found a set.
Sure enough, there they were, high up on top of a bookshelf covered in dust. Considering these books cost ¥30,000 in the mid-1970s (which would translate to anywhere from 150% to 300% depending on what price-growth modeling you use), I was expecting them to be close to that price if not higher. Imagine my surprise when I found a ¥4,000 yen price tag on it. My jaw dropped. I showed it to Tim just to confirm I wasn’t misreading it, and sure enough, it rung up 4000 yen + tax (around $40 in both US and Australian dollars at the time).
The bargain find of the trip by far!
I think that goes down as the biggest bargain I’ve found in Japan yet. I would have to send it home via post due to space limitations, but it later proved to be worth much more than I paid. Despite not having the dust jackets, and the bookmark ribbons being so frayed they would break with the slightest pressure, the books were in excellent condition for their age. It was interesting to contrast their content with that of Yamato 2199 Complete Works which we would buy the next morning.
After Roger made his own purchases, we headed back to the theater. Tim pointed out that since we were having trouble getting tickets at the Shinjuku Piccadilly (our usual theater for Yamato productions and the “Headquarters” of 2199 releases) he suggested we come back here for our first viewing instead, and then see it again later in Shinjuku. I was fine with this, but we’d still have to go to the Piccadilly first to get multiple copies of Complete Works for ourselves and friends.
After browsing the theater’s modest collection of 2199 merchandise, we grabbed snacks and headed into the cinema when directed to do so. While Tim and Roger faded in and out of the movie due to jet lag, I was wide awake and enjoying it a second time.
After the movie, I was not keen on carrying the books back to Shinjuku on an overcrowded train followed by a walk. It had been a very long day for me, and I just wanted to get back to the hotel comfortably, so I told the guys, “Let’s take a cab back, my treat.” If memory serves me correctly, it took about 15-20 minutes to get back. Worth every yen.
Next day was the big day, time for Ark of the Stars!
Saturday, December 6
We were up at 6am, having agreed the night before that we needed to be at the Shinjuku Piccadilly by 7. We made our way to the Piccadilly (with a short stop at an ATM to withdraw cash) to find two already lengthy queues, one apparently for the exclusive model kits and the other for the movie.
Primary Merchandise Objective, accomplished!
After waiting in an ever-increasing line, we made our way in. Since we suspected that we may not be able to buy Complete Works without movie tickets, I covered our bases by buying three for an evening screening. It was small price to pay for some insurance. While there also appeared to be a lot of people waiting for the Naruto: The Last movie that was also opening that day, most were waiting for Ark of the Stars (with three female voice actors appearing at the first screening).
After waiting quite some time in line to reach the merchandise store, we finally arrived. As it turns out, buying multiple copies of Complete Works was not a problem, and did not require movie tickets. Tim bought himself a copy and one for Luis. Roger bought himself a copy and then offered to take one of mine back to the hotel, which I gratefully accepted. Now there was about an hour and a half before our screening in Shibuya. Tim wanted to get there early, since he had friends who would meet us there. I was having trouble locating my movie ticket, and also took some time to look into getting home from the airport Thursday morning, so I told Tim I’d catch up with them in Shibuya. At the time, I considered asking him if he had his ticket, but I figured he’d be ahead of the game already.
A customised Gelvades (Darold) kit.
After a short while, I found a possible ride home (remembering from my previous travelogues that I live over 100 kilometers from the airport I use), and found my ticket for the morning’s Ark screening. So, with jacket and gloves back on, I headed out.
I ran into a sight at the main road. It was probably somewhere between 9 and 10 in the morning, and two tourists were walking towards me, each holding a large can of Asahi. I heard them talking and recognized the accents – a Brit and a fellow Australian. Turns out they’d just flown into Narita that morning, had just gotten off the Narita Express at Shinjuku, and now, believe it or not, were looking for somewhere to get a drink. Or, more specifically, the part of Tokyo that had plenty of bars. I told them Shibuya or Roppongi might be a better option, as Kabukicho was still waking up at that point. Anyway, I bade them farewell and headed to the station, as I was fast running out of time.
Thanks Tokyo ridiculously frequent trains, I met up with Tim and Roger with plenty of time to spare. Hiroshi Ban had arrived, as had another of Tim’s friends named Tsuneo Tateno. Roger mentioned to me that Tim couldn’t find his tickets.
I mentally face-palmed, regretting not mentioning them when I had the opportunity back at the hotel. Tateno-san explained the situation to the staff, who graciously agreed to let them in. Bit it was all resolved when Tim found his tickets a couple of minutes before showtime.
All the drama behind us, we sat down and enjoyed the movie. Or at least Hiroshi, Tateno-san, and I did. Tim and Roger were still nodding off throughout from jet lag.
The 2199 SofMap Mural in Akihabara.
The wait was worth it. To me, despite the various quality issues (which have since been fixed up on a grand scale for the home video release), there was a good story for the running time, bringing in not only elements from Yamato 2, but also further expanding the lore from the greater Yamato universe, along with a good in-joke or two.
Afterwards, Tateno-san and Hiroshi discussed the movie’s plot with us, and I was taking it all in, my mind already racing through ideas of how events could emerge in a hypothetical Yamato 2 remake. After finishing lunch, Hiroshi left the rest of us to find our way to the Yoshiyuki Takani art exhibition across town.
Meeting up with more of Tim’s friends there, we spent the next hour walking around admiring the exhibition of model kit box art (Takani-san did box art for tanks, planes, ships, and the iconic early box art for Macross.) The man himself was there, as Tim pointed out in his own travelogue, signing postcards, model kit boxes, books, and whatever else fans had brought in.
The group decided to go get some food, and we headed in the direction of Akihabara. There, we saw that the Sofmap store’s Yamato 2199 mural was still up, before heading to the Gundam Cafe for dinner. By this time we were all caught up in multiple discussions, and I realized we weren’t going to make that 6:45 screening of Ark back in Shinjuku. I’d written it off as insurance to get the Complete Works book sets anyway, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
We headed back to Shinjuku, and after getting some night photos of the 5-meter Yamato outside the station, we called it a night. Roger and Tim had an early start for Osaka, and I needed to catch up on some rest.
The 5-meter Yamato outside Shinjuku Station.
Sunday, December 7
Next morning, I woke up around 8am feeling like the cold was almost clear of me. I caught up on things back home, and then decided to head over to Akihabara for lunch. Terry and I missed the opportunity to eat at Akihabara’s Maru Go restaurant in Tokyo on the 2013 trip. It was one of the “must-go-to” places Tim recommended, so I was determined not to let this trip pass without eating there.
There was a line of about 6-8 people out the front when I arrived, so I quickly got in line and waited about twenty minutes. It’s a very small restaurant, so in peak times it can take a while to get in. I was directed upstairs and took a seat at a large table where multiple diners were eating. Looking at the menu (which is available in English), I ordered the most expensive cut on the menu (the loin filet) with rice and a beer.
Was it ever worth the wait! Absolutely melt-in-the-mouth. The pork was cooked perfectly, still tender and juicy, and the crumbs didn’t fall off the cutlet. The tonkatsu sauce enhanced the flavor, but since I’m the type who prefers the meat itself, I used it sparingly. Like most Japanese restaurants, Maru Go does mostly one thing, and it does it very, very well. For those who don’t (or can’t) eat pork, they offer a chicken alternative. (Though it’s the most commonly used meat at restaurants in Australia, it isn’t often seen as a crumbed cutlet in Japan.)
Leaving the restaurant very satiated, I made the short walk to the 8-floor Mandarake nearby. I spent about twenty minutes on the floor containing the diecast/plastic collectibles, such as Macross mecha, and what Yamato and Gundam collectibles and kits they had, along with a multitude of other franchises. Nothing caught my fancy this time, and I’d already bought my big-ticket items for this trip, so I decided to make tracks for Omiya and the Rail Museum (pun intended).
After a change onto a shinkansen at Ueno station (I figured I may as well maximize the comfort offered by the Japan Rail Pass), I arrived at Omiya Station less than 40 minutes after leaving Akihabara. From the shinkansen, I made my way onto the Omiya Shuttle Line for the short hop to the museum.
Displays on the concourse at the Omiya Rail Museum
Any railway afficionado or enthusiast will love this place, which is much bigger than the Kyoto Steam Locomotive Museum I visited in 2013. The first thing you see upon arrival is a path made up of tiles decorated with train timetables. On one side of the pathway there’s a range of different-sized train wheels alongside a carriage, and on the other side the front part of a steam train with a working whistle.
The fare gate entry at Omiya Rail Museum.
The entrance is made up of fare gates, and you can enter by tapping your Suica or other IC card. Or you can pay the 1,000-yen entry fee to receive a temporary swipe card.
A few of the scores of exhibits in the rail museum.
For the next two-plus hours, I explored locomotives from every era of Japanese railways, from steam trains to diesels to early electric locomotives, through to the 0-series shinkansen, which pioneered high-speed rail fifty years earlier.
No fancy electronic destination sign here!
The 0-series shinkansen still had operational units running the Kodama (all stations) services between Shin-Osaka and Hakata (Fukuoka) up until 2008 – a very respectable 44 years – whereas most shinkansen units are retired after 15.
A newer wing of the museum has the front two cars of a 0-series with the original seating layout, and against the walls are massive touch-screens offering an interactive, audiovisual presentation on the history of the 0-series shinkansen and its pioneering technologies.
The museum also has a locomotive carousel which is operated twice daily with a steam locomotive on it. Alas, I’d already missed both rotations for the day.
A photo diorama for visitors. Couldn’t get a good shot on the way in, worked nicely on the way out..
After buying a couple of gifts for my Dad, who is a true steam train afficionado, I took the shuttle back to Omiya station, then a rapid service directly back to Shinjuku. Along the way, I stopped by the Shinjuku Piccadilly to see if there was anything else from 2199 I wanted (I got a couple extra coffee mugs) and photograph the Santa Yuki cutout with the 1/100 Yamato in the cinema foyer.
Santa Yuki and one of the 1/100 Yamatos in the Shinjuku Piccadilly foyer. The other one I’d see in a few days’ time…
The rest of my night was uneventful. I settled on McDonalds for dinner and did a load of laundry. While collecting my laundry from the dryer, I came across Tim and Roger, who’d just returned from Osaka. They told me about their adventures and mentioned that they got a fantastic view of Mount Fuji on the way down.
I swear Fuji-san has something against me. I’d lay even money on it being obscured by clouds had I gone with them that day.