Yamatour 2009

Tim and Andrea’s Excellent Adventure

By Tim Eldred

Space Battleship Yamato has the power to draw people together who might otherwise never have met. Such was the case with Andrea Controzzi and myself. He is a very active fan of Yamato along with the other works of Leiji Matsumoto, and lives in Pisa, Italy. He wrote this article for us last year, generously sharing with us the story of how Japanese animation overtook his country even more thoroughly than the USA. It included an account of his first trip to Japan and a personal meeting with Matsumoto himself in 1997, an event Andrea now remembers as a lifetime highlight. (And let’s get this out of the way early on: his name is pronounced Ahn-dray-ah.)

Andrea and Tim soak up the springtime sun in Osaka.
Pop quiz: which of us is the vegetarian salsa dancer and which spent almost his entire life at a drawing table?

It took me another ten years to make my first pilgrimage to the land of anime and lodge the travel bug permanently in my brain. My second trip happened in the fall of 2008, and I was determined not to wait overlong to go back. As soon as Andrea and I heard the announcement that Yamato Party 2009 would be held on May 3rd, we started talking about going there. By February of this year we’d made it official: we would not let this opportunity slip through our fingers.

It’s tough to justify an expensive trip to Japan for a one-day event, but we would have no trouble finding more attractions. In fact, we let Yamato be our guide; it’s far too late to experience the phenomenon in real time, but there are easily enough sites and monuments to fill a week, and we made it our mission to find them all. It would require a lot of planning–multiple cities, hotels, and trains all had to be wrestled to the ground–but our mutual passion for Adventure Roman got us everywhere we wanted to go. And we’re proud to submit the photographic proof.

First, the broad view. The best starting point for any Japan trip is Tokyo, accessible with relative ease from Narita International Airport. All of the major Yamato-related events happened there, so it presented us with multiple points of interest. Our other two cardinal points were in lesser-known cities called Kure and Tsuruga, which pulled us over 400 miles across the main island of Honshu–roughly half its length. I won’t bore you with all the logistics and intricacies of the planning, but I will say that we know a lot more about the bullet train routes than we did before, including how to recover after missing a critical stop. More on that later. Tokyo comes first.

We arrived at separate times on Monday, April 27, dealt with our various entry issues (apparently a European transition isn’t quite as smooth as an American one) and hit the ground running the next morning. Our first stop: Toei Animation Studio in the Nerima Ward.

Click here to see what we saw.

Our first stop a success, we split up for the next few hours. Andrea’s personal goal was to retrace the steps–by memory alone–to the front gate of Leiji Matsumoto’s house in the next neighborhood to the north. Andrea boasts often (and rightfully so) of his innate ability to orient himself and find his path regardless of the obstacles, and he proved it many times during our stay. That ability served him flawlessly here, as he demonstrated to me when he showed me these photos afterward.

Yes, that WOULD appear to be a naval conning tower in Mr. Matsumoto’s front yard.

After a few shopping and culinary adventures, we reached the end of our first full day in Japan. From here, our pace would accelerate exponentially as we set off across the country for our next major site: the port city of Kure.

Kure is off the bullet train network, so our closest major city was Hiroshima. Traveling there from Tokyo would have eaten up almost an entire day, so we camped overnight in Osaka before continuing on. Osaka is second only to Tokyo in terms of anime shopping, so this was no great hardship. That took care of Wednesday; we made it to Hiroshima by lunchtime on Thursday, stopped long enough to check in at our hotel and grab a meal, then headed south about half an hour to Kure station.

What magnetic pull could possibly draw us across so much territory? Kure is where the original Battleship Yamato was built. Today that exact spot on the globe is occupied by the Battleship Yamato Museum.

Click here for an in-depth examination of what we found there.

Hiroshima had other charms to keep us occupied after we’d seen as much of the museum as anyone could; there was the gorgeous island of Miyajima and the Peace Memorial Museum (also called the Atomic Bomb Museum), both of which held our attention into the next day and should be seen by everyone in the world at least once in their lifetime. That got us to midday Friday, at which time we headed off into undiscovered country: the city of Tsuruga.

This turned out to be our most adventurous outing; neither we nor anyone we knew had been there before and even fewer outside Japan have apparently heard of it, but it held something we absolutely could not miss.

But first, a cautionary tale. Tsuruga, like Kure, is off the beaten path. There’s a standard corridor taken by the bullet trains between Tokyo and Hiroshima, then there are various offshoots. Our offshoot took us from Osaka to the rural town of Maibara, from which we’d catch a different line farther north to Tsuruga. We got to Maibara on time and my rudimentary Japanese was sufficient to learn about an express train to Tsuruga that would get us there earlier than expected. A posted schedule told us it would take 45 minutes, and we were on our way.

45 minutes later, no Tsuruga. None of the stations we were quickly passing matched those on the list I’d transcribed. My Japanese was good enough to ask the conductor what time we’d reach Tsuruga, but not good enough to understand his answer. It sounded like he was talking about some time in the past, but that was impossible. My confusion registered with the nice lady sitting next to me and when I figured out how to ask her if this train went to Tsuruga, she made it all too clear: we’d passed it an hour ago.

As it turned out, the schedule we read back in Maibara was for the local train, not the express. We were now way beyond our zone and getting farther away by the second. Fortunately, technology came to our rescue. The nice lady had the local equivalent of an iPhone with a train schedule app that told us exactly where the next stop was and which southbound line would put us back on track.

Half an hour later, we were on that line and rocketing in the right direction. Even better, the conductor on this train spoke excellent English and gave us the data we needed to ride the network all the way back to Tokyo. There was just a single catch: our time in Tsuruga was now down to one hour.

Moral of the story: if you take an express train, don’t get accidentally write down the schedule for the local. And listen to every single announcement, even if you think it will take 45 minutes to reach Tsuruga.

So what was worth all the hassle? A gorgeous, one-of-a-kind collection of statues devoted to the Galaxy Express 999 movie and Be Forever Yamato. The good news is, we made it and we got every photo we wanted. We just had to do a lot of running.

Click here to see the result.

We enjoyed some well-earned shuteye all the way back to Tokyo and slept hard that night. Saturday was coming up fast, and with it another checklist of Yamato sites.

Seen from the air, there is little to differentiate one densely-packed Tokyo neighborhood from another, but after a little time with some maps and a few days on the JR train network, it isn’t difficult to find your way around. If anything, the problem is that things are much closer together than they seem since the metropolis is a living monument to miniaturization. This makes it easy to walk right past something with the idea that it can’t possibly be this close.

On Saturday Andrea and I both had many places to go on separate paths. Two of my destinations were Shinjuku and the Imperial Gardens. Here’s what I went for:

The giant video screen of department store Studio Alta looms as large over the plaza outside the Shinjuku JR station as it did 29 years ago. June 29, 1980 was a rainy day here, but the weather did nothing to deter the 10,000 Yamato fans who packed in together for a special event. The image shown above left was on the Alta screen as they filed in. Today the screen has a different frame on it, and the balcony underneath is closed off. You’ll notice the balcony is full in 1980; this is where the fans signed up for the big event. (By the way, the image on the screen in the newer photo was part of a documentary on Selene, the lunar program of JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. See more info on it here.)

This second photo really shows how much the plaza has changed in 29 years. Other than the Alta building, practically everything else has gotten a makeover, probably several times. In the 1980 photo, the day’s big event is underway. The 10,000 Yamato fans came here to apply for 500 slots on the famous “Voyage of Adventure Roman” sea cruise. The winning lottery numbers were posted one by one. Each number represented three slots, which meant most fans had to endure the agony of 166 postings before going home empty-handed. The 1980 photo was taken from an elevated point that was no longer apparent in 2009, so I had to settle for a street level view.

Onward to the Imperial Gardens. This is the site of the gigantic Budokan Martial Arts Stadium, a massive octagonal amphitheatre that was originally built for the 1964 olympics and then played host to the Beatles, Symphonic Orchestra Yamato, and everyone in between. These pictures show fans arriving for the 1980 Yamato Festival in Budokan on Thursday, July 24. It wasn’t the first Yamato concert or even the first anime-related concert, but it was certainly the biggest venue that ever saw an anime musical event and may still hold that title.

Read all about the festival here.

Here’s the Budokan today, as seen from the very same vantage points. Unlike the rest of Tokyo, the only thing different about the Budokan is its topiary. The building itself is austere and unchanged, and judging by the pop-rock sounds coming out of it that day, still a destination for music acts of all stripes.

Andrea and I reunited Saturday evening for something neither of us could resist: a unique tour boat named the Himiko, home of the Jicoo Floating Bar. Quite simply, it’s a boat that launches three times a night on weekends and makes a one-hour round trip through Tokyo Bay. It sets off from Hinode Pier and turns around at the theme-park island of Odaiba.

It’s nice to look at, but why go all the way there for a drink and a ride? Why would such a thing attract the attention of two Yamato maniacs like us? Simple: it was designed by Leiji Matsumoto. This is perhaps the one and only opportunity anyone currently living on Earth will have to take a voyage on a real, functioning Matsumoto vessel.

Click here to see a photo gallery of our trip.

Visit the Jicoo website here. See a video clip of the Himiko on YouTube here.

The endpiece of this extensive tour of Japan (Andrea’s second time and my third) was the event that inspired us to make the trip in the first place: Yamato Party 2009, held in Wakoshi, on the northwest outskirts of Tokyo. It got a full report of its own in our last update and was undeniably the high point of our entire week. By this time we felt like we’d earned a relaxing day in one place with no need to scramble onto a train or haul ever-weightier luggage around the next corner. What’s more, we felt like we earned a place among the natives–our experiences of the past week still fell far short of anyone who had lived through the Yamato phenomenon in real time, but we’d seen its impact on the nation in solid, physical form, and that counted for a lot.

The End

PS: Almost, but not quite a fan’s dream come true…

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