Yamatour 2014: Return From Down Under, part 1

Living it up in JAL First Class on the way to Fukuoka!

At the end of my last Yamatour report, I promised that I would return to Japan. When the Ark of the Stars movie was announced for a late Autumn release in 2014, I saw the opportunity much sooner than I had initially planned, including returning to Kyoto for the famed leaf viewing season. Many of the temples I visited in August 2013 are famous for their autumn colors, and it looked like this time the schedule from last year would be reversed: start in Tokyo, see the movie in mid-November (which I assumed to be the “late autumn” release date at the time), and then finish up in Kyoto before flying home.

I’d booked my hotel from last year in Kyoto for the last week of November, and then booked a hotel in Tokyo for the week prior. Then, not an hour later, the announcement came through that Ark of the Stars would open December 6th. No big deal, Just move the Tokyo hotel date. Then I started thinking about what to do in the week between. There were potentially other places I’d like to see that I hadn’t been to before. I started talking with my friends Patrick and Terry (who were a part of the 2013 journey), and before I knew it the trip was over three weeks long with Kyoto in the middle of it.

Alas, neither Terry nor Patrick were able to make the journey this time, so this would become my first time traveling solo in Japan, which would give me a completely new perspective.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the one part of the trip planning that didn’t go according to plan. The trip was still several months away when Tim approached me about trying to get our friend, 2199 Commentary co-author and equally crazy Yamato fan Luis Cotovio out of the confines of Portugal and into Tokyo to see Ark of the Stars on the big screen. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. The only real out-of-pocket expense for me would have been splitting the cost of Luis’s flight to Tokyo, since I had already booked a room with two beds for that part of the trip in case someone else came along.

Alas, it was simply not fated to happen this time. One of these days though, the three of us will meet up in Tokyo and hopefully have such a good time that we’re barely allowed back into the country. This allowed me to change my planned hotel for the Tokyo stay to the cheaper and more convenient Hotel Wing in Shinjuku, which also allowed me to extend my overall trip to four weeks.

As the departure date approached, the itinerary had been sewn up for a while: Fly into Tokyo, spend a couple of nights there to acclimatize, then move onto the rest of the journey. This trip would take me almost from one end of Japan to the other, visiting Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and as far south as Kagoshima, the southernmost major city on mainland Japan. There would be return visits to Hiroshima, Kure, and Kyoto before venturing far, far north to Hokkaido and experiencing a real winter, staying in Sapporo and Hakodate before returning to Tokyo for the next chapter of the Yamato 2199 franchise (which hopefully would set the stage for a remake of Yamato 2/Comet Empire. 28 days, 29 nights, two domestic first-class flights, more than my money’s worth of train travel, three islands, numerous cities, countless sights to see, and plenty of Japanese food and beer.

The Boeing 787’s tint-adjustable

Wednesday November 12, 2014

About thirty minutes before scheduled departure, the boarding call came for Business Class passengers. My cue. On the tarmac I saw my ride for the upcoming flight: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Leather seats with 78cm of leg room. I fastened my seat belt, switched my mobile phone to flight mode and plugged in my headphones. This allowed me to play my favorite soundtrack piece, Yamato Launches From the Earth, as the plane accelerated down the runway and into the skies above. In another nine hours, I’d be back in Japan.

The 787 has been touted as having numerous features which set it apart from the competition, some of which are specific to the cabin environment: the windows of the plane do not have blinds, but instead have “smart glass” which can change its opacity. The cabin air conditioning system is completely programmable and customizable, does a much better job of filtering air, and operates at a more passenger-friendly cabin pressure.

Lunch! It really was quite good.

After lunch, I still had seven or eight hours to kill, so I grabbed my laptop and finished my contribution for the Yamato 2199 Episode 6 Commentary, of which I still had to finish the second half. An eight-hour flying time with few distractions made it easy.

A few hours later, we landed at Narita Airport on schedule. Then began the loooong walk to Immigration. The first thing that greets you upon disembarking is a good five to ten minute walk depending on your pace… or maybe it just felt longer than it actually was, after a nine-hour flight. A short trip through immigration, a long wait in baggage claim (some crew luggage beat my bag out onto the carousel), and then it was off to the JR office to purchase a Narita Express ticket and to collect my Japan Rail passes.

Japan Rail Pass exchange orders. Don’t leave home without
them, because you can’t buy them when you get there!

Since I had extended my trip to four full weeks, requiring massive amounts of Shinkansen travel between cities, I purchased two rail passes this time: a three-week pass and a one-week pass. Since it was approaching one of the busy seasons, I took advantage of one of the great pluses of the JR Pass: you can book tickets for times within the travel period of the pass without the pass being active at the time. This meant that I could book the two time-critical journeys – one from Kyoto to Shinagawa (Tokyo) to get a connecting train to Haneda Airport to fly to Sapporo, and another to convey me from Hakodate to Tokyo six days later, to meet up with Tim and Roger.

If you’re limiting yourself to a single major city (such as Tokyo or Kyoto), the value isn’t there with them. You’re better off using the local Integrated Card (IC), such as Tokyo’s Suica. If, on the other hand, you’re making multiple Shinkansen trips over the course of your visit, then the JR pass really gains its value there. With those seats booked and taken care of, it was time to get the ticket for the Narita Express. The good news: the next one leaving still had seats available. Bad news: I had under five minutes to drag my tired butt (and my luggage) a considerable distance to the platform. Somehow, I managed to make it.

The Narita Express

On the 2013 trip I flew into Osaka rather than Tokyo, so this was my first experience with the Narita Express (N’EX). The hour-plus journey into Tokyo takes you through a number of cities which whizz by, but the time passes before you know it. Jumping off at Tokyo Station, I made for the familiar Yamanote Line to head to Shimbashi. There I changed to the Yurikamome light rail line to proceed to my hotel – the Grand Pacific Le Daiba.

The Yurikamome light rail offers great views of Tokyo Bay, and takes you to Odaiba via the famous Rainbow Bridge. The previous year, Patrick, Terry and I got off one stop earlier than we should have when visiting Diver City. Arriving at Daiba Station, I realized that if we stayed on the train one more station (instead of Odaiba-Kaihinkōen where we got off the previous year), it would have meant a much shorter walk to Diver City in that blistering heat. As it turned out, there was a huge footbridge taking you directly there. My destination was even closer this time; the Hotel Grand Pacific Le Daiba is less than 50 meters from the station. Unfortunately it includes stairs, which aren’t very helpful when you’re dragging a heavy, wheeled suitcase.

Grand Pacific Le Daiba is famous among anime fans for its themed rooms. At the time of writing, they had rooms for Mobile Suit Gundam, Galaxy Express 999, and the 2013 Captain Harlock movie. (These aren’t advertised in the English language site, you have to go digging into the Japanese language site to find them. Short of telephoning them I don’t know how you’d reserve them unless you’re fluent in Japanese.) There was an April Fool’s Day joke about them creating a Yamato 2199 room, but hopefully one of these days it will happen.

Upon checking in, the reception attendant handed over an important package I’d been expecting from CD Japan, who many readers may know. After my previous trip, they introduced a portable wifi receiver rental service. The lack of internet connectivity was continually frustrating during the previous trip, so I made sure I wasn’t going to have the same problem this time around. Considering the 4G device I rented for the entire four weeks cost little more than what my phone provider wanted for less than a hundred megabytes, it was a no-brainer.

I had a busy day planned for Thursday, but I would soon find out things wouldn’t exactly go to plan.

Thursday November 13, 2014: One Hectic Day in Tokyo!

For me, one major advantage of traveling to Japan from Australia is that jet lag is not an issue, since the time difference between Brisbane and Japan is only one hour. Thus, I woke up around 6am Thursday morning (7am in Brisbane) relaxed and refreshed. I got up and rechecked my plan for the day.

As people who read my account of the world’s largest bowling center will remember, I’m a bowler, and follow the professional level of the sport. A week before I left, I found out the Japan Cup, which always hosts the top bowlers in the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA), would be going through the qualifying rounds on this day.

Before I left, it was brought to my attention that the 1/100 Yamato would be on display at the Shinjuku Piccadilly theatre, and my friend Hiroshi Ban was keen to meet up there and show it to me, then introduce me the best ramen in the area. This wouldn’t be easy, as Odaiba, Shinjuku, and Minamisuna (where the Japan Cup was held) were on vastly different sides of Tokyo, meaning a lot of train travel and a lot of changes. And with the bowling stop, a considerable amount of walking.

The eventual itinerary for Day One. Note the scale in the bottom left as a reference. (Click to see at full size).

It all got thrown into disarray because of my own bad planning. My laptop told me the battery was down around half, so I went to plug in the charger… which had an Australian 3-pin plug that wouldn’t fit into my two-pin Japanese adapters. If I didn’t find a plug I could use here in Japan, my laptop would be dead weight for the next four weeks. So I decided my first stop would be Akihabara’s Yodabashi Camera. If I did this right, I could get the plug, head on to Shinjuku, then head back to Minamisuna for qualifying session of the first squad.


Yamato models galore. Note the custom model paints on the bottom shelf.

Some more of the vast variety of Yamato models at Yodabashi Camera!

The Soul of Chogokin Arcadia!

After a 20-30 minute train trip, I found myself back in Akihabara in front of the massive Yodabashi Camera department store. Up a floor or three, five minutes of searching later I found the plug I was looking for. Then I got diverted by the model kit area…. many, many Yamato kits from both the classic series and 2199, ranging from Mecha Colle mini-kits to the large 2199 kits. Checking my phone, I saw that Hiroshi had left a message saying the Yamato model had gone from the Piccadilly. I had thought it was going to be there for the entire lead-up to December 6.

Ramen was still on, so a 15-minute train trip later I was re-familiarizing myself with Shinjuku Station: its sheer size and insane number of exits. A bit more walking around, trading messages with Hiroshi, and there we stood face-to-face for the first time. He asked me if I’d seen the Evangelion display while I was looking for him. I hadn’t, so we went to the promotional stage in Shinjuku Square (which would soon host the Ark of the Stars display). It was promoting a 7-Eleven/Evangelion joint promotion, with the centerpiece being a themed Orochi, a recently discontinued sports car line by Mitsuoka, a one-of-a-kind with a 16 million yen price tag (~US$135,000 at the time of writing).

The one-off Evangelion-themed Orochi sportscar.

We headed off to the Shinjuku Hakata-Furyu Ramen restaurant, which as it turns out was only around the corner from Hotel Wing in Kabuki-cho. Good to know for later.

I ordered the item off the menu which the store manager assured me was chashu ramen (pork-based soup with sliced pork), and I bought a meal ticket for that. A few minutes later, out came a steaming bowl of a ramen variety I’d not tried before: karamiso chashu ramen, or spicy miso ramen with extra pork. It was quite spicy but still very good, and Hiroshi explained that here you could get your ramen cooked firm, normal, or soft. I made a mental note, since I was keen to try the firm noodles, which Hiroshi told me were only boiled for seven seconds (they cook further in the soup).

We parted at the station and I headed back to my hotel to get some charge on the wifi (in another brain-melt, I forgot to charge the device completely the night before). After an hour of waiting for the modem to charge, I began the journey back across Rainbow Bridge.


Arriving at the Japan Cup venue.

Some of the bowlers in qualifying.

PBA Champion and former Player of the Year Sean Rash.

After half an hour of being lost in Shimbashi Station, I eventually found myself at Minamisuna subway station and began the 15-minute walk to the Japan Cup venue. It was awesome. Seeing some of the sport’s finest, guys like Norm Duke and Walter Ray Williams Jr. (who I frequently saw on ESPN telecasts in the 90s) to the top bowlers of today, such as 2011-12 PBA Player of the Year Sean Rash (one of the pro bowlers conducting the coaching clinics I attended on their Queensland stop for the last few years). Unbeknownst to me, a mutual friend had given him a heads-up that I might be there.

I spent most of the evening watching players from the US, Japanese, and Korean professional tours bowl ten games, with only a very short rest in the middle. I followed Sean’s bowling most of the night, and watched him scrape into the next round. He looked to be bowling very well for the most part, but as is often the case the results weren’t coming despite what to me looked to be an uncanny ability to repeat shots.

Afterward, I headed back to the subway station, following some of the best bowlers in the world, who knew a shortcut. Armed with a Suica I had purchased on my 2013 trip, I simply tapped through the gates, while half a dozen professional sportsmen bought tickets from the vending machine. It amazed me that the PBA couldn’t organize Suicas for these guys, since they were in Japan for over a week. It would have made their visit much easier, since Suica can be used in convenience stores and fast food chains.

Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower from my Odaiba hotel window.

Stopping in at the convenience store in the hotel, I looked for a late supper. Imagine my surprise when I found Yamato 2199 strawberry milk in the refrigerated section. After grabbing that and breakfast for the next morning, I went back to my room. I had a flight to catch the next morning after all.

The foyer of the Grand Pacific Le Daiba.

Friday November 14, 2014: Off to Fukuoka!

Next morning, I ate breakfast while watching TV Tokyo’s morning show Oha Suta. Since 1997, it has been hosted by Koichi Yamadera, voice of Dessler in 2199 (not to mention Spike in Cowboy Bebop and Susumu Kodai in Yamato Resurrection). Unlike other channels, whose morning fare is mostly in the style of The Today Show and Good Morning America with its short asadora (morning drama), it’s a variety show aimed at youth. But I soon had a plane to catch.

There were two legs of the trip I really had no desire to make by train, even though the Japan Rail Pass would cover it: Tokyo > Fukuoka and Kyoto > Sapporo. The first would take at least six hours. The second would take over twelve, split between shinkansen and local lines. Not very enticing.

So I looked into domestic air travel, which has always been advertised as being very expensive. It is, unless you want to buy tickets months in advance. I learned quickly that domestic airfares don’t go on sale in Japan until two months prior to the flight, at which point it’s possible to get even First Class at a substantial discount, 50% or more for the off-peak flights. It would be a matter of waiting until mid-September for the flight to Fukuoka, and two more weeks for the flight to Sapporo. In both cases, I got online at the moment they went on sale, and got seats in First Class for both flights. It was money well spent, because I’d just cut almost 20 hours of travel down to less than three.

Checking out of the hotel, I booked a seat on an airport limousine bus to Haneda Airport. After a short wait, we were all aboard and I got to look at the sights of Odaiba as we made the short journey to Haneda Airport. At the other end, the luggage was quickly removed as I disembarked.

Haneda Airport was Tokyo’s international airport prior to Narita Airport opening in 1978, and after expansion work in the early 2010s, some of the international traffic is starting to flow back there. However, at the time of writing it was still primarily a domestic airport, with JAL and ANA domestic flights accounting for a majority of the traffic.


The main concourse in the south wing of Haneda Airport.

The First Class Check-in area!

Haneda’s terminals are smaller than Narita’s, and the concourse is narrower. The main concourse is made up of mostly omiyage (visiting gift) stores, interspersed with restaurants. Unlike Narita, Haneda’s terminals have several additional stores which are mostly restaurants of varying cuisines, as well as an observation deck for aircraft enthusiasts. Grabbing a muffin from an omiyage vendor, I went into the First Class check-in. Your luggage is scanned and checked in separately, and First Class passengers also have a private security screening facility, a couple of other things which made buying First Class plane tickets a no-brainer. Then there’s the First Class Lounge, where I spent an hour or so watching the planes on a magnificent sunny morning.


The view from the JAL First Class lounge.

Automatic Draft Beer Machines!

Soon began my first experience in First Class flying. I was welcomed by a stewardess and taken to my comfortable, wide leather seat, more like a recliner. And, to top it off, four feet of leg room. I couldn’t read much of the Japanese menu and could comprehend even less, so I fastened my seat belt and waited for the plane to roll. It was almost ten minutes late being pushed back due to technical issues, one of the few times I’ve experienced lateness in Japan for anything. After taxiing to what must have been the farthest runway, we were airborne with a snow-capped Mount Fuji out the window.

The flight would only be 90 minutes, so lunch soon came out. And what a lunch it was, a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese cuisine. The main course was chicken katsu (a rarity in Japan, as tonkatsu usually consists of pork in panko crumbs), rice, and a side salad. I tried without much luck to see identify the cities we flew over, though I think I did see Osaka, which meant that I had either missed Kyoto or we hadn’t flown over it. Before I knew it, we were already on finals into Fukuoka. As we landed, I saw numerous JSDF aircraft on the opposite side of the runway, learning that Fukuoka Airport doubles as a JSDF air base. A short taxi to the gate, and I was off the plane soon enough.

JAL313 after disembarking.

Another benefit of flying first class: first off the plane and first to get luggage. I spent less than ten minutes in the terminal before finding the subway to get into town. Unlike a lot of airport trains, Fukuoka Airport isn’t necessarily the end of the line. The train goes both toward and away from the city, which is good for a centrally-located airport like this. Suica can be used on Fukuoka subways, so I didn’t have to buy a ticket, just struggle down to the platform dragging a suitcase, overnight bag, and a backpack. I didn’t have to wait long for a train, and the trip into town was only six minutes.

My hotel was only a short walk from Hakata Station, but like a lot of subway stations in Japan, there is a virtual “underground city” of shops and walkways taking you under the streets toward various exits, including at JR Hakata Station. A quick consultation of a map showed that I should take exit 23. Yes, there are that many exits, and more. Back outside, I got my bearings and saw Hakata Station across the road, and knew the direction to the ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel, my home for the next five nights.

By the time I settled in, it was after 3pm and looked like rain outside, so I made the decision to start looking through my shortlist of things to do in the two days I’d have in Fukuoka itself, with the rest of the time taken up by day trips to other Kyushu cities. I looked to see if there were any cinemas nearby. I had missed the opening of Interstellar by a few days back home, and heard that Yamato 2199 A Voyage to Remember had started a secondary run. The Hakata Station cineplex was one such venue, and it would screen there on Saturday night. Feeling lazy, I ordered some room service and called it an early night.

Saturday November 15, 2014: Fukuoka

Waking up the next morning, I decided to have a look around JR Hakata City, the massive shopping center atop JR Hakata Station. For those wondering why the major JR station in Fukuoka is called Hakata, today it’s the name of the ward (Hakata-fu) that the station resides in, but it used to be the name of the city itself until the early Edo period. When the lord of Chikuzen Province (which formed part of what is now Fukuoka Prefecture), Kuroda Nagamasa, he built his castle on the Naka River opposite the port of Hakata. He renamed this area Fukuoka after his hometown in Okayama Prefecture (his castle became known as Fukuoka Castle). In 1876, Hakata and Fukuoka were merged and the local government named Fukuoka. However, the train station built in later years was named Hakata Station.

JR Hakata City is, like Kyoto Station, a modern-looking building. A major department store, a huge range of specialty shops, two floors of restaurants, and a large multiplex cinema occupy the glass-veneer, ten-story structure. It was at the cinema on the ninth floor where I’d buy a ticket for the day’s sole screening of A Voyage to Remember. I tried my hand at the ticket vending machines, and while I think I could have figured them out (my Japanese comprehension had marginally improved since the last trip), I chose to buy the ticket from a vendor. The cinema was already advertising Ark of the Stars as “Coming Soon”, and the then-soon-to-open Big Hero 6, which was renamed Baymax in Japan, with a life-size figure of Baymax himself to greet you.

After the movie ticket was sorted, I thought I’d follow up on a lead given to me for some ramen by a work colleague who was born in Fukuoka, so I went to an adjacent building that was said to contain a number of ramen and katsu restaurants. The katsu restaurants were there, but the ramen ones were long gone. I took advantage of my mobile wifi and googled for Fuukoka Ramen, and found a review of Shin Shin Ramen in the borough of Tenjin. Shin Shin is a chain of ramen restaurants, and there were two within walking distance.

However, since the review mentioned a specific restaurant, and experience shows that not all branches of a chain are equal (case in point: my local Domino’s Pizza is so bad I refuse to order from there any more, while a friend on the other side of town has one that’s abnormally palatable), so I was off to Tenjin, three subway stops and eleven minutes away. Tenjin is the main shopping district of Fukuoka, and the subway exits into another maze of underground shops, most of them aimed at the more well-to-do customer.

Shin Shin Ramen’s Tenjin store.

I found the restaurant in question three blocks back from the main road, and at 1pm there were a dozen people lined up outside. A good sign, because people don’t go this far off the main street unless the food is good. A 20-minute stand in line for ramen is not my idea of a good time, but it’s a small sacrifice for good ramen. Anyhow, once I could finally get in, they brought both a Japanese and an English menu, and though I read from the English menu, the waiter had a jaw drop when I ordered in Japanes. (I know enough to order a number of things in Japanese without problem) One order of chashu (sliced pork) ramen, which is the traditional Hakata-style tonkatsu (pork bone soup) ramen with thinly-sliced pork, and bottled beer to wash it down with.

Shin Shin’s Chashu Ramen.

The food was superb, a very nicely-bodied soup with tender and tasty pork (the tenderness doesn’t bother me, as once immersed in the soup it softens anyway), and the Asahi beer, though not my usual choice, was a good accompaniment (and it was the first beer I’d had since the trip began). I found the soup-to-noodle ratio was getting too high, so I shouted, “Kaedama, kudasai!” (“extra noodles please”). Another surprised response to my Japanese, and a few minutes later my second helping of noodles was there. Kaedama practices vary from restaurant to restaurant; many charge a small fee for extra noodles while others will offer a free second helping. Some restaurants offer more (the Hakata-fuyu Hiroshi took me to offered two free kaedama helpings). After finishing I paid my bill and headed back to Tenjin Station.

Aussie wine in Family Mart!

Back at the train station, I booked shinkansen tickets to Kagoshima for Monday, and Kumamoto for Tuesday. I knew leaf viewing was starting to ramp up, meaning seats may be hard to come by. I booked an early morning train each day, so as to maximize time on the ground there. I looked into how I could get over to Fukuoka Tower, which is a fair distance from central Fukuoka.

Keeping in mind the movie ticket for that night, I chose to head back to the hotel and spend the afternoon on research for food and sightseeing options. On the way, I stopped by a Family Mart for some snacks and found an Australian brand of wine amongst the many bottles in the store. Not that I drink wine, but my mother and sister are fond of this brand.


JR Hakata City from a distance.

JR Hakata City from across the street…


Clark Griswold would be inspired!

The Station Clock all lit up.

… soon enough, anyway.

With about thirty minutes to showtime, I left the hotel and walked along the street toward JR Hakata City. The sight that greeted me as I approached was incredible; Christmas decorations had been set up, and these were only the first in a long line of elaborate Christmas lighting I would see on the trip. The building, the trees in the street, specially-erected gazebos and the like, all covered in bright Christmas lights. I snapped some photos before heading into the cinema.

I made my way into the theater complex, and as I handed my ticket over, I receive Secret File #1 for A Voyage to Remember. I was somewhat disappointed to find very few others in the room, maybe half a dozen, but I wasn’t surprised since Voyage to Remember had been derided in similar fashion to the corresponding movie in the classic saga. Ark of the Stars was one of the trailers, along with the upcoming February release of Gundam: The Origin 1 and the recently-opened Attack on Titan. The amusing standout though, was a clip of Brad Pitt promoting his recent World War II movie Fury, in which he told the audience to “sit back, relax, and enjoy this short preview of Fury“. Then, no preview.

Two hours or so later, I emerged from the cinema having enjoyed the movie for what it was: a nod to its classic Yamato equivalent, and a cliff-notes version of 2199 up to the departure from Iscandar. A chance for people to refresh their memories of the story prior to Ark of the Stars on December 6th. I headed back to the hotel and watched the news, where I saw coverage on BBC World of the G20 summit which was happening in my hometown of Brisbane that weekend, with Obama, Putin, and Company all there. It was a very happy coincidence that I flew out three days before it started.

Continue to Part 2

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