Yamatour 2017 travelogue, part 1

by Tim Eldred

Ten years, ten trips, and Tokyo is still full of surprises.

That was the main lesson I learned this time. I still remember the circumstances of each previous trip, the events they were built around, the friends I made, the treasures I discovered, and especially the once-only opportunities. The only thing that depleted over time was the urgency to go back. I used to get a serious itch if 12 months went by with no return, but that went away as the passport filled up with stamps. Count on a Space Battleship Yamato premiere to bring it roaring back.

As soon as Yamato 2202 got the official greenlight for production in early 2016, it was only a matter of time. But how much time? As a toiler in the animation business myself (director for Marvel’s Avengers cartoon, seen on Disney XD) I have a sense for how long it takes to fully mount a production, and I thought the soonest it could actually appear in theaters would be November 2016. And since my daughter was set on getting married that first weekend, I was certain that’s exactly when Chapter 1 would arrive.

With exactly two months to go until the big day, the production committee let me off the hook when they announced a premiere of February 25, 2017. I could do my sacred Dad duty without distraction. (And it all went great.) Then came Election Day and life itself became one big distraction…but that’s another story.

I’ve sampled all four seasons in Tokyo, and though the winters are usually mild they can get bone-snappingly cold. The winter 2012 Yamatour did a number on my health that was still counting when I returned in the spring. But health was one of the things I worked hard on for the sake of that aforementioned 2016 wedding. I spent that entire year losing weight and gaining stamina, which made Yamatour 2017 successful on a whole different level. Rather than finishing each day with burning pegs for feet, I was taking stairs like a boss and outrunning every germ that tried to plant its flag. I can’t recommend fitness enough. I can even fit into Japanese clothing now. (XL, but still…)

Step one: LAX > Narita

Getting there…

The morning of Wednesday February 22 found me at the international departures terminal of LAX, waiting to board reliable old Singapore Airlines SQ11 non-stop to Narita airport. It took off about half an hour late, but endangered nothing. I was encouraged to find some karma along the way when I randomly tuned into the flight tracker on my seat screen for some status. I promise, this is 100% true…

The distance traveled at that point was 2199 miles. I blinked and let it cycle through other data.

When the distance number came up again it was 2202 miles.

Once again, I promise. 100% true. I took it as the universe giving its approval. I was going to get all the way there and come all the way back to tell you that story.

The half hour delay for takeoff ended up as an advantage. Originally, I was scheduled to land half an hour ahead of Walter Amos, another member of the Yamatour 2017 Adventure Team. Instead we both landed at roughly the same time (on different airlines) and I got the chance to sneak up next to him as we approached customs. This worked out really well, since his phone wasn’t playing well with Japanese telecom and he needed to report his progress to his roommates, who had arrived a few days earlier.

From left: Tim Eldred, Phillip Thorne, Ed Sandford, Walter Amos, Bryan Powell, Daniel George. Not pictured: John-Paul Goodwin

Step two: Narita > Tokyo

At this point I should mention that we had a genuine team for this trip, multiple participants from two countries all using Yamato 2202 as a rallying point. Walter and I were preceded by Phillip Thorne (Pennsylvania), Bryan Powell and Ed Sandford (Florida) and Daniel George & John-Paul Goodwin (Brisbane, Australia). We all had individual plans and local residents prepared to link up with us, so a busy agenda had already been set before any of us left the ground.

There are always “firsts” on a Japan trip, and I had two on day one – first time in Tokyo with a smart phone (BIG difference) and first time staying in an apartment rather than a hotel (HUGE difference). The Hotel Wing in Kabukicho/Shinjuku had been my regular hangout before, but new construction was driving up the rents, and room rates followed. Daniel took the lead and found us an apartment in Nakano for a much better price. Split between three of us over seven days, it was comparable to previous hotel rates. Walking to and from the local JR station took about twice as long, but Nakano is tidy and welcoming, and the place could easily have accommodated three more of us. We even had our first Japanese kitchen and a bathroom you could extend your arms in.

Howdy, Shibuya!

Since the team was now in Japan, we naturally assembled at a German restaurant (at Walter’s request) in Shibuya with two of our local friends (Sonchori Ha and Kat Callaghan) and despite managing to spill a cup of water on my bed later that night, I slept comfortably. Jet lag has never been a serious issue for me (as long as I don’t try to see an evening movie) and somehow I can function at full capacity with as little as 5 hours of shuteye. Tokyo super-charges me every time I touch down.

Friday morning at 6am was already GO time.

Friday, February 23

As anticipation gives way to reality, time takes on an elastic quality, compressing and expanding in inverse proportion to challenges.

Those words drifted across my brain early Friday morning as I put myself together for the day. You know how the clock seems to spin at uneven rates, accelerating when you’re late and slowing down when you’re waiting? (I swear, that last half-hour before work is jet-propelled and the middle hour of a workday is made of cement.)

Good morning, Nakano! What a pleasure to wake up inside you! Perhaps I should rephrase that…

While I’m in Japan, a daily routine quickly becomes a lifestyle: morning ritual, get on a train, attack the agenda. After the trip is over, that week recedes on the calendar and becomes a break from my other lifestyle: morning ritual, get in the car, attack the agenda. The difference is the agenda itself. In Japan it’s all about adventure, which somehow inverts the clock-spin. It slows down when I’m late and takes on jet-speed while I’m waiting. This is why I’ll always be happy to visit, but living there would probably ruin it.

Passed these statues every day on the way to and from the station; left over from when the ancient Greeks ruled Japan?

Anyway, the first item on the Friday agenda was finding the Yamato 2202 newspaper. To be honest, I’d never had a need to buy a Japanese newspaper before, so I only knew to look for them in convenience stores (no problem finding one, “conbini” are always five minutes away, max). There was one, called Sunkus, between the apartment and the station. (I imagined that the name was a Japanese interpretation of “thanks,” and a quick Wiki check confirmed it.)

I first learned about Sunkus while researching Yamato products; a small line of miniatures in 2003 and some Resurrection food items in 2009. Other than that, I had no use for a Sunkus until this trip when I started my newspaper and magazine hunt. (More on the latter in a moment.) Stepping inside, I saw for the first time how newspapers are sold; rather than folded flat, they’re rolled up like umbrellas. Fewer copies on hand, but easier to grab.

How to spot a newspaper

They were right next to the door, but it took my brain a moment to adjust to this unexpected shape. Unfortunately, there was no 2202 newspaper at the Sunkus, but the next conbini, called Newday, was at the local JR train station just three minutes farther on. Now that I knew what to look for, my eyes fell on the newspaper rack instantly, and there they were: three copies of the 2202 newspaper waiting to be bought. I nabbed all three (it’s a habit) and agenda item #1 was conquered.

Next, the magazine hunt. One week earlier, the official 2202 website did something kind of amazing – published a complete list of all the media that would cover Chapter 1 during the month of February. Magazines, websites, TV, radio, all of it. As a compulsive Yamato researcher, that filled me with excitement (though my first reaction was OH SHIT) since it instantly made my hobby much easier. Before this, I could only rely on other fans posting their discoveries on Twitter. It’s a great resource that has paid off many times, but there’s no way to know if you’re still missing something. This list was something else: no less than 30 publications with content and street dates.

I always assign myself a crazy scavenger-hunt project when I go to Tokyo, and this was a worthy one. I’d save a bundle on shipping costs and could actually preview each one before buying it. (Plenty of magazines have come to me via Amazon.co.jp, but there’s no way to know if one will pay off until you actually see it.) And I was able to get a head start on this at home: Animedia, Newtype, PASH!, and Weekly Asahi were already captured. That only left 26 to find on the ground. Sure…no problem.

The magazine list. Left: titles obtained before departure. Right: first two titles obtained Friday morning.

The hunt began at my local Sunkus where two magazines jumped right out at me (mainly because both titles were rendered in English): TV Station and TV LIFE. Both contained voice actor interviews and both were visually confirmed on the spot. 24 left to find.

Morning paper and morning toast at Cafe Renoir

I made my traditional day 1 breakfast stop at Café Renoir, a coffee shop that’s as common as any conbini. I really wanted a look at that newspaper, and to taste that amazing block of toast that captured my taste buds on my very first trip in 2007. (It’s just bread and butter, but it’s got something else going on – I’ll call it “oishii.”) I also used this moment to check in with Dan. He and JP were spending the day on a sightseeing tour of Kamakura with the rest of the Adventure Team. I might have joined them if it were a few days later, but I needed a big bite of Tokyo after more than two years away.

“Found three copies [of the newspaper] at Nakano station. Will continue looking for more today.” And then, a few minutes later, “Oh, this newspaper is spectacular! You should buy one to pass around today.”

It really is something special. Get a look at the whole thing here.

I had a couple hours before my first actual on-the-clock appointment, so Nakano itself was my playground for a while: Sun Mall and the beloved Nakano Broadway – launching pad of the mighty Mandarake and a dozen other anime/manga wonderlands. The Mandarake stores wouldn’t open until noon, but there were more conbini and a terrific bookstore (Haruya) where I could scout more magazines.

If I had one of those magic doors from Monsters Inc., this is where it would go.

This lead to a valuable discovery: there were indicators on the list that had the numbers 2, 3, or 4 in them (example: 表2広告). I assumed it meant 2-page article, 3-page article, or 4-page article, so I didn’t look any deeper. When I picked up one of the magazines on the list and couldn’t find an article, it became clear that this referred only to an ad position in the inside front, inside back, or outside back cover. (Literally “Table 2/3/4 advertisement.”) In a flash, this took 13 names off the list. I may be a psycho-fan, but there are still limits.

The magazine list again. Left: titles eliminated after the advertising discovery. Right: after the morning round.

Nevertheless, I managed to find three more magazines in this round (Entermix, Pia Movie Special, and TV Guide) and nix three more as duds (not worth getting), so now there were only five to go. There were other discoveries, like a music magazine at Haruya with a prizewinning name. I wasn’t going to buy it, but really wanted a photo to share with the world. I had to be sneaky about it, since Haruya is one of those stores that frowns on picture-taking. And there was a female clerk who seemed intent on NOT leaving that aisle. I had to leave and walk around a bit, but slipped back in and got the prize. Enjoy.

It’s a little blurry, but the text at right reads: “BARFOUT! means Speak Out! Loudly.” Um, well…

Back to the apartment to drop off the morning loot, then to the station for my lunch appointment. Passing the Newday again, I felt a little guilty when I saw that they hadn’t restocked the 2202 newspaper. Did I deprive another fan of their chance? Only a moment to reflect on this before I met up with my friend Sonchori. He’s known to the rest of the world as Cat Hands Agent, an “online shopping deputy” who serves the outside world by buying whatever you want (just give him a link) and shipping it to you. I’ve been using his services since 2006, and he has proven a critical ally in making this website what it is. He’s open for new clients. Visit his website here.

It’s always great to renew our friendship face to face, and he’s just as helpful in person as online. This time, I’d asked him to reserve us a table for lunch at the mammoth Isetan department store (think Harrods in London). Ordinarily I’d have no need to set foot in there, but this time they had something irresistable: a restaurant/gallery space called Lupin III: Sneak into Isetan’s Hideout. It was opened to commemorate Lupin’s 50th anniversary and would only be there for five days (Feb 22-27). Being there at this precise time was a master thief’s luck. If their website is still up, you can find it here.

The food itself was fairly standard with a fabulous price tag that also paid for the décor. Part of the space was devoted to art, part was a gift shop, and the rest was bricked-in like a cellar with all the trappings of a thief’s den. While you ate, Lupin music and sound effects kept you entertained and the servers periodically gifted you with little trinkets to take home, like cards and stickers. The meal also came with a commemorative saucer, which is still waiting for me to decide if I’m going to use it, or stick it into the archives to be rediscovered in future rummaging.

The gallery/gift shop felt like a museum display with Lupin’s various outfits custom-tailored by (I assume) well-known clothing designers. You could buy Jigen’s hat, Cagliostro’s rings, artisanal food items and more. I settled on a lousy T-shirt, and got the full attention of the entire 6-member cashier team who stopped just short of gift-wrapping it. Impressed, I laid an “Ots’kare-sama deshta” (thanks for your hard work) on them, got a group giggle [thanks for humoring a semi—literate traveler, ladies] and that was that.

Incidentally, it was thanks to this article that I learned about the Lupin restaurant. I could very easily have missed it entirely, learning much later about a lost opportunity. It’s happened before.

Sonchori and I went our separate ways, due to meet up again almost a week later. Now I was in the heart of Shinjuku, my usual base camp, sort of what you’d get if you nudged Las Vegas up next to Times Square. I was burning to set foot inside the Shinjuku Piccadilly Theater, the vortex of all Yamato activity for the week. 2202 Chapter 1 would premiere there the next morning, and the 1/100 Yamato model was already parked in the entrance lobby.

I stepped in and there she was – hello, beautiful – modified since I’d last seen her in December 2014. She now sports the 2202 upgrades we’ve been seeing in promotional images. Resculpted fairing on the bow, a few adjustments in the midsection, and a raised waterline through the hull. This was the first of several walkbys, none of which occurred without a photo session. See the results here.

Upstairs, I found the huge display panel for Chapter 1 and checked in at the gift shop. Chapter 1 merchandise was already there, migrating from boxes to shelves. None for sale yet, but I could already see some of them in my hands less than 24 hours later. I’m also a collector of program books for other favorite movies, and was hoping to get one for Doctor Strange, which had just opened at the beginning of February. The Piccadilly was out, but I’d already learned that it was playing at my second favorite Shinjuku theater, the Wald 9. It was only five minutes away, so why not?

Wald 9 is a gorgeous theater with the perfect balance of art house and mainstream. They didn’t have 2202, but they did have the newest Lupin III movie, Blood Spray of Goemon, which I was determined to see before the end of the trip. The Doctor Strange program book was there (two different covers? Both, please) along with one for Your Name (two different volumes? Eh, one will do), and I had a strong suspicion that I wouldn’t walk out empty-handed when I came back for my Lupin visit.

Another cool thing about Japanese theaters is getting to see alternate posters
for upcoming American films, and this drop-in didn’t disappoint.

I did a sweep of local conbinis to look for more magazines (none found) and newspapers (three found) and it was during this stage that the first genuine miracle of the trip landed on top of me. Quick backstory: in spring 2012, when I was in touch with the Yamato office in Tokyo, I had the privilege of interviewing animation director Nobuyoshi Habara, who was working on 2199 at the time. Our translator was a lovely young lady named Rina Lee. We all had such a good time that when I returned in the summer of 2013 we got together again. (See both interviews here and here.)

Habara-san and I at our second meeting, August 2013

Naturally, I was overjoyed for Habara-san when I learned he’d been promoted to direct Yamato 2202, but I gave up any hope of seeing him on this trip since he was completely crushed by promotional responsibilities. However, when I dropped my first Facebook post from the ground at LAX, Rina Lee saw it and responded, asking if I had any time to meet. I texted back that I’d love to grab lunch, and it was in the 2pm hour of Friday the 24th that she got back to me with the following:

Rina: “I’ve got great news! Habara-san is free on Tuesday lunch time. And I’ll be at my office all day, so I’m free for lunch as well!!”

That was one of those moments that is now branded into my brain for life. I remember the exact patch of sidewalk I was on when I read it. I remember the exact building I leaned against to steady myself. I remember my earlier decision not to over-plan my agenda in case something came out of the blue. It was a freakin’ miracle. This news was too big to contain, so I shot a text off to Dan George immediately.

Me: “You are so lucky. You know somebody who just got invited to have lunch with Habara next Tuesday!”

Dan: “Congratulations, sir. By the way, Hase Shrine here in Kamakura is spectacular.”

Me: “That’s cute.”

After that, I floated over to Kinokuniya bookstore to look for more magazines (didn’t take any more off the list, but found a few other items) and floated back to Nakano for a firm hit on the Mandarake stores. Nailed all of them, found cool stuff, floated back to the apartment for another dropoff. I’m glad I took photos of what I found, otherwise I might have forgotten completely.

Come 6pm, the Adventure Team was back from Kamakura and we re-assembled in Shinjuku for dinner. We were just a couple minutes away from the Piccadilly, so it was a golden opportunity to grab some group shots and conduct some general shenanigans around the big Yamato model. I stole a peek at the gift shop again to see that all the loot was up on the shelves, but the shelves were sanitized for our protection. Soon, my preciousss…

From left: Dan, Bryan, Walter, Ed, Kat, John-Paul, and Phillip

Our dinner destination was one of Tokyo’s growing number of “Otaku bars” called Newtype Shinjuku. I like an occasional booze hit, but I don’t typically go out of my way for one. What made this different was Newtype’s temporary status as a Yamato 2202 Collaboration Café. Like the Lupin III hideout, it was only temporary (Feb 12-28) and the timing made it something we couldn’t pass up.

I’d scouted the location earlier that afternoon, so finding it again was effortless. We were a gang of eight and thus took up two tables. Fortunately, we got in early enough for this not to be a problem. Yamato swag was all over the place: posters here, models there, flyers and newspapers along one side, a rack of costumes along the back. Trailers looped endlessly on a TV monitor. As advertised, there was a specialty menu with (I assume) their normal fare made over with Yamato names. Buying an item from that menu (food or drink) got you a free postcard. Two items, two cards. And so on.

One of the servers was uniformed as Yuki Mori, and despite the cigarette smoke that came from only one table (somehow managing to FILL UP THE ENTIRE ROOM) it was an entirely enjoyable evening. At one point a server asked us (in Japanese) if we’d like to enter a ticket raffle for an event coming up Sunday night. The director of 2202, Nobuyoshi Habara, would be there for a private talk, and the limited number of seats were being raffled off. None of us was in a position to get one, which reminded me of how lucky my friends were to know someone who would be having lunch with Habara on Tuesday. Because, you know, miracles.

Drinks-wise, I went with the Emperor Zordar, just so I could say I did. And there, I just said it. Mission accomplished. It was a mint vodka, which I now never need to try again. To my right was the wall of flyers, many of which were leftovers from the February 6 preview event for Chapter 1. This is something else I can’t pass up as a Yamato researcher; even though I’d already bought a set in an online auction I had to grab another set. The rest of the team got their 2202 newspapers (a measly 500 yen each) and a friend of Walter’s named Yutaka Shiratori gifted us with regular mainstream newspapers that had full-page 2202 ads in them.

In due time, those of us still subject to jet lag started getting wobbly and rose to call it a night. A very successful night of a very successful day. And only just the first of many. In less than 12 hours, Yamato 2202 Chapter 1 would be inside our heads.

Continue to the Friday Fun Time photo gallery

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