Yamatour 2019 Travelogue

Know your Yamatourists (L to R): Walter Amos, Lloyd Coricelli, Bryan Powell, Tim Eldred,
Anton Kholodov, Darren Ashmore, Minoru Itgaki, Anton Mei Brandt, Daniel George.

By Tim Eldred

I forget about the plane ride every time. Then suddenly I’m looking down the barrel of 11 hours in a tube, unable to fully relax and fall asleep. I bring along things to write and read and watch, but nothing makes it easier. Then there’s the lousy food and missing my girlfriend, and the heavy bags dragging me toward the center of the earth. It makes me ask, why do we do it, the traveling? Being there is great. Getting there, not so great.

Goodbye, LA! Hello, Narita! Wish it went that fast in real life.

We do it for the same reason we get out of bed and live for another day: to collect stories. That’s what human beings have been about since the beginning; collecting and sharing stories. Large and small.

Where this particular hobby is concerned, I could tell two possible stories.

Story #1: the last chapter of Yamato 2202 opened in theaters on March 1, 2019 and a friend shipped the blu-ray to me in Los Angeles, and I watched it and it was great. The end.

Story #2: I saved my pennies for a while and booked a flight to Tokyo to see the last chapter of Yamato 2202 in a theater. Friends of mine from around the world came to see it with me and we spent several days together doing A and B, and we went to that restaurant and those events where the thing happened, and took day trips to other cities and discovered X, Y, and Z, and…

It’s obvious which of those two stories is better. So yeah, this cost a lot of money and required a lot of endurance. But I’m willing to pay for a good story, both on the screen and right in front of my eyes. Hopefully I can share it here in a way that keeps you interested.

Day 1: Thursday, February 28

All ten of my previous visits to Japan have been exactly seven days long, give or take travel time. And all ten times, that turned out to be just a little shorter than I wanted. And no matter what, I always just managed to miss something by a day or two. This time, I wanted to stretch it and see if I could beat the odds.

Since 2202 Chapter 7 would open on a Friday, I had to leave LA on Wednesday (arriving Thursday) to make the premiere. Normally, that would mean leaving Tokyo the following Thursday or Friday, bugging out just as a new weekend arrived with some cool thing I would have wanted to see. And Japan would laugh at me as my plane took off. This happened ten times out of ten. But NO MORE.

For trip number 11, I would stay for a week bracketed by two weekends. 11 days for my 11th trip. One for each prior trip. There was also one really trivial reason for this choice, which I will maybe reveal when we get to that point in the travelogue. (Yes, of course I will. You don’t bring a gun into act A and NOT fire it off in act C.)

So for each day I’ll very briefly round up what happened on the corresponding trip to Japan.

First sightings of new Yamato merch in its natural habitat.

Trip 1 was magical from start to finish. It was also extremely hot and humid, being August of 2007. I saw my first big-screen anime before it was exported (Vexille), ate my first conbini snacks, shopped at every Mandarake store (which healed my heart after the LA branch closed), and discovered far more than I imagined. There were no Yamato events in 2007, but that hardly mattered at the time. There was decades worth of Yamato swag, and no better place to hunt for it.

Old faces and new ones would be waiting for me upon arrival this time. Daniel George (from Australia) was there for the fourth time and our third trip together. I would reunite with Anton Kholodov (from Russia), who was back for the first time since 2012. Walter Amos (US) had been a few times before; I had the honor of being there for his first visit, which corresponded with my fifth. Bryan Powell is a seasoned pro, having spent much of his youth in Japan, and now runs a hobby shop specializing in anime plamo (Model Citizen hobby shop in St Petersburg, FL). Brand new to the gang were Lloyd Coricelli (US) and Anton Mei Brandt (Sweden), who made us into a magnificent seven.

Our priority would be the premiere of Yamato 2202 Chapter 7. As always, plenty of other flowers would bloom in our path along the way.

Christmas Eve at the Shinjuku Piccadilly gift shop.

The flight in was just as eventless as I like it to be, and it didn’t even hurt to walk afterward. It was cold and wet upon arrival, and would continue that way for the balance of the day, which didn’t sap my spirit one bit. Most of the crew was scattered and preoccupied, but I did spend my first evening with the two Antons (Kholodov and Brandt) who would ironically miss each other by only a few minutes and not meet until the next morning.

Anton K greeted me on arrival at Narita airport and we teamed up for the 90-minute train ride into Tokyo. Since we last saw each other in 2012, he’d evolved his craft from clothing design to writing and drawing comics. Inspired by his studies of Asian history/folklore and what I’ve been doing with my multimedia SF webcomic Pitsberg, he’s hatching deep, expansive stories that we will all hopefully be able to absorb once they go online.

First visit (of many) with the big display models. More/bigger pics to come.

Strangely enough, the final chapter of Yamato 2202 would be his entry point into the series. Despite following the original and 2199, this one didn’t grab him from the beginning and so he put it off until this moment. Nice of him to let us all witness his first exposure.

He had to go set up house right after we arrived at the JR station in Shinjuku, and I walked outside to find Anton B waiting, as arranged. He’d already been in Tokyo for a day and gotten the Tokyo super-charge. He shared his initial impressions with me in words that I can remember speaking myself back in 2007. No matter how tired you are when you arrive, something lifts you up. Fatigue is melted away by the simple joy of seeing the land you could only previously imagine. Your feet take over and your road opens up.

Meet Anton Mei Brandt!

Then there’s the added layer of being among Yamato fans and sharing the common language. Anton B isn’t completely alone in his fandom back home, but he’s definitely a standout. He’s also a walking encyclopedia who’s been storing up a theory on just about every aspect of 2202 since it began, and once he switches on he stays on. Some of you may have already met Anton B on our Facebook group page, and I guarantee you you’ll be hearing more from him on this site.

Between my time with the Antons, moving into my tiny hotel room, washing off the travel, and getting caught up on 2202 news that emerged since takeoff (which was a lot, since we were now on the eve of the premiere), I finally got horizontal for the first time in about 24 hours. And proceeded to get just one actual hour of sleep. The next day was going to be a big one.

Godzilla was right outside my hotel all week long. Can’t usually say that IRL.

Day 2: Friday, March 1

Trip 2 was a little over a year after trip 1, October of 2008. The presidential election was in its final round, and I was a news hound. I didn’t have a laptop then, so I stopped at least twice a day in internet cafes to see what was brewing. Fortunately, it all ended as I’d hoped. This was the first trip where I took off for an overnight in Osaka. I’ve gone back every time since then.

Starting with my trip 1, I learned right away not to expect any real sleep for the first couple of nights. In this case, I know I got just one hour on the first night because I looked at the clock before and after. Then I spent the next five hours trying to remain motionless and thought-free. Not as easy as it sounds with so much to anticipate for the coming week. Nevertheless, I was propelled like a gunshot when my alarm went off at 6am. This was premiere day. There were traditions to uphold.

The line was already down the block at 7am.

The Shinjuku Piccadilly theater is THE place to attend a Yamato premiere. It’s pretty average as theaters go, but it has one of the largest gift shops I know of, which means it can be relied upon to carry 100% of the tie-in merch. Japanese fans know this, and flock there in droves. Conversely, that increases the chances of said merch selling out on the first day. So if you’re anything like me (and I know I certainly am), you get in line before the doors open at 8am.

Standing in line for a Yamato movie before a theater opens goes all the way back to August 1977, and it hasn’t abated since. Sure enough, there was a substantial line of fans already waiting when I approached at 7am. Rain be damned. And even then, I wasn’t the first member of the Yamatour crew to arrive.

Lloyd Coricelli was already there, and as the only two non-locals, we spotted each other right away. I initially crossed paths with Lloyd years earlier in Yamato fandom on Facebook, and this was the first time we met in person. Unsurprisingly, we were exactly the same age and had pretty much the same entry point of Star Blazers back in its first year. Now he works for the air force and finds himself in Japan a couple times a year on business. This was his final day in Tokyo, so we got quickly acquainted and were soon joined by Anton K.

Crew members assemble! Anton Kholodov, Lloyd Coricelli, Minoru Itgaki, Anton Mei Brandt.

Expecting to endure a full hour of rain before being allowed in, we were all relieved when the line started moving after just 15 minutes. We were routed up a series of stairwells to the very lobby we longed for. Theater staff took mercy on us and went into action 45 minutes early. Premiere day had officially begun.

As I struggled and failed to get word of this out to the incoming crew (cell signal sucked), they nevertheless arrived one by one and joined the expanding line behind us: Daniel George, well-known in these pages for previous Yamatours and the 2199 commentaries, Anton Mei Brandt (willing to simply be called “Mei” for clarity), local friend and ally Minoru Itgaki (a regular in the FB group), and Darren Ashmore (teacher, author, Brit expatriate, and anime deep-diver). The crew roster was nearly complete.

The line for the gift shop wrapped around itself and took about an hour to get through. At right: all the goods, nothing sold out yet.

The Piccadilly gift shop had been rearranged a bit, but the atmosphere was the same as previous chapters. It took a good hour to reach the head of the line, but they’d stocked up for the onslaught and nothing was sold out yet. Getting to that moment reminded me of the photos we see every year on Black Friday, customers pouring into stores with looks of pure, reckless elation. I have to say, I get that at moments like this, especially after participating from afar for so long. Waiting for merch to show up in the mail bears no resemblance to being on hand for Christmas morning.

The Chapter 7 blu-rays and program books waited behind the counter at the end of our shopping experience, and they were scooped up with gratitude. What prevents someone from walking in and right back out again with the blu-ray? You have to have your movie ticket in hand to qualify for one, and they stamp it to prevent bulk purchases. One disc per seat. The purpose of this, as covered elsewhere, is to help raise money as early as possible to pay the production costs of the movie you came to see. As of Chapter 7, that experiment has concluded successfully. We’ll see who tries it next.

Shopping frenzy! Great way to spend your time while counting down to an 8:50am screening.

Shortly after we found our way into the screening room itself, the remaining crew members finally joined us: Bryan Powell and Walter Amos. After an ungodly amount of trailers (none of which sparked joy for us), the moment arrived for which we’d planned the entire adventure: Chapter 7 began.

This is not the place to describe it in detail, but Darren had been to a media preview a few days earlier and told me to expect “all the feels.” He wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t quite equipped to feel them at the level he indicated. There’s a ton of action in this, but also a ton of dialogue. Harutoshi Fukui’s stories are like this; after much buildup, payoff comes in equal parts words and pictures. The pictures were gorgeous and mesmerizing. The words were mostly opaque, and intentionally dense. Even a fully native speaker couldn’t absorb all of them in one viewing.

1/350 Hachette Yamato parts spotted at Kinokuniya bookstore.

Over the next few hours, group conversation teased out the basics and my respect for the story grew. It would take additional time to get my head around what we’d seen. But at each stage of learning, my initial impression was bolstered: this story goes far past its source material and provides concepts that were impossible to formulate back in the late 70s. A solid, insightful path was discovered between Farewell and Yamato 2 in a way that devalues neither of them. It defied all predictions and delivered more than expected.

Throughout the viewing, I kept reminding myself that this was the last time (for a while anyway) I would be able to watch a Yamato story without knowing how it would end. In my opinion, that’s the greatest gift we’ve been given starting with Resurrection in 2009. I really hope more such experiences are waiting for us in the future. It’s too much fun to stop now.

Galaxy Navy doujinshi available in healthy numbers at Mandarake Mania, a bookstore in Nakano Broadway.

After pausing for photos with the giant display models (ohhhh, those things are gorgeous) we bade a fond farewell to Lloyd, who was off to the airport for home. His time with us was brief, but happened at the most significant moment of the voyage. Then the shopping adventure began with a dive into Nakano Broadway, vault of all that is holy to your older-generation anime fans.

This was followed by a shot down to the neighborhood of Shibuya with three specific destinations. First, the Under Armour store. As a major 2202 sponsor, it had both merchandise and an exclusive display when I was here for Chapter 1. This time, upon the premiere of the frickin’ finale…bupkus. An inquiry revealed that their Yamato apparel is only sold online or in theaters. And the one shirt they made for Chapter 7 had an inexplicable price tag of about $150. Heckuva job, UA.

Next was the Shibuya branch of Mandarake, which feels more homey every time I visit, and then – at last – dinner at Yakitori Yamato restaurant. Two years previously (at the original location), we lucked into a once-in a lifetime meeting and conversation with Shoji Nishizaki, owner of the joint AND the Yamato franchise. Since then, the place moved from the outskirts of Tokyo right into the beating heart. Now that it’s way easier to find, it’s going to be a regular stop on future visits.

The new layout is larger with more tables, so the chances of a Nishizaki randomly landing on yours are remote. But the cuisine is excellent – they take every part of a chicken (the “tori” part of “yakitori”) and turn it into magic. Except for maybe the bones. They served us something with bones in it, and I couldn’t even chew one, much less swallow it, so it remained on my plate. I’ll get my calcium in liquid form, thanks.

By this time our group consisted of five: myself, Dan George, Darren Ashmore, Walter Amos, and Minoru Itgaki as acting captain. Anton Kholodov was getting his accomodations together. As for Anton Brandt, in the time we were apart he saw Chapter 7 AGAIN. Not only that, he scored a ticket to see the Friday evening stage greeting with Nobuyoshi Habara and Harutoshi Fukui, made possible by generous Japanese friends he’d met on Twitter. So as we watched, Anton cruised in, walked up to our table…and passed right on by in the company of his new, cooler, and more Japanese pals. Young Grasshopper had come far in a short time.

Still pushing forward on my one hour of sleep over two days, I made it back to my hotel room, caught up on the day’s news, and collapsed. On this second night I got four hours. Looking up.

Day 1 targets acquired and eliminated.

Day 3: Saturday, March 2

Trip 3 was the first one based around a Yamato event: the one-day fan convention called Yamato Party in May 2009. I teamed up with my pal from Italy, Andrea Controzzi, and we got all the way down to Hiroshima and back in time for the shindig. That resulted in the first Yamatour Travelogue, which you can read here.

Now, come on, if someone had told me I could’ve stayed at a SUPER hotel…

As I took in one of my favorite Tokyo breakfasts at a Café Renoir (nothing special to the locals, but exotic for me) Anton Brandt was a few blocks away seeing Chapter 7 for a THIRD time. He’d somehow become the king of Yamato fandom – literally overnight – and gotten tickets to the big Saturday morning stage greeting featuring all the main voice actors. The bastid. (You’ll hear more about it directly from him.)

Left: Cafe Renoir breakfast of champions. Right: the movie matchup you never knew you wanted.

Following that, the crew gathered for some serious shopping action in Akihabara, a neighborhood that gets busier and flashier every year as overseas fans continue to flock in and make it a destination. There’s no arguing with the convenience of having one place to go for all the newest stuff, but the tradeoff for that convenience is charm. On my first trip in 2007, I got just a taste of the “old” Akihabara; a maze of tiny, dusty, ill-organized dens packed with hidden treasure. Imagine visiting a coalition of hoarders who have only a vague interest in making it easy on you. For a certain strain of collector, that holds a lot of charm. For the majority, not so much.

Then this annoying guy from work showed up…

As a result, the “old” Akihabara can only be found on the outskirts. The new, tourist-friendly version is a mass of multi-floor high-rises, most of which provide everything the average collector looks for, so you only need to visit one or two. On my first visit here, I was determined to see everything, so I spent a day and a half literally walking into every store and saw a lot of variety. These days, variety is giving way to bulk.

Hello again, Akiba. We are invading you.

Radio Kaikan pretty much embodies the evolution of Akihabara, at least in the time since I started going there. In 2007, it was a creaky fire trap. Then the merchants scattered to nearby addresses while the place was demolished and rebuilt as a 9-story high-rise. Most of them came back to reboot in a sleek, modern, easily-navigable stack of anime/manga boutiques. It’s awe-inspiring. And very nearly charmless.

Where all the best geeks assemble. Me with Darren and Dan. I invented a Gundam salute on the spot.

This was our starting point for the day: Dan, Anton Kholodov, Darren Ashmore and myself rose to the top floor and crept our way down. 2202 model kits were easy to find, and most stores had pretty much the same stock at the same prices. I guess you either grab the first one you see, or you follow your loyalties to whatever merchant commands your loyalties.

Plamo madness inside Radio Kaikan.

The larger space allows stores to stock larger figures and display objects, some of which are impossibly big and cost hundreds of dollars. Japanese houses are not much larger than American mobile homes, so I have to wonder what sort of buyer goes for merch that’s the size of furniture. Then Darren showed me when he bought an enormous figure that I would normally expect to see inside an art museum. You could have fit a microwave oven in the box with room for a couple of blu-ray players. Sure, I’m all in on the 1/350 Hachette Yamato, but I recently bought a house with a fireplace mantle, for cripesake.

Both Antons in one place!

In the end, I encourage any fan to follow their bliss and surround themselves with whatever brings them joy. I just hope they don’t sacrifice comfort for it.

Anton Brandt joined us from his third Chapter 7 screening and we moved on to a feature of Akihabara that hasn’t changed a single bit in all this time: the glorious tonkatsu restaurant Maru Go. Despite its growing popularity, it hasn’t expanded. It’s still committed to quality, and enlarging the operation would probably lead to compromise. We stood in line for a frigid hour to get in, and it was worth every goddamn minute. I’ve said it before and will die on this hill: this is the best tonkatsu on Earth. Prove me wrong.

As the afternoon opened up, Anton B wandered off again and the rest of us split up to continue scavenging. I was happy to find the first item on my wish list, a DVD set of the TV series Vifam 13 (since my LDs aren’t looking good on HD screens any more). Next were the brand new Yamato 2202 CDs that came out that day. They actually showed up at the Piccadilly the day before, but now they were in general release and if you bought them from participating stores you got a bonus clear file with the cover art.

Left: newly-released Andromeda watch. Right: my number one non-Yamato find of the trip.
(Much cooler than the box art implies.)

After a couple of misfires, I scored them at Tower Records. I became a fan of Tower when I moved to LA in the early 90s, and I watched with great sadness as they succumbed to defeat. But in Japan they live on, and they’ve never let me down. In addition to 2202 discs, I stumbled across something absolutely bananas: a 4-disc set by TM Network called Get Wild Song Mafia. Get Wild is the famed end theme from the City Hunter anime series, and Song Mafia contained no less than 36 versions of it all in one place. If you know that song, this is irresistible. Thanks, Tower!

Not a bad week for movies!

Just a few hours later, I would hear that song directly in its original context when I re-teamed with both Antons and local Yamato/Macross fan Hiroshi Ban for the new City Hunter feature film, Private Eyes. We saw it at the Toho Cinema Shinjuku theater. It had already been playing for a month, and generously hung on long enough for us.

This was a 4DX showing, which combines movie watching with simulator ride mechanics. Your seats are on gimbles that throw you around and hit you with jets of air when something explosive happens on screen, like a gunshot or a punch. Lights on the walls flash in time with bursts in the film. In some spots you’d get smell-o-vision. And – this is the worst part – if there’s a splash of liquid you get sprayed with mist. It makes you wet. And it smells.

None of this interfered with the movie, but it didn’t improve it. Rather than a delight, it amped up the tension. Not in a good way. You’re relieved when the action stops. And you really, REALLY don’t want water to appear on screen. (Hope nobody had to sit through a 4DX Aquaman.) Anyway, the movie was a lot of fun, easy to follow, and had great music. It goes out on Get Wild, just like it’s supposed to.

With day 3 down, I finally got a full night of sleep. Good thing, because the next day was going to be a challenge.

Continue to part 2

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