Yamatour 2019 Mission 2

by Tim Eldred

It begins again! The first time I visited Japan twice in a single year was 2009. I thought a trip for Yamato Party would be enough, but there I learned that Yamato Resurrection would arrive that winter, so I made it a twofer. Thus began the tradition of organizing trips around Yamato movie premieres, which seemed to conclude with Chapter 7 of 2202 in March of 2019.

Fair warning: when I go to a Yamato concert, I become “that guy.”

In the time since then, we learned that Yamato 2205 would hit the launch pad in fall 2020 (after the Olympics, thank god), so a future Yamatour is all but guaranteed. So what is the Yamato adventure team doing back in Tokyo in October 2019? This time, we’re here to scratch a different itch: seeing a live concert.

Ever since the runup to Farewell in 1978, Yamato concerts have been major events to rival movie openings. A movie can be seen multiple times, but concerts come around only once. The big ones in the original production years were all linked to films; Farewell in 1978, Be Forever in 1980, and Final Yamato in 1983. The 1984 Grand Symphony brought down the curtain on that era and marked the beginning of a long drought, interrupted briefly in the late 90s by a pair of Leiji Matsumoto concerts that included some Yamato material.

(Read the full history of Yamato concerts here and follow up with modern events here.)

The modern age of live Yamato music began in late 2012 with the first 2199 concert and started an exciting new string of opportunities to experience the glory in person. Several months before the 2205 announcement, we learned that the first dedicated 2202 concert, later named Close to You Tonight, would take place on October 14. At last, a chance to get that itch properly scratched.

It wouldn’t have quite the same heft as a movie opening, with lots of merch to chase down and new story content to munch on, but it was definitely enough to build a trip around. So here we go!

Flight 1: on the ground in LAX, in the air, on the ground in Seattle

October 9/10: Travel Day

I get pre-trip jitters no matter where I go, an inevitable stress point whenever we place ourselves in the hands of fate. This would be my 12th trip to Japan, and the law of averages finally caught up to me when I learned that I was on a collision course with an honest-to-goodness typhoon. It was being referred to as both Hagibis and Typhoon No. 19 (both of which would be fine names for tokusatsu monsters) and it was exceptionally late in the year for one – which tells us more about the state of our planet. It would strike Tokyo on Saturday the 13th and theoretically blow itself out on Sunday. A previous typhoon knocked out some infrastructure and this one was supposed to be more intense, so there was a nice bit of uncertainty to keep us awake.

As my girlfriend Alissa drove me to LAX early early early Wednesday morning (whoever invented 4am should be PUNCHED) I went through the mental checklist once more and decided everything was accounted for. I would find out otherwise when I got to the Delta ticket counter and reached for my passport to find…nothing. The damn thing was sitting in my scanner back home, since I’d pulled it out to do a safety scan the night before and neglected to put it back again.

Alissa earned a million girlfriend points by racing home to get it and racing it back to me, which meant she made that horrible drive twice in one morning before sunup. She’s a keeper. My critically stupid error caused me to miss my first flight (to Seattle), but was able to get on the next one for the connection to Narita. I’d originally booked this second flight but changed it when I realized it only gave me (and my luggage) less than 30 minutes to change planes. And now it was going to happen anyway. Long story short: everything went right and I made the Narita flight with minutes to spare. I just had to hope that this didn’t used up all my luck for the trip.

Flight 2: on the ground in Seattle, in the air over the Pacific, descending in Japan. WHY CAN’T IT ALWAYS GO THIS FAST?

Leaving early Wednesday morning got me to Japan early Thursday afternoon, whereas I would normally have taken a later flight and arrived near sundown. This always resulted in dark, sullen train rides into Tokyo, but this time it was all delightfully daylit. And stunningly green for fall.

Arriving at my hotel in Shinjuku around 4:30pm, I had plenty of time for a first round of shopping, so I blew right over to Nakano Broadway and was greeted at the entrance by my first Yamato sighting. As you may remember, Nakano is home for the flagship stores of the Mandarake chain, and this is where old-school displays are set up. I’d been told a few days earlier to look for the latest issue of Zenbu, Mandarake’s monthly auction catalogue, since it would contain a large section of Yamato products up for sale. Not only did I find the catalogue right inside the entrance to Nakano Broadway, I also found a showcase displaying some of the most striking items.

The catalogue itself is a collector’s item filled with a staggering 100 pages devoted to Yamato stuff from across the decades. All I can guess is that some collector decided to empty his or her vault. Obtaining these items is complex if you’re not based in Japan (it’s an auction rather than stuff in a store, so it requires a lot more connectivity) but the catalogue itself is enough to keep most fans happy.

Left: Mandarake Zenbu auction catalogue vol. 95 (back cover). Right: oversized cel with artwork for a 1978 jigsaw puzzle.

A much better view in the catalogue

The finished jigsaw puzzle.

Original art by Keisuke Masunaga (related to Playstation games). Get a better look at them on the Yamatour 2019 gallery page.

I ran my first marathon in the multi-layered labyrinth of Nakano Broadway, rejoining the real world when it closed up at 8pm. By now, the soft outer edge of Typhoon No. 19 was brushing up against Tokyo in the form of a light, refreshing mist. I took that as my cue to head back to the hotel and grab my umbrella. This turned out to be a very good idea as I commenced my second marathon.

I like to amp up these trips by giving myself a scavenger hunt, and this one was a long time coming. Ever since first laying eyes on it in the mid 80s, I’ve had a huge soft spot for a comedy anime series called Dr. Slump. If you’ve seen it, you know why. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. Ostensibly made for little kids, it’s got the same juju that makes classic WB Looney Tunes equally enjoyable for adults. The TV series hasn’t been imported to the western world yet, but we have gotten a movie collection and the entire run of manga to absorb. This time, my scavenger hunt would be for the series. At over 240 episodes, it was quite an objective.

The seed for this was planted around ten years ago when I spent a weekend in Vancouver and found a Book Off store there with a fat collection of imports. To my delight, they had four DVD volumes of Dr. Slump episodes at a mere $20 Canadian per volume. They originally sold for over $50, so this was unheard of. (Each volume contains 2 discs/12 episodes, so it was a nice, meaty grab.)

I learned from this that the entire series had been released in this format to span 20 volumes. With four already under my belt, I had incentive enough to keep going. I located the other 16 online from various sources, but the prices had all gone north rather than south – some of them excessively so. There was also a VERY expensive giant box set, but that felt like cheating at this point. I’d never gone to ground in Japan for the missing volumes – until now. My side mission for Yamatour 2019 would be…Operation Slump Search!

On the assumption that lots of those DVD sets would have found their way into the second-hand market by now, I added several Book Off stores to my existing list of destinations and got started. The light mist was now a light rain that continued to lean on me, but that was no obstacle.

Nakano Broadway had turned up empty, but when I walked into the first of Shinjuku’s three Book Off stores, a very Slumpian joke was waiting to smack me square in the face. The very first thing that caught my eye in a used DVD showcase was the COMPLETE BOX SET. The ENTIRE FRICKING SERIES in a single VERY BIG box. And priced appreciably lower than the online listings.

Collectors, you know in your bones the specific anxiety that something like this presents. Non-collectors, here’s the crux of it: sure, you could walk away with the grand prize and drop the whole scavenger hunt idea, but then what do you do with the discs sitting back home? They suddenly become a waste of space. Plus, what about the FUN of the scavenger hunt? Some of us live for that. It gives us another reason to continue waking up in the morning.

As I stared wide-eyed at that giant box with the word “hoyoyo” hovering over me, it was as if Arale herself had stuck an unchi on my forehead and zoomed away in a giggling dust cloud. But Operation Slump Search was only beginning. I had several days to spend on it, and if I came up empty I could simply fall back on this big fat cheater box.

As the rain mounted, I made my way around to the two other Book Off stores Shinjuku had to offer. I saw some pretty cool stuff, but not a single Slump DVD. Was I wrong? Was nobody in Japan ready for a Slump dump? The answer lay ahead.

That’s Godzilla outside my window!

Friday, October 11: Immersion Day

As usual, I got no real sleep on my first night but still got up refreshed from rest. Expecting to see a downpour outside my window, there was nothing of the kind when I opened the curtain. The forecast called for a wet day, but it was more sort of a tentative suggestion – as if Typhoon No. 19 was deciding how much to hold back for the next day. It sprinkled every now and then like a teaser trailer, just to remind me what a scheduling error felt like.

That guy from work is still sneaking around here. He’s SO SNEAKY.

This would be my first full day, and only two things were on the agenda: eat and shop. But as much as I crave my favorite foods here, I don’t gorge on them. I find it much more satisfying to stay on my feet all day long, stopping only for fuel when necessary, and coming home with my legs on fire. It’s not a sadistic desire for self-torture, I just like to prove to myself that I can still do it at 54. A few years ago, before I made fitness a part of my lifestyle, I couldn’t.

At lunch with Anton Kholodov and his hand-painted pals.

Today I started walking at about 10:30am and kept going for twelve straight hours, only sitting down for meals with fellow adventurers: soufflé pancakes with Anton Kholodov and Chicago-style pizza with Daniel George. I’d see both of them again before the trip was over, since we’d all come for the 2202 concert.

It was looking increasingly like Hagibis would make Saturday a washout (hardy har) so I felt the need to squeeze two days of shopping into one. I started with two Bookoff stores outside of walking range. Both revealed exactly zero Dr. Slump DVDs. Not a good sign, but not the last options.

Visiting a Bookoff store in Takada brought me through the Takadanobaba JR station, which uses the Astro Boy theme
as its jingle since Osamu Tezuka used to call this neighborhood home. This allowed me to discover a wondrous
Tezuka mural outside the station entrance. Get a better look at the Yamatour 2019 gallery page.

The dirty warrens of Akihabara, poised to be cleaned out by a sky pregnant with rain.

The entire rest of the day was spent in the famed streets of Akihabara, which would offer the most potential. They certainly did in terms of other things I was looking for (near perfect score there) but again – a distinct lack of Slump. Except that the Bookoff in Akihabara ALSO had a copy of the big cheater box for the same price as the first one. Hoyoyo.

As the day wore on, the writing on the wall became increasingly readable. The scavenger hunt daydream was to find scattered volumes almost everywhere, slowly and steadily checking them off the list, and maybe falling back to online sources for the rest. Dream on, Dr. Chump. By the end of the day, I’d struck out at four Bookoffs and every possible Akihabara store. I had to admit defeat. That cheater box was going home with me. But I guess if that counts as defeat, it’s not a bad life.

Plenty of Yamato kits and toys were to be found in Akiba; pics from Yodobashi and Volks. See more at the gallery page.

When I sat down to dinner with Daniel George at Devil Craft Pizza (founded by an expat from Chicago), the spectre of Typhoon Day was coming into focus. I’d entertained the idea that a neighborhood as dense and thriving as Shinjuku wouldn’t be seriously impacted. But when I heard an announcement on a train ride that lines would be shut down all over the city until noon on Sunday, reality set in.

To close down train lines is to close down the Tokyo bloodstream. A lack of trains wouldn’t just mean more walking. It meant that the people who run shops, restaurants, and theaters didn’t have a ride to work. I could walk around in the rain all I wanted, but other than some storm-chaser sightseeing, there wouldn’t be anywhere to go.

But I’ll be honest, as I took the last train home (beset with convenience store provisions) and everything hurt after twelve very active hours, the notion of spending a day in my hotel room was not without allure.

On Saturday morning I turned on the TV looking for disaster news. This was the first thing I saw.

The real thing was less alarming.

Saturday, October 12: Typhoon Day

My second night was slightly more restful than my first, but I was awake often enough to hear the patter of rain on my window slowly increase as the hours unfolded. My weather app called for light rain overnight with a breather between 7 and 8am, then the heavy stuff until 3am Sunday.

By 7 it was pointless to hope for any sleep, so I got up for a brief walking-tour of my immediate neighborhood. I could still get in a productive day if the hotel’s power stayed on, and I was relieved to learn from the front desk clerk that they had both a backup generator AND typhoon experience. This was especially good to know, since my room was on the 25th floor. I knew I could handle 25 flights of stairs if necessary, but I didn’t have any surplus clothes to sweat through, so I’d rather it remain unnecessary.

One unique feature of the APA Hotel is that it is an open rectangle. This means that when you step outside your room, you don’t see another room right across the hall. You see a large open shaft with no roof on it. In other words, if I wanted to see how much rain was coming down, I could literally just open my door. At 7am, that breather mentioned in the forecast was nowhere in sight. That rain had waited long enough, and it had some rainin’ to do.

Early morning walkabout. No sign of threat yet.

The streets outside, normally lit up like Times Square, were nearly empty. Every restaurant would normally have been open. The Toho movie theater next door would have been blasting trailers on its jumbotrons. People would be marching by as if they had someplace to go. Not today, said Hagibis.

Signage outside the theater next door: closed for business until 1pm Sunday. So much for riding this out at the movies.

The convenience store across the courtyard was still open, so I scooped up a couple more provisions to fill the remaining space in my room fridge. I asked if they’d be open all day, but the single clerk on duty said he would lock the joint up in an hour. Understand and take note: this DOES NOT HAPPEN in normal life. Convenience stores in Japan are apocalypse-proof. But their customers and suppliers are not. The half-empty shelves were the giveaway.

A room to write this in, dry bed and provisions. Better than a hole in the head.

Fortunately, my hotel had a breakfast buffet going for a couple more hours, so I could tuck in without having to tap my provisions. For all I knew, I might have to rely on them into the next day or longer.

Documenting Typhoon No. 19 wasn’t the experience I was looking for when I booked this trip, but the goal is always to come home with stories, and this would certainly be one I’d never told before. Lucky you!!!

The open shaft in the middle of the hotel at peak rainfall.

Hands up, who among you has gone for a walk through a category 5 hurricane and/or typhoon? I now count myself among you. Because I just got up from writing that last part to go outside my hotel and DO IT.

Hey, here’s that reality you didn’t ask for.

Looking out my window from time to time, it seemed like there were light washes and heavy ones. I went down to the hotel lobby for a ground check. The place was abuzz with fellow tourists waiting either for rooms to open up or for opportunities to leave. Outside, naturally, dumpsters of rain poured down. Bursts of wind sent sheets across the ground, taking trash with it. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was to see everyone in summer wear, as if they came directly from a pool party. It had been humid, so I was wearing shorts myself.

A handful of pedestrians trudged by, hunched with their umbrellas as shields against the wind. The 7-11 and a local restaurant were both open. So I decided to give it a go. It was likely to be the only interesting thing I did all day. I had a cap, a rain jacket, shorts, and waterproof shoes. I popped my umbrella and headed out.

Very quickly, I discovered that the true treachery lay not in the rain, but in the wind, which would instantly change direction without warning in an attempt to snap open every umbrella it could find. It grabbed mine a couple times before I learned to keep it pulled partially down and reduce the uplift. Then it was a matter of dashing across gaps between the buildings to take cover against one side or the other.

Left: one of those brightly-lit streets you always see that represent Japan on TV.
Right: outside Shinjuku station, normally a sea of commuters.

What I really wanted to see was the difference in population. I’d walked through Shinjuku in the rain plenty of times, and it never seemed to dull the crowds. Today was different. What used to be an obstacle course of yammering Europeans and Chinese was now wide open. I saw no more than a dozen people at any given time, seldom more than half that number.

Busiest station in Japan, perhaps the entire world.

I also wanted to see what the inside of Shinjuku station was like today. If you’ve ever been inside it, even at off-peak moments, you know it’s the furthest thing from a ghost town. But that’s what it was today. Utterly empty save for a couple attendants and maybe four or five gawkers, including me. I did actually see a single train roll by, so there was some service available, but with every single shop closed (with notices that pretty much agreed on a 1pm re-opening the next day) there was nowhere to go. As I walked away, it briefly occurred to me that I ought to figure out which train was running and take it in a circle to see more of the city. But there was a good reason not to.

Left: the underground walkways would have been PERFECT on a day like this. Apparently, TOO perfect.
Right: a giant hi-def video board blasts out stereo sound at absolutely nobody.

The thing I really didn’t expect in these conditions was that it was HOT. I mean, the kind of hot you normally get here in the summer. As soon as I’d started walking, I became a sweat machine. It didn’t let up. I knew I’d get soaked from the outside in (including my socks), but not the inside out. By the time I got back, today’s clothes were history. I’d have to rebudget my wardrobe until they dried out again. But I did it all for you, dear reader. You wouldn’t travel a third of the way around the globe into a category 5 and then NOT walk around in it, would you? That would be no story at all.

Two more additions as I put this day to bed: the eye of the hurricane passed over my hotel at about 5pm and peace settled in. Then at about 6pm the entire building swayed. Daniel George notified me that a 5.7 earthquake had been recorded somewhere in the Pacific. Being on the 25th floor, I absolutely felt it.

Then at 7pm the giant Godzilla head outside my window started roaring into the streets. Good times.

Followup: Later I learned that when the typhoon made landfall, it was downgraded from a category 5 to a 3. So ignore everything I said here, I guess.

See the photo gallery for these three days here.

Continue to the next day here.

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