June 28, 2010

Asian Tour

Cable Car FogI recently went on something of a whirlwind business trip through three countries as part of a project we've been working on at Netflix for a short time now. My trip started off in Hong Kong, then Shenzhen, China, followed by Seoul, Korea and finally Osaka and Tokyo in Japan. It had been almost ten years since I was last in Hong Kong, and it was my first time visiting Japan. I was in Korea last year for business but not in Seoul that time.

Things were pretty hectic in the beginning. We had one day in Hong Kong to acclimate to the time change, but Shenzhen and Seoul were completely filled each day with meetings and travel so there wasn't any free time at all. Mitch and I extended our stay in Tokyo, Japan a little extra though, so we could do some things that we wanted to. I was especially excited about Tokyo because I've wanted to visit Akihabara and Shibuya for a very long time.

In Hong Kong, we went to Lantau Island via the Ngong Ping Cable Car to see the Tian Tan Buddha tourist attraction. I say tourist attraction because when I was there ten years ago the site wasn't so commercialized. The clouds were very low that day, which meant our cable car went right through some dense fog, and walking around at the peak meant walking around through clouds.

Interactive Subway MapCrossing from Hong Kong into Shenzhen meant going through the China border inspections. It wasn't a big deal, but it is like crossing between countries. (Returning into Hong Kong took much longer.) Shenzhen is pretty much what I expected with small towns, usually containing an obvious main street, based around industrial areas. The factories are what brings workers into Shenzhen and keeps money flowing into that area.

Both Hong Kong and Shenzhen were very hot and humid. My body is not at all accustomed to that sort of environment so I was constantly sweating. I think one day the humidity was listed as 90%, and the temperature was always above 30°C.

After China we flew into Seoul, Korea. I like visiting Korea because I have a friend there that works at Samsung. His English is quite good and we get along well. It happened to be his daughter's 100-day celebration when we were there, and he gave me a cute little rice cake treat. I was also hoping to meet up with someone in Seoul whom I just recently met at Can Jam 2010 when I was exhibiting, but a schedule conflict prevented us from doing so.

Interactive Mall MapOne thing that I really liked in Seoul were the interactive maps. Both the subway and shopping mall had an interactive map. Using the touchscreen, you could select where you wanted to go, or search for where you wanted to go, and it would provide detailed animated directions on the map itself for how to get there. This is so much better than the static maps used here in the United States. Although I suspect there would be some hesitation of installing expensive maps in U.S. subway systems out of fear of graffiti or vandalism. People, and police officers, appear to be so much nicer, polite, and courteous in Korea than in the U.S. (Obviously this is even more true in Japan, where manners are extremely important.)

Osaka Police BoxAfter Korea, we flew into Osaka, Japan for our last business engagement. This is where it first hit me how expensive things are in Japan. I'd heard and read about things being expensive there, but a fruit plate in the hotel restaurant was more than USD $40, and I found out the waitresses at that restaurant were probably only making about USD $10/hr. I thought at least food should be about the same price as in big U.S. cities if the pay scale is about the same, but since it is more expensive and going out to dinners and drinks are such a big part of Japanese culture people must spend a significant portion of their income on food. The pre-packaged meals at 7-11 are priced around what I usually spend if I'm eating out to lunch at home.

Kitties for Sale in OsakaAlso really expensive are pets. We stopped in a pet store in Osaka, and kittens and puppies are regularly priced over USD $1000 and often close to USD $1500. Some of them were even around USD $3000-$4000. The pet stores were pretty small, and probably had about a dozen or so of kittens and puppies. There was one store that also had some monkeys. No prices were listed on the monkeys; I imagine they might be considered a luxury where if you have to ask, you can't afford it. A Puppy for Sale in Osaka One thing I noticed though was that all the kittens and puppies were very young. It's a lot easier to sell cute kittens and puppies, and I saw a bunch of girls watching and saying kawaii a lot, but it also makes me wonder what happens to the ones not adopted. If they only keep young ones in the store, the others might be discarded. T_T

After Osaka we went to Tokyo. For a few hours one day Mitch and I took the train to Hakone and went to the Kappa Tengoku onsen. It took about two hours each way by train, and we spent about two hours at the onsen itself. The soaking pool water was very hot. So hot that I immediately started sweating like crazy and my body began tingling all over. I had to get out and shower in cold water once, and also sit mostly out of the pool, in order to cool down. I also got over a dozen bug bites right away. Most of them got bigger and only just started disappearing a couple days ago.

Akihabara MaidsBut by far I spent the most time in Akihabara and Shibuya. Akihabara was very exciting for me because of all the shops and the culture. Maid cafés have gotten very popular and there were dozens of maids on the streets handing out flyers and trying to convince customers to enter their shops. We didn't end up going into a maid café though. Which was fine by me since I was spending all my time shopping anyway. Although I would have liked to go to one. As well as check out some of the other crazy theme restaurants; I'm not sure where they are though since they're not in Akihabara. I didn't get a chance to check out a love hotel or capsule hotel either.

White Album PosterThere are a bunch of otaku-stores in Akihabara, unsurprisingly. The stores tend to be thin and tall. Only the stores that sell electronics or are like department stores have enough floor space that things don't seem cramped. There was tons of manga, anime, movies and TV shows, figures, video games, and pink stuff. Although when it came to figures and trinkets only the most recent stuff was getting shelf space. I can't read Japanese so manga and anime was pretty much out. Plus, music and videos are super expensive over there. A new release movie on DVD or Blu-ray might be over USD $50. PC and console games are only slightly more expensive than in the U.S. And there is a ton more selection. I picked up a few video games that are only available in Japan including Atelier Rorona, Record of Agarest War, and Agarest Senki Zero; I need to learn how to read Japanese before I can play them though. I would have also gotten Atelier Totori but it was releasing a couple of days after our return flight. Angel Beats Poster I only picked up a couple of music CDs, because at those prices I couldn't just grab stuff that might be good. I did find a Final Fantasy XIII collectors music set though which I immediately purchased. (Have yet to buy the game though.) Mostly I bought figures to add to my collection: I got some Mari Makinami figures from the new Evangelion 2.0 rebuild; Nagi and Tsugumi from Crazy Shrine Maidens; Ein from Phantom, a couple of Vocaloid Hatsune Miku wind-up music toys; a distorted Rei; and Chocobo and Moogle plushies.

The other thing I spent a lot of money on is clothing. I really like Japanese casual street fashion. The sort of interesting stuff you can't find in the U.S. and gets featured in some video games. Most recently in The World Ends With You, a Nintendo DS game that deals heavily with fashion and takes place in Shibuya, although the store names were changed. (The game itself gets a bit repetitive and collecting all the items would take several play-throughs.) To find the better stuff, I ended up shopping mostly at Jeans Mate in Akihabara and Parco in Shibuya. Individual stores in Parco are relatively small and devoted to a single brand, the clothing selection is limited, and there is usually only a handful of specific styles per brand. Prices at Jeans Mate and some of the stores at Parco tended to start at around USD $30 for a T-shirt. But some of the really high-end stores in Parco sold a single T-shirt for USD $300. Some of the stores had more complex clothing, like jackets, that sold for USD $1000. This despite being something that could be made for a few dollars in material and labor. I limited myself to things that were priced at the lower end, but even then I think I spent more on clothing this one time than I've spent on clothing my entire life so far.

WiMAX KittiesThere were two things that made it more difficult to buy clothing in Japan. First was the extreme leaning towards girls' clothing. There are entire mall buildings that only contain girl clothes. I would say only about 10% of the stores sold boys' clothing. The two types of stores were also physically segregated in many cases. Only the larger non-boutique stores carried both male and female clothing.

Secondly, the clothes in Japan aren't sized for me. I had to purchase size XL / LL or size 4 (for shirts) and even then it is a tight fit. My shoes are 2cm larger than the largest they stock in shoes and socks. On many occasions I simply couldn't buy the clothes because they didn't sell it in my size. I guess there are a couple of stores that do sell larger clothing, but you have to go find them specially.

I think I could have spent a whole lot more money in Tokyo, both on toys and clothes. And there are still a lot of other things to do and see just in Tokyo itself, never mind the rest of Japan. I'm not much into sight-seeing, but I can imagine myself spending weeks more exploring just Tokyo.

Posted by josuah at June 28, 2010 3:37 AM UTC+00:00

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