Jamie’s Japanophile Blog – Part 2 – First week in Tokyo

Our first week in Tokyo was action-packed to say the least.

On our first real day in Tokyo we headed to Harajuku: a part of the city well known for its alternative fashion culture, but also for its historical importance.

As we got there early in the day, we headed straight up to the Meiji Shrine. The shrine and its grounds, once the land of a local lord, take up a large part of the surrounding area and comprise of a long forested path up towards the shrine that include many beautiful Torii gates (usually large wooden gates that signify the entrance to a Shinto shrine).

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The shrine itself, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji who was the first modern emperor of Japan and one of the main figures in the modernization of Japan in the 19th century, is an impressive series of treasure houses, shrines, and courtyards.

On the walk to Harajuku proper we bumped into a man who had set up what was essentially a mobile cat café with five cats just relaxing in a stroller. He allowed them to be patted for 100 (about a dollar) yen for as long as you wanted. We of course took the opportunity to get some cat time and take pictures.

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We quickly discovered that Harajuku has changed since its heyday as an alternative hotspot. As with many places, once it got too well known, the crowds of alternative kids have moved on and been replaced with hipsters and American tourists.

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It was still pretty fun to see all the fun little fashion stores around the place, and discover that Japan’s love of crepes has yet to wane. We even saw our first few Japanese with facial piercings and tattoos, which is a change from most of Tokyo.

We quickly moved on to Tokyo proper, which is a huge town but eerily quiet for somewhere so big. At the end of the day we discovered that the lack of people was due to it being a public holiday and so no-one was really working.

As such we took advantage of the quiet and wandered up to the site of the Tokyo Imperial Palace gardens. A massive and beautiful site right in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.

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To round off the evening we ventured into Akihabara. This place is true nerd central and home of the famed Otaku culture.

Even on a public holiday, every street is packed with bright neon, Jpop music, young men and women beckoning people into maid cafés and anime stores, and the luring songs of so many wonderful things to look at and buy.

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The next day we headed out of Tokyo for a day trip to Nikko. Partly to see some proper autumn colours and partly to see some of the amazing sights it holds.

And boy did we get colour. The mountain was spotted with deep reds and shining gold in between the evergreens.

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The main and most amazing sight however was up the mountain a little ways. The final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man responsible for establishing peace amongst the warring clans of Japan for nearly three centuries and paving the way for the modern way of life here.

The complex is incredible and awe inspiring. We were both nearly overcome by the feeling of reverence and importance of this site, so was the impact of getting to walk through something of such historic significance.

During the next day, we decided to go for a run around in Tokyo for a bit. So first off we jumped into the famed Tsukiju fish market. We arrived well after the rush of the morning (we got in about 10am) but we still saw plenty of bustle.

And boxes of octopus…

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After an amazing sushi breakfast we headed south and ended up in the Hama Rikyu gardens. A sprawling garden with beautiful gardens with views of Tokyo through the foliage…

…and friendly cats who are happy to curl up next to you in the sunshine….

…and a wonderful little teahouse where we had proper Japanese tea and sweets with a beautiful view over the park.

And only a few blocks further south we ended up in the Tokyo Pokemon Center. A haven for my inner child who went more than a little crazy buying merchandise from my childhood…

…And going crazy fanboy at the Charizard hanging from the ceiling.

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Our final night in Tokyo was pretty relaxed. We spent a while running around in Asakusa, picking up souvenirs, and getting packed for the next stage of the trip. But we did have one last attraction to get to: Robot Restaurant!


Robot Restaurant is not something easily described. Flashing lights, blaring music, robots, costumes, barely conceived stage plots and just insane strangeness combine to make what I now believe to be the greatest show on earth.

We also got to get a photo with a robot and one of the performers.

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Since we were in Shinjuku, I had one final act to perform before we left.

I broke out my Kobo and read the opening line of Neuromancer by William Gibson. This book shaped a lot of the way I see the world, and since it is based in Tokyo, I felt no better way to honour it than to read it in one of the most Cyberpunk places in the world.

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Next up: Kyoto and Osaka!

As the sand pours through Sir Terry Pratchett’s gilded hourglass I find myself again honoured to be able to review his latest work of craft; Snuff.

The Discworld collection is comprised of several mini-series and several one-off novels; each has emotion and plot that comes together to make a meta-series that has allowed fantasy to become more than just swords and sorcery. In fact for the most part Pratchett’s works have been almost completely deprived of the traditional elements of the fantasy genre; sure it has dwarves and trolls, witches, wizards and the undead, but for the most part race has been more about background colour than overarching plot. Ankh-Morpork is home to any species with money in their pocket.

Over the last few years Pratchett has worked very hard to bring each of his mini-series to a satisfactory conclusion; not an easy task with a world as large as the Disc.

The Rincewind series, beginning in 1983 with The Colour of Magic, came to an end with Unseen Academicals, thirty-six Discworld books later.

The Witches series, beginning with Equal Rites in 1987, became the Tiffany Aching series, and was finally brought to a conclusion in 2010 with I shall Wear Midnight, encompassing a total of ten separate novels.

And in 2011 Pratchett brought his longest running, eleven novels, and probably best loved story arch to a conclusion that was both emotionally moving and extremely satisfying.

The City Watch series began in 1989 with Guards! Guards!; a film-noir style police drama full of intrigue and dragons. This book had everything you could want from a crime novel; hard-boiled cops, suspense, a little romance and even more dragons.

As the Discworld became more developed the stories became deeper, the characters more detailed and the context heavier.

Many of the City Watch books covered racial prejudice, corruption and the lengths and depths people will go to in order to survive. And while the subject matter itself was heavy the storytelling has always been light enough that the reader is not overwhelmed with what is occasionally Orwellian content.

Snuff is everything special about Discworld rolled into a novel that melts into your mind like the finest meringue and sits in your stomach like a concrete bowling ball.

As with most of the City Watch novels the protagonist is His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Anhk; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes (Blackboard Monitor). The rest of the City Watch makes occasional appearances, providing necessary background to the main plot, but this is a Vimes story through and through.

Sam Vimes goes on holiday for the first time to his estate in the country with this wife and son. And while his wife would rather he leave his work back in Ankh-Morpork it doesn’t quite work out as planned.

Vimes quickly gets swept up in a conspiracy surrounding the genocide of a race deemed “vermin” by society, smuggling of both contraband and slaves, and a magistrate of wealthy land-owners taking the law into their own hands.

This book answers questions so far ingrained in the world of the Disc that it’s almost shocking to learn the truth; the biggest being ‘What exactly is Nobby Nobbs?’

Outside of that there is little to say without ruining one of the most carefully woven tales ever to come from Pratchett’s own word processor.

The writing is superb, the characters deep without being overly detailed, and the setting so colourful you could use it as a box of crayons.

To say that Snuff is a must have for every Discworld reader is an understatement. Get it, read it, read it again and then you can say your life is complete.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062011847
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062011848

Occasionally it is good to see someone doing something different with an established medium, seeing things from a different perspective, retelling in a different direction, or just focusing on an element that is usually ignored.

Allison Hewitt is Trapped manages this with surprising agility.

While most zombie media focuses purely on the survival side of the theme, Madeleine Roux approaches the story from a different angle and hits up the human interaction side of the whole outbreak process. She also tells the story in a way that separates it from its fellows in much the same way that an axe separates a zombie from its head.

AHiT started life as a serialised story in blog form, inviting others to supply their own snippets of imagination to the story. The audience was kept on the edge of its seat waiting for the next update. The novelisation tells the complete story with the inclusion of the comments that helped the tale progress, and it’s easy to see that, without the assistance of the supporters and their many comments, certain elements would not have come to fruition.

Story wise the plot is the usual survival tale, with narrow escapes, vicious fights with the undead, friends becoming zombies and scrounging supplies to survive another day. There is enough gore and shifts in the plot to keep you interested even if you are just in it for the action.

What really hooked me, though, was the character development. The protagonist – Allison – is emotionally stripped to the bone and put in situations far too dire for most of us to comprehend but, due to the unique perspective, you get this great firsthand view of how desperate situations change us. She is pushed into uncomfortable relationships, forced to act in ways that previously would have been against her nature and generally tortured by the author in a way that I find most entertaining.

This is a novel that hangs perilously close to the Young Adult / Adult borderline. It is often violent, frequently filled with abusive language and includes quite a few sexual references. But then it is a zombie novel so it wasn’t likely to be a PG affair in any case.

Allison Hewitt is Trapped: A Zombie Novel – Madeleine Roux

Published January 18, 2011, by St Martin’s Griffin

Paperback, 352 pages

  • ISBN-10: 0312658907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312658908

  • Chasers, the first book in James Phelan’s macabre Alone series, is a sad, yet thrilling, tale of the lengths a person will go to in order to survive in a hostile environment.

    Jesse, the story’s protagonist, is on a subway ride through New York with his new friends from the UN Youth Ambassadors when their train is overturned in an explosion that shakes the city. When they climb out of the tunnel they emerge into a city that has been devastated by what seems like a massive terrorist attack.

    Soon after they are accosted by a gang of people who have been infected with something that makes them forever thirsty; and it appears that their favourite drink is blood. They soon name these predators “Chasers”.

    Survival becomes paramount for the four survivors. They hole up inside a restaurant in one of the few surviving skyscrapers, stockpiling supplies and awaiting rescue that looks never to come.

    What sets Chasers apart from most post-apocalyptic novels is the focus on the characters as opposed to the setting. Jesse is made to come to terms with the prospect of sharing the city with only those around him, fear of the same thing happening to his own country (Australia), the impossibility of escape and dreams that hint at more going on than he suspects.

    The writing in Chasers is simple yet effective; settings are described with little detail in order to let the reader build their own world. This both helps and hinders the story; those who have knowledge of New York will quickly build a mental image of the city as imagined by Phelan, those without will be forced to piece together somewhere completely alien.

    Dialogue is more often internal than external, without punctuation to denote conversation versus thought. To begin with, this is a little confusing but makes sense as the story continues.

    There is still plenty of story left to tell from this series. The second is already being published and the third is on its way. The first novel really just sets the scene for what is to come.

    James Phelan—Chasers

    Published 27 May 2010, by Hachette

    Paperback, 272 pages

    ISBN: 9780733624797

    Ship Breaker is a cautionary tale of both climate change and class disparity, both of which it handles masterfully.

    Plenty of novels have emerged over the last several years predicting just what kind of change will befall the earth due to the climate change we – and nature itself – has wrought.  Few have held my attention as well as Bacigalupi’s work, Ship Breaker.

    The novel starts strong, with the protagonist – named Nailer for reasons known to his father – stripping wiring from a salvaged ship in order to sell for scrap. Much like my earlier review of Trash by Andy Mulligan, the setting of Ship Breaker is one of a community of scavengers. In this case an entire beachfront society in North America is devoted to the salvaging, smelting and recycling of ships in a world run short of raw natural resources. Oil is all but gone; fossil fuels are banned throughout the world for fear of future flooding; most of the world’s major ice shelves have already melted; many of the great cities are already undersea.

    Luck plays a major part of this story, or, as the characters put it, “luck and smarts.” Nailer falls into a compartment flooded with waste oil and is abandoned by one of his work crew with whom he had shared a blood oath so she could quietly sell the oil off herself. And it is with both luck and smarts that he saves himself from drowning.

    Soon afterward he stumbles across a wrecked clipper ship with another of his crew and discovers, amongst the many treasures worthy of salvaging, an injured girl who is either their key to freedom from a life amongst the ship breakers or a terrible accident waiting to happen.

    The story of Ship Breaker stays strong throughout the length of the novel, with vibrant characters and well written action from cover to cover. This isn’t a story that grows cold in your hand; you will want to keep turning the pages to see what the plot holds.

    Paolo Bacigalupi—Ship Breaker

    Published 9 May, 2010, by Little Brown

    Paperback, 323 pages

  • ISBN-10: 9780316056212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316056212

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