Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a festive holiday season. I definitely did. I apologize for my long silence― Comiket has taken quite a bit out of me. I’ve finally recovered, and I’m on writing to you on a train to Kyushu, where I’ll be travelling for a week.
Before I recount my Comiket experience, I wanted to talk about a special tour of Tokyo I took the day before Comiket. On the 28th of December, I decided to take a couple of friends of mine on a walking tour of the city, perhaps hitting some locations off the beaten path and of special interest to us. I decided to visit the locations mentioned in Joshiraku. I figured the show broadened my knowledge of Tokyo and I wanted to see if I could gain a new appreciation for some of the city’s lesser-known landmarks. Plus, since it was almost Comiket, I figured we could all use a little bit of walking to strengthen our weak legs!
We met in Akihabara and immediately took off to Asakusa. Upon exiting the station, we found ourselves in an underground shopping arcade. Unlike the sparkling new arcades you can find in Shinjuku, this one was fairly dated. The shops were mostly closed, with trash and boxes of unsold goods left outside each shuttered door. We were greeted by the smell of trash and rotten food, a distinctly New York-kind of smell, if you know what I mean. It’s funny― the smell of modernity is neutral. In clean, bright, “modern” locations, there’s often no smell. That this arcade had an odor was a mark of being dated, dilapidated, unkempt.
We went up to the surface street and found ourselves in front of Kaminari Gate, the entrance to Sensouji. I didn’t remember the gate being as small as it was! I almost hit my head on the lantern as we passed underneath the gate. Through the gate was a bustling shopping arcade. We strolled through, commenting on the various shops as I explained the history behind some of the snacks we saw. When we noticed something that interested us, we’d stop and take a bite or observe the shopkeepers at work.
We finally arrived at the temple, where we went to go draw our fortunes. Three of us got 小吉, whereas one of us received 凶. We noticed that each of our 小吉 slips were different from one another, and each one of us would be lucky and unlucky in different ways. For example, I supposedly would have bad luck in commerce, whereas my friend’s slip warned him not to travel. I told my friend who received 凶 not to fret, as Sensouji was infamous for having a large number of 凶 fortunes. I smiled to myself― I’d originally learned that watching Joshiraku.
As we left the temple, we began discussing our fortunes and how fortunes were created at each temple. “I wonder what the point of having bad fortunes is? Wouldn’t people stop coming if they kept on drawing 凶?” my friend asked.
“Perhaps,” I said, “It’s actually more advantageous for the temple to have 凶? Traditionally, drawing 凶 means that one must pray to the gods for assistance and help. As a temple, wouldn’t it be better to have more 凶 fortunes in order to solicit more donations?”
We debated this point all the way until we’d left the temple. Next, we were going to Sugamo.
The Jizodori shopping street in Sugamo was a strange place. Upon first glance, it seemed like any other old shopping street in Japan― narrow roads, shopkeepers and hawkers trying to draw crowds in, little cargo trucks delivering goods. You’ve probably seen them in anime, haven’t you? But, soon enough, one of my friends noticed something strange.
“Guys, we’re the youngest people here.”
I looked around. He was right. With the exception of children with their (grand)parents, we were the youngest people on the street by about 20 years. Jizodori also had a bit of a dated feel to it, akin to the small underground arcade we’d stumbled upon in Asakusa. The shops were mostly selling groceries, handbags or sweets, so it wasn’t surprising to see no young people there. We wandered around slowly, taking in the decisively 1970’s feel of the place. The street brought us to another age, one which we’d never experienced― a Tokyo without neon lights or loudspeaker broadcasts. Everything seemed analog― shopkeepers addressed would-be customers directly, signs were all written by hand― some shops even had the lovely curves of ゑ and ゐ in their names. It was all very quaint.
To top off the experience, we were just wondering how to get back to a station when we discovered a small set of railroad tracks. Following them, we found a small station, no longer than 30 meters from start to finish. Apparently, there’s still an operation tram line in Tokyo! We waited excitedly for this little tram to come, and when it did― we were all thoroughly disappointed.
Now, you can imagine my disappointment. In my head, I’d pictured a little quaint thing with wood paneling and no doors. Unfortunately, what greeted us was a smaller, one-car version of the Yamanote Line. Modern glass and steel construction, with handlebars and seats made from plastic. A young, sharp-looking man was driving the tram, and it even took Pasmo. When we left the station, the tram’s bell rang, and I felt ever so slightly better.
Next, we arrived at Harajuku, where we set off immediately for the Evangelion Store. I’d been to Harajuku many times before, but always to visit Meiji Shrine. Since we’d all seen it by now, we decided to go look at things we hadn’t seen. On the way to the Eva store, we passed by Nico Nico Douga’s headquarters. It was surprisingly small, but incredibly chic. Come to think of it, that seems to have been the theme of this all-day tour― we were looking at small, chic things. (Except Jizodori. That was just dated.)
The Evangelion store was, as one would expect, small and chic. On the first floor, all manner of high-class goods were sold: cufflinks that looked like NERV headquarters, Mari’s glasses, Zippo lighters. Beautifully crafted rings and pendants were housed in expensive display cases. We went upstairs and laughed to ourselves.
“So this is where they’ve been keeping the otaku goods!”
We were greeted by rows of figurines, trinkets and all manner of useless household goods. “Who uses this stuff?” said one friend. “I’d be embarrassed to display these things in my house.” We wandered through the rows of useless life goods, making fun of everything as we went along. “Look at this ridiculous wine bottle,” one friend said. “Who’d drink wine out of this?” “Man, check out this humidifier that’s designed to look like NERV headquarters. It’s unreasonably expensive.” So on and so forth, until we’d made our rounds and decided to leave.
It was getting dark out, but we had one more location to visit. We boarded the Chuo-Rapid and went all the way out to Musashino. After spending a day visiting the locations mentioned in Joshiraku, there was no way we weren’t going to go pay our respects to the creators.
We walked through a decisively residential district of Tokyo for about half a mile before we came upon a traffic light. “Wait,” I said. “We’ve passed JC Staff.” Unbelievable! None of us had anticipated that the studio would be small enough to simply pass by as we were trying to look for it. We retraced our steps and found a small, gray three-story building with a red door. On the side of the door was an understated metal plate: JC Staff. This was where all the magic had happened. Behind these doors lay the minds behind Zero no Tsukaima, Toradora, Railgun (and its far inferior counterpart, Index), Kill Me Baby and Joshiraku. It’s hard to believe that so many shows were made in this little, understated building with the flamboyantly red door. The lights were still on, too― we could see silhouettes moving inside. How I wanted to go up and knock!
After leaving JC Staff, we decided to eat dinner at the (famous?) restaurant, Chinchintei, mentioned also in Joshiraku 11. This was the birthplace of abura-soba, a noodle dish that involved pouring oil, vinegar and ra-yu (a kind of spicy oil) over noodles. As we were walking towards the restaurant, we realized that it was beginning to snow. It was dark and we were hungry. As we walked past block after block of poorly-lit streets, with only the sound of snow falling on our jackets to accompany us, we realized how far away we’d come from Akihabara, where we started. This was an incredibly residential part of Tokyo― no commerce, no shops, no lights, just house after house, each with the owner’s name meticulously carved into a plate near the front gate. Families were snuggled up together under the kotatsu, watching television together, unaware that right outside their door, travelers had come to explore this quaint, unremarkable suburb of Tokyo.
We finally saw the lights of Chinchintei and I ran as fast as I could to the restaurant’s front door― when I discovered that they had sold out for the day. They were now closed, and they’d only open up after the New Year. We were devastated! To come this far in the snow and rain only to find that the one thing we had wanted was unavailable to us was simply too cruel. Dejected, we headed home to the comforts of Akihabara.
I realized afterwards that throughout our trip, we’d been talking to each other constantly. We commented on anything and everything, and I’d tried my best to inject knowledge about locales that I’d learned on my previous visits or that I had heard from other sources. In essence, we’d created our own version of Joshiraku― a saunter through Tokyo tied together by discussions and arguments about history, cuisine, urban development and everything in between. We’d connected to each other, and to the city, through our storytelling.
Till next time, keep sharing your own stories. Walk around your own town, and see what you can find. Take people to your favorite places, share your memories. You may think that what I’m about to say is horribly clichéd, but I find it has a grain of truth: we live off of stories. When we get together, we tell stories about our experiences. That’s how we think about the world and relate to one another. So go on, tell your own story. Write your own Joshiraku, whether it be in New York, Tokyo, Paris or a small, modest place like Yellowknife. That’s my resolution this year― to tell more stories, to connect to more people. I’ve started with this one.