For this entry in the Visiting Japan Feature series at Anime Inferno, Mangaman discusses his experience from the UniSA Japan Study Tour which saw him working through Kyoto, Tokyo and Sendai over 16 days in June 2018…
Travelling to Japan as a student was something I never got around to doing at uni in the early 00s. So it was a pretty amazing string of events that saw me attend the UniSA Japan Study Tour last year! And all as part of my Masters of Management post-graduate studies at UniSA no less. Having only visited Japan once before I was keen to get a different perspective as a visiting student. While UniSA’s study tour program will likely differ from year to year, I thought it would be interesting to recap of how things panned out.
This one’s a long post – use the quick links below to zoom to where you want to go!
UniSA Japan Study Tour Part 1: Kansai International, Kyoto and a crash-course in culture shock
With preliminary gear sorted out in the preceding weeks, we met at the airport at 4:30am for the group check-in then were off to Kansai International Airport via Sydney. Some crazy humidity greeted us upon Landing in Osaka, which was a stark contrast to the cooler weather back home. After stretching our legs, organising pocket wifi/SIM cards and redeeming the group’s JR passes we were off to Kyoto. Thanks to Google Maps we made it to our destination, Urbain Kyoto Kiyomizu-Gojo, rounding off a marathon 18-hour day. The 2018 UniSA Japan Study Tour was officially happening!
We were only in Kyoto for two nights to give a culture-focused day. For this we had a combination self-guided walks or the option of a guided bicycle tour around the city. Since bikes and I don’t mix, I decided on a sleep-in and some self-guided tours. I took one group up to Kiyomizu-dera later in the morning, then wandered around the quiet streets near the hotel at midday. In the afternoon I took out another group to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine and get something fun to eat. The next morning we were off to Nagoya to visit Toyota’s manufacturing plants for a tour. We then continued to Tokyo with my luggage already suffering from the previous day’s nerd splurge!
UniSA Japan Study Tour Part 2: No one sleep in Tokyo…
It was all systems go in Tokyo. Those new to Japan’s crazy awesome train stations got a bit of a shock with the sea of people everywhere. For our first run in Tokyo for the UniSA Japan Study Tour we were staying in Ikebukuro, an area I didn’t get a chance to visit back in 2012. The train station was massive with some amazing places to explore and took some practice to remember how to get to our accommodation at the Sakura Hotel & Hostel. Thankfully we had Google Maps and a few different mobile phones to work it all out!
Rikkyo University and industry visits
The reasoning behind the location was due to how close it was to Rikkyo University. This officially kicked off the UniSA Japan Study Tour’s more formal learning journey. While there we had the chance to experience campus life, attend lectures and continue settling into the crazy pace. Rikkyo’s campus was very clean and orderly, a far cry from my memories as an undergrad at Adelaide Uni in the early 2000s. We also had our first taste of Japanese hospitality with guest lunches and guided experiences.
The spirit of omotenashi came in like a thundercracker with our industry visits during this part of the tour. Our first was with Nitto Denko Corporation’s innovation centre in Shinagawa’s business district. We also visited the Ishikawa Brewery and Sake Distillery in Fussa for a guided tour. The final outing was a walking tour of the Tsukiji Fish Markets and surrounds followed by a visit to Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine. The key point was the champ on the bridge wearing a dog mask and howling while playing the guitar. I love Japan!
Food and shopping in Ikebukuro
The commitments to the UniSA Japan Study Tour’s tight itinerary meant that free time was limited to evenings. Given retail in Japan normally works on a 10am start and 10pm close, this gave ample opportunity to explore. We hit up local ramen places, stumbled across a great karrage place and grabbed sugary awesomeness from Mister Donut. We also checked out the game centres and some other great stores to nerd out in!
At this point I managed to hit my limit for nerd purchases which meant a visit to the Post Office was in order! I’ve written about that here, including a practical guide on how to post stuff home if you find yourself in a similar situation!
So with our first trip to Tokyo finished, after a busy morning packing we were off to catch the shinkansen. With bento boxes sorted, it was time for the UniSA Japan Study Tour’s next destination – Sendai.
UniSA Japan Study Tour Part 3: Off to Sendai!
Having never been this far north before it was fascinating to see the change in scenery. We experienced a 3-hour delay due to complications up the line so didn’t get to the hotel until after 9pm. Still, our accommodation at APA Villa Hotel Sendai-Eki Itsutsubashi was really nice. It was also only a short walk from our next destination – Tohoku Gakuin University.
Visiting Tohoku Gakuin University and exploring Sendai
The experience at Tohoku Gakuin University was fantastic. We had an excellent run of basic language classes and a series of lectures on socio-economic and business lectures. These focused on the unique challenges facing Miyagi Prefecture. Given the impact to the region from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake we had local insight into the immediate and ongoing issues. Our hosts also took us on a huge walking tour through the surrounding suburbs, mountains and urban districts.
Sendai presented an amazing mix of semi-rural and urban environments that contrasted against what we experienced in Tokyo. Free time to explore was limited, but this made sense given Sendai was a hosted visit. A highlight here was particularly food! We had an izakaya booked up for us one evening, smashed out melon-pan in the fancy on-campus cafe and hit up the big cafeteria for an amazing (and cheap!) lunch. Amazing food was very much a recurring theme for the UniSA Japan Study Tour, a journey that continued with…
Ryokan and onsen visit!
The big highlight for Sendai was heading out into the countryside to the town of Naruko. Here we stayed at Ryokan Ohnuma, a traditional ryokan with on-site onsens. Having never been to a ryokan or onsen before it was an amazing experience. The rooms were awesome and it was fun to change into a yukata and relax. The main onsen itself was unbelievable though. Being a first-time visitor I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the heat, and sure enough it was intense! I’ll definitely try and squeeze in another onsen next time as it burned away the cumulative fatigue. The Japanese rural summer experience came complete with fireflies in the evening and a good old-fashioned Japanese-style party. Local sake and umeshu was amazing, as were the Japanese beers brought in along with all the snacks. Tohoku Gakuin University did a spectacular job of making the UniSA Japan Study Tour group feel welcome.
The next morning started with a traditional tea ceremony with the ryokan’s Okami, and then we were off to the nearby town of Naruko-Onsen. Famous for traditional kokeshi, we had the chance to check out some locals workshops and other local stores. I had a delicious soba and pork dish at one of the restaurants near the train station and everyone else had some awesome oyakodon. Once Naruko-Onsen was sorted we were back onto the shinkansen for the final stage of the study tour…
UniSA Japan Study Tour Part 4: … Tokyo is on fire!
By the time we got to Tokyo Part 2 everyone was feeling the crazy pace despite the awesome break at Naruko. For the final leg of the trip we stayed at Hotel Mystays Ochanomizu. The hotel was situated between the Ochanomizu Station and a short walk from Meiji University. It also happened to be a 5 minute walk to the den of nerds, Akihabara!
Meiji University and industry visits
Meiji University felt quite similar to UniSA, but on a taller scale (seriously – I think we had lectures on the 16th floor in the main building!). Lecture topics included corporate social responsibility in Japanese firms, cross-cultural analyses on Japanese management practices and the work/life balance challenges for Japan. The on-prem caffeteria had a huge selection of student fare that was cheap and tasty too. Meiji University’s located in the middle of a district known for its music scene, including an array of record stores. See the shopping round-up for what I got up to!
Outside of Meiji University we had a few other stops as part of the UniSA Japan Study Tour. First was a visit to the Australian Embassy Tokyo to get a feel for what our fellow ex-pats do on a daily basis. The other visit was to Toneplus Animation Studios. Yes, we visited an anime studio! Due to NDAs there’s not a lot that can be specifically shared, but we got to see their production facilities, chat with some of the managers and animators. We also learned how they came to work with the likes of Square Enix, Capcom, Toei, OLM, Sony (and plenty of others!). I did my best not to come off as a giant weeb, but can’t guarantee how well I masked my enthusiasm. It was pretty frigging amazing.
Weekend relaxing and more food!
Given this second trip to Tokyo coincided with the weekend this also freed up some time to explore. We hit up some amazing izakaya places, ate ramen, visited MOS Burger (twice!) and finally got around to checking out CoCo Curry. There was some okonomiyaki, and thanks to an amazing fellow students, a bubble tea place too. One day was spent nerding out in Akiba and another hitting the subways to visit Asakusa. Thanks to said awesome student, this also meant matcha ice cream at one place, and a nut-based one at another.
Being so close to Akiba also resulted in a few late-night runs to Club Sega for modern fighting games. But my heart was all about the huge array of retro games in Taito HEY. The lineup included Wonderboy in Monsterland, R-Type, Parodius Fantastic Journeys, Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo… so much excite.
And yes, much nerd shopping was had!
UniSA Japan Study Tour Part 5: Homeward bound and study responsibilities
The final day of the UniSA Japan Study Tour was pretty laid back. It was all about packing everything up, a few more runs to the post office located right next door to the hotel, hitting the arcades and great food. Narita’s international departure area proved a great way to buy a box of grape Kit-Kats and pick up Ghibli plushies for my son. The flight home was pretty uneventful and since the plane wasn’t packed, we had room to spread out a bit. The key highlight was the Simpsons-themed doughnut from Krispy Kreme in the Melbourne airport. While delicious, in hindsight I probably should have chosen a healthier snack given I was feeling a little rubbish at the time!
Of course, all the above only detailed the study tour portion of the course. As a Masters student it wasn’t all about wandering through Japan! Our first round of assessments were due a few days after we got back, necessitating some academic rigour despite the jet-lag. We also had our major research paper due a few weeks after that. The other piece of assessment for the course related back to a combination of factors. These included engagement during lectures and visits, our conduct throughout the trip and attendance for the pre- and post-travel lectures. As an added bonus, myself and another student were invited to present research at a research symposium. Definitely unexpected but a very rewarding experience!
This last point is potentially easy to miss amongst all the other excitement. The UniSA Japan Study Tour wasn’t just about all the things we got up to, it also came with the responsibility to complete the relevant research papers.
UniSA Japan Study Tour: Final thoughts
The trip was pretty amazing. This post is a snapshot of the UniSA Japan Study Tour and doesn’t cover off all the awesome incidental experiences.
For those curious, one of my fellow students put together a promotional video of the trip that gives a visual blitz of what we got up to!
Many thanks to the students who kept me company and were happy to nerd out. Thanks as well as to the student mobility team from the UniSA Business School and School of Management teaching staff. Organising a trip of this complexity takes an enormous amount of time to prepare, negotiate and manage and they did an amazing job. If you find yourself studying at UniSA, look into the opportunities to study abroad. Whether it be short tours like this one or some of the other lengthy options it’s an awesome experience.
Finally, a huge thank you to the organisations and universities who hosted us. It’s what made the UniSA Japan Study Tour so unique, because if you were travelling purely for business or leisure you wouldn’t be privy to such a broad insight into Japan.
The above covers off all the study and cultural adventures, but did I get a chance to nerd out while visiting Japan? Absolutely!
I restricted the goodies in my bag for the important stuff. So, toys for my son, cute souvenirs for my wife, a big box full of chocolates/sweets and the accumulated omiyagi. Aside from some records bought on the second to last day, all my nerd purchases were posted home.
There wasn’t a lot of time for nerding out – this was a study tour after all. My best advice if you’re in a similar position is to carefully plan and manage your downtime. This meant keeping on top of the continuous assessment tasks in the evenings or on the shinkansen. I also plugged everywhere I wanted to go in Google Maps to plan my time. I was also conscious to avoid snubbing the group to go be a selfish weeb. It was great fun shopping with other manga, anime and gaming fans, and while I went solo in some cases, it wasn’t often. I wouldn’t have had as good a time or found some great places to check out if I was doing it on my own. Hopefully everyone who came along with me enjoyed themselves as well!
Anywho, PSA out of the way – below’s a rough cut of what I got up to:
Shopping in Kyoto
Feeling a bit rubbish after the big travel day and with one day in Kyoto, I wasn’t intending to nerd out much. After Kiyomizu-dera I wandered around the streets near the hotel to hit up a 7-Eleven to take out some cash. While there I did something I wish I did when we visited back in 2012 and picked up some trashy manga! Key feature was this random page I flipped to with a dude wearing a bin on his head. Superb!
The big nerd-out happened after the Fushimi-Inari visit with a nerd-run to Ojamakan (map) nestled in the ‘burbs. The store was mind-blowingly amazing with huge selections of retro and modern gaming stuff at very reasonable prices. As they were cash-only I had to curb my enthusiasm. So ¥30,000 later we were out the door and running back to the hotel so we could meet up for dinner with the group!
Shopping in Tokyo, Part 1
The pace for the first visit to Tokyo was busy so it was all about maximising time in the evenings. Aside from accidentally stumbling into a manga store that specialised in porn, we had a great time shopping. We visited Animate (map), Book Off (map), Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo (map) and other nerdy places. Huge props to the massive Uniqlo in Ikebukuro (map) – they do Duty Free in-store for any purchases above ¥5,000!
I picked up some awesome graphic tees as part of a big promotion the had with Shounen Jump at the time. The Book Off in the main retail strip is towards the end and is pretty massive too. I grabbed a handful of games for the Famicom, Saturn, PS1 and some other systems. Pricing wasn’t crazy cheap, but given it’s located in Ikebukuro and was convenient, I had no regrets. Like Uniqlo, they also had Duty-Free available above a certain threshold so keep that in mind if you visit.
Shopping in Sendai
I had some strategic plans for Sendai to hit up some of the Seagull stores I had heard about. But with the shinkansen delay and an otherwise busy schedule nothing eventuated. It’s all good though – to be honest I didn’t have much space in my luggage at that point. Besides, all the other experiences in Sendai were so much fun it didn’t matter. I’m hoping the cute “Welcome to Sendai” mascot above will make up for a lack of nerd stuff!
Shopping in Tokyo, Part 2
I didn’t plan on getting carried away with shopping in the second half of the trip. But a combination of nerd excite and some weekend sales killed that idea. Here’s what happened:
You don’t go to Akihabara for retro game bargain hunting any more. But, if you do your research you can pick up your stuff at reasonable prices or track down that crazy thing you need (at a cost!).
Super Potato wasn’t quite as crazy this time compared to my previous visit for Japan. It was still fun looking through the shelves and being a little bemused at some of the prices. I didn’t grab any games here, but I did buy an awesome official Sega Mega Drive-themed USB powerbank for ¥3,000! (map)
Located down from Retro Game Camp, Trader Headquarters had some interesting titles but nothing I bought. This is possibly because I couldn’t work out if they accepted credit cards and I was starting to run low on cash! They had a nice selection of PC Engine titles which was great fun to look through though. (map)
Retro Game Camp
Back in 2012 when we visited Japan I ended buying a lot of stuff from Mandarake – this time, less so. Still, I managed to track down a boxed copy of Bare Knuckle 3 at a reasonable price and a few other titles. I ended up spending more money on toys while I was there to be honest! It’s still great fun walking around the store and the nearby izakaya had amazing gyoza so it was all good! (map)
Suruga-ya Retro Game Store
I got carried away at Suruga-ya. All thanks to a combination of solid prices, a store-wide 10% off sale, duty free and accepting credit cards. Huge props to the sales team. I kept filling up little baskets of games and they worked through the whole lot without batting an eye. I felt self-conscious about holding up the line so I worked hard to apologise profusely. Everyone in the line seemed a bit happier after that. My only regret was not snapping up some CPS2 PCBs, but given how much I spent that isn’t a bad thing. (map)
Book Off Akihabara Ekimae
Located around the side of the Akihabara Station, this local Book Off is a decent size. It isn’t quite as big compared to others I’ve visited and the prices are average, but it’s still worth a look. The reason I had a look is due to watching a video on YouTube from Aussie Retro Gamer Girl the night before. It’s funny because she only posted it about a week prior so it was pretty current:
What are the odds?
Anywho, while there I also had a look through some of the CD sections but go a little lost. Same for the books – I was thinking of snapping up some artbooks, but I ran out of time to pick through everything. Huge thanks to Retro Gamer Girl for conveniently posting that one so close to my visit – that was awesome timing! (map)
For arcade gaming I was hoping to visit both G-FRONT and MAK Japan, but since I was running low on cash and knew MAK accepted credit cards, guess where I went?
After heading up the claustrophobic elevator I wandered into the most amazing little store. There were PCBs, Neo Geo carts, GD-ROM kits and all sorts filed away with perfection. I snapped up some GD-ROMs for my Naomi setup and grabbed a couple of CPS2 A-boards as well. Again, it’s all about the customer experience in Japan. They hooked both PCBs up to a supergun to demonstrate they worked then packaged everything up. I ended up having a chat with a fellow gaijin while I was working through my order. He was there to grab some sanwa parts for his arcade stick and complemented my PCB choices. Rad. (map)
Figures, toys and merch
Anime Inferno co-founder Inferno and long-time contributor Iron Chap are in a league all of their own when it comes to figures, statues and toys. Thanks to their guidance I was able to track down a few interesting goodies for my small collection!
Amiami Akihabara Second store
Hit the stairs and get ready for all sorts of toys, statues and figures! Amiami’s second hand store has an amazing array of stuff for sale across the third and fourth floors. I was more interested in Transformers and figures relating to older games or anime. To this end there was a good mix amongst more recent stuff. The good news is that they’ve embraced duty free and credit card payments which is awesome. The general pricing was very reasonable too. (map)
Suruga-ya Akihabara Shop Anime Hobby Pavilion
We stumbled across Suruga-ya’s multi-floor extravaganza while wandering amongst all sorts of other nerdy stores. They had a huge variety of great stuff, but like Mandarake you have to per for your goods per-floor. Not everything was crazy cheap, but it was quite reasonable. They had a lot of older releases covered which I really liked. I snapped up some Figmas and a few other goodies here, nothing crazy expensive though. I’m pretty sure I lost my mind a little over some old Macross toys there too, same with the Evangelion Optimus Prime. That’s so rad… (map)
Speaking of big stores! Mandarake’s massive complex in Akihabara is worth wandering through just to appreciate some of the crazy goods. Like Suruga-ya, you need to pay per floor and a lot of the toys and figures are behind glass so you’ll need to ask for assistance. I thought I’d try navigating their Japanese website to check if they had a few things in stock. To my surprise not only were the stock levels accurate for what I was interested in, but the prices matched 1:1. I came away pretty damned impressed! (map)
Kotobukiya Akihabara Store
Kotobukiya was great fun last time we visited in 2012. Opposite Super Potato along the maid gauntlet, it’s easy to spot and is well laid out with all sorts of new merch. There are figures and rotating displays on the first floor which we poked around at (they had a special promotion for Tales of… goods while we were there), but the Ghibli display had some great stuff. I picked up some goodies for my wife and son while there. Not the cheapest, but good fun. It’s also a little easier on testosterone compared to some of the other places in Akiba too. (map)
Again – Yodabashi Camera made for awesome fun last time we visited. Being a Dad now it seemed like a great idea to revisit Yodabashi to see what was around for my son. This proved an interesting exercise. Being on the weekend the crowds were massive, but I still managed to walk away with some fun toys. We also raided the aisles upon aisles of gashapon machines for other bits and pieces. Yodabashi Camera also doubles as a great source of other electronics and stuff – I was after a decent power board for my Japanese import gear while I was in Japan and they had them in abundance at Yodabashi Camera (though if memory serves I think I actually snapped mine up at Bic Camera back in Ikebukuro!). (map)
James Eldred’s frequently updated post on buying records in Tokyo is truly breathtaking. If you’re in Tokyo and want to buy vinyl it’s essential reading. My record shopping was ultimately shrunk into one afternoon, but I still managed to have some fun!
Disk Union Jinbocho store
I stumbled on this while on my way to Record Sha. It’s nestled up a few flights of stairs and has a small but amazing selection of records. I grabbed a few cheap anime-related records and another random cheap LP labelled as “City Pop”. Turns out it’s a pretty great pop record from 1982! I wish I’d taken a punt on a few more records but I was short on time and running low on yen! (map)
I found this one as a result of Eldred’s amazing guide. It took some time to find the building and head up the rickety elevator, but my god it was beautiful. When you walk out the elevator there’s two distinct sides. To the left are shelves upon shelves of classical, jazz and Hollywood standards that included plenty of 78s. To the right was everything else! I asked the guy at the counter where the anime records were – he was kind enough to indulge me. I didn’t get too much here – the highlight was walking away with a 7″ single from Project A-Ko’s amazing soundtrack. (map)
Disk Union Second Hands (Shinjuku)
Located on the 8th floor of the massive Kinokuniya building near Shinjuku Station, Disk Union Second Hands proved tricky to find. There was conflicting information at the time as it used to be located in an adjacent building. It took my rubbish Japanese a bit of time to work out what was happening! I picked up a few anime LPs, but the most amazing purchase was an original pressing of The Blue Hearts’ debut self-titled album. I couldn’t believe my luck – a copy had just come in and I wouldn’t have found it if the sales assistant hadn’t been so helpful. She deserves extra kudos for accepting my somewhat rubbish language skills when I thanked her! (map)
You made it!
Well done on making it through this marathon! Hopefully the write-ups for both the study tour and my shopping adventures made for interesting reading!