Guns N’ Roses in Osaka

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The guitar god himself

It was a Thursday morning, and I was sitting in class, trying not to doze off. I was flicking through my planner and noticed a note I left for myself ages ago: Guns N’ Roses were gonna be here in Kansai, on January 21st and 22nd. I knew about this from way back in November, but with all the Christmas plans it seemed ludicrous to spend so much money on a gig. Now it was January, I just got a fresh instalment of my JASSO scholarship…

So I went ahead and bought a 19,000 yen (£131.50) ticket to see one of my favourite bands. Two days away from the show. I’ve never spent so much money on a gig or bought a ticket so spontaneously, so I was shaking all day.

I’m no stranger to going to rock gigs back in England. I’ve been with friends and alone, and always queued for hours outside of the venue, to stand in the very front rows and get squashed by the mob, struggling to hear the band play. I love that kind of stuff once in a while. But I also heard that Japanese rock gigs are very, very different. My former guitar teacher is in a rock band and they toured Japan before, and came back confused: the crowd is very welcoming, but eerily quiet, dutifully clapping at the end of a song, and making no move to start a moshpit. This may not be so weird to a pop music fan, but it’s far from what you experience at an English rock gig. So I researched and tried to psych myself up for a different kind of show.

And different it was. I went to the one on the 21st in Osaka, and the very first strange thing for me was that doors opened at 4 pm. Apparently that’s the thing with Japanese gigs: they either start early enough to finish before the last train, i.e. midnight, or, if it’s a club night, then they will start at midnight and go on until the first trains start running. It makes sense and I really didn’t want to sit in a McDonald’s until 6 am waiting for the first train, but it also felt weird to go to a gig so early.

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The view was pretty decent despite how huge the venue was

The venue was Kyocera Dome, and it was awesome. It’s a huge complex of shops and restaurants, normally used for the extremely popular baseball games, though many concerts also take place there. I assumed my ticket was for non-assigned seats so I got there as early as I could (around 4:30 pm, no thanks to confusing rail lines), and discovered I actually had a seat number. So I jealously stared down at the tiny area designated for standing (most of the ground floor was seated), and went to wander around the venue. The merchandise cost slightly ridiculous amounts, such as 1500 yen (£10) for a poster.

In fact, the concert ticket prices in Japan also really surprised me: they all cost between 10,000 yen-20,000 yen (£70-140) on average, including small and lesser-known bands. In the UK I paid maybe £40 to see the fairly popular 30 Seconds to Mars at the London O2 venue; but such legendary bands as Guns N’ Roses would cost upwards of £150 for the cheapest ticket. So Japan charges too much for small bands and surprisingly little for very popular bands. I guess I got a good deal. Oh, and standing tickets bizarrely cost more than seating ones, though it’s not so often that there is a standing area at all, it seems. Also, the ticket selling system looks very convoluted, where you have to either go to a convenience store at the exact time the tickets go on sale, or pay to join a fan club, or be lazy like me and grab a ticket off viagogo.com for a slightly higher price.

The show started exactly on time, at 6 pm, and the opening act was Babymetal. It’s a Japanese band where some speed metal is mixed with a bunch of girls dressed up in gothic lolita style, singing pop songs. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend checking them out. I couldn’t stop laughing through the 5 songs they played, in a good way. For many Japanese people this is a hugely important band and half the crowd seemed to be there as much for Babymetal as for Guns N’ Roses.

Guns N’ Roses were also surprisingly punctual, considering their reputation. They came on maybe 40 minutes after the warm-up act. Then again, their recent reunion with Slash seems to symbolise more focus on the quality of the performance, and less on the rock-star reputation. All I can say about the show itself is: this was the best rock performance I’ve ever been to, and my only regret was that I wasn’t downstairs with the standing crowd. The audience was not as bad as I expected, there was some movement in the crowd, and many of the people in seated areas stood and eagerly clapped along. By the end of the gig there was even a bunch of drunk young men swinging around a bottle of Suntory Whisky and yelling standard concert chants down at the band. It was a good atmosphere, which was very much thanks to the band’s electrifying presence. And, as my friend John said, towards the end you just kind of sit there thinking “and here goes Slash again, doing a solo that shouldn’t be humanly possible without breaking a sweat”.

After that people quickly dispersed, some probably to off to clubs to continue the party, others to get trains home. It was a great time and I don’t regret a single penny I spent on the ticket, though I don’t have much interest in going to another concert in Japan. Getting a ticket is just too much hassle; the atmosphere for the rock gigs is also not quite as intense as in England. Definitely an experience worth having though!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 3)

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Ueno

It’s almost the end of January, but I’m back with some more anecdotes from my trip to Tokyo.

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Meiji Jingu

On the third day of the trip I managed to pop into another famous Tokyo shrine: the Meiji Jingu. It’s quite a contrast to Senso-ji, because it was founded as recently as 1920. It is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. Unfortunately, the temple was partially destroyed in the Tokyo air raids during World War II, but it has been rebuilt in 1958. Meiji Jingu is the go-to shrine for famous foreign visitors, such as George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others. I loved that the shrine was surrounded by woods, so that you feel separate from the bustling city, and can find a bit of peace and quiet for a change. Well, aside from when it’s January 2nd and hundreds of people are visiting the shrine, creating a crowd akin to those at a pop concert… still, it was a very pleasant visit.

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Takeshita Street

Leaving Meiji Jingu, it takes about a 10 minute walk to get to the polar opposite of the shrine: Harajuku, and especially Takeshita Street. It’s Camden Market multiplied by ten and injected with a heavy dose of crazy Japanese fashion! Think ‘kawaii’ cuteness, gothic lolita, and cyberpunk shops side-by-side. Again, the crowd was crazy, but I loved seeing some of the trippy stuff in Harajuku, and got to try the famous pancakes (I got the chocolate and banana ones and definitely recommend it).

In the same day we managed to pop into an area of Tokyo similar to London’s Brick Lane: Shimo-kitazawa. It’s full of trendy second-hand shops and hipster cafes. We got there after sunset, so shops were already closing, but still spent some quality time browsing around. I wouldn’t prioritise this place as a thing to see in Tokyo, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Koto demonstration

On the 3rd of January I popped into the Edo-Tokyo museum and got lucky because it was open for free that day. Most Japanese museums charge a small entry fee, though some prices, like that of the Samurai museum, are quite steep. The museum itself is charming and full of explanations in English and reconstructions of all sorts of things like a kabuki house. There was also a koto music demonstration! I was really impressed because most visitors were Japanese, which is not something you see in European museums: those are normally full of tourists, whereas here in Japan the locals seem to be more active in going to galleries and museums.

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Pokemon Paradise

By this point I caught a mean cold, courtesy of my friend who brought it all the way from England, but still managed to walk around Tokyo and enjoy the city itself. I spent some time in the two famous ‘otaku’ (pop culture fan) areas: Akihabara and Ikebukuro. I mentioned in a previous post that Akihabara is more male-oriented, with maid cafes and adverts featuring anime girls in suggestive poses. Ikebukuro did indeed seem to have more host clubs (mostly female-oriented establishments where you pay for chatting and drinking with an attractive male), and anime goods from more girly shows. I also had a quick look at the Pokemon mega-centre in the Sunshine City shopping centre, which was lots of fun.

John’s aunt was kind enough to take us out to a shabu-shabu restaurant at some point, which turned out to be a fantastic time. Shabu-shabu is a partially self-serving dish, where you get a hotpot and some broth, and then you mix and match meat and vegetables that you want to cook. Finally, as a vegetarian, I got to eat a delicious meal without any trouble! I had my separate veggie broth and revelled in lots of tofu, mushrooms, and greens. Certainly a recommended experience.

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Ueno Park

I also visited the Tokyo National Museum. You can find it in Ueno Park, which is a giant area full of various museums and galleries, as well as a zoo. It’s the perfect place for family-oriented fun. As for the museum I went to, my nerdy self had a fantastic time, as some of the exhibits are directly relevant to the historical topics I learned about last year at Oxford. For example, they had a beautiful copy of the poetry collection Kokin Wakashu from the 12th century, which is a particular interest of mine. There was even some pottery all the way from the pre-Japan time, the Jomon era, which took place around 10,500-300 BC!

On my way from Ueno I popped into Ameya Yokocho, a shopping area that was recommended to me many times. Maybe it was the setting sun, or my persistent cold, but I didn’t really get why Ame Yoko is included in every tourist guide. It’s a place full of somewhat suspicious little stores selling cheap goods; there was also a food market. I guess it might feel more authentic than the polished feel of most of central Tokyo, but I’d rather spend time in the ‘false’, futuristic and pretty Tokyo. After all, if I want dodgy little Japanese shops, there are plenty of those in Kobe!

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Busy-busy Shibuya

My final stop before going home was Shibuya. If you picture Tokyo in your mind, you probably think of that famous giant crossing, surrounded by LED screens with endless adverts. That’s the one in Shibuya. Shibuya is An Experience. It is indeed full of people madly dashing across the road, which was interesting to be part of. There are lots of Western shops there, but I was more curious about Japanese fashion. I went to the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre, full of female-oriented stores (it has a male-oriented counterpart next door). It was terrifying. Whenever you go into a Japanese store you get accosted with repeated shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome); but it was multiplied by the fact that early January is the time of mega-sales here. The more they yelled at me, the faster I backed away from the shops… There are around 12 floors in Shibuya 109, full of clothes, shoes, and make-up. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous. Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed in Japanese fashion: you either get exactly the same kind of sweater and blouse across all the different shops, or you stumble into an overly frilly-and-lacy store glorifying the image of a young girl. Yes, oriented at middle-aged women. I don’t really get the hype around this stuff. Shopping in Japan still feels like a hellish experience, even though back in London it’s an activity I do with gusto. Oh well.

And that was about it for my time in Tokyo. It was an intense week full of fun and happy moments. Tokyo is huge and there is so much more to see, but I think I got a good feel of the city. It is and isn’t what I dreamed of for all those years. Tokyo has many quirks and is a vibrant place to live in. It’s also a typical city, and those who live in it complain that it’s too large and too expensive. The same thing can be said about London, I guess. A capital city is often fun to visit but hard to live in. I’m looking forward to coming back to Tokyo for some more sightseeing, but also I’m really glad that I actually live in Kobe – a much less stressful place surrounded by nature!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 2)

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Second gate to Senso-i

The New Year’s Eve was intense for me and my friends,  9 young adults struggling to move or do anything the morning after. Some didn’t even make it out until sunset.

But in Japan it’s more traditional to go to a temple in the morning or afternoon of January the 1st – to make prayers and celebrate the way we did at midnight. This is called hatsumodeand I found out just how many people follow it by visiting Senso-ji temple that day.

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Kaminarimon’s giant lantern

I’m a Londoner, and yet the crowd was still a total shock. In a very Japanese way, police officers directed the crowd through crossings and passageways, creating currents of people. It was just Matt and I who made it all the way to see the temple, and we queued for a very long time to get to it. (Ha! British queuing is nowhere near as extreme as Japanese queuing!) Senso-ji is worth it though. It’s arguably the most important temple in Tokyo, famous for several reasons. For example, as you approach it, you come across a huge entrance gate called Kaminarimon,  with a giant paper lantern suspended from it. More importantly, Senso-ji is an ancient temple, originally founded in 645 AD, though it has since been bombed and rebuilt. Once we finally made it to the temple grounds, Matt went to buy himself a new goshuincho: a book with plain pages, used for collecting stamps and calligraphy when visiting a temple or shrine. These books cost around £10, and each stamp is an extra £2.50. It’s a wonderful idea and a memorable souvenir, so I enjoy looking through Matt’s collection (he’s almost finished his second book now!); though I decided that it was  a bit pricey for me personally.

Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, which is an area of Tokyo that has for centuries provided entertainment, and is dotted with shrines. Today it is a very touristic place, full of restaurants and exciting shops that sell stuff from vintage toys to real katana swords. It was probably my favourite part of Tokyo.

In contrast to our visit to the temple, Matt and I headed off to the very modern area of Tokyo called Akihabara, to meet up with the rest of our friends. One thing let to another, and it was spontaneously decided that we would go to one of those famous maid cafes! Akihabara is the perfect place for this purpose, as its many shops are aimed at male fans of pop culture, whereas Ikebukuro caters more to a female audience, and offers butler cafes instead. (Unfortunately, LGBT+ is hardly recognised in Japan even today, so it’s almost exclusively hetero culture that makes it into pop media).

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Posing with Yurari-chan. Note “Licence of your majesty”

All I can say is… it was the cutest nightmare ever. We went to a cafe called “@home”, and queued for a little while. Most of the other patrons were middle-aged men who came alone, specifically to chat with the cute young maids. This surprised me, as I expected the maid cafe concept to be more of a tourist attraction, rather than a real cultural phenomenon. The food and drink was unsurprisingly expensive, but each of us got a set that consisted of a drink, a dessert, and a picture with one of the maids, which turned out to be a reasonable price (I think it was around £15-20). Not everyone in our group spoke Japanese, and the cafe offered good service in English. All of the women were dressed up in cute and quirky maid outfits, the kind you’d find in a Halloween shop. The women also spoke in high-pitched voices, acted over the top, and were noticeable trained in making it seem that they are interested in you. The guys were addressed as “master” and us girls were addressed as “princess”. The most awkward bit was probably when we had to make a “spell” to charge up our drinks with “moe power” (which is an anime-related term for having feelings for a fictional character, so the relevance was lost on me). To be honest, I felt weird and uncomfortable during the whole thing, and bad for the women working in the cafe. These women also have to take part in many photoshoots which are then sold to the primarily male customers. I could go on a much longer rant about why this whole maid/butler cafe concept is not very healthy, but instead all I will say is this: it was a wonderfully weird experience and I would definitely recommend it, even if simply for the feeling of utter bewilderment it offers.

This was just my second day in Tokyo, and yet I was already overwhelmed with how different it is from the Kansai-region cities I’ve been to. 2017 sure started with exciting stuff.

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Yodobashi Camera: capitalist paradise and one of the most terrifying places I’ve been to

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 1)

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Breathtaking view from the Skytree

I’ve been obsessed with all things Japanese since I was about 10, and Tokyo of course was at the forefront of that obsession. I remember when I got to visit New York a few years ago, and it was a little underwhelming, because at that point I hardly cared about America – I was still spending my time watching and reading about Japan. So, even though Tokyo really is just another metropolis, it gave me many fuzzy feelings to simply walk around the concrete jungle, and to visit the areas I heard so much about. It sure made for a lovely New Year.

I will break writing about Tokyo into several posts, so that I don’t dump too much information on you in one go.

The trip started with the infamous night bus journey, the cheaper alternative to the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that cost a small fortune. Taking the train from Osaka to Tokyo gets you there in about 4 hours, but it costs around £300 for a return ticket, so that wasn’t an option for me. I booked a night bus ticket instead, which was still a bit pricey since I travelled during a peak period. It cost me around £97, which made a huge difference to a student on a budget. And during the rest of the year they are even cheaper! Back in England I travel by Megabus quite often to visit my partner in the North of England, so I’m used to a stuffy, smelly, cramped bus. Here in Japan I booked with Willer Express: the bus they provided was spacious enough, and I managed to get some sleep during the 10-hour journey. It was about 9 of us, all travelling by bus, and most of my friends found it comfortable enough to bear with, so I definitely recommend the night bus as an alternative to the bullet train.

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Tokyo Tower

Still, I was pretty delirious when I got off the bus at around 9 am, on December 31st, right at the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. We had to sit down for a coffee to let it sink in that finally, after all the anticipation, we were in Tokyo!

One of my classmates, called John, has an aunt living right in the centre of Tokyo, in Shinjuku. She was extremely kind (and brave) to let 9 young adults stay at her place for New Year while she was away visiting England, and I’m so grateful to her – hostels in Tokyo are unsurprisingly pricey! As we got there towards the afternoon, we all collapsed on the beds, the sofas, the floor… and had an indulgent nap. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and we needed energy to stay up.

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Mount Fuji over Tokyo

We managed to crawl outside before sunset, and spontaneously headed straight for the Skytree. Some statistics: the Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting and observational tower; the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest construction in the world; it is 634 m in height. It’s also a cheesy touristic destination, and although I normally avoid those, it was a surprisingly great thing to do. We got there just as the sun was setting, and discovered that the general queue for the 2000 yen tickets (£14) would take about 3 hours. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the time to come back, we decided to splurge for the fast-track tickets for 4000 yen (£28), which gave us access to the higher platform at 450 m, and I do not regret a penny of it. The view was breathtaking. We arrived at the top just in time to see the red glow of the setting sun frame mount Fuji, creating a sublime view. As the sky grew dark, I watched the various areas of Tokyo turn their lights on. I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the city. I think it was at that point, while counting the lit-up bridges (there must be over a hundred in Tokyo), and straining to see the edges of the metropolis, that I realised I already loved the city.

I would have stayed in the Skytree for longer, but, unfortunately, human beings have to eat. We regrouped with our friends and headed to the nearby part of Tokyo called Asakusa, and picked a presentable-looking restaurant called Watami. As usual, I struggled to find a vegetarian dish, and had to do with a boring margherita; but the company and the wine made up for that.

Right next to the restaurant, it turned out, was Tokyo’s most famous temple: Senso-ji, and we tried to get in at around 11 pm. However, as we got momentarily distracted by some souvenirs, the queue to enter the temple grew so long that the street normally walkable in about 15 minutes was at a complete standstill. The Japanese have various traditions based around New Year’s Eve, some of which are to ring the large bells inside the temples after midnight, and to give prayers for fortune in the coming year. We had no chance to get into Sesno-ji to do that, so an urgent scout for a smaller temple was in motion.

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The temple from the outside

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View from the inside

We were successful just in the nick of time. I couldn’t possibly remember the name of the temple now, but it was gorgeous and welcoming, even though we were practically the only foreigners there. We were given numbered pieces of paper for the queue to pray, and mine was 92. Yup, this was a small, hidden temple, on New Year’s Eve – still very busy. I feel like it was quite an honour to take part in the prayers on such an important holiday for the Japanese, even though I’m not at all spiritual. When my turn came, I had to go up to the altar, bow, make a prayer, toss a 5 yen coin in for luck, and take a careful sniff of some incense. Then we were led through a maze-like layout deeper into the temple, where we queued to ring the giant bell, the vibrations of which I could feel down to my bones. I was tipsy, surrounded by friends, taking part in a beautiful spiritual ritual, and I was very intensely happy.

The magic wore off quite fast and the exhaustion caught up with us, so some headed home while others stayed out to party. Luckily, Tokyo runs some of its metro lines all night on New Year’s Eve. Even though I more or less collapsed when I got home, it was undeniable that this was one of the best New Year’s Eves in my life.

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The large bell I got to ring!