[Caution: Long post ahead. This has actually become so long I have to break it into separate parts.]
Ever since I was a kid obsessed with video games, I’ve wanted to visit Japan. In the days before internet, my brother would tell me about things he read from his magazine subscriptions like EGM–Games that are only released in Japan or the latest technology. In my mind, for years, there would be a mystical hype about Japan bubbling all the way up to these few days. Would the real thing deliver?
I’ve been living in South Korea as an English teacher in an after-school program. Originally, I wanted to spend my vacation time traveling around Japan with some American friends in the penultimate week of January, but my school basically made me take my vacation during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s. Things don’t always go as we plan them to, but I was more focused on the fact that I’d finally be achieving a lifelong dream.
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, but my motive seems to have changed from video games to overall culture, finally narrowed down to Super Turbo. With the recent closing of Nakano Royal and even Super Arcade being on the ropes (again), there is no better time than now to pay homage to what is left of the global arcade scene.
Since my work told me at the last minute about my vacation, I had to make arrangements in the same fashion. Luckily, this didn’t affect ticket prices at all, but I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a hotel. I had to search for a long time, but I finally made a reservation to stay in a capsule hotel for four days. Another factor that added to my stress was that my December paycheck hadn’t come in yet (though it should have) and I was running on fumes of only about $300 cash (¥250 after changing currency from KRW to JPY at the airport, yuck) since I could charge the flight and hotel.
Everything worked out, though: New Year’s happened to be a great time to visit Japan and I would heartily recommend it to anyone else in the future. I was just so juiced at the idea of finally being the wandering world warrior and seeing how I stack up against the gods of Super Turbo. I see myself as a rather stoic person. Normal things tend to not excite me very much. But when it comes to Super Turbo, a game I can actually say I’ve given years of my life to along with a number of others, such a deep satisfaction overcomes me and everything else in my life is just child’s play.
I used to write excessively long blog entries detailing everything I could remember about tournaments and events I attended. I’ve been to EVO plenty of times, and to be completely honest, the rush of hype it is expected to cause wears off quite quickly these days. Now that I’ve seen what the ST holy land has to offer firsthand, I can make a comparison with the competition back home. I feel it’s personally important for me to document my first time in Japan.
Before I went to Japan, I had no understanding of how their currency was arranged. The biggest shock for me was that their $1 and $5 counterparts (¥100 and ¥500, respectively) arecoins. The other coins available are at ¥1 (not as common), ¥5, ¥10, and ¥50. I just wanted to get this explanation out of the way since it helped me better understand how arcade culture has survived in Japan and I hope the reader can piece it together as I recount my tale.
I’ll try to do this as chronologically as I can since that seems to be the easiest way to express my experience with some sort of structure. It was only four short days, but everyone always remembers their first time.
Day 1 December 29, 2013:
I was originally going to bring my laptop bag and my bookbag (mostly clothes) since my actual luggage suitcases are enormous and I don’t have any mid-ranged sized bags. But right before I left, I decided I would truly travel light and just take my bookbag. I never really regretted it since I was able to manage stuffing everything in there (including a new backpack that I bought since the old one has a zipper jam). Ryu only carries one bag, right?
The flight from Busan to Narita is about 100 minutes. Really not bad at all and the round trip ticket only cost me around $200. Sleeping in a box for four days ran me about $137. While I was at the airport, I made sure to buy the 2-day Tokyo Metro rail pass for ¥980 (there is also a 1-day pass for I think ¥580). It was a smart decision since I’ve grown to love exploring cities and I would be hopping around various arcades. I had scheduled my check-in time at the hotel to be 1500 since that’s the default and it sounded reasonable as I landed at 1300. But I got really confused by all the options of getting out of the airport with my measly budget of ¥250 cash.
By the time I figured all of that out and called the hotel to tell them I’d be late (a long, confusing conversation in itself), it was around 1730 when I checked in. The hotel was in Kiba, which was a stop on the Tokyo Metro Tozai (teal) line. I decided the best route was to get to Funabashi, a stop I saw on the railway out of the airport and then transfer over to the Nishi-funabashi Tokyo Metro station, one end of the Tozai line (the closer end to Kiba). Getting lost is part of the fun. When I got to Kiba, I dropped off my stuff in my locker (they give you a locker to go with your capsule) and found an immediate answer to a question that boggled me ever since I booked my room.
My question was: is there a housekeeping service offered at capsule hotels?
The answer was on an English sign in the locker area: if you don’t want your capsule to be cleaned, please pull the curtain down when you leave. So yeah, the door to the room is basically just a curtain. New experience for me, but I’m just happy I found a warm place to sleep.
The winter weather in Tokyo is very mild compared to Korea. I didn’t have to wear long underwear layers beneath my street clothes. Another immediate difference was the lack of swift and ubiquitous internet I’m used to in Korea. Considering these things made me think of how my experience in Japan would have differed if I had not lived in Korea beforehand. The two countries share a lot of similar cultural customs and even their languages are often both classified in the Altaic language family. Initially, I kept wanting to speak Korean since that’s usually the foreign language that is floating around in my head (I have terrible command of any language but English an American stereotype I live up to, but want to change). But since there’s a great deal of history and rivalry between Korea and Japan, there is also a lot of enmity. Perhaps it’s best I don’t get too deep into this subject and carry on.
Anyway, I wanted to hurry to the Tokyo area since I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to find Versus. I had wanted to get there around 1800~1900 since that’s when the casuals start up for the weekly East-West battle. Right as I was walking to the subway station, I felt like I forgot something. I went back to the hotel and asked them for their business card or something with their address in case I got lost and needed to taxi it back. When I went down to the subway, I decided not to use my Tokyo Metro pass yet since I started the day in the Tokyo area so late and it would be a good opportunity to spend some time learning how to use the subway instead of just swiping a magic card everywhere. I took the train to Nishi-nippori and night had already fallen. How was I going to find Versus? I just picked a direction and started walking.
Holy site #1: Versus.
This arcade was the hardest one to find since the sign is so tiny and it’s really tucked away in a back alley. I had asked two pachinko places if they could point me to a gamecenter, but they didn’t know. Finally, I asked some guys working at a smaller gamecenter and one of them pointed me to the alley in between a Yoshinoya and a KFC.
I was only here on Sunday for the big East-West battle (the last one for 2013!).
It’s ¥50 to play a 2/3 set. The first ST celebrity I recognized was Pony.
I was considering asking at a small police outpost where I could find a gamecenter since they were so close to the subway station, but by the time I walked back a woman was in there talking with the officer. I kept going in the same direction after I turned around and everytime I heard electronic sound effects, as if from a video game I was fooled by the call of a pachinko hall! I could have sworn I heard Ryu’s hadouuuken or some of the other CPS2 sfx I know so well. But I was determined. I had gone this far and I was going to find it. Asking around, I relied on a small phrase I crafted using only one semester’s worth of Japanese I took five years ago.
Baasus-no gamecentaa-wa doko desuka? [Where is the Versus gamecenter?]
It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I snapped that picture and climbed the narrow stairs up to the third floor and by the time I saw a danisen ranking board propped up on the floor with the character portraits and player names, I was just about on the verge of tears. I really made it. The journey of a lifetime leading all the way to a smokey den of cramped cabinets. There weren’t too many people around on the ST machines yet, so I felt I deserved some dinner.
My journal entry for that day has my first meal in Japan (McDonalds) clocked at 1910. I took my time, savoring every fry and sip. Some lines from after that meal:
[Tonight, let’s prove that even gods can bleed. And if it bleeds, we can kill it.]
[I love traveling alone, lonely as it is at times. I determine my own limits.]
[Sleeping in a $30 box for a couple nights, but I don’t even give a ffffuuuuuuuu..!]
My first meal in Japan. The small text at the bottom gives the definition for “lattice,” ha.
I walked back and there were more people, though it wasn’t quite packed yet. I didn’t really see any players that I recognized from videos or pictures, so I just watched people warm up since I didn’t understand what was going on yet. There was an older gentleman in a hat, coat, and scarf who I decided I would introduce myself to since he seemed like a nice fellow. Again, I fell back on the little Japanese I remembered the stock introduction.
Hajimemashite. Nasanieru desu. Doozo yoroshiku. [This is the first time we have met. I am Nathaniel. Please be nice to me.]
Additionally, I threw in: Amerikajin desu. Watashi-no Nihongo-ga heta desu. [I am an American. My Japanese is poor.]
My intuition was correct and this man was very welcoming towards me. I didn’t really know much of what he was saying and I think my silence helped to convey that. I watched one of his games and sat down at the cab after he got up. The prompt in the corner said PUSH START instead of INSERT COIN, so I thought maybe the cabs were on freeplay. After I lost and stood up, the man in the hat held up two fingers, implying I should play a 2/3 set. I decided I would ask around later to see how much I owed for the freeplay. I did this for a little while at other machines until I saw that people were indeed putting in coins. The next time I sat down, I wasn’t sure what coin to insert, so I put all the various types of coins I had in my hand and Kawasim pointed to the ¥50 piece. And then it made sense to me that ¥50 pays for two credits (about 25cents/game) and you play a 2/3 set.
I actually identified Kawasim from his roundhouse red Dhalsim and asked him Kawasim desuka? as well as giving the stock introduction. I was very lucky to find that he speaks a little English. He asked if I watched the Versus battles on YouTube and helped point out some of the players for me, though, to be honest, I only really knew of Mu, Tsu, and Hanashi (I usually only watch Sim and DJ matches or really big names these days). By this time, the killers started rolling in and I introduced myself to the likes of Pony, VIPER, Nakamura, and Shogatsu. Pony’s reaction to my bottled introduction was rather Japanese (polite) as he reassured me that my Japanese didn’t suck and Shogatsu was also very welcoming. As soon as I said America to VIPER he dropped the name riz0ne.
There was a clipboard near the TV/stream station with a list of names and characters and I signed in using my first name in Katakana since I thought it might be difficult for Japanese people to say Fuddulous or Fudd properly. I asked Kawasim how much to enter and he said ¥50. He walked around carrying the collection plate to get more coins. I think the turnout was around 57 players. By this time, I had asked Kawasim if any other Japanese players speak English and I was introduced to Shu. Damdai told me Shu speaks the best English, so I knew I was in a good place. However, Shu was a bit busy helping to organize the event so I tried not to disturb him too much.
The East-West battle started and I was on the 2P side, playing at the tenth slot. Also on my team was the man with the hat who played his fierce blue Guile. The English YouTube re-up of the event has his name as Torisugari, but earlier that evening I had written down the letters TZW and pointed to him, asking if it was him (since I couldn’t recall his picture from STR). He waved his hands and shook his head. In Japan, there is definitely more character variety, more characters like Ken and Guile as you may have heard and it was pretty nice to not have to fight Boxer/Claw/O. Sagat every other game. I took off my coat and bag, resting it in the gap between the tip of a row of cabinets as Kawasim instructed. Don’t forget it.
A Chun player on 1P was tearing up the 2P team and my turn was coming up soon. I told Shu that I didn’t want to have to fight Chun. He (accurately) predicted that Azelea Guile would defeat the Chun. But then a N. Hawk player beat Aze and suddenly it was my turn. Terrible flashbacks of fighting Papercut and damdai briefly came up, but I just sat down and decided I’d play as clean as I could. After it was done, Shu said that hardly anyone knows who the Hawk player is since he lives far away. All that was left was to sit back, enjoy the show, and root for 2P. It boiled down to heavy-hitters and then Numa appeared for the 2P team and F’ed up everybody. When I saw Numa sneak on to the cab, I got a Willy Wonka vibe from him and I have no idea why. But after the 1P team was eliminated, the exhibition matches ran and all the remaining players fought each other.
After it was over, Shu said to me, “Now you can drink.” This stressed me out a bit since I thought it meant everyone was going out for drinks or something (I’m a super lightweight when it comes to alcohol). But instead, he handed me ¥120 the winning team is awarded some money and said I could get a drink from the vending machine. I was relieved and walked over to see the selection. Most of the drinks cost ¥120, but I saw Nakamura drinking something called Wilkinson, which costs ¥150 (the equivalent of three 2/3 sets!). I remember thinking that maybe if I drink it, too, then maybe I’ll have cleaner footsies. The drink’s label said Grapefruit, herbs, honey and had a nice, spritzy taste to it. Additionally, the humble Nikaiten (he works at Versus and organizes the events) was going around offering everyone a Japanese rice cake. A New Year treat, maybe?
During the event, I kept looking at my watch to make sure I didn’t overstay since the last train was around midnight or so. I left a little before midnight and ran down to the subway, seeing that I would catch the last train listed. But the last train would only take me to Kabayacho, the transfer station for Chiyoda (green) line. When I tried to get on the Tozai line, subway personnel denied me. I would have to cab it back to Kiba. Good thing I remembered to get that hotel business card. And just so you know, cab rides in the Tokyo area start at ¥710 and this one came out to ¥2000. Hell of an end for a hell of a first day, I guess.
I remember commenting to Shu:
“Man, you guys do this every week?!”
If I could play against Sashishi and Sasori every week for a couple of years, I think I might just learn a thing or two about Super Turbo. A different conversation I had with Shu was about another player I forget who, maybe Tonegawa or Kawasim and his age. I definitely felt like the youngest person there (though I’m not sure how young Tsu is), but I’ll touch on this topic again later when I reveal more of my trip.
PS: Don’t whiff anything against Hanashi if he’s within midrange. Otherwise, you’re dead 🙂
Tune in next time for Day 2: Exploration!