A Two Week Sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun

For many years SCAD's Sequential Art department has offered a Tokyo Seminar for two weeks during Winter Break.  Students (a varying number, this year was 26) travel to Japan and meet up with two professors (Ray Goto and Mark Jantze) to study Japanese culture and comics.  Highlights include a trip to Disney Sea, a visit with Takeshi Miyazawa, the Imperial Gardens, several shrines and cemetaries, and trips to several museums including the Ghibli Museum.  Students were encouraged to practice gesture drawing and were given free time to explore Japan.

The application process was slightly nerve wracking, but not particularly difficult.  I filled out several forms, submitted a CD with my portfolio, and wrote a statement on why I wanted to attend the trip.  I was one of the six graduate students selected to go on the trip, and Heidi and I were looking forward to a cultural tour of Tokyo.

For this post, I'm going to rely on sketches, photos, and excerpts from my trip journal.  This post is basically a rough draft of the sketchbook I'm putting together for class and for MoCCA, the sketchbook will include more art and photos and perhaps more actual information.

"November 25th and 26th:

This is a very long entry, so for your convenience, I am inserting a pagebreak.

Before my family left, we had Denny's for "Thanksgiving Dinner".  A fittingly white trash holiday dinner for pre-Japan.  They dropped me off, and I passed out for awhile, knowing Thursday would be an all nighter since we needed to be at the airport in Charlotte NC for 4 a.m.  I packed and hung out with Tech Boy for awhile, and Heidi came over around 7.  We left at 12, and made the drive to Charlotte, arriving around 4.  Check in was fairly painless, and we rode a puddle jumper to Houston, TX.  My ear gave me serious trouble, and I was half deaf for a couple hours.  We nearly missed our flight to Japan due to a stop at an airport diner, but we managed to run on just in time.  Heidi, who has flown internationally before, says the plane was comparably nice, but it was really cramped.  I had trouble sleeping and a migraine, which didn't add to the experience.  There was a monitor in the seat ahead, so I watched crappy movies (He's Not that Into You, Julie and Julia, Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Parks and Rec.  The food was mediocre but tolerable, and all announcements were in English and Japanese.  We arrived in Japan 12 hours later at 3:15 pm (their time), and I tried to call my loved ones with varying degrees of success.  Apparently SoftBank covers for AT&T in Japan.  We waited around the airport while classmates trickled in, and finally trekked to our hotel around 8:00 pm, dragging 50 pounds of luggage behind me.

The fancy train that took us to Shinjuku.

 I tried to fight the ethernet in our room, but gave up and passed out until Heid returned with food from FamilyMart.  I had a fateful meeting with a melon pan. (Future reference, insert sketch of melon pan here)
Our fairly spacious hotel room

View of Shinjuku from our window.

Sunday, November 27th

We 'lost' a day flying here.  Woke up at 6:30, got breakfast (Starbucks and more melonpan), and met in the hotel lobby around 9:00 for class.

 Rode the Yamanote (JR) (note: insert map if possible) line to the Meiji Shrine, took pictures and video, and sketched.
Heidi and the Meiji Shrine map

To get to the shrine itself, you walk down this long, wide gravel pathway through a beautiful wood.  You almost forget that you're still in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.
Sake barrels.
Close up.

 Heidi and I snuck into an archery competition and did more sketching, and had soba for lunch at this little restaurant.  During our free time, we went to Tokyu Hands, a department store like Target or Walmart.  I bought erasers for an eraser test and a bunch of Copics including the Copic airbrush system.  Art supplies are much cheaper in Japan than they are in the states.
There are several expanses of grass+some wooded areas at the Meiji Shrine that are open to the public.  Families take their kids here, go on picnics, and play outdoor games.  

All of the archers had the same uniform- black hakama, white tabi socks, and a white kimono style robe worn beneath the hakama (I'm sorry, I don't know what the word for this is).  Most of the women had their hair pulled back.  The ages ranged from teens to 80's.

(Insert sketch of archery range)

Sketching at the archery competition was perfect- there was a wide variety of subjects to choose from.  I chose to draw mostly people in the stands, since there was more variety of clothing, although I did try to capture what the archers wore.

The flora in Japan is very different from what I'm used to in the US- the trees have very languid, organic shapes even when manicured.

The bottom illustration shows what the typical table setup looked like in our little soba restaurant.

In the evening, we took the JR to Harajuku around 3, and the sun was already setting.  Days seem short in Japan, but the locals don't let the lack of sunlight bother them.  We did not see any of the famed Harajuku fashion, but we took a few pictures and did a little shopping at what seemed to be lolita Mecca.  The clothes are very cute and tiny, so I bought nothing.  We ate crepes with cream and berries from a stand outside the shopping area, and bought used kimono and haori really cheaply (used wafuku is usually cheap) as souvineers.  The food here is pretty cheap compared to what I'm used to in New Orleans, and Heidi and I can manage to eat for under $20 combined.  We returned to the hotel early, crashing around 7:00pm.

Monday, November 28th:

When 4channers call Japan 'Glorious Nippon', they might be being sarcastic, but it's only because they have no idea how apt that moniker is.  Nippon IS glorious- for comic artists.  Nice art supplies are dirt cheap and the Japanese have engineered the mechanical pencil to perfection.  Our first stop of the day was Sekaido, the art supply Mecca.

 I am on a quest to buy a white brushpen, and while even Mecca has it's flaws (no brushpens in white, but they have silver and gold), I spent enough money and got enough toys (art supplies) to assuage my gaping white brushpen hole (hint: it's in my left leg).  After Sekaido we went to the Buddhist Temple in Ginza, eating festival food, wandering the stalls and gardens, and took pictures.

 From there we were free to explore Akihabara of Di Gi Charat fame (oh the shame that I know this).  Akihabara is a weeaboo paradise- electronics, games, manga, toys, and porn a plenty.  I've wanted a Nendoroid figurine for awhile, and I stalked down a Takagi from Bakuman.  I also buckled and purchased another Blythe, as I have a weakness for all things tiny and cute.

When we sketch publically, it generates a lot of attention.  One guy with a camcorder decided he needed to get a 360 degree view of me drawing, even going in for an over the shoulder closeup, without even trying to talk to me.  I sat stock-still and ignored him, let him have his weird as hell moment I guess.  I don't mind staring and pointing, I know a group of 25 non-Asians and 1 Korean girl stand out, and that's ok.  They cut us slack for breaking cultural norms, and our obvious physical differences are what get us this pass.  It's freeing knowing that as long as you're not a jerk, you'll be forgiven, and my social anxiety has lessened without trying to read people's minds.  I don't think I could live here, but Tokyo is excellent to visit.  The railway is a fantastic way to travel, as it's efficient and cheap, and you can eat off Tokyo's sidewalks.  Food is also fairly cheap, but I'm getting tired of soba with duck meant.

Exploring this city is fun and empowering.  I'm glad I'm here.  On a side note, each grad student has been assigned three undergrads to mentor.  My three are Ryan, April, and Ashley.  I enjoy mentorship opportunities and I hope to grow a lot in the process.  For each day's sketches, I use a variety of materials, and today was china marker.  I enjoyed it, it's very loose and gestural, and a major complaint I hear about my work is that I should loosen up.  This trip is all about exploration, and I intend to do so, at least artistically.

Tuesday, November 29th

Two more Japan-Trip casualties- Heidi and I have donned face masks, but I believe it is not plague but allergies.  Today we went to Ueno Park after breakfast (Starbucks).  We all have to fend for ourselves when it comes to food,  there isn't a restaurant that can accomodate 26+ people on short notice.  In Japan you don't walk and eat, you stand and eat, so we have to plan with this in mind.  You also DO NOT eat or drink on the JR.  You read, stare at your shoes, keep the elderly from sitting, but you do not imbibe.  Ueno Park has an amazing museum with fantastic examples of traditional architecture in the back.  We had limited time, so we had to breeze through, taking photos as we rushed along.
Outside the museum

Path around back to the outdoor exhibits

After the museum, we split for lunch, and Jantze took several of the grads for conveyor belt sushi (INCLUDE SKETCH)
It was not as hilarious as KindofCrap.com had led me to believe when I was a naive ninth grader, but it was delicious and cheap.  We ate apples on the way back, munching as we walked and garnering stares.  I don't like being THAT gaijin, but our professors will leave us behind if we're too slow.

Next we toured a neighborhood that had survived the 1920 Earthquake and WWII firebombings.  We visted Japanese cemetaries and saw dozens of small Shinto temples.  Unfortunately, both cameras had given out on me at this time, but I did some sketching.  After our last temple, Heidi and I trekked back to the hotel early.  She came down with crud and my allergies were acting up, so we wore our plague mask most of the day, as per custom here.

Wednesday, November 30th:

We got up early so we could meet at 8:00 and board the train for Tokyo Disney Sea.  Supposedly this Disney is closest to the Imagineers concept.  Disney always makes me sad, it's such an artificial world that noone can ever inhabit.  It's like a cell, constantly pushing out foreign objects, but unlike a cell, it pretends to welcome intruders and fleece them for their money.  It is too clean, too plastic and plaster, too designed to feel magical.  With this said, I love amusement parks and rides.  I don't mind 20 minute waits for <2 minute rides, and I usually don't mind hurting feet.

Disney Sea is fairly small and the themed 'ports' radiate around the Mysterious Island.  Some ports feel more authentic than others, notably Ariel's Grotto and the Mysterious Island.  The food, admission, and souvineers are cheaper than the US parks, and the rides are shorter and more spectacle based, as opposed to thrill based US rides.  There is an anime influence to the way Jasmin and Ariel are drawn here, sometimes enough to throw them off model.  This park attracts couples over families, and it can get a bit lonely.

Front gate

Outside of Ariel's Grotto

Inside Ariel's Grotto

The Mysterious Island

So where do I buy THIS?

While attractive, Disney Sea is disappointing and in my opinion, not worth a revisit.  I'd rather explore the culture.  We returned to Shinjuku arund 7:00, and hit Kinokuniya.  Heidi was after artbooks and I limped along.  I managed to find a few things to buy, and I plan on returning after my feet have healed.

Thursday, December 1:

Our first stop was at a small fashion museum a couple blocks away from the hotel, braving the cold and rain.  There were a lot of old kimono/ikat samples, so cameras and ink weren't allowed.  I sketched just about everything, and saw some exciting (to me) Uzebekistan/Jordanian/Guatamalan fashions that I'd love to use for a story I'm working on.  Veils, while beautiful, elude me yet.  What makes many of these pieces amazing are the colors, which is lost in pencil.  Our time in the museum was limited without explanation, which is disappointing.  I wish there were more cultural opportunities on this trip, the rest is just window dressing.

Afterwards, we visited TMS animation, way at the end of the Chuoh line in Mitaka.  TMS is responsible for the Young Justice animation as well as the new Lupin the Third, and Koji Takeshima, the president, worked on Future Boy Conan with Hayao Miyazaki.  We were told that TMS would be tiny, and I was expecting a two room, five man setup, so I was impressed with it's actual size.  Like American comic artists, the TMS employees live at their desks.  Unlike American comic artists, these desks aren't in Mom's basement, and there are some amenities to compensate for the neverending work, such as a kitchenette.  The workpace is grueling and the results are amazing, and I was extremely impressed with the new Lupin.

After TMS, we hit Nakano Broadway, which is full of used figurine and bookstores.

 The prices aren't significantly lower than new, but I found an English copy of Mizuno Juunko's Water Babies, which has been out of print for years in the US.  Heidi found her Mashiro Nendoroid, and we geeked out over gashapon.  We hit a candy store and stocked up on the treats we recognized from manga, and ate dinner with Ben, an undergrad, at a basement restaurant.  I tried to hit the Roppongi bars with the other grads, but Heidi has zero tolerance for smoke, so we headed back to Shinjuku.

Friday, December 2nd:

Heidi was sick, so she stayed back while we went to the Tokyo Edo Museum.  I was hoping for more Meiji era fashion, and I was sadly disappointed, but there were a lot of examples of traditional architecture as well as a taiko drum show.

Taiko drum stage

Being here makes me realize how integrated New Orleans is with Japanese culture, and I'm a little pleased.  I did a bit of sketching, but not much.  Afterwards, I got udon with the other grads and went to Akihabara with them.  We went to Tokyu Hands to buy supplies, and I went back to the hotel.  Heidi was feeling better, so we trekked out to the Pokemon Center and then had Korean BBQ.

Saturday, December 3rd:
Today we were supposed to go to the Tsukigi Fish Market at 4:00am, but it's closed to gaijin until 9:00am, AFTER all the cool stuff has already happened.  There was some last minute shuffling, and we ended up at a carshow.  Not being a car person, this wasn't the most exciting news for me.

The carshow was held at The Tokyo Big Site, which has some relevance to me due to series like Doujin Work and Genshiken.  It's home to Comiket, which is a huge deal comic market.  We took a couple trains to get there, and waited in the rain for our tickets.
Cars are not really my area of expertise, so I'd hoped to get some valuable sketching in, and looked forward to the concept cars.  My younger brother is obsessed with most things mechanical, so I've been to large car shows in New Orleans and I thought I had a pretty good idea what to expect.  So far, Tokyo crowds were very orderly and people tended not to meander, making them managable for me, but the car show was nuts.  Japanese males from five years of age to possibly one hundred had their cameras ready, and most are serious car otaku.  I couldn't contend, so I relied on photographs and video and collected handouts.

Kids in this country are adorable.

 We left about two hours later and headed back to the hotel, stopping for pork katsu and curry.  After a rest, the grads went out to Sekaido for art supplies and then on to Nakano Broadway.  I bought some artbooks and on the way home, we had grilled heart and liver at a tiny hole in the wall.  Heidi refused to eat, so I had to man up and eat all of it.  It was not really my thing, but still surprisingly good.
Floorplan of tiny restaurant (yakitori), as well as several views.

There are a lot of tiny restaurants in Nakano, crammed in backstreets and in Nakano Braodway.  I want to go back and take pictures, it really looks neat.  The waiters are so patient and kind, I usually try to eat all of my food.  Tipping doesn't seem to be customary, which is a shame- they deserve it for tolerating my non-existant Japapanese.

While I enjoy my time here greatly, I look forward to returning to my life and sharing my adventures and knowledge.  I have a blog that I'm fairly serious about, and I've been putting together prizes for promotional giveaways.

We enjoy coming back early and watching anime the way it's meant to be experienced, usually while tearing into the day's purchases.  Japan is full of new toys and novelties, but I want a guide to the culture.

Sunday, December 4th:

Today we went to the Imperial Gardens, an oasis in the city of concrete.  It was nice to see green after so much grey, and I did a fair bit of sketching and filming.

 Afterwards, we hit Jimbochu, the used book sellers district.  Akihabara is the 1st run animated porn district, and Jimbochu is the vintage real girl porn.

 We were told that rare anime posters and reference books could be procured here, but that seems to be the exception, not the rule.  We had some excellent sukiyaki for fairly cheap, and made our way to Tokyo Tower with Ryan in tow.

This awful, blurry photograph is the best I have to show Mt Fuji in the distance.  The sunset was so vivid that it overwhelmed my little point and shoot.

Tokyo Tower is in a lot of manga (Rayearth, for example) and we only made it to the first observation deck because the second had a 65 minute wait.  We managed to catch the sunset over Fujiyama (no camera does it justice!) and I headed back to the hotel to doodle and relax.

My goal is to fill this Moleskin (note: I was using a Moleskin at this time because I had trouble finding legitimate sketchbooks at Tokyu Hands) before I leave.  There isnt a lot of finished work, mostly sketches with a couple diagrams.  My phone lasts about half the day, so I tweet a lot; as social proactivity is important and Japan interests many of my Twitter followers.  I've been stocking up on supplies while here, but I'm unimpressed with the sketchbooks available.  I've gotten some sketching in while on our many trainrides, but most of my time is spent taking pictures.

(Cut for print)It took awhile, but Tokyo is now just another city.  I didn't expect magic, I'm not sure what I expected.  Maybe a kabuki show, a trek to Fujiyama, a look at a typical office, a chat with an overworked highschool kid.  The patina of American culture reeks of plastic, Western cities come cheap.  The otaku shopping sprees are old, the endless hunts for artbooks unexciting, and constantly being in the way- being an outsider America-jin, is depressing.  While they love having us visit, it's time for us to leave.  We are unwanted, rowdy, ill mannered houseguests, and they're politely hinting that it's getting late.  Get your coat and boots, America-jin.  You've had enough to drink.

We protect ourselves by pretending it doesnt matter.  We are self aware oversized slobs, but in our "Murica", we are the norm.  We are attractive, fit, fun, talented, eloquent, and charming.  Here we pretend we're rendered mute and communicate with patient hosts in halting handspeak and shrugs.  We laugh, but it's all we have here.  Maybe I notice it more, I float along with no plans but to draw and collect stories.  I watch for hidden faces, slips in the basque mask of ever suffering smiles.  I'm not more intelligent, just overly sensitive, as awkward in America as I am in Japan.  I watch for social cues and care too much.

I miss English language novels, English language TV, bread that you can chew, fruit and vegetables and not being oversized.  I miss my life.  Everyone who's been to Japan tells me I'll miss it when I leave, and while I admire the efficency, I hate halting the flow because I just dont understand.   (end cut for print)

Monday, December 5th:

Today we went to the Ghibli Museum.  I'd been waiting for it all trip, and managed to run a fever that morning (note:  I was actually sick for the next four days, little did I know at the time).  Still, I persisted, a bit cranky, since I'll be damned if I iss seeing Hayao Miyazaki's vision brought to life.

While many consider Studio Ghibli to be the Disney of Japan, Ghibli is far less commercial, and the museum is no exception.  Tiny by American standards, it feels homey and welcoming, with lots of wood, stained glass, and a beautiful wrought iron staircase.  The Ghibli Museum doesn't allow pictures inside the building, and it's way too crowded for much sketching but these allow for an air of mystery, like being welcomed into Grandfather's study.  The first exhibit explains animation in Ghibli's usual style-show not tell.  I teared up a bit, thinking about Ghibli movies mean to me, and how they've given me a driving purpose in making comics.  I meandered the museum, slightly woozy from the fever, admiring the concept watercolor illustrations and desperately wishing that I drew that well.  The Ghibli artists know how to SEE the world, every moment, no matter how fantastic, feels real and familiar because the reactions are real.

I've been waiting for the Ghibli gift shop to do my shopping, but I wasn't impressed.  Hayao Miyazaki is fairly anti commerical, so this is a good thing.

I did buy a few souvineers and explored a bit more, going outside to admire the Laputa robot in the garden.  I returned downstairs to wait for the movie, but felt progressively worse, and left with the other grads.  The trainride was pretty difficult, as more people piled on it got hotter until my legs gave out.  Fortunately, I was surrounded by other grads and they saw me to my floor at the hotel, where I conked out.

Tuesday, December 6th:

Today we visited Takeshi Miyazawa.  I've got a fair amount of notes on him, so I won't rehash that here.  I was able to record it all for either SEQAlab or my blog, so that was also cool.  Afterwards we went to Itoya, the retail store of the stationary brand.  There wasn't a whole lot of unique product, but I picked up more Copics and watercolors.  We ate lunch at the tiny cafe on the top floor, and returned to the hotel.  I wrote an email to a lady mangaka to see if she'd be willing to meet with us, so we'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, December 7th:

Was so sick that Ray sent me back to try and recover.  No pictures/art today.

Thursday, December 8th:

Today we went to the Science and History Museum in Ueno Park.  It's a really nice museum with lots of hands on exhibits and animals taxidermied with varying degrees of success.  I did a decent amount of sketching, though not enough to make up for the past few days.

Little kids in Japan are really cute, both aesthetically and behavorially.  Compared to their restrained caregivers, they're inquisitive, playful, and energetic.  It's a fairly harsh contrast and makes their open natures stand out far more than similar American kids.

I feel like I may be starting to recover, although today was a big push effort-wise.  After the museum, Heidi and I went to Nakano Broadway ostensibly for me to buy luggage.  Luggage was not to be had, so we took the JR to Shinjuku and went to Tokyu Hands, then on to Kinokuniya, where I found a kid's book illustrated by my favorite mangaka- Naoki Urasawa.  Unless you know Japanese, buying books is a bit of a crapshoot, as they are all wrapped and you'll only find a sample book occasionally.  So far, I've been super lucky, so lucky that I had to buy a suitcase for all my books.

Friday, December 9th:

Today we visited the gravesite of the 47 Ronin.  It's an extremely well maintained gravesite, and several people left incense, although I did not.  We were set free after, and Heidi's dream this entire trip has been to patronize a cat cafe.  We found one in a shady area of Shinjuku, nearish the station, and Heidi went to town.  I took a more laid back approach, and waited for the cats to come to me.  I had varying degrees of success.  There were a lot of breeds I'd never seen in person, including a Bombay, a Chartruese, an Absyinnian, and an Ocicat.  It was 1,000 yen for one hour including a free drink, and it was worth it to get off my feet and relax in a warm room.  The cats were standoffish, but that's cats for you.

Heidi and I explored Shinjuku for a lateish dinner.  We ate at another sushi-go-round and played the arcade version of Taiko Drum Master (I have a US home set).  I'd forgotten how fun it is, I need to buy another drum so that I can share the magic of two player mode.

We leave tomorrow.  I'm worried about getting my luggage TO the airport, and I really look forward to getting home.

NOTE:  I have a lot of materials to scan (ticket stubs, maps, guides, ect) that I will probably include in my class sketchbook and MoCCA sketchbooks, but I will not include here.  I will probably edit this entry in the near future, as I've done some sketches to help clear some things up (as denoted in the text).


  1. What stood out to me most here, having just been to Disney World, is Disney Sea. From the photos you provided it looks even (dare I say much) more immaculately maintained and contrived than its American counterpart. I realize that gives it a certain degree of fakeness, but I noticed parts of Disney World where the plaster was starting to flake, the trash littered the streets, areas of the park hadn't been updated in at least 20 years, and that rides had become, in general, a way to get you to move from one giftshop to the next. I suppose both have their pros and cons, but I think comparing the two is interesting.

    Disney aside, thanks for all the cultural pictures/sketches and the little tidbits of information. (Like the bit about trees in Japan being curvy. Cool!)

  2. C: This post made me so happy. I'd been looking forward to it since you got back!

  3. I *really* enjoyed this post. It's interesting to see for the culture, and hearing your personal experiences as someone who has previously been interested but isn't quite to the crazy fan level.

    I spent 2 weeks in Turkey and by the end I had similar feelings to yours - not so much wanting to be home, but feeling very much out of place and beginning to catch the glances of the locals basically putting up with us. That's with knowing a good deal of the language, too!

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing your post and pictures! Looked like a lot of fun! Sorry to hear you were sick part of it. :( It was still a good experience that I'm sure you'll remember. :)

    Loved seeing all the sketches and photos you took, I find it interesting about the Disney Sea. Doesn't seem as popular as I thought it would have been. Interested in seeing how they used anime influences on Ariel and Jasmine.

    Huh, yeah when I went to Taiwan I didn't stand out too much physically (I'm Chinese American) but only when I spoke English is when people started to stare. I can only imagine how hard it would be to be stared at, especially with a camera in your face. lol

  5. @Ceiling Cow I plan on posting a lot more reference-useful pictures up on my Flickr in the upcoming months. I've actually decided to take advantage of every trip I take, and get as much reference to share as possible.

  6. @Raine I just wish it could be better! I have videos that need editing that I look forward to sharing with youse guys.

  7. @Gwynne Platz I would love to visit Turkey! I've been reading the Guy Delisle travelogues and living vicariously through his adventures.

  8. @Aisazia At first it didn't bug me at all, when you stand out that much, you're forgiven a lot of social faux pas, but after awhile it got kinda creepy, especially with the middle aged men. The guys my age wouldn't give me a second glance, in fact, they went out of their way to avoid looking at me, but the business men were really blatant.

  9. @Nattosoup Hah! Too bad it wasn't the ones your age interested. XD Hm, no one in your group noticed or cared? I would probably move away or something hoping he would take a hint. lol Glad you were ok and nothing happened though.


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