Born and raised in the UK, I fell in love with Japan towards the end of the eighties and discovered a culture that was to change my life forever. My first contact with Japanese culture was through anime (specifically Macross) and games (specifically Strider for the Mega Drive).
I started to self study Japanese and as I was doing so discovered that Japan was not just about anime and games but was also a rich culture that had so much to explore and learn. I saved up enough money through my part time jobs which enabled me to visit Japan every year in the Summer to absorb the culture - each visit just fueled me with more passion and focus to fulfill my goal at the time which was to live and work in Japan.
I managed to dig up some photos during my last visit back to the UK at my mums place and thought I would share them with you and reflect how some of the past relates to what I've been doing in the 15 years that I've been living in Japan. These photos are taken during my visits to Japan which started in 1993.
I remember my first trip to Japan distinctly. On the train heading into Tokyo I pressed my hands and face against the window as I saw city views come into view. It was so exciting to see Japan with my own eyes - it was just like what I saw in anime, manga and dorama.
It was as if I landed right in the middle of Blade Runner. Neon signs everywhere, electric doors, taxi doors that opened on their own and toilets that would shoot you with a jet of water.
For the first time I could hear Japanese everywhere and not just repeats through the games, anime or music that I listed to back in the UK. I already didn't want to go back to London. While I did try to enjoy as much of my time in Japan, I inevitably spent some time contemplating the day that I would have to leave.
I would always say to my Japanese friends that they were so lucky to live in Japan ^^
First photo - at the Shibuya Hachiko crossing. This is what it looks like today but even without all the huge screens that show videos and commercials, the atmosphere back then was special too and I spent a lot of time sitting here thinking about the future - a future in Japan.
Just over 10 years later, I would be dressed up in a Stormtrooper outfit trying to shake some booty around the crossing - this is the most recent video though ^^
And this is where I would sit outside Shibuya Station - there was a ledge that people could sit on right outside the entrance - its not there today though. I would sit and watch this incredible city for hours on end.
I wanted to take some of Japan back to the UK with me and some how preserve the time I spent here so that I could re-live it.
Video cameras at the time were the size of rocket launchers and cost a bomb too. I got myself a Mini Disc recorder which I used to record the sounds of Shibuya and capture all the hustle and bustle of the crossing which included conversations of folks standing nearby waiting for friends.
Still in Shibuya - this is the South Bus Terminal which still looks pretty much the same today. Little did I know back then that I would be working here in Shibuya doing stuff with something called "The Internet" - a matrix that connected people around the world who had a need to buy stuff "online" - I was to run web development as Website Manager at Amazon Japan - the headquarters were a stones throw away from this spot at Shibuya Cross Tower.
Now we travel along the Yamanote line to the next stop which is Harajuku.
Harajuku has always been the center of street fashion in Tokyo. As with 20 years ago, today you will find a large population of young ladies here looking for fashionable apparel and accessories.
You can keep yourself in the loop with the latest in Harajuku fashion by following the Twitter account @tokyofashion.
This was one of the reasons why I spent a lot of time in Harajuku - to get hold of Nama Shashin . The direct translation would be something like "live photos" but in the Idol world it specifically means photos of Idols. If you take a look on the walls you may be able to make out photos of SMAP but I was here to get photos of my fave Idol groups and singers like Nishida Hikaru, CoCo and Ribbon.
Pachinko is mesmerizing to watch - not the actual game but of people playing it. Its like something you would see in a sci-fi movie. As there is only a knob to turn, most people sit motionless in front of these machines where ball bearings are hurled up the board and trickle down.
These days most pachinko machines have display's inside them which keep the player entertained with short animated clips.
They dont usually let you take photos inside the Pachinko parlors if you ask though. That's *if* you ask...
Shinjuku 20 years ago. Most of the shops have changed including Sakuraya which I used to love shopping at for electronic goodies.
For the major electronic stores like Yodobashi, Bic Camera and Yamada Denki, if you take along your passport to prove that you are just visiting then you are usually exempt from paying local consumption tax which is currently 8%.
Also, make sure to make a point card when buying stuff as for most items you get back 10% of what you paid for. So if you buy a camera for 100000 yen then you get 10000 yen in points that you can use for your next purchase.
August 1994 was when Street Fighter the anime hit the big screens. While I could speak conversational level Japanese at the time, I remember the movie being filled with a load of difficult dialog ><
While I still can play Street Fighter, I prefer the King Of Fighters series more as I feel that the Street Fighter 3D character renders lost its Japanese look and feel of late.
The skyscraper area in Shinjuku. Not much change here over the years. The loan folks Acom branding remains exactly the same.
Just over 10 years after this photo was taken, I joined Microsoft Japan as a Product Manager managing some of their online services - their offices are located just around the corner from where this photo was taken.
Photo taken at the Genbaku Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome - its the only building that stands in after the first ever atomic bomb was dropped in the area on August 6 1945.
I made my own T-shirts at the time just like this one of Hikaru. All I did was to take a magazine clipping to a local photocopy shop where they would print it on a Tee for me.
Together with my friend at Hiroshima station as his brother is about to board the Shinkansen bullet train. Back then I took a night bus which departed from Tokyo station in the evening and arrived at Hiroshima 12 hours later in the morning.
Night busses are called "Yakou Bus" 夜行バス] in Japanese. The word "bus" is used but they are more like coaches.
This was the first time I fell - I can still feel the pain and still have the scars ><
The other time I fell was quite recently actually and was when a stalker turned up at the doorstep of my house - I get quite a few... ToT
The stalker in question showed up with a huge rucksack. I knew where this was going so promptly put on my rollerblades and headed back to the station with him but he asked "shall I leave my bag here" - I was like "WUT?!"
I guessed correctly that he expected me to give him not only a job but lodging too...
He started to talk about dreams with angels and rays of light and how I called out to him. I explained why I could not hire him and left him at the station but as I turned around to head back home I tripped and fell - or rather one of those angels pushed me over for leaving him there...
The bottle holder on my belt was something I made to keep cold drinks in - I wanted to hang them off my belt but didn't want my trousers to get all wet from the condensation or people would have got the wrong idea.
It was made of suede on the outside with lamb hide on the inside and had a logo for Mamono Yoko Hunter who I discovered through the Mega Drive game.
At that time, I met most of my Japanese friends at the language exchange club that I attended back in the UK. The chap next to me is somebody I met while waiting in line for a Nishida Hikaru concert. I just reached out to speak to him and we became good friends ever since. It was easy to reach out as we already had a common interest - we both were fans of Hikaru.
Meeting new folks is important in life - some bring friendship and support while others bring new opportunities. Whenever you have the chance to reach out to folks, be brave and make the first move - the worst thing that could happen is that you get ignored while the best thing that could happen is that you find a friend for life.
Back then, Super Famicom and Mega Drive cartridge based systems where still popular and the Playstation 1 just came out in 1994. Even today I still listen to the PS1 title Ridge Racer R4 music while driving the Mirai-mobile.
As mentioned earlier on, the Sega Mega Drive (pictured in the left of the photo) by was one of the reasons why I discovered Japanese culture. 20 years on, I was to work with Sega on 2 projects - The Mikunopolis concert and the Sega Sammy anime Twin Angel website.
Back then in Akihabara, many of the shops sold games that we now call "Retro Games" - now there is major 1 shop that sells those same retro games and that shop is called Super Potato.
20 years later I was to do a special feature on retro games at Super Potato on my morning Japanese TV show called "Check Time" which was broadcast on Tokyo MX TV.
While I do enjoy modern games, most of my play time is of retro games. Am currently replaying Metal Gear Solid for the PS1 and have been playing a load of Metal Slug too.
Kinda ironic that I'm playing retro games on a new generation console - but there are only a few games which I enjoy that are made for the Vita which include Gravity Daze and Dragons Crown.
This is what eroge looked like 20 years ago! I've always loved 2D Japanese girlies and was fascinated as to how cute the Japanese made them look. My first love was Minmay from the original Macross series although I was torn between her and Misa ^o^
Apart from the original Macross movie, other anime titles that I enjoyed at that time was Ghost in the Shell, Project A-KO, Fist of the North Star, Dangaioh, Lupin, Ranma 1/2 and all the other Ghibli titles in that era.
This is what the UDX building area in Akihabara looked like 20 years ago. There used to be a huge car park where in the evenings young folks would gather to indulge in some basketball and skateboarding. The Konami neon sign would then light up when it became dark.
Today this area is filled with modern buildings, the AKB48 and Gundam cafe. They also hold the annual Maid Uchimizu event right in this very spot.
Looking back, I realized that most of my fave game titles are by Konami which include Axelay (SFC), Castlevania (SFC), Contra Spirits (SFC) and Metal Gear Solid (PS1). While recently replaying MGS, I realized just how much Japanese I learned from that particular game as there was plenty of dialog.
In 2011, I started to consult for Konami and built them a website for one of their game titles called Love Plus.
I told them that I would make the website for free if they could put Mirai as a cameo in either Love Plus or Metal Gear Solid - they said that they would think about it.
They got back to me after asking the Love Plus team and Kojima-san and said that they would rather pay for my work instead ^^;;
But remember - its always worth asking as you never know until you do! For example I asked comrades at Sega if they could cameo Mirai in Twin Angel - they said yes and she appeared in one episode.
I also asked comrades at King Records if Mirai could cameo in Mayo Chiki and she ended up in 4 episodes ^o^
Photos of Akihabara from 1993 - 1995. Not a single anime billboard in sight unlike Akihabara today. There are no figures or dolls either. They may have had some Gundam kits but I wasn't interested in them at the time.
By the way - my T-shirt (bottom right corner) says "Any 2 T-shirts for 1500 yen" - It wasn't for sale and was just used to advertise the real T-shirts on sale. When I saw it in Harajuku I just had to have it and begged the stall owner to sell it to me ^^;
Tokyo Disneyland 20 years ago - have not had the opportunity to go back since ><
Although after I left Microsoft back in 2007 to start Mirai Inc, I consulted for Disney Online and frequently spent time at their headquarters in Meguro. They offered me a full time position with their online team which I was interested in but they told me I had to get rid of the idol website that I was running at the time. I declined ^^
I think this was the last time I rode on a roller coaster as they leave me dizzy ><
This was the Shuttle Loop also at Toshimaen.
I lost contact with my comrades sitting at the front but managed to get in contact with them after 20 years - one of them found me on Facebook after she saw me on the TBS TV show "Ima Kono Kao ga Sugoi."
Living in the UK at the time, I was used to unreliable train times and the occasional "No service today. Please seek alternative methods of travel" signs at the entrance of train stations.
Then I visited Japan and was amazed at how one could set their watch by the train times because they were so spot on. 20 years later and they are still spot on time - only when somebody chooses not to jump ><
Check out some of the Japan Rail commercials back in 1994.
Tokyo has a great view from above which you would normally only get to see if you visit observation decks such as Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo City View at Roppongi or stayed on one of the high floors in a hotel.
If you want to avoid the queues however, you can always try the shady method which is to look for emergency stairs by the side of a building - then you can get up onto the roof with a view just like you see in Japanese drama and anime.
Beware that most (not all) of these buildings will have "do not trespass signs" but would you be trespassing if you was looking for Tanaka-san?
Anyway, the only reason I'm sharing this info with you is because you would take a load of photos of Japan's citiscape and share it with comrades to show them how cool Japan is so that they will want to visit too ^^
And this is what my typical loot looked like back then - filled with useful Japanese learning material as you can see ^^;
The photo books of my fave idols were called Shashinshu ] and were really popular back then - not so much these days as you can now download your fix in jpegs ><
The CD’s were of my fave idols which were mainly Ribbon and Nishida HIkaru. The manga you see here and there are Sailor Moon and Ah Megami Sama. The games in the photo are Street Fighter for the Super Famicom, Streets of Rage for the Megadrive, Gradius II and Valis for the PC Engine.
The photos of Hikaru in her bikini were those Nama Shashin that I was talking about earlier on that I got from Harajuku.
Did you take a photo of your first ever Japan loot? If so show us!
Strapped for cash? No need to eat out all the time as the convenience stores have a load of good food too! This is my Summer fave - soumen noodles.
There are many grocery stores or supermarkets that sell freshly made side dishes. If you want to go cheaper then head to the supermarkets late evening where you will see discounted food items which they need to sell otherwise they end up throwing it away.
Anyway, everything else on the tatami is what I would typically carry around with me at the time - no Internets and no mobile phones for the masses back then either. Japan used something called Pocket Bell to communicate with each other which is basically a pager.
As you can see, I got to take a load of photos with Hikaru ^^
Meeting Hikaru was also another one of my dreams. While in Tokyo one year, I waited for Hikaru at the backstage entrance of Kousei Nenkin Hall in Shinjuku and managed to pass her some presents of Marilyn Monroe that she liked.
That night, I got a bunch of flowers and waited outside the hall for her concert to finish. I had rollerblades on and the plan was to chase after her car and catch her at a traffic light to hand her the flowers.
However, the guards at the hall didn't like the look of me and just before her car came out, 7 or so of them rushed and pinned me to the ground until her car was out of site.
After Hikaru's car was off and away, the guards left me in the middle of the road. I got up dizzy after being hit and kicked. The flowers still looked decent so I nabbed them and skated in the direction of Hikaru's car as fast as I could. Fate was on my side and her car was stuck at some traffic lights. She winded down the window with a sorry look and accepted my flowers. I don't think it was her decision to set the guards on me - or at least that's what I like to think ^^;
I tried the same thing the following year at the same time same place but this time I hid well out of sight. Unfortunately this time round fate was not on my side and the traffic lights were greener than green - I remember chasing her car on my roller blades through Shinjuku in the middle of the road with this bunch of flowers until my lungs started to burst - my asthma got the better of me.
I retreated to sit in front of a pachinko parlor crying my eyes out until a lady came up to me and asked if I was alright. I said I was fine and offered her the flowers - this was the photo I took at the time.
Photos of some of the places I stayed at and perfect examples of how you should not make a mess!
Here is a checklist of that you should not do if staying with a Japanese friend or family.
To summarise - be frugal with your host family's time and money. You are staying for free so be considerate.
Here I'm holding a yellow plastic bag from Kinokuniya bookstore. 20 years later my mascot character Mirai Suenaga (I'll speak about her later) became a mascot for Kinokuniya and her illustration is currently used on their Malaysian and Singaporean store membership cards.
This photo is taken in a Shotengai - we didn't have them back in the UK. A Shotengai ] is a street which has a concentration of shops and restaurants which are usually located near a train station and typically contains supermarkets, hairdressers, pharmacies and all the other usual daily stuff.
Shotengai is also a great place to experience a slice of Japanese life. Check out the Shotengai photo post or the video below of my local one called Musashikoyama Palm.
The worst part about going to Japan was having to leave and go back to London ;-;
I knew I couldn't be in Japan for another year until I saved up enough moolah through my part time gigs but listening to the sounds of Shibuya was so motivating and I would always play it in the background while I continued to self study Japanese.
Learning more Japanese would mean that I would be able to communicate better the next time I went. It would also mean that I would be able to absorb more of the culture too.
Pictured here is my first workspace - an old speaker with a bit of junk glass on top.
By this time in life, I had been to Japan a couple of times. Living and working in Japan wasn't only a dream - but a dream that I just had to make into a reality. The poster on the wall is of a sunset over Shinjuku which I would look at and say to myself repeatedly everyday:-
"I must make it to Japan"
"I must make it to Japan"
"I will make it to Japan"
Back then, Japanese learning material wasn't particularly fun but I did manage to use various techniques to learn Japanese which I outlined in the Discovering Japan post.
In 2012, I released a product called Moekana which was my attempt to make Japanese language learning more fun starting with Hiragana - the collaboration with Good Smile Company seemed to do well leading to a recently released Second Edition and a follow up product called Moekanji which teaches Kanji.
One of my part time gigs was at a Japanese restaurant called Benihana where I served as a waiter.
I continued to work part time at Benihana after I started a BA at London University although it did feel like full time work - worked from Monday through Friday and on many weekends too. Hours were from about 5pm through midnight at times. Still had to find time to do homework and study so would often do so during the staff meals where I also got to speak Japanese to other members of staff.
Benihana was also where I met my wife - she was working there as a waitress too. If it wasn't for my interest in Japanese culture, I probably would not have taken a job in a Japanese restaurant and probably would not have met her.
Before she went to London, she studied and graduated in Tokyo so her Japanese was pretty fluent. When we first met we spoke Japanese as her English wasn't so great at the time. Today we still speak a mix of Japanese and English but switch to Chinese, Shanghainese or Cantonese depending on who is around us ^^
During my later years studying at SOAS, I quit Benihana and got a part time job at another restaurant near Oxford street called Ikeda. I only worked there for a few months before moving on but had memorable times - such as the one where the boss screamed at us saying that she would deduct the cost of a plate if we didn't handle them properly.
I also remember that we had to scoff down staff dinner in 5 minutes flat before opening time. Seriously though, restaurant work is a great way to prepare oneself for society. It can be hard stressful work with more politics than you can imagine. There is also however a lot of fun to be had at the same time and is a place where you can meet new people.
These days after I eat at a restaurant, I usually wipe the table and stack up the dishes for the waiter/waitress as I know exactly what it's like to serve in the halls.
After Ikeda, I managed to get a part time job at Japan Airlines. One of my teachers at SOAS was handing out leaflets at the end of a lesson - the leaflets were from Japan Airlines who were looking for students that had a good command of Japanese and English to guide Japanese passengers around Heathrow Airport.
I went along to the interview and got the job. As I was still at university at the time, I would often wear my uniform to class and then head to Heathrow straight after. Kinda liked the suit as I didn't have to think about what to wear for the day.
I learned so much from the experience and met many Japanese folks who I would chat to while leading them from one terminal to the next. They would use new words that I looked up in the electronic dictionary that I stuck to my clipboard.
This was my room back in the UK before I started to visit Japan. I was lucky that there were 2 bookshops in London where I could get hold of Japanese stuff.
The influence of Japanese games, manga and anime inspired me to start drawing my own characters some of which you can see here on the wall together with one of my waifu's at the time - Lum-chan.
The continued influence lead to me designing a character in 2007 who I named Mirai Suenaga - a 17 year old high school girl by day and Solar Marine by night. Her name means Eternal Future.
Within a few years of her conception, Mirai went on to collaborate with many Japanese companies in the pop culture industry including Good Smile Company, Kotobukiya, Bushiroad, Kadokawa, King Records, Nitroplus, Yuzu Soft and more.
Mirai grew a fanbase worldwide which lead to her becoming an official mascot for Japanese tourism in 2013.
Also in 2013, Japanese screenwriter Sato Dai (Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell SAC, Eden of the East, Samurai Champloo and more) completed the scenario for Mirai's original story "Mirai Millennium" which I still need to get round to releasing ><
The Mirai page lists what she has been up to of late.
I created Mirai when I was still at Microsoft but had no idea at the time that she was to become our All Spark. In June 2014, I developed and launched a product called Smart Doll - a 60cm tall fashion doll modeled after Mirai who comes with a vision to become the world's standard fashion doll.
The demand for Smart Doll completely exceeded my expectations and we finally had enough cashflow to move into a proper office and out of our home which I worked out of for 7 years. I could have got to this point quicker by taking investment but chose to continue bootstrapping with my own funds.
This is our HQ located in Gotanda Tokyo. Everything we do here revolves around Mirai Suenaga and the other Mirai Millennium characters. We largely do 3 things which are:-
1. Smart Doll development and production - all body components are made in Japan and we do quality control and assembly right here.
2. Character development and marketing. This includes apparel, merchandise, events and collaborations - recently ones include being a mascot for Malaysia Tourism and Indonesia's largest online store Bhinneka.
As part of the content development, we also have a TV show called Culture Japan which is broadcast on Tokyo MX TV in Japan and on cable/terrestrial networks around the world.
My main focus right now is expanding the production line of Smart Doll which involves a loaaaaaad of challenges ><
And this is me in Tokyo today still using the same technique that I used 20 years ago to get nice views of the Tokyo metropolis - just remember if anybody asks what you are doing up there then say you are looking for Tanaka-san ^^
Discovering Japanese culture changed my life but what changed my life even further were my first visits to Japan which made me realize what I wanted to do in life - to live and work in Japan.
With this goal in mind, I devoted pretty much all of my time to learn Japanese through constantly consuming Japanese content - the games, anime, manga, dorama and tradition. I had no idea how I was going to get to Japan but I knew that learning the lingo was the first step.
Self studying Japanese brought me to a level which was good enough to hop into the second year of a BA at London University SOAS.
Without attending SOAS I would not have got the part time job at Japan Airlines.
Without that part time job at Japan Airlines they would not have offered me a full time job as a Computer Engineer when I graduated.
Without that Job at Japan Airlines I would not have had the opportunity to learn HTML and Design.
Without my HTML and Design knowledge I would not have got that Job at Nature and without that job at Nature, I would not have got that one way ticket to Japan. The rest is written up in the How Discovering Japan Changed My Life post.
There are 3 reasons that I commonly hear as to why folks who want to go to Japan have not made the trip which are:-
"I'm strapped for cash"
How about take up a part time job like I did? I know many folks look down upon restaurant work but it did wonders for me.
"I don't think I'll be able to get around with only English"
Japan is not exactly an English speaking society but then again if the parents of my German friend aged 65 who spoke little English and no Japanese could get around then I'm sure you could too.
If you are completely at a loss and didn't download the Japanese dictionary pack for the Google Translate app then English words pronounced in Katakata works more often than not too ^^;
Towel = Taoru
Hotel = Hoteru
Taxi = Takushi
And if you don't know how to pronounce in Katakana then you need Moekana ^o^
"Friends or family will think I'm odd for wanting to visit Japan"
Folks who don't really know anything about Japan think that its full of tentacle pron.
But does it matter what they think? Your answer is dependent on whether you choose to live the life of others or not.
Japan is waiting for you - and if I'm around in the office then I'm waiting for you to pop by too!
This photo taken during an open house that we had at the office with folks around the world - some visiting - some who are studying or working here.
Keep an eye on my Twitter as I usually announce open house dates there.
Anyway, enough about my first visit to Japan, how about those of you who have been before? How was it? Loved it? Hated it? How many times have you been?
I know some folks who love anime culture but didn't really like traditional culture or anything about their Japan experience. Perhaps there was something that got on your nut over here or left you with a bitter experience?
I also know some of you constantly choose to visit Japan year after year like I did. What is it about Japan that you love?