Plus Alpha: 24 hours in Japan

Plus Alpha is a weekly column that explores life in Japan from the perspective of American expatriate and game-industry veteran Jarik Sikat. Having worked in numerous areas of the game industry since 1994, Sikat relocated to Japan in 2010.

Think fast: If you had 24 hours in Japan, what do you do?

It’s finally 2012 and I’ve been in Japan for one full calendar year. Although I arrived here in the spring of 2010, making it from one New Year’s to the next feels like a milestone to me. Reflecting on the past 12 months, I’ve noticed a change that has subtly been taking place.

To better explain this, we have to go all the way back to 1996, and my very first visit to Japan. Back then, I worked for a small Japanese-owned publisher with offices just outside of Chicago. At the time, they had just nine employees, with only me assigned to development. Twice a year, they would send me to Tokyo.

On that first trip, taking the first few steps out of Shibuya station was like time-traveling into the future. Everything, from the bright neon lights, jumbo screens and oddly-dressed girls to the videogame music (from a game that I had worked on) blaring from public speakers, was new, bizarre and overwhelming – exactly like you’d expect.

It could have been the jetlag, the sheer excitement of a dream come true, the overstimulation of the senses or the disorienting feeling of drowning in an endless tide of people who (at the time) all looked the same, or a combination of all of the above, but I could hardly breathe – or wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face.

Before each trip, you’d find me poring over guidebooks, magazines and websites with a certain fervor planning out exactly what I’d be doing with each moment of free time. Maps and train routes in hand, I’d head for places like Nakano Broadway, a haven for otaku culture, or to a restaurant frequented by my favorite “manga ka” (a manga artist or creator) on the off-chance she’d be spotted. I’d get there, no matter the distance, time or cost.

Let’s fast-forward to 2011.

Early that year, I realized my dream of snowboarding in Nagano, former host city to the ‘98 Winter Olympics (no relation to Nakano Broadway in Tokyo), yet somewhere between learning about radiation exposure and the difference between millisieverts and becquerels, cramming for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), getting married and yearning for day-to-day life to resemble some normalcy. That’s exactly what happened.

It’s been nearly two years since I was last in the US. Some of the things that were so mind-blowing and fascinating about Japan are starting to feel commonplace, and I’m having a serious love-hate relationship with that.

Take for example, the bank of vending machines I pass by each day without a second thought. Posted on one of them is an ad with Tommy Lee Jones (who’s a spokesmodel for BOSS, a popular brand of canned coffee). When family and friends would come to visit, they would stop dead in their tracks to snap a picture, because it was Tommy Lee Jones… pitching coffee! My wife, however, is more impressed that the BOSS coffee guy is going to be in a new movie with Will Smith next summer. Somehow, I feel trapped in the middle.

I still pinch myself to make sure that each day isn’t a dream. The constant grappling with different aspects of the culture and lifestyle still continues, but 2012 should be an interesting year for both gaming and popular culture here. There’s still so much more to see, and a lot more to share.

But let’s say you had 24 hours in Japan. What would you do? What would you want to see? Would you hang out at one of Tokyo’s retro-gaming bars? Visit a “mangakissa” (24-hour manga and internet café)? Go to a concert? Try to conquer Japan’s record-setting roller coasters? What are you curious about? Leave a comment, and if it’s legal, perhaps I’ll check it out for you in an upcoming column.

Jarik Sikat has worked in the videogame industry in areas ranging from localization and product development to public relations and marketing. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine and Newtype USA.