Tokyo is alive with Pokemon Go. Nowhere do the lines of AR and real life seem to blur more than this city of neon lights and endless enthusiasm for Pikachu and co. While the mobile phenomenon is celebrating some of its highest player figures since launch, with thousands of Pokemon trainers still catching ‘em all around the world, it’s wandering the humid dark streets of Tokyo where you see what a way of life Niantic’s portable critter collector has become.
Heading in the direction of a Regirock raid near Tokyo Station, I catch flashes of the mobile screens of passers-by walking in the same direction. Pokemon Go’s green map shines brightly out of the darkness, every glimpse a little moment of home in an alien new city. It’s the night before the Pokemon Go Safari Zone in Yokosuka but the more than fifty silent people gathered at the Raid gym - politely standing away from the middle of the pavement like all good players - aren’t there because Niantic has rolled into town (or because they’re afraid of crippling jetlag). This is a standard night in the Japanese city. Gazing around and jealously wishing it was like this at home in the UK where I try and entice passing cats to do raids, there’s nothing to do but join a party of 14 and hit ‘Battle’.
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The Pokemon Go Safari Zone in Yokosuka is the final event in a summer of success for Niantic. After a victorious Pokemon Go Fest in Chicago as the team finally delivered a perfect event for the city, it was time to take Pokemon home again. From Wednesday 29 August to Sunday 2 September, three parks in the naval city of Yokosuka in Tokyo’s Kanagawa prefecture are filled with Pokemon trainers questing for rare Pokemon, and a serious boost of Stardust. Unlike the recent Dortmund Safari Zone in Germany which was open to all, Yokosuka used a computer selection system to choose a capped number of players for each of the five days to prevent overcrowding. It’s necessary but only unfortunate that clearly so many players have to lose out.
Arriving in Yokosuka train station to the smell of the sea means passing Sucurry, a statue of the city’s seagull mascot proudly offering up a plateful of Yokosuka’s famous Navy Curry. It’s no coincidence then that the Pokemon newly available as a Pokemon Go shiny at the event is Wingull, complete with green striped wings instead of the standard blue. Wingull isn’t the only treat though. Spin one of the three check-in Pokestops, and scan your unique QR code and suddenly the busy park is filled with Tropius, a gen 3 regional ‘mon previously only found in Africa. Clear the huge green beasts out of the way and it turns out the map is also packed with lazy Slakoths, the bowl-headed Ralts, and a slew of new Unowns spelling out the letters for ‘Yokosuka!’.
It’s worth noting that for the majority of players here, few Pokemon are actually new. Two years and three generations in and this is a player base hungry for the much-teased Gen 4. While I catch Tropius with the joyful satisfaction and glee of adding a new critter to my Pokedex, trading means that plenty of players here are already sitting with a full set, and Niantic understands just this. Sure, you might have caught all the Pokemon but do you have all 26 letters of the alphabet and punctuation available as Unowns? Do you have every shiny available? What about Lucky Pokemon? This is no longer about just catching them all. The collectors here are still working hard and there’s plenty to be getting on with, not to mention a drinks vending machine that currently has very real navy-dressed Pikachu figures.
It turns out that this suffering Scot stands out in the humid 34 degree heat as someone who might have rarer regional Pokemon. A man approaches nervously with a greeting of ‘Heracross?’ and I happily agree to hand over the Pokemon for an Unown I don’t already have. We might not share a language but Pokemon Go does all the hard work for us as we trade friend codes, swap gifts, and decide on Pokemon together. Our conversation is largely made up of the words ‘special trade’ and ‘stardust’ but after much smiling and confusion, I get a new friend and the reward of his sheer glee as Heracross arrives in his Pokedex. The joyous moment of a step closer to Pokedex completion doesn’t need Google Translate.
Like the new Pokemon Go Celebi quest, Professor Willow hands over a new set of quests at the Safari Zone. There’s no rare Pokemon at the end here though, although each small mini task does yield some powerful third evolutions that I spilled blood, sweat, and tears to earn in the real world. Here’s another Gardevoir that you didn’t need to walk your feet into a pulp for. Yay? I finish catching in Verny Park before wandering the mile or so to the next one to catch the 10 Beldum required for the quest. There isn’t even any need to look at a real map. The telltale lures of a well-worn Poke-route along Shenmue’s Dobuita Street and the swarms of people in Pikachu hats effortlessly indicate the way. Yokosuka is embracing the festival too as shops hand out more cardboard headgear and Pokemon Go fans to commemorate the event. I greatly appreciate the latter.
There are gentler celebrations of the game here too. While Chicago’s Pokemon Go Fest had physical representations of the various loading screens for selfie opportunities, Yokosuka still needs to function as a city so exclusive Safari Zone Poke Stops do the trick. As I spin it Memory Lane: New Years 2017 is a sudden burst of nostalgia with Picchu and co watching some fireworks. For those who play Pokemon Go every day, it’s a lovely touch that further proves the multitude of ways that Niantic understands its fanbase. It might only be two years old but Pokemon Go is already making memories and is far from fading into obscurity.
The updates haven’t arrived fast but the slow and steady drip of new Pokemon Go features makes events like this soar like a Wingull on a strong breeze. People are wandering with their must-have regional Pokemon slung on hand-drawn signs around their necks. Players pore over Unowns. There is occasionally the (quiet) celebration of a shiny discovery. Every addition to the game means that there’s a multitude of ways to play Pokemon Go as players of all ages tap and swipe away under the bright sun.
Excitingly, this feels like only the beginning of the events to come. It might be on a smaller scale compared to the volcanoes and ‘real’ snow of Chicago’s Go Fest but sitting in the shade of the Mikasa Battleship and watching the peaceful parade of players wandering through the beautiful Mikasa Park, it’s easy to see the rhythm that these events can take in future. As Niantic gets more confident creating experiences like this one, community days will only be the beginning of global region specific events. With reliable cellular coverage or Wi-Fi, Pokemon Go players can meet up to play and experience the game exactly as it’s meant to be played; together and celebrating the outdoors. And, yes, that includes from here in the shade too.