Trains, tanks, tiki bars, military reenactors, and anime, it was just another typical vacation in Japan. Some may take six days as time to do a little this or that, personally I take it as a challenge to see how much I can enjoy in just a few days with never an idle moment.
The trip was built around going to Uji and spending the weekend with a group of Japanese who reenact the U.S. Army in World War II. B Company, 100th Infantry Battalion / 442nd Regimental Combat Team Reenactment Group is dedicated to reenacting and honoring the real-life Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion. The 100th was known as the Purple Heart Battalion and the 442nd overall is still the most decorated unit in U.S. Army history.
Originally we’d planned to attend a three-day event in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, but that was pushed back so they converted it to a training weekend in Uji. I’d already bought a ticket to Haneda, so adjusted my plans to include a shinkansen to Kyoto instead of Karuizawa, which takes the same amount of time to get to. I flew up on Thursday and would return home Tuesday, so as to give myself a day in Tokyo for museum visits before returning to Sasebo.
The change in schedule left me with an extra day to play with in Kyoto and since Kyoto-bound trains leave every ten minutes until late evening, I now also had some time in Tokyo between before taking the train down.
The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Public Information Center or ‘Rikkunland,’ is like a museum but only sports current JGSDF military hardware.
I’d never had a chance to go and since my wife didn’t come up with me this was the perfect opportunity to see it. (She’s not really into tanks. Or reenactment. Or anime. She’s kind of normal in that regard.) I was excited to see the three kinds of tanks JGSDF uses up close as well as their other fighting vehicles. Japan doesn’t export tanks so they can’t be found at tank museums outside of the country.
Beside the armor collection, Rikkunland also displays uniforms, rations and other bits of military equipment plus a display case of scale plastic models. The Godzilla, mortal enemy of the JGSDF and reason for its creation, in the case was a nice touch.
For those with children, Rikkunland was built with future JGSDF recruits in mind so its geared toward them as well with displays and interactive stations for them to enjoy. Most of the location is dual language, English and Japanese.
For dinner I stopped off at the best restaurant and tiki bar in the world, Trader Vic’s Tokyo, in the New Otani Hotel. Trader Vic’s was the second great tiki bar of the 1930s and proliferated all over the world before falling into decline, though lately a few new ones have opened. This Trader Vic’s is an original classic from the 1960s with wall-to-wall tapa cloth, Polynesian and Far Eastern artifacts and the best food and drinks to be found anywhere. The quality of food here is impossible to properly describe besides the use of the word ‘perfect,’ repeatedly. I got what I paid for, and I paid quite a bit, but it was worth every yen of it.
First time visitors must order a standard Mai Tai. Unless you’ve been to a Trader Vic’s or a handful of other good tiki bars, you’ve never had a real Mai Tai in your life. Properly, it’s a blend of aged rums, orange liqueur, lime juice, sugar syrup and orgeat. Not too sweet and a little tart, a perfect cocktail if there ever was one. After having a Mai Tai feel free to move on to the rest of the copious drink menu. There’s also a secret drink that’s not on the menu, but you have to be observant to know what to ask for.
After a train ride to Kyoto the next order of business was Kyoto Railway Museum.
The museum just celebrated its first anniversary, but it’s actually the fusion of two defunct museums, which explains its collection of 53 beautifully maintained trains covering more than a century of technological progress. Just in case that
wasn’t enough, they have the former Nijo Station, built in 1904 in the style of a traditional Japanese mansion, and still uses the oldest reinforced concrete train shed and roundhouse in Japan to house their steam locomotives. (Many of which also still work.)
I spent hours walking through the collection and especially enjoyed the steam locomotives. The museum is beside the active tracks leading to Kyoto Station, so I was treated to scenes of steam locomotives running past shinkansen several times over. One steam engine in particular spends the day being backed down the track then racing quickly back to the museum repeatedly, giving guests the chance to see and hear it the way it was meant to be observed- in action, not on display.
Riding a 103-year old steam locomotive, which is also an important cultural asset, was a novelty, but it moved so slowly down a side track between the park and main lines there really wasn’t much to write home about other than to say I did it for a few hundred yen.
I finished out the day with a visit to the Fushimi Inari Taisha. This is the head Inari shrine (the ones with vermillion torii gates) that was founded in 711 AD. It’s like other large
colorful shrines except for its torii gate obsession. It possesses the famous thousand torii gates that are often used in Japan travel advertisements, but those never show where the gates lead. The torii gates aren’t just one passage, but lead up a mountain where I got an unobstructed view of Kyoto at sunset from this high vantage point. There were other breaks in the torii tunnel on the way up, usually for smaller shrines with miniature torii gates heaped on them and an assortment of odd-sized gates.
In retrospect, hiking before going out in the hilly countryside of Uji for a reenactment probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was worth it for the view and to see the shrine light up after dark when I descended from the top.
Random fun aside, the next day brought the heart of the trip- reenacting in Uji. I have never reenacted before, but came across this group while researching a World War II uniform I was building for giving presentations. They were kind enough to let me write about them and join in an event.
The reenactors I met try their best do this right, not just for themselves, but for the men they’re representing. Their equipment is either original or quality reproduction and the details of our camp where spot on, they even had a working field telephone for headquarters-to-foxhole communication. The tactics they use in moving and fighting are those of the U.S. Army in World War II.
On the surface it may sound like camping in the woods with uniforms and fake guns, but it’s not.
The foxholes weren’t pre-dug, our infantry squad had to move to the top of a hill, secure the area and dig their own in the hard-packed earth. For extra incentive, this training was held in cooperation with a group of German Wehrmacht reenactors who were doing the same thing on the other side of the hill and were gracious enough to let us assault their position (Totsugeki!) at dawn. Which is at 0430. A 0430 that came after a day of foxhole-digging, night scouting and resting in the dirt for our troops.
It’s kind of miserable and at times tedious, but that’s the point. Most of the group is civilian, but three are members of JGSDF and another is JMSDF. According to Taichi
Nakanishi, a JGSDF Ranger and group founder, they’re trying share a more accurate depiction of military field life than is found in TV or movies. It’s not all explosions and hero moments, its waiting, mind-numbing work, eating neko-can (because it looks like cat food), and even when the fun part comes- the assault, it’s at a time normal people are asleep.
They learn about this and also the history behind it. Part of the reason they choose to reenact World War II, and the U.S. Army at that, is because it’s accessible. Nakanishi thinks modern Japanese can relate better to Japanese-Americans than to their ancestors who lived through those times. Japanese today are simply more Americanized. They also learn about the Japanese-Americans who helped fund rebuilding Japan after World War II.
Still, it is a bit of working being out here and Nakanishi pointed out he’d soon be back at work, doing the same thing but in his proper uniform. When asked why he does it, he said it was the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest. “Because it’s there.”
What we did was not a public event, but private training, performed so that when they do go to actual events they can perform as realistically as possible.
Despite the description, it was fun and it went quick, even after a near-sleepless night. It felt like the tent was coming down and we were packing up so soon after we’d set up.
One of the guys dropped me off at Uji Station so I could get some green tea and look around. I’d been here previously to visit Byodoin (the temple on the back of the ten yen coin) so knew where to go for it. Byodoin Omotesando is touristy, but it delivers- green tea and more green tea for which Uji is famous. I made a quick stop in a tea house to enjoy some for myself and left with some sencha omiyage for my mother-in-law.
Since I was in Uji, I took the local Nara Line back to Kyoto just so I could stop by Kyoto Animation’s head office.
It was closed on Sunday and they don’t really let people wander around inside anyway, I just wanted to stop for the same reason one climbs Everest, because it’s there. (That’s a rather sad Everest now that I think about it.) They have a small gift shop about five minutes away with unique items from their latest shows. I picked up a Haruhi pin.
KyoAni is located directly across from JR Kohata Station.
I returned to Tokyo for one last day and some museum-hopping as research for upcoming blog stories I’m working on. Unfortunately most museums take Monday off except for the Yushukan at Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni is where Japan enshrines more than 2 million of their war dead, a fact that is often overshadowed in the media by the 40 Class A war criminals also enshrined.
Yushukan is a museum of Japan’s military history from the feudal era until the end of World War II. Its interpretation of Japanese history in the 20th century relies on “alternative facts” but it’s worth visiting to see the artifacts inside. Not the Zero fighter out front, beautiful as it is, but for the D4Y Susei “Judy” dive bomber, Type 97 Chi-Ha tank and all manner of kamikaze craft inside. Those are hard to come by.
Suddenly finding myself with time to kill after showing up to the nearby Showakan museum and finding all the other ones I planned to see where likewise closed on Mondays I defaulted to time-killing mode so swung by Akihabara. Akihabara is full of nerd things. Electronics, anime & manga-related everything, arcades… it probably has more regular plastic model shops per yard than any other place on Earth, though this is overlooked due to the other craziness.
The Gundam Café taiyaki, giant robot-shaped pastries full of sweet beans, custard, meat & mayo combos or any other fillings are a must on every visit.
I rounded out the night in Yokohama with Dave, who writes a blog with me, and a friend of his at Antenna America, a Japanese bar that only serves American craft beers. This was introduced to us by an ex-pat Brit because who else introduces you to American beer in Japan? The selection was impressive, any kind of beer that could be desired could be had and ciders too.
Before I left for home by mid-day I realized there was enough time to see one more thing and it was literally around the corner from my hotel. Sengakuji is the temple where the 47 ronin and their master are buried. The temple is typical for one of its age, but the graves can be visited and it has a small museum about the ronin. I’d seen it five years ago, but it was good to come back and see if I could retake some of the photos I’d taken then with my newer and better camera. (Purchased in Akihabara three years ago.)
Looking back, the trip flew by with every day a new and exciting experience, even revisiting a few old favorites still felt good. It was a rather random trip that I wouldn’t have had any other way.