Cherry blossoms, or sakuras as they're known in Japan, at Osaka Castle Park.

Arts and Entertainment

A Nintendo geek’s week in Japan

As the Airbus A380– the largest commercial aircraft in the world– took off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), my anxious self became one with the altitude. In other words, I was experiencing an all-time high; I’d be landing in Japan in under 20 hours. Those hours seemed relatively short due to the fact that…
<a href="" target="_self">Luis Valente</a>

Luis Valente

May 11, 2017

As the Airbus A380– the largest commercial aircraft in the world– took off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), my anxious self became one with the altitude. In other words, I was experiencing an all-time high; I’d be landing in Japan in under 20 hours.

Those hours seemed relatively short due to the fact that Korean Air’s service was top-notch and the on-flight entertainment always kept a person busy. I watched “Sing” and “La La Land” a couple of times and I was able to squeeze in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Fences.”

The food was phenomenal as well. I ate bibimbap, a Korean dish consisting of rice and other unknown– but succulent– flavors. At first, the dish was a mystery as some of the ingredients were left out and needed to be mixed. I tried to play it cool by eating the dish without mixing any of the added ingredients but in the process, I singled myself out as the foreigner and the flight attendants taught me how to prepare and eat the dish. Needless to say, I was content.

Thirteen hours aboard a plane ended in a two-hour layover at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport (ICN). I took my first step into Asia and it felt like stepping foot in America. Airport floors in Asia are not that different from American ones. My brother-in-law called my sister and I called my parents to check in with them. It was a bittersweet feeling; I wanted to be with my parents but I was happy to hear their voices.

With two hours to spare, I figured I’d connect back with society and log into social media. Five full bars and the letters “SK” (SK Telecom is a South Korean phone carrier) replaced “No Service” on the top left of my phone. My phone was flooded with messages from all across social media, each telling me “Have fun!” or “Te amo, mijo!”

The two hours were spent exchanging currency, eating grub, and replying to the messages left by my friends and my family, and just like that, the plane was boarding passengers. I settled into my window seat and watched as ferries and boats traversed the Sea of Japan. As the plane neared one of Kansai International Airport’s (KIX) runways, the phone carrier changed once again; this time, from “SK” to “docomo.”

For a kid who grew up with Nintendo and Sony, both Japanese electronics companies, a trip to Japan, the land that houses their headquarters, is a must. Little did I know I was fulfilling a childhood dream of mine. I was in Japan.

Of course, the first thing I did was go to the restroom for the authentic Japanese bidet toilet experience. I was anxious: the bidet stalls were occupied and I couldn’t hold it any longer. What was I to do? I held it and told myself that I had to use a bidet for my first restroom experience in Japan. I hung on to that hope, nay, dream and it payed off in the end. The toilet’s spray settings were in Japanese but it was self-explanatory. Out of all the restroom experiences in my life, using the bidet toilets at KIX rank number one.

After immigration and customs let us through, my brother-in-law and I looked up how to get to our hotel. We were lost until a friendly man helped us with directions. Despite the language barrier, the man was determined to get us to our destination. He helped us with our luggage and waved good-bye as we boarded a passenger bus.

The trip was nice and smooth as there wasn’t many passengers on the bus and we were able to see a wide view of Osaka Bay.

Riding on the Tempozan Bridge reminded me of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and for a short while, I felt like I was back in America. It was the first time I felt homesick but it was also the last.

Before we could check into the hotel, my brother-in-law and I had to wait a few hours until the hotel staff could give us our key. Because our hotel was stationed right in between Universal Studios Japan and Universal CityWalk Osaka, we figured we’d spend our time exploring the small area before checking into the hotel.

A foreigner’s guide to CityWalk Osaka. It’s similar to Hollywood’s version in terms of the types of shops and restaurants available.

CityWalk showcased a variety of shops and restaurants, including 551 Horai, a popular pork bun chain in Japan; Jump Shop, a store that sells merchandise based on the iconic Shonen Jump characters; Moomin Stand, a shop based on Moomins– the stars of a Finnish book and comic series– that sells sweet drinks like milk tea and yogurt-infused smoothies; and many more, including your average McDonald’s.

In the end, we settled on having ramen for our first meal in Japan. The restaurant resembled some Japanese restaurants here in America but there was something notably different in the atmosphere. This restaurant was quiet: people were not on their phones, they spoke in soft voices, and the background music was ethereal. It was a nice change of pace.

My ramen was served with takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack filled with diced and minced octopus. The flavors complimented each other nicely and the noodles were exquisite. After that, I decided I could never eat Cup Noodles ever again (at least in good conscience).

Once our hotel room was ready for us, I collapsed on the nicely made bed, after I made use of the bidet, of course. It was around 4:00 p.m. when we checked into the hotel and by 5:00 p.m., we were ready to get some exploring done. First on our list was Dōtonbori, a prime tourist destination known for its shops, entertainment, and cuisine.

Our only method of transportation was heavy rail and subway. Though learning the ropes of a foreign transportation system may sound confusing, the Japan Railways Group (JR Group) makes it easy for any tourist to understand. The color coded map and English translations were a great help, too.

A five-minute train ride and an eight-minute subway ride is all it took to get to Dōtonbori. Once there, the bright billboards began to stand out in all of its flashy goodness as the sun set in the West. Everywhere you looked, there were stands that sold Matcha ice cream or Kobe beef; Ramen kiosk shops were abundant, as were Kit Kat vendors.

Kit Kats thrive in Japan and they are one of few western chocolates to find success in the East. According to many Japanese culture sites, the reason why Kit Kats are extremely popular in Japan is because the Japanese name for the chocolate, “kitto katto,” sounds like “kitto katsu,” a phrase that translates to “you’re sure to win.” The chocolate’s association with luck has made it very popular among the Japanese, and the brand is held on a high pedestal today. This explains the huge variety of Kit Kat flavors exclusive to Japan.

Luxury Kit Kats are sold in the Kit Kat Chocolatory, but are they it worth the big bucks? Trick question. There’s no price too high for Kit Kats.

Famous Kit Kat flavors exclusive to Japan were sold by many vendors; there seemed to be some fierce competition between them as their prices were mighty close to each other. I was able to try some of them, like the Cherry Blossom (Sakura) flavor and the odd Wasabi flavor. Despite the many flavors I tried, I only scratched the surface of the Japanese Kit Kat world.

As Kit Kats and ramen stores became less frequent, the bright lights of Dōtonbori grew further away. We waved goodbye to Dōtonbori and boarded a train heading back to Universal City Station, eager to get a good night’s sleep.

A hearty breakfast buffet served by The Park Front Hotel at Universal Studios Japan’s on-site restaurant, Akala, kicked off Japan: Day two. With Universal Studios Japan’s (USJ) front gate looming high across our hotel’s entrance, we thought “Why not?” and spent a day at the park.

Replicas of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles’ Hollywood neighborhood, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, and New York’s Brooklyn borough made up the majority of the park. Despite being 16 hours ahead of home, USJ’s faithful recreation of iconic American cities and districts made it seem like I never left LAX. Out of all the areas, though, Osaka Bay best complemented the San Francisco area of the park as the coastal aesthetic and the seagulls brought Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 to life.

Upon entering Hogsmeade (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), it began to rain again, giving the area an extra oomph. The rain did not prevent us from experiencing the park. In fact, it gave the Jurassic Park and Jaws rides an added pinch of authenticity.

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Once everything was checked off our list (including a second spin at the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride), we exited the park a couple of minutes before its 7:00 p.m. closing time. Delicious pork buns from 551 Horai and a trip to the 24/7 Lawson store inside the hotel closed day two.

Japan: Days three through five were familiar somehow. Of course, I attributed it to my experience with my copy of Pokemon SoulSilver Version, one of the remakes of Pokemon Gold Version and Pokemon Silver Version in which the player travels across the Johto region, based on the real-life Kansai region.

Many of the settlements and areas along Osaka Bay closely resembled Pokemon’s Olivine City and Cianwood City, both of which are bordered by an ocean. The fictional Glitter Lighthouse, while not styled after any Osaka lighthouse, is representative of the lighthouses in Osaka.

Osaka Station, one of the busiest railway stations in the world, was the final stop getting to the Osaka branch of the Pokemon Center store. The station before it, Shin-Osaka Station, has a Pokemon world counterpart: Goldenrod City’s Magnet Train station. Both stations offer service to other regions: the Tokaido Shinkansen line transports passengers between Osaka in the Kansai region and Tokyo in the Kanto region and vice versa while the Magnet Train transports passengers between Goldenrod City in the Johto region and Saffron City in the fictional Kanto region and vice versa.

Within Osaka Station lies a Daimaru chain; Daimaru is multi-tiered department store. Most floors have a theme, such as “Men’s Clothing” or “Women’s Accessories.” A floor is shared by a number of retail stores (usually three to four). This style of retail is also reflected in the Pokemon world. The Goldenrod Department Store resembles the Daimaru chain; each floor is dedicated to needs pertaining to Pokemon and their trainers (ex: 1F houses service and hospitality needs, 2F sells basic equipment and items, 4F is for medicine, etc.). Each floor has different vendors, or cashiers in this case, but the items they sell are similar in utility.

A floor at a Daimaru department store, featuring Uniqlo and a Pokemon Center!

Like the Daimaru chain, the Goldenrod Department Store has a rooftop accessible by anyone. The rooftop floor, in both iterations, is meant to be a recreational area. The Pokemon games convey the idea through functional vending machines and picnic tables while the Daimaru chain of stores list the rooftop floor as a rest area (I assume. I can’t read Japanese) on the store’s directory. There is even visual evidence of a yoga session atop a Daimaru rooftop. Talk about recreation!

Major railway stations in Japan have basement floors. These floors are home to a variety of stores that can fulfill anyone’s needs and wants. 7-Eleven kiosks, Japanese newsstands, and underground food markets are just some of the things one can find in a typical basement floor. A similar concept exists in the Goldenrod Tunnel. As the name suggests, the Goldenrod Tunnel is located beneath Goldenrod City and holds a few vendors specializing in different areas of retail. The anime interpretation of the Goldenrod Tunnel is most similar to an average basement floor in Japan, however.

Traditional parts of the Johto region are heavily based on Kyoto. Ecruteak City, known as “A Historical City” in the games, draws inspiration from Kyoto. Both cities are located northeast of Osaka and Goldenrod City (Pokemon’s interpretation of Osaka) and are, as the game says, historic in nature.

Kyoto is known for its Buddhist shrines and temples located all over the city despite the fact that the city has a modern downtown area. Both Kyoto and Ecruteak feature traditional Japanese architecture.

Ecruteak’s biggest landmarks are the Burned Tower and the Bell Tower, sometimes known as the Brass Tower and the Tin Tower, respectively. The towers are similar, both in history and design, to a pair of Buddhist temples in Kyoto: Sai-ji and Tō-ji. Sai-ji and its equivalent, the Burned Tower, no longer stand tall as they used to. Legends that tell about the destruction of the tower exist for both towers.

In the case of Sai-ji, bad irrigation and the lack of funds to maintain the tower led to the tower’s destruction. A Japanese legend says that Sai-ji’s priest, Shubin, and Tō-ji’s priest, Kūkai, were both praying for rain to end a terrible drought. In the end, it was Kūkai’s prayer that was answered. As a result, rainfall came to end the drought; it may or may not have caused the downfall of Sai-ji but it wouldn’t be out of the question as the area around Sai-ji was notorious for bad irrigation.

As for the Burned Tower, a different legend exists and it’s associated with the three legendary beasts of the Johto region: Raikou, an electric-type beast; Entei, a fire-type beast; and Suicune, a water-type beast. The inhabitants of Ecruteak believe the tower’s destruction was due to an intense fire, hence the name “Burned Tower.” The fire was a result of a lightning strike that directly hit the tower, causing it to go up in flames. The flames were quickly put out by a sudden shower. It is believed the three beasts caused this as each beast represents an element that was responsible for the tower’s destruction (Electric-type Raikou = lightning strike, fire-type Entei = intense fire, water-type Suicune = sudden shower).

The other towers, Tō-ji and the Bell Tower, still stand tall today and are similar in appearance. Sai-ji and Tō-ji mean “West Temple” and “East Temple,” respectively, and just like the temples in Japan, the Burned Tower is to the west and the Bell Tower is to the east.

All in all, the team responsible for the Pokemon games were extremely faithful to the inspiration behind them. It’s amazing how much the development team got every detail correct, obviously with an added Pokemon twist to it. Knowing that confirms that the people working at Nintendo are meticulous and care about the quality of their work.

As a longtime user of Nintendo products, I couldn’t be more honored and privileged to know that these people truly care about their consumers. Thank you, to everyone at Nintendo. You’ve given me many hours of enjoyment and frustration, but mainly enjoyment. Satoru Iwata, a man who’s always been passionate for video games, thank you for being a great leader. You’ve revolutionized gaming and the whole video game industry is eternally grateful, as am I. Through your work and involvement with the company, I’ve fallen in love with the country of Japan and I hope I can go back one day and pay the proper respects.

Thank you to Korean Air and the Los Angeles Times for making this trip possible in the first place. You all make it happen!

A huge thanks to Ashley Chung, who was instrumental in the planning for the trip. Your advice and help was very useful. Thanks for putting up with my obnoxious emails!

Another huge thanks to Kyle Finck, Eduardo Gonzalez, and everyone else involved with High School Insider. I’ve had so much fun working alongside every single one of you and I can’t wait to see what’s next in store for us!

Big thanks to Teresa Watanabe. I am eternally grateful for your recommendations and advice! They made the experience. I’ll revisit takoyaki one of these days!

Thank you to Mr. Cottom, my journalism advisor and an awesome teacher. Your support has helped me in more ways than you can ever imagine.

Last of all, I’d like to thank my parents for coming to this country and allowing me to seize many opportunities I wouldn’t find anywhere else. I love both of you guys very much and even though I couldn’t take either one of you with me, I always kept you in my heart (as cheesy as that sounds).

Brother and sister, I love y’all too!

My favorite picture: a panoramic view of Osaka Castle and Osaka Castle Park. It’s a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Osaka!

Domo arigatou!

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