Saturday, 27 February 2010

The First VEx Contest: Steamboy - Director's Cut

In celebration of our month dedicated to the Land of the Rising Sun, we're having our first-ever contest give-away. If you're interested in acquiring to your collection a copy of the two-disk Steamboy director's cut DVD, just leave a comment on this post and make sure that your e-mail is linked in your Blogger profile. The winner will be chosen by random selection at 12:00am on Feb. 27th.

The Results: Congratulations to Jordi Baggins for winning our first contest on Voyages Extraordinaires! However, Jordi, we don't have your e-mail address to let you know or find out where to send the prize! We'll leave it up to you to e-mail us via the link in our own Blogger profile. If the prize goes unclaimed for another week, we'll be forced to draw for a runner-up. In the mean time, thank you to everyone who entered and keep your eyes peeled for more giveaways throughout the year!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Kyoto: Tradition, Temples and Trains

The city of Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a remarkable thousand years, from 794 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when the emperor moved to the newly rechristened Tokyo. Unlike other major Japanese cities, Kyoto was blessedly spared the ravages of American fire- and nuclear bombing, leaving a legacy of beauty and history for the modern appreciator.

A bastion of the traditional arts, there is probably no tradition for which Kyoto is more renowned than that of the geisha. Called "geiko" in the Kyoto dialect, they frequent the historic district of Gion, which has preserved countless examples of traditional architecture alongside cobbled streets and idyllic canals. Large spans of Gion frontage have been replaced by expensive (and worthwhile) restaurants and the best place to see a maiko - a geisha in training, who bear the make-up and kimono most associated with the craft - is at the Gion Corner theatre. A relatively modest sum allows one to take in performances of several traditional Japanese arts, including the engrossing dance of the geisha.

Gion and the Hidden World of the Geisha.

Then there are the temples. Because Kyoto was spared the violence of the war, it enjoys a high concentration of unique Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Nearly the entire city is encompassed within the boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto", including the famous Nijo Castle, Ryoanji, Ninnaji, Kiyomizudera, and Golden Pavillion. There are so many, in fact, that one source described Kyoto as a test of endurance: one visits temples for as long as one can stand it.

For the visitor who tires of temples and has already spent their evening geisha-spotting in Gion, there is another, surprising, category of Kyoto heritage to enjoy. Unbeknownst to many, the ancient capital is a Mecca of locomotives. To be sure, one must take the Shinkansen bullet train to reach Kyoto from Tokyo, but while there, one can venture back to a more romantic era with the Sagano Romantic Train and the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

The Sagano Romantic Train, also sometimes called the "Sagano Scenic Railway", is a narrow-gauge diesel tram that runs the old Torokko route along the Hozugawa valley. Started in 1991, the train retains a high degree of charm with its almost too-cozy wooden carriages and large scenic windows. The scenery is spectacular was well, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn when the hills are carpeted in the pink of cherry blossoms or red and gold of Japanese maple.

The Sagano Romantic Train.

One's journey begins at the Torokko Saga Station, adjacent to the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station. Before boarding, light snacks and Romantic Train brand beer can be had in the 19th Century Hall, which features grand piano music and static museum displays of several types of steam engines. The Romantic Train departs hourly and requires a reserved seat ticket. These can be obtained easily from the station or, better yet, from the JR ticket office in Kyoto Station upon your arrival to the city.

19th Century Hall's steam collection.

Procedurally, I recommend an even-numbered seat lettered A or C. I had isle seat 8-B, from which I slid into the empty 8-A and had a stunning, unhindered view of the Hozugawa valley. Otherwise, and for the first few kilometres of the trip anyways, you will have to endure the habit of Japanese tourists to stand up, in the isles, straining for a view and preventing you from having one.

When the whistle blows, the Romantic Train departs Torokko Saga Station, stops briefly at Torokko Arashiyama Station (between which is a delightful grove of bamboo forest), and then heads down the valley towards the town of Kameoka. There is another brief stop part-way through at Torokko Hozkukyo Station, a rustic station that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Popular with hikers and picnicers, this station opens access to the areas mountains and is marked by a line of tanuki statues waiting on the platform.

Along the route.

Off again, winding along the river shore and crossing over iron trestles, remarking at the stunning vistas, until arrival at Kameoka. From there one could opt to return to Kyoto via the Romantic Train (keeping the same seat, as the train is pushed by the engine in one direction and pulled in the other) or combine their train ticket with a cruise down the Hozugawa river. This does extend the one hour round-trip into a two or three hour adventure, but is well worth it. Though the sloop can pick up some speed as it shoots the rapids, it is a much better way to savour the scenery. One may also catch a glimpse of the Romantic Train going too or fro.

The Hozugawa Valley.

If you take the boat back, a festive spectacle awaits you upon your return to the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. Increasing numbers of boats join you on the placid waters, including those bedecked with happy red paper lanterns sliding up to each craft and offering canned drinks or fried squid. Arashiyama is itself one of the most popular and pleasing areas of the city. The Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Hozugawa is one of the landmarks against the backdrop of hills. To gain the more expansive view, I recommend visiting the Iwatayama Monkey Park, by which one can both climb Mount Iwatayama and meet Japanese macaque monkeys in close quarters. Nearby are more temples and the Toei Kyoto Movie Studio Park, a cross between a functioning movie studio, a heritage village and a theme park.

Arashiyama and the Monkey Park.

Spent at Arashiyama, the visiting railfan may want to return aboard the JR Sagano line to Kyoto Station. A lengthy walk backtracking along the line takes one to the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. From the website:
The Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum was opened in 1972 on the 100th anniversary of the start of railway operation in Japan. The museum was opened to preserve the history of the steam locomotive, a major part of transportation history passing on the story of the steam locomotive to future generations. The many exhibitions at the museum allow visitors to experience and learn about the railway history and railway culture of Japan. The museum features a fan shaped locomotive house with an impressive array of steam locomotives, a turntable used to turn the gigantic locomotives, a steam locomotive in actual operation on the museum's own exhibition track, numerous displays packed with information about steam locomotives and there is even the former Nijo Station House which takes visitors back to the days of the Meiji era.

Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

The main part of the museum is indeed housed in the old Nijo Station, which houses exhibits of model trains, uniforms, train ephemera and how a steam engine works. Beyond it is the roundhouse with its array of engines, both restored and in the process of being restored. If you arrive by 3:30pm at the latest, you would also be able to take a steam train ride opperated by JR. Between Arashiyama, the Sagano Romantic Train and the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, one could enjoy quite a full day before catching an evening bullet train back to the modern capital.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Celestial Railroad (2006)

The most recent adaptation of Japanese literary giant Kenji Miyazawa's most famous work, The Celestial Railroad is a stunning spectacle. Unto itself, the visuals are beautiful and made even more incredible when seen as they were meant to, on the giant full dome screen of a local planetarium. Animated by digital artist Yutaka Kagaya with music by brother Rei Kagaya, it is a rare example of overdone fantasy-style art done right. The luminous qualities of the Milky Way described by Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad are translated perfectly, then increased to tremendous proportions even larger and more dynamic than the ordeal that is an IMAX screen. Playing to your left, your right and directly overhead, you are drawn into this fantastic steam train journey into outer space.

For the appreciator of the book and its later anime adaptation, The Celestial Railroad also serves as a delightfully informative addendum. In order to familiarize English-speaking audiences, the dubbed version only partially adapts the narrative while explaining a great deal about Miyazawa, the book, and the astronomical facts underlying it. Much of the symbolism is revealed as having its basis in true constellations, justifying its playing in scientific institutions. Kagaya also brings other elements of the story back down to their historical precedents. For example, Miyazawa describes individual stars as being triangular signposts. The 1985 anime film abstracts these into flying neon shapes. The Celestial Railroad, on the other hand, draws them directly from historical surveying posts, as seen in the official website's concept art gallery.

Though on DVD in Japan, it has yet to migrate over the ocean. Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the planetarium gift shop will carry any of the associated merchandise, from DVDs and CDs to postcards of Kagaya's static art to a full map of the Celestial Railroad. One may even be lucky if there is a planetarium in the area that can play a full-colour, digital dome show. If so, write a letter. This is not one that you should miss.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Galaxy Express 999: The Ride

The Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo is a world unto itself. Featured in the film Lost in Translation, it is a refuge for weary travelers who find street-level doses of the Japanese metropolis overwhelming. In an enclosed environment one can experience karaoke and sushi and shopping, as well as movie theatres, bowling, an aquarium, and nestled deep in its bowels, a roller coaster based on Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999.

The EPSON Shinagawa Aqua Stadium includes the aforementioned aquarium as well as a swinging boat ride themed to pirates and a carousel, and back behind all of them is the entrance to the Galaxy Railways' Shinagawa Prince Station. The arrivals board clacks away to announce that the 999 is ready to take passengers, and while singles from the Galaxy Express 999 film plays, helpful hosts usher you into the foyer.

Said foyer is a heaven for Galaxy Express fans. Three display cases are filled with replica weapons, animation stills and original paintings by Leiji Matsumoto. A giant picture window at one end features replica costumes of the Conductor, Tetsuro and Maetel. There is also a board describing the taxi shuttle which takes you to the 999's platform.

Doors open and another host takes you to what I suppose to be customs and security point. Three-dimensional lenticular images on the floor show Megalopolis from the top to give an illusion of the station's great height and illuminated posters on the walls advertise the Galaxy Railways and their various routes. Suddenly, two cyborg police officers give a short, animatronic spiel before the host opens a door and you're ushered into the shuttle.

The shuttle's doors close and the screen flickers on. A CGI version of the Conductor greets us and explains that the shuttle will take us through the city's great glass transit tunnels, which it proceeds to. However, our shuttle is intercepted by Queen Prometheum, who warps us far and away... Right into the horizon of a black hole! Nevertheless, our shuttle is being piloted by none other than Tetsuro and Maetel, who call upon Captain Harlock and Emeraldas. Unleashing the firepower of the Arcadia and Queen Emeraldas, they proceed to blow up the black hole. Then Faust arrives from the Adieu Galaxy Express 999 feature film, forcing a gunfight with Tetsuro. After the boy dispatches his father and Maetel verbally confronts her mother, they (and us) are returned to Megalopolis, whereupon we arrive at the 999's platform. Previous cinematic sequences had the shuttle intercepted by Count Mecha and his Time Castle from the feature film.

The doors open again and the hosts take us to the 999 herself. Or more correctly, to the roller coaster in a bay made to look like the interior of the 999. Neatly tucked in, the coaster launches into outer space, swirling around in a field of stars, nearly colliding with another train and narrowly avoiding nebulae.

Is it a good ride? Not really. Imagine a budget Space Mountain, which is rather shorter and not executed quite as well. One of the major problems is that the coaster is too well lit. The effect of star fields and Galaxy Railway train projections is lost when you can see the cords and the edges of the screen! The best portion is the lead-up, seeing the props, costumes and the shuttle simulator. And all of this for only JPY1000!

Even more disappointing was the fact that by the time I arrived, the gift shop associated with the ride had long since closed down. There went the hope I had of finding a model of the 999 for my desk. Thankfully it was only a short train ride over to the otaku commercial centre of Akihabara, where I was able to find a few mementos of my favorite anime series of all time.

Despite its flaws, one will still pay the JPY1000 (roughly $10) to ride the ride if one is obsessive enough about Galaxy Express 999 to want to ride it to begin with. It benefits from being the only 999 attraction in the world. However, there is another attraction of interest to fans that is charming and practical at the same time.

Recognizing the needs of tourists to go back and forth from major centres to the island playground of Odaiba, Tokyo Cruises commissioned Leiji Matsumoto to design the waterbus Himiko. Guided by the inspirations of a teardrop and a shape pleasing to children, Matsumoto designed a craft that looks every bit like it flew out of Galaxy Express, Harlock or Yamato.

Furthermore, it makes ready reference to Matsumoto's greatest work. Just behind the pilot's cabin are stand-up cutouts of the Conductor, the movie version of Tetsuro and Maetel. As the ship departs Asakusa, the taped narration begins to play, in which the trio - courtesy of their original voice actors - describe the bridges and sights that the Himiko passes by en route to Odaiba. Their narration is in Japanese, of course, but their voices are immediately recognizable. It also makes for a weird effect when one hears the Conductor announce their own departure point!