Today, we would be seeing AKB48 live for the first time at their concert in Yokohama. If not for the static plans, we probably would had returned to the Disney Resort. Instead, we decided to push forward plans from our subsequent days so that we could eventually spare a day for Disneyland. This morning, we would head for Asakusa. One of Wilson’s purposes for coming to Japan was to purchase a wooden sword he had failed to buy there during his last trip.
Having adapted to the new climate, the weather didn’t seem as cold this morning. I opted to leave my Converse jacket back in the hotel. Until now I had been wearing a t-shirt, blazer and the red jacket each day. Today I thought I’d take my chances with just an inner long sleeved tee and sweater instead.
Taking the JR line, we arrived at Asakusabashi station which turned out to be quite a distance from Asakusa. It had rained continuously since last night. Though the rain wasn’t that heavy this morning, MJ decided to finally get an umbrella from a store at the station.
Even though the rain wasn’t strong, it was really cold. I soon realized why MJ had been complaining of the cold the past few days. Even though the temperature was still tolerable, the icy cold winds pierced straight through my 3 layers of (unfortunately breathable) cotton clothing.
We took refuge at a nearby department store. Inside, MJ and Wilson would check out the Uniqlo outlet there. After some delay, we returned back on track for our trip to Asakusa.
Asakusa is home to what is one of Tokyo’s defining tourist spots, Sensoji temple. It is a temple to the bodhisattva Kannon, better known as the Goddess of Mercy. True to its fame, the streets surrounding the temple are filled with shops targeting the tourist audience. At one of the shops we found what Wilson was looking for.
Wilson wanted to get two swords. After checking out the prices though he decided not to make a purchase. Locally carved swords sold for about $18 each, the cheaper China made counterparts sold for half the price.
MJ and I tried to convince him in vain into buying the swords since after all, it was our purpose in visiting Asakusa in the first place. He didn’t budge.
Despite the rain, there were lots of tourists at the temple this morning. Most were either Chinese or Korean. There were also groups of elderly locals who came to pray before going about their day. We entered the main courtyard to find that the temple covered for renovation.
Like a Shinto shrine, the Buddhist shrine offered charms for sale too. Each shrine sold its own specialty charms for different blessings. Kind of like RPG items. Sensoji’s charms were much more traditional as compared to the ones at the Meiji Jingu. I got one to add to my equipment.
Apart from the huge lanterns, another defining feature of Sensoji was the incense alter outside the temple. People would bath themselves in the smoke. Smothering yourself in ash was free but it cost to purchase more incense. They were pretty expensive but Wilson bought a stick to offer.
Photography inside the main temple was not explicitly prohibited like at Meiji Jingu. Despite that, being a place of worship I did my best to do so discerningly. The China tourists carried on excitedly, some took photos at arms length while people were praying.
We returned to check out the stores around the temple. Wilson decided to get a set of sake cups instead of his swords so the trip wasn’t completely pointless. We ignored most of the tourist shops and targeted the stores selling snacks instead. What caught my attention were shiny large Dango balls. They were really colorful.
The overpriced balls came in boxes of 9. Hoping to bring some back to Singapore, I asked one seller how long they could be kept for. Only one day. Wilson and I opted to just have regular Dango at one of the stores instead.
When we were passed our sticks, the shop assistant kindly asked us to eat in front of their store, so we did. Generally its rude to do anything else while walking in Japan. Talking on your cellphone, drinking bottled water or in this eating Dango while walking were all prohibited.
After our fill of snacks, we proceeded to find the nearer Asakusa JR station. From the station, we could take a series of JR trains that would lead us to Yokohama that would only cost us only 540 or so yen. The rain had gotten much heavier and it was ridiculously cold at this point so we ended up entering the nearer Metro station and where we had to pay for an extra ticket.
Despite being a whole other city, getting to Yokohama from Tokyo only takes about half an hour. Looking out of the train window, I mentioned to MJ and Wilson how odd it was that there weren’t any people to be seen on the streets there.
Having missed lunch, we decided to take the local train to Shin Yokohama where the popular Ramen Museum resides. Wilson is a big fan of ramen and he had yet to have any since arriving in Japan. The museum was a 5 minute walk from station though. Leaving the protection of the building, we realized why no one braved the streets. Strong winds unlike any were had experienced before made it impossible to even hold on to an umbrella. We promptly returned indoors.
Shin Yokohama station was built under the Cubic Plaza departmental store so we ended up eating there instead. The cold weather left us longing for something warm and meaty. I spotted a beef restaurant on the top floor so we took the elevator upstairs, passing through multiple floors of Bic Camera. The restaurant turned out to be a Korean establishment though so the rest of the party rejected it. We ended up taking refuge in a soba shop instead. Wilson loved soba too.
Wilson and I ordered the tempura set, MJ had the curry udon instead. I’m not particularly partial to soba but the warm soup was something I needed.
After lunch, we returned to the Bic Camera downstairs to check out electronics. Wilson purchased Audio Technica headphones that he had been eyeing. They were only available here in Japan. Trying on all the different headphones, I was rather tempted to purchase a particular Sony pair myself. It had great bass and huge padding that made it the most comfortable headphones I had ever tried. Since most electronic brands are Japanese after all, many electronic products are slightly cheaper over here. Rationalizing that I don’t even own an MP3 player, I managed to resist the urge to buy the $110 mufflers.
The AKB48 concert would only start in a couple of hours time but we decided to head there earlier. While Wilson was interested in watching a regular AKB theater show, the tickets for the concert were out of his budget. I had bought the tickets on Yahoo Auctions earlier this week for $280 each. The money spent was well justified though on account that most of the time, the teams in AKB48 performed on their own. It was rare to be able to see all the girls perform together. This concert featured all the 3 teams together with the separate group of SDN48, Akihabara’s more mature performing group. To have both Morning Musume and AKB48 hold concerts while we were in Japan was truly an act of fate.
Wilson parted ways with us and headed back for Tokyo.
The two of us struggled against the wind towards the stadium. On our way, we realized that there was an overhead path there from Cubic Plaza. Being on lower ground, under the bridge turned out to be better place to be. Not just because of the insane winds but also because of the crazy crowds squeezing toward the venue.
Unlike the Morning Musume concert we had attended that had a separate queue for merchandise, there was only one long queue into the Yokohama Arena. Thousands of AKB fans were already in line. We joined the queue in front of the entrance. Instead of leading directly inside, the queue lead up the next overhead bridge stairs, looped back to the previous bridge we came from and returned to the front where it finally zigzagged into the lobby.
Unlike the entirely otaku Morning Musume crowd, the people in line consisted of young adults and normal teenage boys and girls. Together, we waited in the rain to meet our idols.
Inside Yokohama Arena, MJ grabbed some snacks from a counter before we headed to our seats. I had great difficulty purchasing the tickets since the layout for the concert was not released in advance. Everyone was left guessing online as to how the layout would be with everyone claiming they had the best tickets for sale. I purchased front row tickets in section E. According to my calculations, this section had a 25% chance of being right in front, a 50% probability for being beside the stage and a 25% chance of absolutely sucking. A proposed layout at MJ’s ticket reselling store in Harajuku left me extremely worried since it showed our seats behind the stage.
We ended up to in front at the side of the stage. Due to the sheer size of the venue we were still 15 meters away from the side and at least 25 meters from the stage. The Morning Musume concert at the Kosei Nenkin Kaikan held 2,000, Yokohama Arena housed 17,000. To make things worse, a video camera was docked on a crane by our end, completely obstructing our view of the center stage. However, since the large stadium measured more than 100m to the other end there were worst seats to be had.
After happily chowing down his potato sticks, MJ left to buy more snacks before the concert started. While he was away, an announcement reminded not to eat while in the seats. He returned to inform me that there was a long queue downstairs for merchandise. I noticed some fans with a opening random photos that came with a book they purchased. I decided to return to the queue after the concert. Unfortunately, the shopped closed when the concert began.
The mostly female AKB production staff wore black concert themed t-shirts with gold foil designs. MJ wanted one too but they were for concert staff only. Carrying huge cameras, they passed in front of our railing. The security staff holding up signs with the reminder not to take photographs ignored MJ chewing away at his second round of potato sticks.
An announcer on the loud speaker introduced the event and thanked everyone for joining. The seats had started to fill up. Beside us, in the B center area were the best seats in the stadium. Groups of teenage girls and fashionable young men filled this area. AKB48 recent single sold over 400,000 copies and these didn’t look like their 17,000 most hardcore fans. Apart from a group waving a large banner in the center of the floor everyone else looked like they were straight from Harajuku or Shibuya. I first felt out of place since it seemed for a moment that MJ and I were the only ones here with glowsticks. Between the two of us, we had 14.
The announcer revealed herself to be Team K’s Yuko and everybody went “eeeeeeh?”. The arena turned dark and more people began to light up their sticks. Before long, the 8 square kilometer stadium was filled with glows from more than 17,000 lightsticks. Each of the small lights danced in the pitch darkness. The spectacle left me speechless.
The concert opened with a new overture. Though I listened to their singles, I have not been following their albums closely since A4 back in 2007. This meant that I didn’t recognize most of the songs from any of their 7 past albums. Each Team entered the stage performing their intro songs. I was most excited by Korogaru Ishi ni Nare, Team K’s rebellious rock tune.
After the team intros, all of the group’s most popular members were highlighted one by one in their own popular performances backed up by less popular girls. First of course was Acchan. Like other concerts in Japan, the cheers and chants were coordinated. An interesting part being that everyone shouted the girl’s nickname as soon as any member finished her first solo line in any given song. Being the most popular, the screams for Acchan! was the loudest. Being able to recognize some of the members (from that distance), I occasionally managed to join this opportunity. It was great fun.
Mayuyu, Tomochin, Takamina, Yuko and eventually Mariko had their grand entrances. Back at the center area, the female fans in the audience completely mimed all of the dance moves. All the other fans in the hall knew exactly when to do special glowstick waves during each of the songs. I waved my glowsticks to the rhythm of the songs. MJ was unable to follow any of the songs so he didn’t bother to wave, instead he leaned on the railing looking rather bored. Fortunately I was able to follow a few scattered old album songs like Sayaka’s Blue Rose.
I couldn’t help but feel that compared to Morning Musume, the girls were generally more happy to be performing on stage. None of the favoritism towards family and little kids. Perhaps it was my distance from the stage but they didn’t have any of the worried looks on the face. They didn’t need to worry about the crowd eating them up since they were mostly mild mannered teenagers. They thanked the crowd dearly for making it possible for them to perform in such a large venue.
AKB48 operates much like a stepping stone towards greater careers. As a company it managed only production and theater events with the girls having to seek their own separate talent agencies. Scouted girls would eventual rise to stardom. The less popular members constantly vied for our attention on stage.
With the intros over though, Team A performed the cheerful Only Today. As it was the B-side for Bingo! I eagerly awaited for the song we were looking forward to. Unfortunately, they never performed Bingo! Instead they performed yet another old favorite, Dear My Teacher. Even MJ let loose an excited “aaah!” upon hearing the first few notes.
The most memorable song though followed. Performed by Team B, it was a song neither of us had ever heard before. When we were introduced to AKB, Team B never existed and we didn’t really follow through on the group’s younger member stages. It was an incredibly catchy tune, MJ referred to the song as AKB’s version of Morning Musume’s Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari. Basically, during the chorus all of the girls names would be cycled through one by one in sets of 4. When her name was mentioned the girl would popup and pose. After a set of 4, everyone in the audience would wave their sticks and shout B! B! B! then jump and shout Wasshoi! Later the chorus would turn into the girls greeting the crowd Yoroshiku and everyone else would reply Yoroshiku! This repeated thrice. It was the most fun song ever.
During the interlude, one of the members teared on stage. Last year, all of the AKB48 teams were shuffled. This was the first time she was able to perform again with her other friends after being transferred to Team B. She felt lonely in her new group since she only knew one person in the group, a girl who attended the same school.
After the break, much to our surprise a team from SKE48, AKB48′s sister group from Nagoya appeared on stage in their trademark yellow middies. It turned out that SKE were there earlier in the afternoon shaking hands with anyone who purchased their CDs. They started to sing a couple of their singles both unfamiliar to me. The only member I knew was SKE’s cover girl Jurina who appears in the AKB singles. During the performance, a platform on the stage raised them up 10 feet higher.
Next up the large group of AKB48 finally gathered for a continuous series of their singles starting with Romance Irane. A large burst of confetti burst was shot out toward the audience from the stage. The main stars walked through the crowd as the rest retreated backstage. The girls were in their intricate Iiwake Maybe outfits (one of their nicest) and they continued on into that single.
Thing started to heat up, literally when jets of flame shot out at the start of RIVER. Even MJ was excited at this point. The girls tore their dresses to reveal the equally as amazing black and white uniforms. Everybody chanted River! before the song broke out into its hip hop segment. After more bursts of fire, the leads were joined by the rest of the members. In full force, their medley of new singles lead to Aitakatta, Namida Surprise, Junen Zakura and Oogoe Diamond before leaving the stage to bring in more microphones for their latest bestselling ballad, Sakura no Shiori. At some point, paper hearts began to fall from the roof. I put two and two together and realized, the hearts were autographs! If any had come near, I would had fallen over catching them but alas, none flew in our general direction. All of them hover at the center of the stage.
The stage blacked out and the audience sat down. There were small scattered cheers for the encore. Most of the crowd just took a break though before the girls returned to finish with a few inspirational songs. They were stopped midway though when Takamina was given an envelope by one of the staff. Prior to the concert, the agency had reveal that there would be a important announcement today. The girls feigned surprise as video on the large screen behind them played. The video played like a mystery horror video before revealing the actual news. Up to now, AKB48 only performed small concerts at increasingly large venues. Today at Yokohama, we were at the largest yet. The popularity of the group meant that they were finally able to move on to bigger things. The group would tour the country at 7 concert halls over 10 days in August. Everyone cheered.
That wasn’t the big surprise though. A video of bunch of people watching AKB48 in a rickety coffee shop was shown. The owner of the establishment spoke to the camera in Thai. AKB48 was to hold a concert in Bangkok in June. Not knowing what to make out of it (since it sort of had very little to do with anyone in the stadium today) everyone was left quite speechless. The end of the announcement lead into the beginning of the last song before the concert really ended.
We left amidst the hordes of people now making their way out. Most of the audience today were probably from Tokyo as everyone headed in the direction of the JR station. The weather wasn’t any better than before, in fact probably worse so we squeeze in on the bridge back.
Hoping to cash in on the concert, some men had set up stores selling AKB related stuff. AKB48 actually don’t have quite as much merchandise as say Morning Musume which survives solely on the purchases by rabid fans. The stores sold poor quality DIY merchandise like key chains and printouts.
The trains were packed with people making their way back to whatever prefecture from. We considered taking the a Bullet train back to Tokyo. A return trip on the Shinkansen would only take 10 minutes but at nearly 3 times the cost. We decided to have a dinner here in Yokohama instead. We didn’t want to have to resort to McDonalds again.
The other eateries was filled with other stranglers from the AKB concert so we ended up at KFC. I had once developed a gag reflex to KFC but it didn’t act up today so I was fine. A set cost us about SGD$11 each. The meal consisted of one piece of chicken, a burger, chicken tenders and a drink. Having a variety of different things to chew into instead of just the chicken helped.
During dinner, we reviewed the concert that we had just experienced. Due to our poor seats, I was left wanting more. The concert still turned out enjoyable as a fresh new experience though. The variety of cheers was interesting. I was most excited about the song that I would learn to be Wasshoi B.
Our ill luck had us obstructed from the center stage by the filming camera. Rarely did anyone come to our end of the stage and if they did, it was mostly Team B members that we didn’t know. The droopy eyed Kasai did hung around for the longest time. She picked up some of the autographed hearts that had landed on the stage and passed them to the adjacent fans. She apologized for not having anymore. Ono Erena and Tomochin did wave over too but it was only during the final good byes did the other popular members come by. Among the famous members Yuko was the most friendly. Mayuyu’s cheerful attitude throughout the show made me understand why she remains one of the more popular girls. MJ and I were also disappointed that they didn’t perform the songs we were most looking forward to, Bingo! and Baby! Baby! Baby! respectively
In the station back Tokyo, we watched people dance on the spot while repeatedly saying samui. You know its cold when even the accustomed locals thought so. The combination of arctic winds and the lack of carbohydrates in my meal meant that I would return to the hotel for supper.
Like Morning Musume during their prime, AKB48 has their own television show at night. During this episode, the group’s youngest member, Oku Manami was pit against the oldest, Shinoda Mariko. They took turns to ask each other embarrassing questions while attached to a lie detector.
The silly game didn’t go in Oku’s favor. She replied no when she was asked if she found Team K’s Sayaka scary. She lied. Sayaka was surprised. Personally, I find it difficult not to find the muscular Aikido black belt intimidating. Mariko was disappointed when Oku also failed the test when asked if she found her unapproachable. Finally, Oku failed the test again (much to everyone’s surprise) when asked if she was perverted. The rest exclaimed that she was only 15.
Though really a sly marketing ploy, the next part of the show was cute. As mentioned before in one of my earlier posts, AKB48 had been advertising Aoki suits. The girls designed their own custom ties. Fans could send in a contest submission to win one of these ties. A winner was chosen, a huge fan of Oota Aika. His room was filled with her posters. Instead of simply sending him his prize though, the show had something more interesting planned.
The fan was just graduating college and was looking for a job. It was probably why he needed a suit and tie. While he was out, the tiny Oota Aika hid in a marked postage box in his room.
Returning, he noticed the box and proceeded to check out the label. The idol jumped out of the box to give him quite a shock. She helped put the tie on the widely grinning fan. When asked how he felt, he said it was fine even if he died now. He would go on us to ask if she would be his girlfriend for a day. He had something planned for his school friends. She agreed.
He called out his friends for a karaoke session, midway he left and returned wiith Aika outside. He revealed to his friends that he had been dating, the otakus were surprised. Next he brought his “girlfriend” into the small karaoke room, the otaku were speechless.
Today’s crazy weather conditions was explained in the news tonight. A hurricane had formed along the south east coast of Japan. Wind speeds of 65 km/h. Yokohama, being the port town closest to the storm had experienced temperatures of 2 degrees. This Spring night, it even snowed in the mountains around Yokohama. It was the worst day for me to be without my red insulating jacket.
The temperature back here in Tokyo, was a more manageable 4 degrees. The less idol obsessed locals had probably seen warnings earlier in the day, explaining the empty Yokohama streets.
Unknowingly, we had just braved a typhoon to see AKB48.