Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An American Nerd in Tokyo

So: I’m not one of those guys who loves everything from Japan just because it’s from Japan. I wasn’t in an anime club in high school. I don’t own any plastic figurines of megacephalic schoolgirls striving unsuccessfully to conceal their undergarments. I don’t always know the appropriate Pokémon to deploy in any given combat situation. I think sushi is gross.

Nevertheless, I have in my own sad way been preparing for our recent trip to Japan for about 25 years now. It all began in August, 1984, when I read G.I. Joe comic book issue number 26. This was my first encounter with ninjas. Ninjas are totally awesome. I don’t think I need to say anything more on the subject.

We got our first Nintendo Entertainment System soon afterwards. An utter failure at old-school twitch games like Pac-Man, I was obsessed by Zelda and Metroid, where I didn’t die every ten seconds and where exploration was more important than getting a high score.

I could probably go on for thousands of words about the various things from Japan I encountered over the intervening decades and how they warped me into the magnificent specimen I am today, but let’s fast forward to early April, 2009. As we headed from Bangkok to Japan for my first trip there, I had only one goal in mind:

1) Buy the fanciest Shogi set.

In spite of being possibly the world’s worst chess player I’m very interested in regional variants of chess, and Shogi not only seemed like an intriguing mutation of the game (captured pieces can be put back into play by the capturer), but a great aesthetic creation, combining carved wood and evocative calligraphy in that special Japanese way.

Technically speaking I already owned two Shogi sets, but one was an embarrassingly cheap Chinese crapfest I’d bought in Malaysia and partially ruined by varnishing it with Dr. Sloan’s Liniment, while the other was a plastic pocket set I’d bought in Singapore. So I decided that whatever else happened during our vacation, I would try my damnedest to get a nice set as a souvenir.

After an abortive attempt to enlist the services of our hotel concierge in researching the surviving time-honored, family-run Shogi workshops of Olde Nippon for me, I reverted to my suburban American shopping instincts and resigned myself to buying whatever crap I could find in big stores downtown. I snatched up a box of pieces and a board (sold separately) in Takashimaya in Kyoto, but the set of pieces cost the equivalent of ten bucks and was barely a step up from my rough-hewn Chinese abomination, so I was still on the hunt.

As soon as I had a free morning in Tokyo, I lurched off up and down the chilly avenues of Ginza with great vigor.

Here’s me setting sail on my grand adventure. Note the traditional Shogi hunter’s cap.

Turns out a lot of the stores don’t open until 11:00, so I did a lot of standing around and drinking free tea in vestibules while my vigor slowly curdled. I finally found a set of pieces for around 3,500 yen in a big toy store, and almost bought it, but the paint job seemed slapdash and I kept looking.

Here’s me out and about in Ginza. My stern expression indicates dedication to the quest. (Actually, the picture was taken after the quest was over, and my expression was meant to convey immense, uncontrolled excitement and pride. I guess I have to work on my expressions.)

I’m glad I waited, because later in a department store called Matsuya I found a much sharper-looking set for only 2,500 yen or so. The characters were actually stamped or carved into the wood, not just painted on. I found it the most handsome set I’d yet seen, and at a price that wouldn’t force us to survive on ramen flavoring packets for the rest of the trip.

Elated, I wasted no time in sauntering back to my hotel room and fixing the moment of my grand triumph forever in time by taking the lavish photo spread you see here.

Shogi aficionados will note the unusual characters on the pawns. Instead of the normal “soldier” character that I recognize from Chinese chess, it’s a bunch of horizontal lines. I still don’t know what the deal is with that.

I also found a set of playing cards, an old game called hanafuda. Adorably (to a sucker for calendrical symbology like me), its 12 suits are based on the 12 months - on plants which blossom in Japan throughout the year and the animals which frolic amidst them. To my delight I saw that the set was actually made by Nintendo, and later research showed that it was the company’s original product back in 1889.

So why have I told you all this? Read on just a bit more, dear reader, to read for yourself the surprising punchline to this rambling tale of lusty Asian shopping:

Upon my return to Bangkok, while doing some more research into the rules of hanafuda, I found Nintendo’s page about their vestigial card-game division. Something about looking at this page, and considering my hanafuda cards, made me curious about the Nintendo logo. If the company had been around for over a century, surely its logo wasn’t always the English word “Nintendo” in a snazzy red font?

What was Japanese, so to speak, for “Nintendo”? Funny how I’d never thought of that before. A short search later I found the Kanji characters, matched them up to some characters on the hanafuda card box, and realized they looked rather familiar. Where had I seen that logo before?


I had, utterly without knowing it and completely by chance, bought and brought back home with me both a Shogi board and a set of Shogi pieces MANUFACTURED BY NINTENDO. The circle of my life was complete. I had traveled the world only to find that what I was searching for had been with me all along. Nintendo Shogi turned out to be the twist on the Moebius strip, the final/first sentence of Finnegans Wake. To paraphrase Borges:

Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of Mario. When all men on earth think day and night of Mario, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Mushroom Kingdom?


frankiii said...

Congrats on the nice new shogi set! I really like those pieces.

albtraum said...

Thanks! ... anybody want to explain the simplified characters on my pawns? I keep forgetting to investigate that.

tammy said...

Alex! I laughed out loud at your "expression" picture caption. Hilarious!