The Future is Now — Shinjuku VR Zone Analysis & Review

Intro

Since the beginning of my early childhood, I had always dreamed of escaping reality and entering a virtual world.  Not because I had a bad life (because I actually had a really good life), but because I was heavily influenced by anime and games as a kid and wanted to live in a fully interactive world where I could freely express myself.  My fascination with VR started when I first watched Digimon as a kid, then later grew as I became engrossed with Yu-Gi-Oh! (specifically season 3) and Sword Art Online.  When I entered college, I had the opportunity to test VR games with an Oculus Rift through Michigan State University’s CAS program, and even got to try some indie VR games at Tokyo Game Show last year!  Just recently in 2017 the Shinjuku VR Zone has opened in Tokyo as an experimental VR gaming arcade and playground for the public to try out, so naturally I had to go and visit!  Currently boasting 15 different immersive activities and an interactive VR exhibition by Tokyo Art City, this zone is growing at a rapid rate and was definitely worth the trip!

The System

 

I came here early Saturday morning with my friend visiting from America who is also a huge nerd like myself.  We purchased 4 different colored tickets online (each for a different selection of games) so we could ensure that we got in.  Tickets are available at the door, but some attractions are so popular that you may not be guaranteed entry so I recommend booking in advance online.  You can buy tickets in sets of 4 (for 4,400 yen) and also individually (for around 1,200 each).  After showing our tickets at the door, we were welcomed in by friendly staff and decided to explore the area!  At the center of the building we saw a hologram projected on the wall and a giant glowing VR tree structure  looking like it was radiating powerful energy.  This was such a fitting atmosphere–I already felt like I was the hero of a sci-fi series!

Immersive Horror Room

After staring in awe at all of the cutting-edge decorations, we made our way to our first game, which was the Immersive Horror Room (IHR), just because we wanted to be thoroughly spooked before we had to wait in line for the more popular attractions.  IHR was overall the best way to start our VR experience because the wait for short and the game was extremely entertaining and high quality.  The aesthetic was very Silent Hill-esque and some parts of it actually made me scream out loud.  Fortunately, I was not the only one!

While sitting down with VR helmets, you and your partner control characters in a wheelchair and navigate through a haunted house full of wicked obstacles and enemies that try to kill you.  It was a bit hard to get used to at first, but you could use a flashlight to choose different directions so the gameplay was easy to learn.  At one point, I triggered an alarm and was blindfolded and captured by the enemy.  Once I regained my vision, I was strapped to the floor and couldn’t move my character was twisted figured surrounded me and other victims.  I watched them murder characters around me one by one with gruesome weapons and was truly terrified that I was next.  Luckily my friend was able to solve a puzzle and save me just in the nick of time!  The game has multiple scenarios, and you can see and talk to your partner through a headset.  Though we won the game, it had a “To be continued…” screen at the end implying that it might be developed into a “real” full-length game someday.  I really hope that it is because it was a lot of fun and it was truly immersive making me feel a lot of terror, suspense and excitement!  I would rather pay for this than go to a horror movie any day.

VR Beach Paradise

To relax after that nerve-wracking experience, we decided to relax on a VR beach near the restaurant of the VR Zone.  Yes, they recreated the beach scene from Eureka 7!  Too soon!

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Evangelion: Throne of Souls

Next, we decided to go to the Evangelion Throne of Souls attraction, because who doesn’t want to pilot a giant robot!?  Since I was 14 (the same age as the pilots) I’ve wanted to volunteer myself at NERV HQ, so I am happy that nearly after 10 years later I can finally achieve my dream!  This VR attraction was extremely personalized and you could choose to pilot Unit 00, 01, or 03, and see a launch sequence that made you feel like you were in midair!  After launching, you need to stealthily navigate through Tokyo-3 and pick up weapons along the way to destroy the AT field of a giant Sachiel with your partner co-op style.  The simulation was amazing because when you looked down at yourself, you were wearing a plug suit, and piloting the Eva felt a bit narrow and clunky just like its frame implies.  It felt genuine–like nothing else I have ever experienced before.  My only complaint is that there weren’t multiple stages and the simulation was so short.  In the future I really hope they give you the option to pay more to continue, because I definitely would!

VR Mario Kart

Next we made our way to everyone’s favorite attraction–VR Mario Kart.  The wait for this was nearly an hour, but there were places to sit while waiting in line (unlike Tokyo Disney and Universal) so the wait was actually quite pleasant.  The game was complete with 4 different players going against one another!  They let you choose your character (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Peach), and I of course chose Princess Peach!  The game sequence begins with the 4 of you lined up at the starting point, and all of you can communicate through the headset!  Then 2 popular villains show up, and you must all race them to the finish!  Along the way you can pick up and throw turtle shells, whack other players with hammers, and also throw bombs at one another!  Fortunately blue shell VR technology has not been developed yet (and for the sake of friendship, it hopefully never will).  The game was very fun and had a lot of obstacles that balanced out who stayed in first.  You could not customize your car so everyone plays on equal ground.  Being launched in the air and flying through the sky was my favorite part!  I came in 3rd but I had a wonderful time and was glowing after the experience.  I highly recommend doing this one, because before a long-term VR world like SAO and Accel World is developed, this is a once in a lifetime experience.

Panic Cube

The last attraction that we did was one called Panic Cube which is a non-VR activity where you are locked in a prison cell and must solve puzzles on a giant touch screen while handcuffed or else a giant balloon will pop and you will meet your end!  We were specifically asked not to publish any hints about this game online by the staff so I will respect their policy, but one thing I recommend is not sharing the cuffs with your partner.  We did this thinking it would make the game easier, but it did not!  We sadly lost in the simulation, but it was still a fun way to die.

Final Thoughts

After finally processing this mind-blowing experience, I am eternally thankful for my trip here. To those who truly interested in VR and have the money, I highly recommend it because currently this is one of the most cutting-edge public areas where you can have a hands-on VR experience.  However, unfortunately the long wait lines and ticket purchasing policy ruin some of the momentum, so if you are just looking to spend the day at an arcade playing with a friend then I would recommend going to something like a Taito game center instead.  I really liked how clean the place was as well.  They make all players wear a face mask before putting on the VR helmet and also thoroughly wipe down the controls before the next players get in (hence the long wait).  It is reassuring to know that the facility is well-maintained and treated with respect so it was last long! It is clear that this is a very experimental project and a lot of the games they have are still in development, but it is drawing a crowd and gradually expanding!  Being one of the first to try it out truly made me feel like a hero.

Because I know that my money is going to a good cause, I will likely return in the future.  I would really like to try the Gundam, Dragonball, and VR rock climbing games next time.  I have high hopes that they will develop more angels for me to fight and more courses in Mario Kart that I can go back and triumph over.  From 8bit to virtual reality, I will always appreciate the glorious gaming world that has forever influenced my life.

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Toreba the Online Crane Game

If you’ve ever been to Japan before, you know that crane games are quite hyped up around here.  With limited edition prizes and exclusive merchandise that may only be available in limited quantities, it’s sometimes hard to resist in indulging in the crazy claw machine culture.  But imagine if you never had to leave your house and wander through the busy streets of Tokyo to play them…  With the power of technology, you can now control a crane game from your smartphone or tablet and have prizes from Japan shipped straight to your house!  This is a relatively new project that I have been involved with CyberStep and I am excited to share the details about it!  The name of our new application is Toreba, and is available for both iPhone and Android.  “Toreba” is Japanese for “if you can take” and is currently the most profitable game at our company, available in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean!

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My main project at CyberStep is localizing the MMO Onigiri, but I have also been a part of the Toreba localization team translating products for the prize list from Japanese to English.  Our prize list is quite extensive and is updated monthly with hundreds of prizes including figurines, Japanese snacks, pizza-shaped cushions, and Evangelion tissues.  Translating these lists is fun for me, because I know a lot of the anime and videogame series that the character goods are from and it makes me feel nostalgic!  It also helps me discover new obscure Japanese products I never knew existed (every nerd’s dream).  Check out some of our current prizes below:

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The app itself features a real camera view, so it’s kind of like virtual reality because you get the same sensation as peering into the glass of a crane game in person.  The interface is relatively simple and you can move the claw with the ease of touch screen controls.  You can also see a preview of the prizes that you can win and their location in the crane game so you can strategize  how to best to play.  Another neat feature is that you can see replays of your wins and share them online with other players–the ultimate bragging right.  Want tips on how to win?  I can’t share any info, but this tutorial by Crane Couple Academy is pretty spot on.

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The app is free to download and quite easy to play.  You will need to purchase TP (Toreba Points) to try it out, but if you win the low shipping costs are quite worth it, and you will definitely find a lot of the Japan-exclusive products interesting if you are an anime/manga fan or collector!  If you live in Japan, the shipping for one prize per week is completely free!  In the future we hope to run more US campaigns and deals for it to help the players minimize the shipping costs.  This game is already famous in Japan and I am really excited to watch it grow and become available worldwide!

 

Out of this World Parfaits at ミルキーウェイ Milky Way Cafe

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Looking for an intergalactic cafe experience that’s sure to rock your world?  Then Milky Way Cafe in Ikebukuro might be the place for you!  Last Saturday I slept in for half the day so I did the most logical thing and ordered a giant chocolate ice cream parfait with cake, star-shaped cookies, fruit, and extra whipped cream at this lovely little cafe.  Literally everything here was star-shaped!  The plates, the confectioneries, the interior decor…  They even sold star-shaped candy called konpeito (金平糖) by the cash register.  Now that’s what I call thematic.

The menu had a large choice of desserts and even some starry sandwiches too!  The dishes were a bit expensive, but all of the craftsmanship that went into them were more than worth it.  My Choco Mousse and Choco Ice frozen parfait was delivered to my table by a smiling waitress and was absolutely gorgeous in design.  I took a couple pictures then proceeded to devour it.  I then ordered some garlic bread at a nearby restaurant and drank martinis on a rooftop.  Nothing beats Tokyo dining!

代々木のピクニック – Picnics in Yoyogi

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Yoyogi Park is a great area for people watching, dog spotting, playing sports, and one of my favorite ways to meet people and try new food: picnics!  During my very first hanami (花見), or cherry blossom viewing season, I discovered that Yoyogi Park is one of the best areas in Tokyo to do this.  Yoyogi Park is walking distance from Harajuku Station and has weekly food festivals and events.  Since MeetUp is becoming a popular app in Japan between foreigners and young Japanese people alike, it is not uncommon to see groups come here and spread a tarp over the ground for international parties!

The most common food you will see at these picnics are takoyaki (fried octopus dumplings), crepes made fresh from Harajuku food stands, a variety of tea and sake, and popular Japanese snacks like Pocky and rice crackers.  Usually everyone will bring one drink for themselves and one snack to share with everyone so there is plenty of food to go around!  The atmosphere is very friendly and you can freely walk from tarp to tarp to meet new people and try new food.  The beautiful cherry blossoms are an added bonus to this wonderful food and company!

For upcoming events in Yoyogi, please see 代々木公園イベント.

St. Patrick’s Day in Japan

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As someone who loves drinking and everything green, St. Patrick’s Day is a very important day for me.  On top of that, I graduated from MSU which has green and white as their school colors, so for the last 4 years I have celebrated this holiday to its fullest.  Little did I know that Tokyo celebrates it!  Every year the Ireland Japan Chamber of Commerce (IJCC) puts on a grand St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ometesando.  Leprechauns, green Harajuku girls, and flying Guinness beers are all a typical site and you better believe there are bagpipes!

Seeing this parade made me feel like I was back home in America.  There were a lot of foreigners as well as curious Japanese bystanders.  I loved the mesh of cultures and the Irish pride.  A bar called Greenland in Roppongi also threw a party on the day of St. Patrick’s Day.  As with all Ometesando parades, this is one not to miss!

ハリネズミ専門店 HARRY – The Hedgehog Cafe in Tokyo

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Have you ever dreamed of dining on food in the company of cute little hedgehogs?  Hedgehog Cafe Harry, named after its largest resident hedgehog, allows you to bring your own food and interact with hedgehogs in 30 minute intervals.  It also has a shop area where you can even buy hedgehogs of different colors and mascot merchandise.  While I was there I had the opportunity to hold Harry himself and one of the smaller hedgehogs!

The interior decor of the cafe was adorable with all of the hedgehog propaganda!  I enjoyed watching them run around in their cages and they were very pleasant to hold.  It is recommended to make a reservation due to the shop’s popularity, but the staff was kind and let me in despite me not having made a reservation!  I thoroughly enjoyed being here because it had such a warm atmosphere.   Since these kinds of animal cafes are rare, I highly recommend going to them!

Playing Pokemon GO in Japan

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The day that Pokemon GO came out in Japan was the day that would unite people from all of the world in an epic and nostalgic journey to  catch ’em all in the land of the rising sun.  Due to server capacity issues, the app didn’t officially become playable in Japan for nearly 2 weeks after the US launch.  It was devastating to watch all of my friends back home catching Pokemon in their backyards while my trainer was stuck in a barren wasteland lacking any PokeStop or Pokemon.  However, the long wait was ever so worth the hype all of us experienced when the servers finally did go up!

I still remember that day.  I was working at CyberStep and around 12:00 (which was fortunately around the time of my lunch break), everyone started excitedly whispering while low key using their cellphones as a radar to see what Pokemon were nearby.  As soon as lunch started I quickly grabbed my phone and ran outside around the company HQ to see what was there.  Bulbasaur, Pinsir, Weedle, Caterpie, and many Pokemon were lurking in the grass.  I felt connected with my childhood self as I walked around caught Pokemon from the game that consumed most of my childhood.  But that was only the beginning.  Because over the weekend I traveled to all of the major wards of Tokyo including Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Roppongi, Shibuya, Nakano, and Odaiba to catch them as pictured below!

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Pokemon GO is that it helps you discover sights you may have never noticed before–like the giant Super Mario Pipe in Ikebukuro!  Of course the first place I went to was the Mega Pokemon Center in Sunshine City.  It felt surreal seeing a Squirtle spawn on top of the Charizard statue and in my tomato ramen!  An onbon Pikachu was also at the front of the store greeting customers and being interviewed by one of the staff.  Pika pi~ Odaiba had a giant inflatable Pikachu bounce for kids and a bunch of cardboard cutouts for photo ops.  Even the remote areas of the beach were swarming with Pokemon (Slowpoke quite fancied my friend Sophie)!  And similar to the nightlife in Roppongi, all of the PokeStops were lured.

Though the popularity of the app has died down a bit, I still commonly see people playing it on the trains and around some of the parks of Tokyo.  It’s extremely fun to discover the hidden gems of your favorite places while becoming a Pokemon Master in the process!

Two Spring Flower Festivals not to Miss in Japan

Over Golden Week, I had the chance to go to two flower festivals that were occurring simultaneously right outside of Tokyo.  Both had a unique assortment of flowers and a bustling atmosphere of food vendors, stage performances, and visitors to the nearby shrines.  Though festivals occur almost weekly in Tokyo, I highly recommend stopping by these two as the flowers are in bloom for only a limited time.  I was lucky that I was able to catch them before the season was over!

Bunkyo Azalea Festival

The Bunkyo Azalea Festival occurs at Nezu Shrine right near by the famous Ueno Park right outside of Tokyo.  Many festivals are held here yearly, but in my opinion, this is the most beautiful time to go!  Vivid azaleas occupy the lush scenery of the shrine making it a popular wedding spot and also a wonderful place to get lost among the beautiful shades of pink, indigo, red, and white.  Being surrounded by so many bright colors along with the ancient torii made me feel like I was truly in Japan and I easily walked through these gardens six times while admiring their natural beauty.  The azaleas are in full bloom during April so definitely go if you get the chance!

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Kameido Wisteria Festival

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The Kameido Wisteria Festival also occurs in April at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine in eastern Tokyo.  Beautiful violet wisteria trellises hang above a peaceful pond with fish and turtles swimming in it.  Walking through this area is similar to walking through a zen garden and seeing the reflection of the flowers on the water is extremely beautiful.  You will notice that these flowers are pictured in a lot of artwork in Japan so this is your chance to see them up-close in full bloom!  If you are lucky, you will also see ikebana (生け花), meaning flower arrangement displays, around the festival scenes as well.

Regardless of whether you’re a huge flower fan or not, these festivals will bring you closer to Japan’s culture and fill your life with hope and aspirations!

富士山の上り – Climbing Mt. Fuji

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Over the weekend I took a trip to climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji overnight and see the sunrise with 4 of my friends.  For 14 hours I hiked 3,776 meters up Mt. Fuji in the rain and reached the top at 5am!  My lungs were on fire, my legs felt like they’re going to fall off, and we had only gotten 4 hours of sleep in the previous 2 days, but this trip was worth it all.  The excitement of reaching the summit with my friends and also people from all over the world was an amazing cultural experience. Though the journey was long and treacherous, I am glad I got to see another beautiful landmark of Japan!

Before taking a bus to the 5th Station of Mt. Fuji (this is the last station where public transportation will go), we decided to explore the Ice, Wind, and Bat Caves of Kawaguchiko.  I felt like I was Laura Croft as I crouched down in caves and climbed over rocks to see natural lava formations and ice clusters.  Journeying through the Bat Cave in person was awesome because it was pretty large and on the way we hiked by the Aokigahara Forest which is a famous spot for suicide.  Seeing these sights before the climb really added to the excitement of our journey, and there were many photo ops on the way!

Around 7pm we started hiking the Yoshida Trail of Mt. Fuji in the dark.  I was fortunate to have brought a flashlight because the journey would have been extremely difficult due to all of the mist on the mountain.  It rained lightly for a bit but luckily we didn’t get very damp in our raincoats.  Going up the mountain was pretty easy and we only stopped for one 30 minute rest at the 8th Station for to warm up over some hot chocolate.  All of the food and drinks are expensive so it is recommended to bring your own, but we were so cold the 400円  warm drinks were worth it!

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The most difficult part for me was the last 900 meters to the summit.  Here the air was a lot thinner and there were so many people that we had to move very slowly in a line.  Due to the fog, I could not see very well in front of me and had to use my full body to climb over the rocks.  I am a fit athlete so normally this would not be a problem, but due to me being short of breath I felt like I was over-exerting myself.  Fortunately, my strong will to see the sunrise and my friends helped get me to the top around 4:30am which was a half an hour before the sunrise.  While we waited I noticed that there was a gym owned by Team Mystic in Pokemon GO!   The sun rose shortly after 5am and we began the 3 hour descent down.  I enjoyed the trip but I was so happy to be back on solid ground again!

Things I would have done differently:

  • Bought a hiking stick: My friend bought one of these and said it was a lot easier on her legs!  Going down the mountain was very difficult for me because I slid a lot due to the wet rocks from the rain.  With a hiking stick, you can see where the stable ground is at and it also supports your body.  You can buy them at the 5th Station very cheaply and I wish I would have got one!
  • Packed more layers: You sweat a lot on Mt. Fuji as long as you keep moving.  However, a mere 10 minutes after sitting down will have you shivering, especially if you go at night.  I wore 3 layers but still was extremely cold at the summit.  If I climb again I plan to buy a wind-resistant jacket so I can stay up there longer.
  • Brought more protein/energy food: I knew I would be burning a lot of calories on this journey, but didn’t pack a lot of protein so I got really hungry in the middle of the night.  Luckily, my friends had packed extra protein bars, energy gels, and drinks that kept me from being hungry.  Definitely bring food that is healthy and easy to carry!

Overall I was very satisfied with this hike and though it rained we stayed in high spirits and got amazing photos and lifelong memories of Mt. Fuji!

To see a virtual tour of the journey we went on, please see the Mt. Fuji 2016 video my friend Neelu Tadisetty took!

Sound Museum Vision: A Monday Night Adventure

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My Japanese friends in Tokyo mainly consist of DJs, bartenders, game designers, translators, and apparel workers.  We all have one thing in common: our mutual love for clubbing.  So naturally when I received 3 invites to the Party Monster event at Sound Museum Vision in Shibuya, I had to come on out and support the squad on a Monday night.  In spirit of the monster theme, I decided to wear my white bear hat to the club because I knew it would be a ht success.  It was my first time going to this club but with cat girl DJs, noteworthy house and hip hop, and flashing gorilla holograms on the wall, I was not disappointed!

Sound Museum Vision is divided up into 4 rooms with a central room that DJs can rent out (with bars in every single area).  My friend DJ Egypt was one of the first to DJ in a dark room called “Deep Space” and played a selection of EDM for us to dance to.  Though she was one of the first to play, you better believe I murdered that dancefloor.  I also got some random Japanese girls to join us.  This room later switched to hip hop which was pretty neat.  My favorite part about the room was a sign that read “Deep Non-Smoking”.  Well played, Japan.

Around 2am my friend DJ DA1 was playing in a room called “White”.  I was falling asleep at this point but he woke me up and told me that I better be there!  So after listening to some big room bass in the central room (called “Gaia”), I was fully woke so I wandered into White to watch him play.  White was a well-lit room full of neon colors.  DA1 played a combination of EDM and house.  I was dancing the whole entire time and met some awesome cat girls.  His performance was my favorite just because it brought a lot of energy to the room.  It felt great to throw down on a Monday and I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins when the show was over.

I checked out the other 2 rooms that were lounges, but the three that I visited were definitely the most lit.  Around 3:30am I said goodbye to my friends and wandered back to retrieve my bike.  On the way there, I passed by the legendary Taco Bell that had just opened in Shibuya, and also was approached by 3 drunk Japanese guys that gave me a duck that they stole from a love hotel in the red light district.  Classic.  Glad that Tokyo always has something going on and I am excited to spontaneously go to more of these events!