Friday, June 10, 2016

Roaming Around Japan: Utsunomiya

On my first trip to Japan, I decided to go to the Bandai Museum in Matsudo in Chiba. Unfortunately I later discovered that the museum has closed and moved way out to Utsunomiya in Tochigi prefecture (also the capital of the prefecture with a population of about half a million), some 110km north of Tokyo. Worse still the museum itself was out on a country line out of the city. Regardless I wanted to see the museum and as a bonus took my first shinkansen trip. After managing to screw up in an attempt to get through the gates to the platform, it was short 43 minute trip to Utsunomiya from Ueno station. Unfortunately the private railway to get to the museum is about a half hour walk away. It’s far easier to get a taxi (unless you want to bus it) to Tobu-Utsunomiya station (station number TN-40). From here, take to train to Omocha no Machi station (TN-35, the name of the station literally means “Toy Town”. Besides Bandai, Takara Tomy also has a factory out here).

The area around the station is actually the town of Mibu. There are a number of interesting tourist attractions in the area such as a museum dedicated to war relics and a science museum. The major problem though is there is practically no public transport to get to these attractions and walking isn’t really an option due to the distances between them, nor a bike as there seems to be no rental cycle shops in the area. The two remaining options are a rental car (to get to some of the attractions you may end up paying a road toll, though you can take alternate roads) or taxi. Of course both are a bit problematic. I took a taxi, which in retrospect wasn’t the greatest choice. Sure it’s cheaper, but you have to deal with language problems if you’re not too well versed in Japanese, and as a result I saw far less than I could have of the area’s attractions. On the other hand you’re free to drive anywhere you like for the day and a lot of rental cars do have English GPS (well the Nissan car rental chain does offer that option at least).

From Omocha no Machi station, I took a taxi to the Mibu Toy Museum. However I arrived a bit too early and decided to have a look around the parkland that surrounds it, Tochigi Wanpaku Park. This is an area which seemed to be developed in the 1980’s. There’s lots of strange little things placed around the park suck as Moai (Easter Island statues), some Aztec inspired ruins and these weird wooden figures. It was early morning in the park on a weekday in late October and it really isn’t in a suburban or built up area, but there were still a number of people walking around. I got accosted by a business man who could speak English a bit and one of the greenkeepers. It was at this point I realised that people outside of metropolitan Tokyo were far more friendly than those inside the city.

Anyway, the Mibu Toy Museum opens at 9:30 am and costs ¥600 for adults. The idea behind it seems to be that the kids can play in the centre of the building while the adults look at the exhibits. It is primarily a play centre for kids and the museum part is a little lacking. Once you pay, the first thing you’ll see is a massive collection of soft toys;

There’s also a number of ex-promotional material such as life sized Sailor Moon figures and this kind of out of place Ultraman Tiga. It looks as if Rei is not impressed with the new Sailor Senshi member…

More human sized ex-promotional models such as various robots from Toei’s long running Sentai series.

Some of the exhibits are just over the shop and seemingly have no rhyme or reason to them. Take this collection of toy ambulances above. They’re just packed in there without any real thought.

However there are a number of really interesting items on display, like this Lupin III mahjong game

Or this toy microphone set, merchandise linked to 1970’s idol group the Candies.

And more 1970’s idol merchandise such as these Pink Lady dolls. Apart from the displays, there is also a room with a large model train set up. There’s an additional fee to operate the model trains.

On the way out you’ll see the actual Yatter-Wan prop from Takashi Miike’s 2009 film “Yatterman” (a live action remake of the 1970’s Tatsunoko anime TV series) next to the souvenir shop and cafĂ©.

Outside the museum is a Zoids inspired life sized figure/playground equipment (well a cubbyhouse type thing at the very least). I needed to get to the Bandai Museum and my Japanese wasn’t good at all, so I asked the two ladies at the counter to phone a taxi for me. One of the ladies even led me out to the designated spot where taxis drop off and pick up people.

The Bandai Museum is open from 10am and costs ¥1,000 for entry. The museum is partly an archive for Bandai and is probably cheaper to have both together rather than in Chiba where it previously was. The museum itself is divided up into five areas; a Japanese toy area, a world toy section, a hobby section, another inexplicably dedicated to Thomas Edison and a play area for kids.

Outside are three life size bronze statues of Aba Red from “Abaranger”, Kamen Rider number 1 and Akarenger from “Gorenger”.

Why Bandai would collect Thomas Edison stuff is beyond me. Regardless the collection is quite interesting and informative.

The world toy section is comprised mostly of a collection from the now defunct London Toy & Model Museum. When the museum was closed in 1999 due to low attendance rates, Bandai bought up a lot of the collection. They even put out a book on the museum detailing 500 of the pieces they bought. Another odd piece in their collection is a steam tractor which sits outside the museum. It seems to have been purchased from the Tom Varley collection, which the owner, a collector of working steam powered vehicles in the UK, died in the 1990’s.

The hobby section includes this large Gundam torso (you can see a life sized model of Amaro on the walkway above the Gundam’s right shoulder)...

...a White Base diorama...

...and this glorious mess of a display which Yoshiyuki Tomino supervised himself.

And finally the Japanese toy area which of course includes lots of Bandai related toys such as Sailor Moon (which was a bit of a mess itself...).

And one of my favourites, Marmalade Boy. There are thousands and thousands of items on display and it will take you a good hour or two to go through the lot. It’s probably not as good as the original museum in Chiba, but the area is quite a nice change of pace if you’re sick of Tokyo and want to get out of the city.

Two more shots of the displays, here’s Pen Pen from “Evangelion”...

...and here’s Ultraman Tiga who was being humiliated because it was close to Halloween. To get back to Utsunomiya, walk out of the museum, turn left and walk straight ahead for around ten minutes to Omocha no Machi station.

There is an underpass in the park to get to the station platform on the other side of the tracks, but before you do have a look at this small steam engine just beyond the park. I believe Takara Tomy put up the money to preserve and display it. From Omocha no Machi station, it’ll take about 15 minutes to get to Tobu-Utsunomiya station. Try to exit the station out of the north entrance of the Tobu department store close to where Louis Vuitton is. To the right of the Louis Vuitton store front will be a very long covered shopping street (Orion Dori). Walk down here for around 500 meters and on your left (crossing one street along the way) will be Utsunomiya Festa.

This is another one of those “anime complexes” that you find from time to time in areas outside Tokyo. The main stores in this building are Mandarake, Lashinbang, Animate, Yellow Submarine, C-labo, Volks and Melonbooks. There’s also a performance space, a yoga studio, dress shop and some fast food places.

Utsunomiya was also the first place I found the regional Kit Kats. The Tochigi strawberry flavoured ones where first region Kit Kats I ever bought. That’s it for Utsunomiya. Next time I’ll be looking at Odaiba in Tokyo.

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