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Finding The Phantom Thieves

Navigating through Tokyo anxiety

If I don’t return to the land of the rising sun for at least a week in 2020, I’ll be upset. A month would be ideal honestly, or maybe more. This maddening wanderlust stems from a lucky twist of fate: I travelled there for three days in March 2019. It was my first time in Japan and it quickly became one of the most formative trips of my life.

For some context, I’m a 24 (then 23) year-old freelance journalist from Newcastle in northern England. Having never set foot in Asia, I was sent to Japan to interview the developers of Earth Defence Force: Iron Rain and play a preview build of their game. We talked about Starship Troopers and how killer ants are cute, actually…

The fun and terrifying part of this press trip (a very recent phenomenon for me in my first proper year of this job) was that I was all on my own – an anxious geordie alone in Tokyo. Usually, on an excursion of this nature, there’s an agenda and a schedule to stick to for each day, and I’d be shepherded to and fro with some freedom in-between. In this case, the (very lovely) PR representative had organised the interview and an interpreter and all I had to do was duck into a delivery nook in rainy Jimbocho on the dawn of the final day so I could do my job. Beyond that, Japan was my oyster. I had a short amount of time but I was dogged in my determination to fight against the grain of my brain and make the most of it.

I still dream about this broth

I had spent my first morning in Ikebukuro checking out the EVA store and slurping on Ichiran Ramen and Coolish. I made a pit stop at my hotel to get changed before my big bold late evening plan: I wanted to visit Shibuya. I knew I simply couldn’t leave without soaking in the scramble: this was mere weeks after I’d reviewed Kingdom Hearts 3 and watched Sora’s eyes lock with the lights of the 109 building. On the long flight over, my ambition was further spurred by the Frank Ocean lyric  “hide my tattoos in Shibuya” (even though I don’t have any to worry about myself…)

Unfortunately, this plan meant I had to battle my way through the Tokyo subway to get there, which – despite its impeccable efficiency – had already flared my anxiety on multiple occasions. I took the wrong route out of the airport  (which on reflection led to an unexpected floral adventure in the shadow of Tokyo Tower) and then found myself trapped between the wrong stations on my way back from Ikebukuro. The sharp edges of this memory are vivid as I slip into panic attack mode whilst trying to explain my situation to the subway staff in their fancy caps. It felt like a waking nightmare as I stood there , stranded between gates, streams of omnidirectional commuters shuffling at full speed until they became a blurry time-lapse unravelling the tape in my tormented grey matter.

The hustle and bustle of Shibuya Center-Gai

Fearful from my past mistakes, I knew I had to approach this leg of my journey with any amount of bullish optimism that I could muster. I put my best foot forward and hopped on the train at Jimbocho Station to ride the Hanzomon line. I was told that this was the correct way to get to Shibuya by the kind clerk at my hotel, but three stops in, the usual nerves and overthinking thought processes started to hit. It’s the same kind I get at home even when I’m on the same bus I’ve been getting for 15 years. “Am I on the right train? Do I need to switch anywhere? Maybe I should get off and rethink this…” – I’d watch the screens after each stop and my fuzzy vision couldn’t scan Shibuya. Palms sweaty, I started thinking about the fact that this was my only real chance to check this special place out and it was getting late… was I going to miss it? It was a typical mental back and forth that had me second-guessing myself into sorrow. At home, I’d usually check the departure board and another source at least five times before hopping on- just to be sure. but at this moment, I was distraught. That was until I saw it.

At the Aoyama-Itchome stop, my eyes glazed over a strangely familiar symbol: A capital G in a yellow circle. Without question, I jumped off and beelined for more of this mustard iconography. I had found something I’d been virtually acquainted with in reality and like that, it snapped my brain out of its stupor. My ticket to the scramble was secured, or so I thought at the time…

My sanctuary!

For those readers familiar with Persona 5, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Right at the start of the game, you’re tasked with going to school from your home base at Cafe Leblanc (Songen-Jaya) but you first have to switch over to the Ginza Line from Shibuya Station. It’s a dizzying test to get you acquainted with Persona 5’s subway system, and a primer so that you can make it to the Aoyama-Itchome stop, where Shujin Academy is based. Here’s some greater detail from USGamer’s Caty McCarthy on this early mission’s purposefully disorienting design!

As Joker, I rushed around the station, slipping past punters and trying out closed-off alleyways to make my way to the stop. In reality, there wasn’t much difference as I fumbled towards the transfer. Given that it was my first experience with the series, my naive mind made me think there was some sort of in-game penalty for being late. Spoilers: there isn’t! But In reality, there was. I couldn’t just complete one focused activity in an evening and advance time as I could in Persona – I wanted to make the most of my trip, and that included getting lost in Shibuya and the surrounding wards, inhaling as much of the culture as I could in my short stay.

Bewildered but dogmatic about following that yellow circle, I eventually tapped my Suica card and dashed onto the next Ginza line train. Three stops later and I saw the elusive, all-comforting sign on the plasma subway screen. As a voice from the speaker sounded out the syllables, I was beaming, pacing out through the Hachiko gates and into the feverish hub of activity. Past the dog statue, into the open, and with the 109 looming large, I found myself stood in the middle of one of the famous zebra crossings. Turning around to see the station in all its glory, I spotted the glass hangover where I’d meet up with Ryuji and Ann after school – a wave of relief pulled my mind away from the common feedback loop of anxious worry. I’d made it, and this was merely the start of what would go on to be an unforgettable evening alone in Tokyo.

It’s a hot water bottle of warmth and wanderlust that I turn to when I’m at my worst.

You bet I ate tons of great conveyor belt sushi before darting between my new favourite things- Izakayas. I ended the night in Shinjuku, an unexpected burst of energy and confidence taking me to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and later, right down to the tiny stools, dry beers and chicken skewers of Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane). Route cemented, I came back the next night, wolfing down Yoshinoya beef bowls and snapping pics of the neon red signs of Kabukicho, my paltry knowledge of Yakuza’s Kamurucho leading me to the SEGA arcade for a few rounds of Naganuma magic with the rhythm game Chunithm before bed.

Channelling my inner Liam Wong

The comfort and belonging that I found in Tokyo over the remaining nights of my trip is something I still think about. It’s a hot water bottle of warmth and wanderlust that I turn to when I’m at my worst. It’s a place and time that I’ll remember forever, one where I fought against my anxiety to strike out and enjoy my own company in an exciting new city.

P.S: A few months after the trip to Tokyo I was commissioned to write some Persona 5 guides which forced me back into the fold with a new save. Let’s just say my Ginza transfer was a lot easier this time… 

By Jordan Oloman

Geordie journalist with a passion for old-school adventure games and everything melancholy. Bylines at IGN, Kotaku, PCGamesN, Playboy and more. @JordanOloman

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