Category Archives: Travel

Tokyo 11/18: Namja Town and Preparing for Animate Girls Festival

Day 2: Sunshine City and no Wi-Fi.

One of the glitches of the trip came when the mobile Wi-Fi I had ordered from Global Communications had not arrived at the hotel when I checked in. This was not completely unexpected as I had forgotten to confirm it initially, and then after I remembered to put in my payment, noticed it was after the cancellation point. It took my payment though, so I was hoping it would take, but no dice–after I emailed them about it, they just refunded me and I had to place another order for a couple days later. This meant that I had no Wi-Fi but I figured it would be ok since I have free roaming with T-Mobile and would be spending a lot of time in a big mall which would surely have free Wi-Fi. Right? Right?

Wrong. Although it looked like I had a pretty good docomo cell signal, it never registered any data connection. Also, the Sunshine City Mall is not so much for Wi-Fi unless you have a particular app that helps connect you, and it’s hard to download an app without already having Wi-Fi.  Also I couldn’t get my roaming cell service to kick in for anything, until the next day when I suddenly thought of restarting my phone after it updated its connection…things.  In any case, the moral is that you should probably not forget to pay for your mobile Wi-Fi router in a timely fashion.

On the off-chance that there are people out there interested in going to Animate Girls Festival (AGF) I’ll go into a little detail about it, since when I was planning to go I couldn’t find any practical information in English about it at all.  (This information was correct as of 11/2018, when I went, and is, of course, subject to change.) AGF is a yearly event put on by Animate, a huge chain of stores specializing in anime-related merchandise in Japan.  It takes place in Sunshine City, a reasonably large mall connected to a convention center space in Ikebukuro–what’s known as the Akihabara for women, as the stores and cafes there lean more towards properties geared towards girls.

Gacha as far as the eye can see.

AGF is basically a two day merchandising event where a large number of companies who produce anime, video games, visual novels, manga, etc. can buy booth space and sell merch related to their various properties.  Because of its specificity of focus, it attracts a lot of companies who don’t typically make or sell merch, so for the audience that’s really into that one obscure character in that one free-to-play mobile game, this is your big chance to get something with him on it.

Utano-PrinceSama merch at the Animate store in Ikebukuro

As is the case with a lot of things in Japan, the way to buy into something like this is somewhat complicated if you a) don’t live in Japan, and b) don’t speak or read Japanese.  It could be argued that no one in their right mind would want to go to such a thing if they didn’t either live in Japan or speak Japanese, but honestly, people in their right minds miss out on an awful lot.

I basically had to run all the Animate sites through Google Translate which is sometimes more helpful and sometimes less.  From what I could figure out, it seems that there are three types of tickets:  An early entry ticket, an all-day ticket, and an afternoon-only ticket.  The process of getting an early entry or all-day ticket involved entering a lottery that was only held once, for about a week.  After the lottery, winners were notified and could then purchase their tickets–any leftovers were dispensed in a secondary lottery some months later.  The problem I had was that from the erratic translation I had, I gathered that both types of tickets needed to be picked up onsite with a photo ID…and it wasn’t clear to me whether they would accept a passport with information that wasn’t in kana.  What was pretty clear was that if you didn’t have the right ID, they weren’t going to give you the ticket at all.  The afternoon tickets, in contrast, were available as just a straight online purchase so that seemed like a safer bet.

What made even that transaction difficult is that in order to buy anything from the AGF website, it appeared that you had to register for the Animate Club website, and then use that login to purchase the tickets.  Unfortunately, you could only register for the website with a Japan address.  What to do?

Sunshine City has some pretty cute stores.

I imagine there are many different ways to deal with this, however I used a website called Tenso which provides you with a free Japanese mailing address for the purposes of buying stuff.  I believe the way it’s supposed to work is that you buy stuff there, have it shipped domestically to whatever specific Japanese address they give you, and then they take it from there and ship it to you internationally for a service fee.  I have never used it in that fashion–only to register for online things.

Having figured out how to register, I was a little concerned as to whether I would need to have them mail the tickets to the address and get them sent by proxy to me which seemed like a huge hassle, but then realized you could arrange to print them out and pick them up at any 7-11, which are ubiquitous and multi-purpose there.  By this time, the only tickets left were for Sunday afternoon, but I figured without knowing how much of a madhouse it was going to be, that might be all I needed.  From this point it was pretty easy, since they took international credit cards online and the pickup at the 7-11 across the street from my hotel was a breeze thanks to the helpful employees there.

Since I didn’t have a ticket for the first day, I figured I would head over and do a trial run to the mall, scoping it out for the second day.  After walking around all of Ikebukuro cursing my lack of Wi-Fi for about 45 minutes, I finally found it.  Sunshine City is a large mall that seems to be connected to a convention center-like area on one end where AGF was taking place.  By the time I arrived, which was around noon, the huge staircase that leads up to that side’s entrance seemed totally covered with people in line or trading things or trying to muscle their way into the mall between them.  I tried to figure out where the line started so I could get in position fast the next day, when I discovered that there was no English written or spoken in AGF except for the letters “AGF.”  Eventually I wandered around enough where I felt like I knew how the line was going, and actually ended up seeing Hiro and Diana from Cybird in line.

Hiro and Diana at the Cybird panel at Anime Expo 2018

Having found out about as much as I could concerning the line up process (which looked frighteningly long even an hour before the afternoon tickets were supposed to be let in,) I just wandered the mall looking at the cute things and watched one of the few programming events that took place on the mall stage and didn’t require a ticket.  Because this is a bizarro situation where the performances didn’t need a ticket, but buying the merch did.

An appearance by the voice actors of Ikemen Live Koi no Uta o Kimi ni
There were a LOT of people at AGF. I think the people in chairs bought the early/fast entry tickets.
It was a talk-show format, I think, with parts where they did improv and read scripts from the visual novel. It was entertaining even without understanding much of it.

Afterwards, I walked around Ikebukuro and visited the big Animate store where they were having a big K7 Stories display (one of the few current animes I’ve seen.)

Afterwards visited Namja Town–a mini amusement park inside the mall that is part arcade and part themed food court.

Namja Town

The games there looked interesting (additional fee) but most seemed to require a pretty high degree of Japanese to play them, so I contented myself with just walking around and triggering the various effects placed around the themed areas.

Some areas have little windows you can peek into to see scenes, or areas you touch that move or make a noise.
There are of course scary haunted areas because Japanese stories are always mad scary.
They were having some sort of special event on these guys from a game I did not know.

The main reason I was there however, was for the Gyoza Stadium.  In Japan, they frequently advertise things like ramen or takoyaki museums that are really just food courts, and this wasn’t too much more than that, except for the great post-war theming.

It was pretty good gyoza. Not too cheap after awhile, but you’re not going to go every day.
All the different booths had different gyoza from different locations around Japan, presumably renowned for their gyoza.

They were supposed to also be known for having a dessert area where you could get ice cream in a bunch of wacky flavors, but I only saw one place open in that spot and I think it was selling pastries, mostly.

They even played period-appropriate music which I thought was a nice touch.
Most of these corridors opened up into little areas where people could sit and eat their gyoza.

Anyway, after that closed for the night, it was time to find my way back to the hotel and rest up for the next day of actually attending AGF.

The hotel was reasonably close to both the train station and Sunshine City, if you are not terminally lost, as I am.

 

 

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Tokyo, 11/18: Flying Over

After managing to put off nailing down mileage flights until the week before, I flew LAX-HND on JAL in F, which is a pretty good way to start off your trip. Unfortunately it used enough miles (80k) to make it prudent for me to return in steerage, but I figured that would be Future!Jeanine’s problem.

The first leg over was on AA in economy which was actually pretty fabulous as I was able to move up to their “slightly less miserable” class of coach and no one sat next to me.

The first meal of the trip.

Next was a 5-6 hour layover at SFO where I figured I’d try out the different One World Lounges. I had heard that the JAL Sakura Lounge wasn’t much and it actually turned out to be less than that, as although the piece of paper taped to the door said it would be open from 11pm to 2:30pm, it was pretty definitely closed. I went to Cathay Pacific’s lounge which was nearby and they said they thought the JAL lounge only opened up shortly before they had flights coming in/out. ‘This turned out to be a blessing because the Cathay Pacific Lounge was pretty nice with plenty of seating and a noodle bar making won ton or dan dan noodles.

Cathay Pacific SFO Lounge
Lots of seating that inexplicably doesn’t have much of a runway view.
Won Ton Noodles

I later went to check in at the JAL lounge when it was open, and wow, it looked shabby in comparison. It had all the charm of a waiting room at the doctor’s, with a little closet (looked like it might have been a smoking room once) set aside for the first class passengers.  There were only about as many chairs in the closet as there are seats in first class, and they were arranged in almost a Tetris-style fashion to make them all fit without people having to sit knee-to-knee. Virtually every seat was full, and I beat it back to the Cathay lounge as soon as possible.

Once on the plane however, everything was gorgeous. The stewards cannot do enough for you and the seating pods are great. They give you complementary Wi-Fi for the flight so I actually didn’t use any of the entertainment, although the offerings looked pretty standard.

First class pod on JAL from LAX-HND.
Ok, maybe not all that standard.

The food was very good—I went with the Western menu—and really, the eating never stops if you play your cards right. At about 7 hours into the flight, I think everyone in our compartment was sleeping except the guy across the aisle and myself, who kept ordering food for snacks throughout the flight.

The menu. There were other snacks on the back for a la carte dining.
Your amuse-bouche. “Very amoosing.”–Chandler Bing
Cold mushroom soup was kind of different. I didn’t taste the foie gras much in the mousse.
Virtually the only time I have caviar is on airplanes.

One thing I loved about this flight is the bathroom which turned out to probably be larger than the one in my hotel room. It came complete with linen hand towels and a platform you lowered to stand on when you changed into their lounge wear so you didn’t have to step directly on the restroom floor.

The worst part actually was the free Wi-Fi that wasn’t fast enough to even load instagram half the time, although I guess that’s a pretty petty complaint when you’re up in the sky eating a filet.

Sadly, the flight had to end sometime, and although I offered to just spend the rest of the trip flying back and forth with them throwing caviar in my mouth like an indolent seal, they made me get off. They did gift me one of their styling coffee mugs that I had admired, so that was some nice parting magic.

After a relatively painless trip through HND customs, I caught the next Airport Limo bus to Ikebukuro. It was supposed to be a quick 5 minute walk from the station to the hotel, however the bus dropped us off at the station’s West entrance and the hotel was by the East entrance, and as anyone who has traveled much in Japan can attest, that can add on roughly six days to your walk. In this case, it ended up being more like 45 minutes as I dragged my suitcases up and down staircases, borking the handle mechanism again, in the process. It would probably have been longer, except a random dude couldn’t take watching me almost fall down the stairs several times and just picked up my bag and carried it down for me. Thank you random dude! My blessings on your house!

The b tokyo ikebukuro is a perfectly pleasant hotel with all the amenities and petite rooms you’d expect of a mid-range hotel in Tokyo. Probably the oddest part of the room was that it seemed to come with AC but no heater. I found this out, after I left the AC blasting the first day (it was hot!) and then a cold snap set in the second evening and all I could do to warm up was turn it off. Weird for a town that typically likes all its indoor temperatures around 90 degrees.

The b tokyo ikebukuro hotel. See that coat hanger on the right hand wall? That’s the closet.

The best part was that it was across the street from a 7-11 where I was able to pick up my Animate Girls Festival ticket that I wasn’t sure I had bought online correctly, given their labyrinthine rules for doing so, and the obligatory melon soda and onigiri. If I lived in Tokyo, that would pretty much be my diet, since I probably wouldn’t be able to afford luxuries like dining out, or a kitchen.

Next time: A Trip to Animate Girls Festival

 

PAX West 2016: Recap

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Ah, Seattle.  Home to PAX West (9/2-9/5,) which used to be called PAX Prime, for which I had been trying to get tickets for the last couple of years.  I had actually really wanted to go because of all the BioWare content it had in the past, and this was the year I finally scored passes!  Unfortunately, it was also the year that BioWare was between games and did almost nothing!  Oh well.

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Because I waited until the last second to get flights, the only ones that were not exorbitant were at horrific hours, so I wound up getting into SEA at 2am (boo!) and hobo-ing around the  airport until the trains started running around 5am (boo!)  I had discovered that the metro ran directly from the airport to a station about a block from my hotel (yay!) so I took that uneventfully and they let me check in some ten hours early (YAY!)  After heavy napping, I staggered off to check out Pike’s Place Market and the first Starbucks, and the first of many macaroni and cheeses from Beecher’s.

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So the next day PAX started, and I’d have to say that PAX is maybe one of the more interestingly run cons that I’ve been to in awhile.  For one thing, many of the panels and events are broken up into several hotels and theaters around the convention center, but unlike SDCC where the hotels are generally right next door, these hotels could be some distance away.  I think the major…panels?  Shows?  Took place at a main theater location that looked like it was around ten blocks away from the convention center, so I never actually went there.  They did have a shuttle that went around the periphery of the further locations, but it started up about an hour after the con started for the day, and ended about an hour after the floor closed, so it was almost never convenient for me to take it.

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As I walked over to the convention center, the first sign that I may have underestimated what would be involved, was all the guys walking over carrying portable camp stools.  These were really smart guys, because boy howdy, were there lines for everything.  When I first entered, the first location I found was the BioWare Base, which was offering Systems Alliance Recruitment.

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The line didn’t look too long, so I got in.  After nothing moved for awhile, I asked an “Enforcer” (PAX volunteer) for a rough estimate of how long it would take, and she said maybe 90 minutes.  As it turned out, it took around 90 minutes to get to the DOOR, and then there was a line that snaked back and forth inside the door that took about another 60 minutes.  By the time I left, it had been over 3 HOURS.

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The spartan Systems Alliance Recruitment Center.

As it turned out, the process involved teams of two people undergoing three tests–Biotics, Combat, and Tech–to see what area you should be placed in.  If you passed all three, you got to go on to the fourth test to achieve N7 status.  Unfortunately they only had one station per test, and each test took roughly 4 minutes, so it took them something like 20 minutes to finish 8 people, which made this a pretty low-capacity attraction, as we say at Disneyland.  While my team rocked pretty hard at Biotics and passed Tech, we were unable to complete Combat, so we did not get to try the N7 test.  Your reward for all this?  A ribbon for your badge with the designation you tested into.

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For the rest of the day, I mostly rambled about the exhibitor’s floor (actually two different non-consecutive floors) buying the occasional pin and Grunt plush, and admiring the various booths.

The most exciting thing for the day was that I lucked into a last-minute VR demo of “Star Trek Bridge Crew,” which was amazing.  I don’t know why anyone spends anytime doing anything else.  I got to run the helm and aside from some difficulty grabbing onto the levers during moments of duress (those exploding stars are nerve-wracking!)  It was terrifically fun.  The worst part will be trying to convince three other people to invest in the VR gear, because you can only play it with four.

The next day was the major one for panels for me.  Some of the ones I attended:  “For Honor Panel and Gameplay” with developers and voice actors, including Jennifer Hale, voice of Commander Shepard…

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“Making and Promoting Non-Traditional Characters in Games” with BioWare writer Patrick Weekes…

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And “Romance in Games,” with BioWare Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw.

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All the panels were pretty entertaining, however it was strange that the super crowded panels generally tended to be in smaller conference rooms, while I attended others that had like thirty people total in the room, and were put in huge ballrooms.  I did try to get into a few that I knew would be popular like the Final Fantasy ones, but they filled up pretty fast.  The official PAX app had a line estimator part that was pretty handy, as it depicted how the rooms were filling up by an increasing bar graph, but the rooms dropped off the app after the start time of the panel, so it was hard to know if it was worth it to try to get into a room once it started.

I also made it to the “Swag Bag Room” at one of the hotels.  This was pretty odd, as it was clearly sponsored by Reese’s Puffs cereal and featured a huge ball pit into which people would dive to find Magical Balls that held prizes they would then play games to win.  It seemed like quite an ordeal.

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The swag bags were also puzzling–they seemed to be a plastic bag that held about five postcards advertising different things.  I actually had to ask someone if that’s what they were, because frankly, it seemed like maybe someone wasn’t really familiar with the concept of “swag” as I know it.  At least they gave you free mini boxes of cereal.

For dinner I managed to hike a half-mile over to “Pie Bar” which had some quality pie.  It’s a tiny, tiny place where people wait outside for large quantities of time to get their pie from a window, but I lucked out and a table for one happened to open up just as I got there.  Would patronize again.

I spent most of the third day investigating more of the booths on the floors and playing demos for Final Fantasy and Phoenix Wright.

I did get to one panel on “Women in Games & Tech” moderated by BioWare producer Melanie Fleming.

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This evening, Bethesda threw a “Dishonored 2” party open to anyone at the wharf, around a mile away from the convention center.  There was a streetcar that went directly there from my hotel, but it had stopped running early because it was a Sunday.  Whomp whomp.

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This was pretty interesting–the area was dressed up as an in-game environment, with people roleplaying characters and a mystery you were supposed to solve by running around and playing cards and interrogating different actors.  Unfortunately, by the time I got there, I was advised that all the tokens for the winners (dice? Silver cups?) had been given out already so the game effectively had no end for people who came afterwards.  Regardless, they showed some new gameplay footage and had some limited food and drinks available, and a cool print-to-order shirt station that was also totally inadequate for the volume of people who showed up wanting shirts.  It was really well done, I thought, with the caveat that they probably needed to expect about three times the people they ended up having.

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The last day was pretty minimal for me–I needed to pack up and check out of the hotel and then store my luggage with the bell desk as my flight didn’t leave until 0730 the next morning (I SAID I had terrible flights.)  I ended up watching a table-top RPG game for most of the afternoon (I’ve never played–seems very involved!) and then did a little more shopping before PAX West closed for the year.

In retrospect, although I enjoyed PAX, I’m not sure if it’s an essential part of my con schedule at this point.  At least 50% of it is table-top games, of which I know nothing and have little prospects of playing with any regularity, since you need other people for them.  Additionally, most of the major draws in terms of panels seemed to be various podcasts and YouTube/Twitch shows which I hadn’t seen.  Probably the strongest suit was the many demos and particularly the extensive VR set up, but the lines were pretty extensive–usually over an hour, which isn’t necessarily bad for something like E3, but sometimes over two hours, which is getting up there.  The difficult part of getting to some of it was that no one seemed to know the hours of a lot of the off-site installations, so the thought of walking all the way over there to find out that it was closed wasn’t that enticing.

The main thing is that most activities simply didn’t seem to be set up for the kind of traffic they were getting.  The Final Fantasy booth offered a different shirt everyday that was only available by playing the demo…but the demo was an hour long, so it was only available through appointment only.  This meant that people who wanted in were lining up sometimes around 0700 for a floor opening time of 1000, and that all tickets for the day were given out in the first three minutes.  I go to a lot of conventions, and routinely you hear from companies “well, we didn’t know if anyone would show up.”  Maybe it’s just what they’re telling people, but if it’s not…Seriously guys:  If you Build It, They Will Come.  Plan for a lot of people.

So general thumbs up to PAX West, and in particular to the Mayflower Park Hotel who put up with me and my hobo flight hours.  If Mass Effect Andromeda decides to make a big showing next year, maybe we’ll be back.

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On Cancelled Flights: A Cautionary Tale

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So I’ve just returned from a quick trip to East Coast for a week on Royal Caribbean’s new ship “Quantum of the Seas.”  While the cruise itself was fun, it very nearly didn’t happen at all, because of a freak (I guess?  I’m from Los Angeles, so basically any snow seems freakish to me) snow storm in New York.  Apparently, the snow caused New York to issue a flight delay, and of the three Virgin America flights going from LAX to Newark that day, only one was cancelled…Mine.

What seemed initially like a mild inconvenience (it was still early in the day, and the cruise didn’t leave until the next day,) quickly became a nightmare as Virgin America said all their other flights were full, and they could maybe get me out there next week.  They suggested they could just refund my money and I could shop around for another flight, but all the other flights on other airlines were either full or averaging around $3,000 for two people.  Ugh.

Finally, after a great deal of badgering, Virgin America (who had initially told me they had no agreements with any other airlines to move people to different flights,) admitted that they could book me on a JetBlue flight that day to JFK, but they were all full.  After I checked online and found some available flights, it took another couple calls to finally get the flight booked.  Subsequently, the confirmation number they gave me didn’t work on the website, and calling, JetBlue was able to switch me to an earlier flight that left from an airport even closer.  Yay!

…Or sort of.  After racing to the airport and making it in time, we were told that the flight was delayed some 2.5 hours from the weather, but that we couldn’t leave the gate area, because if the delay was lifted, they would take off with or without you.

After around two hours, and a gate change to the other end of the terminal later, we had some entertainment as a woman tried to make her flight at a nearby gate.  While the plane was still there, and the stairs were still in position, the gate guy’s radio apparently didn’t work, so he couldn’t call the guy outside to come open the door and get the woman.  While the woman frantically suggested he go out there (he wouldn’t) or that she could go out there (she couldn’t,) there ended up being little she could do besides hammer on the glass screaming to try to get his attention (she was quickly suppressed by the gate people) as he pulled the stairs away and the plane taxied off into the sunset.  Later, she walked back the length of the terminal, screaming unflattering epithets at the gate people, while fellow travelers applauded.

Shortly after, they made another announcement that, what with all the free time, the maintenance guys had examined our plane so hard that it…broke?  And now we needed another plane.  So, another hour delay.  We weren’t sure what was a more encouraging thought:  That the mechanics looked at the plane so hard they actually broke it, or that if we hadn’t had the delay, we would have merrily gone off in a broken plane.

One more gate change back to the initial end of the terminal, and we eventually made it on, getting to the East Coast some six hours later and a state away from our initial plan.

Take Home Lessons:

  • Keep calling.  It’s distressing to think that the squeaky wheel premise is still true, but it took about six calls before anyone at Virgin America offered to do anything for me.  Their first attempt at a solution will be to give you your money back and then wash their hands of the whole thing, but this, at least for me, would have been the worst possible alternative.
  • Try to acquire status on any airline you fly.  I have gold status this year on Virgin America, which gave me a separate number to call and likely gave them more motivation to help me out.  If I hadn’t had any status, I probably would still be waiting on hold to talk to someone today.
  • If you can get booked on another airline, take anything and then go talk to the other airline.  The first airline won’t book you on any flights that have all the cheap seats sold out, but the actual airline may be able to shuffle people around and put you on a better flight regardless.
  • While wacking out and causing a ruckus may make you feel better, it’s probably not going to be more effective than nonviolent resistance.  Your best bet is to try to make allies of anyone you speak with, so that they have some reason to try to help you.
  • Maybe don’t try out new methods of transport in urgent situations.  I figured I would try Uber to get from JFK to our hotel in Newark, but, at three in the morning, with a ton of luggage, I discovered that Uber had suspended my account for having an expired credit card.  Unfortunately, you can’t necessarily figure this out in advance, because everything looks fine until you actually call for the car, which you wouldn’t do until you were on the point of needing the ride.  No points to Uber.
  • Wear socks.  While it was 95 the week I left LA, the plane touched down to considerably different temperatures in New York, and it turns out snow is not that much fun in sandals.IMG_8872

Posts A’Plenty!

So a short hiatus of posting here occurred, but not for nothing!  Posts went flying elsewhere.

First, Halloween happened:

I was not ready.

Were you ready?  I went to ScareLA and blogged about it, but was sadly caught flat-footed as I am with virtually every holiday.

Next up, Marvel decided to hold a brief event down at the El Capitan, in which they outlined their plans for World Domination by means of cinematic release.  Personally, I welcome our new Feige Overlord.

Say "Feige" loud, it's like music playing.

Then, Disney released “Big Hero 6!”  I have been anticipating this picture since I first saw some of the concept art during their press events for “Frozen,” so this was pretty exciting.  I went to the press conference and subsequently reviewed it.  TL;DR:  I liked it!  Baymax is the cutest.

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As if that weren’t enough, I then grabbed my handy Baymax backpack, and headed to Japan, where I toured around the Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan…

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…Where I’ve been until earlier today.  But back now!  Jetlagged!  Off to sleep for a week!