A travel diary entry by yours truly, dated 1998 and reworked for E2. Quotations taken from Neuromancer under fair use.

Ignored entirely or dismissed as "suburbia" by travel guides, Chiba (千葉, Thousand Leaves) is generally regarded as the most boring of the prefectures surrounding Tokyo, its primary attraction being the forced one of Narita's New Tokyo International Airport. But, as William Gibson fans will know, there is one excellent reason for visiting Chiba: the "Tokyo-Chiba urban sprawl" is where much of Neuromancer is set. So, taking my trusty cyberdeck (alright, a laptop borrowed from work) with me, it was time to jack in to the pulse of Chiba cyberspace and find out how reality corresponds to Gibson's dystopian vision. Here's the diary, written as it happened.

In Japan, he'd known with a clenched and absolute certainty, he'd find his cure. In Chiba. Either in a registered clinic or in the shadowland of black medicine. Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl's techno-criminal subcultures...
11:30 At the Tokyo International Forum, perusing the pile of brochures I just grabbed at the tourist info center. The biggest, "Chiba Is In Your Sight Now", immediately grabs my attention with its suggested "Bayside Tour", which is a "course to enjoy the charm of latest urban sights". Brilliant! I am also tempted by the offer of a 40-minute cruise "into the heart of the industrial port area". After making use of the cyberpunkily automated men's convinience room I depart.

12:30 On the local clunker from Tokyo station to Chiba city. Tokyo station, despite its innocent red-brick interior, is a highly cyberpunky and immensely complex maze of some 50-odd platforms on 5 subterranean and non-linear levels; this train, on the other hand, is mainly just East European. Paint peeling off, rusty bits, painted a sickly hospital green... but when zooming through the vast dimly lit tunnels radiating from Tokyo station the feeling is grimly futuristic.

Friday night on Ninsei. He passed yakitori stands and massage parlors, a franchised coffee shop called Beautiful Girl, the electronic thunder of an arcade. He stepped out of the way to let a dark-suited sarariman by, spotting the Mitsubishi-Genentech logo tattooed across the back of the man's hand...
13:50 After arrival and obtaining a map at the tourist info center in the station, I quickly headed underground (of course!) to grab some lunch. According to my booklet, "Chiba cuisine" consists primarily of seafood, so I ate my lunch at a little chain izakaya. Quite tasty, if highly uncyberpunk -- I supposed microwaved pizza or IV-injected saline solution would've been more appropriate. At least the shopping center's basement restaurant floor was nifty; everything was very nicely decorated except the roof, where all the steel piping and air-con tubes were visible.

After stuffing myself, I atoned for my sins and grabbed extra cyberpunk points by taking the wonderfully named Chiba Urban Monorail to the industrial (ooh! ooh!) port area. A true monorail, the train is actually suspended upside down from the track above it. Somewhat uncomfortable (it sways a lot when turning) and utterly pointless, but damn, is it cool! I'm typing this at the Urban Monorail's Chiba Minato station, now off to explore the futuristic port area.

Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of styrofoam...
14:30 The observation deck of the Chiba Port Tower, set in exceedingly non-grim surroundings of wide avenues and grassy fields shaded by trees. Gibson would roll in his grave if he was dead. Fortunately, from a height of 110 meters the surrounding industrial wastelands and container docks are well visible, at least for a kilometer or two until they fade off in the smog. The center of Chiba looks positively diminutive compared to Tokyo, the highest buildings barely 20 stories.

It's raining heavily now. I happened to arrive at the Tower on some sort of festival day, there are stalls and tents on a nearby field and entrance is free, which means an infernal amount of noise as hordes of giddy kids run and tumble about screaming continuously. At least there's a delightfully pathetic display of stuffed fish mounted on sticks in a simulated ocean environment downstairs; the simulation is needed since heavily polluted Chiba Bay hasn't sustained anything above seaweed (or with less than 3 eyes) for quite a while.

The suggested itinerary says I should proceed to the Prefectural History Museum now, but we're aiming for the future here. The next stop, Makuhari New Town, sounds more promising -- I'm not sure if I care much for the Makuhari Messe convention center, but I simply have to find out what the Makuhari Techno Garden is. And there's the Sharp High-Technology Hall and Fujitsu Doom (did somebody misspell Dome?) Theatre too. Ikoo ze!

15:30 So I did go to an outdoor rave after all! As I was leaving the Tower, I heard the unmistakable sound of a bassdrum from the aforementioned field, so I headed there for a look. Surprise surprise: on the stage, a dozen or so lightly spandex-clad girls were performing synchronized aerobics with the backing of eurodancepop played with serious wattage. It was still raining though, so I didn't hang around very much longer. I might have donated blood at the Red Cross stand (or a kidney for even more cyberpunk points), but then I remembered that gaijin blood is usually dumped in the trash here, since we all have AIDS. Oh well, too bad for them.

An uneventful train ride later, after passing countless cloned cheap-ass boondock apartments (danshi) with sinister serial numbers stenciled on, I arrived at Kaihin-Makuhari (海浜幕張), a showpiece city much like Tokyo's Odaiba area. I immediately headed for the Techno Garden, which turned out to be an impressive complex of shopping malls, restaurants and office towers; white tile, glass and polished steel with atmospheric lighting and realistic plastic plants, with footsteps echoing in the quiet walkways and aerial bridges. Very peaceful, elegant and expensive-looking after the rather scruffy port area. Cyberpunk? In a way -- this is how the rich of Gibson's world live.

16:30 At the Sharp High Technology Hall. Now this is cyberpunk. Like all self-respecting Japanese company showcases, it had a revolving/liftable/ vibrating/360-degree movie theater displaying future products tied in with a silly little story, and this one was about LCD screens. The single coolest concept on display: a pen-sized computer, where display is a flexible LCD screen that rolls out when a button is pressed! And have I raved about the Zaurus yet? It's a computer about the size of an index card, maybe a centimeter thick, that has a SVGA display, PCMCIA slots, and enough software to do anything you want. No keyboard though, just a stylus, but for writing Japanese it's good enough. And there were truckloads of other futuristic stuff as well. Grooveah... and, of course, the building itself is another futuristic masterpiece of subdued lighting and shades of gray.

17:00 And now the Fujitsu Dome Theater. I am, again, in luck -- it's Chiba Citizens' Day and even us non-citizens get tickets for half-price, in this case 600 yen. I have a 45-min wait ahead of me and am sorely tempted to buy a defrosted-on-demand meal from a machine (cyberpunk or what?), but I decide to stick with a 90-yen cup of Dekavita C, a perverse concoction of vitamins, artificial flavors and water recycled from a plutonium reprocessing plant. Glowing in good health, I jack in to the Net from the Intaanetto Koonaa, where you can surf or Nintendo all you want for free.

19:30 Virtual reality that wasn't -- the special IMAX helmet was heavy, you could see the polygons of the overhead dome through the projection, and the 3-D effect didn't work all the time. And the first feature, the world's first fully computer-generated film and the world's first IMAX film, looked like it too. (Although some of the scenes of zooming around in molecule lattices were pretty cool.) Still no match for Gibson's simstim though...

Having had my fill of high-tech for the day, it was time to head to Minami-Funabashi (南船橋) to round out the day with Asia's biggest mall, the LaLaport featuring 2 department stores, 360 shops and an equal number of restaurants. Finding one that was good, cheap and without a 2-hour line in front proved harder though. I ended up in a noodle shop where I tried the "katsu-sara teishoku" (cutlet-plate-set-meal), where the katsu-sara turned out to be a deep-fried pork cutlet with a soy-flavored omelette around and over it. Exceedingly tasty, even if my cholesterol levels did shoot through the roof.

By now it was dark and raining outside, ideal cyberpunk weather, so it was time to start thinking about returning to the core of the cyberpunk phenomenon, Tokyo.

The last Case saw of Chiba were the dark angles of the arcologies. Then a mist closed over the black water and the drifting shoals of waste...
On the local train back, just passing Futamatashinmachi. Who comes up with these names? The view from the departure station over the industrial Chiba skyline was great, factory pipes outlined in black and dotted with blinking lights against a dark reddish sky as rain poured down and formed puddles on the concrete underneath the train track. Shibui, if not quite in the way Basho intended it. When looking out from the train, the only things visible are scattered lights and the occasional blazing neon signs of massive industrial conglomerates. Just as Gibson predicted, they have taken over.

Tokyo Disneyland goes past, doing its nightly fireworks show too. Is Disney cyberpunk? Can an industrial conglomerate devoted to amusing kiddies and extracting the maximum amount of money from their parents be called evil -- or has the concept of good already ceased to exist, as in Gibson's universe?

The proper conclusion for a cyberpunky day would be a cyberpunky night, preferably in some tiny, seedy Kabuki-cho techno club where the music is extreme, the women are dressed in flourescent plastic, and most drinks contain battery acid. Unfortunately, I have no information (the lifeblood and currency of the cyberpunk!) about parties tonight and, having left the PCMCIA data card at the office, I can't even connect my cellphone to the cyberdeck and jack in to the Net to access the party databases. Two cute kookoosei in full uniform sitting opposite me can't stop staring at the funny gaijin typing away on his laptop, sitting on an utterly obscure local train late on a Saturday night. I should've dressed as a cyberpunk for this exercise, my present attire of khaki pants and white T-shirt isn't very Gibsonesque.


So here I am back home, not even retiring to a capsule hotel for the night, but just to a regular apartment. How boring. Well, just the same, pretending to be inside a Gibson novel certainly made for a more interesting rainy day than most -- and doing a full day of sightseeing without even catching a glimpse of any shrine, temple or castle made for a refreshing change.

back to Tokyo

Ahhh Chiba,

Describing it as the most boring place in Kanto wouldn't be too far off, but for better or worse it was my home for seven weeks.

Suburbia indeed, the people in Chiba are polite and like their peace and quiet. Compared to Tokyoites they may seem downright quaint. Various towns or trainstops are often defined by the presense of a SINGLE shopping center, or leisure place.

For instance I can tell you offhand that there is a SATY in Myouden (and an Eigakan!), a Tsutaya in Gyotoku, and if you're looking for a place to escape the rain late at night, everybody's favorite 24 hour restaurant chain, The Bikkuri Donkii (Literally: "Surprised Donkey"), is present in force in Nishi Funabashi.

Architecture and planning range from small, comfortable stops with tiny Japanese style houses, to the ugly junkyard style sprawl your mother always told you about. I'm partial to Ichikawa Shi (on the Tozai subway line) which includes: Baraki Nakayama, Myouden, Gyotoku, Minami Gyotoku. There are a couple of English schools in the area, so spotting the occasional Gaijin is not that uncommon, and there's a great gaijin run izakaya in Minami Gyotoku. I can't remember the name, but it's right across the way from Mama's Diner.

If you're looking for fun in Chiba, the best spots are Tsudanuma, Chiba City, and Inage. Tsudanuma is the best place to go for bars, karaoke, or other amusements. Chiba City has a good game center and lots of shopping places. You should also check out a stop called Motto-Owatta, which actually has some cool clubs. There's a great punk club called Third Stage; tiny, but great atmosphere. There's also Lalaport in Minami Funabashi. I haven't been there, but it's a famous and incredibly large shopping mall. I've also heard from a friend that you can see movies there for under 1000 yen (about 10 dollars)! This is an extreme rarity in Japan, so if it's true be sure to take advantage.

I don't include Narita as really part of the Greater Chiba area, but if you're a tourist you should definitely go there. Get the whole experience and spend at least one night at a Ryoukan in Narita Shi. Eat some great unagi and attend a service at Narita-san temple. It's worth it.

While you're in the area, you should also stop by Kaihin Makuhari (Makuhari New City) but that's a different entry entirely.

Travel tips:

When in Chiba AVOID THE MUSASHINO LINE AT ALL COSTS. The trains only every half hour or so, and they end at around 10:00. Stick to the Keiyo, Sobu, Chuo... etc.

Nishi Funabashi is probly the biggest station in the area, other than Chiba City. Be careful because there is barely any romaji in the station. Learn the kanji for your stop and know it well.


At a glance:

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