How a tiny robot convinced me to visit Japan


Chibi-Robo deserves my happy points

It was pouring down rain on Akihabara. The girls dressed as maids had an extra layer of transparent raincoat on, and I was happy to find that basically every shop carries cheap, plastic umbrellas for 500 yen. I was exhausted after a two-week trip around the country by rail, carrying a backpack roughly the size of a refrigerator. My back had a knot in it, I wasn’t sleeping well, and my constant nausea meant the only thing I could put in my stomach that night was a donut and a cup of tea from Mister Donut.

It was 2014, and most people near me couldn’t believe that I’d be traveling Japan alone. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. I’d never traveled by myself before, it was a rare day that I wasn’t grappling with anxiety, and I’d spent most of my life as an extremely picky eater. I was a homebody, an introvert; hardly the worldly traveler. So what suddenly changed? Why did I make such an effort to see another country?

It was a video game. One that never saw release in North America.

Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to see games come out in Japan that never made it to North American shores. It’s fortunately less of an issue today thanks to companies like Atlas, NIS, and Xseed who have allowed otherwise niche titles to make it to our hands. However, this wasn’t always the case. Doshin the Giant, Giftpia, Mother 3; there was so much kept out of grasp because I couldn’t understand the language.

Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! Happy Richie Osoujii! on DS was the crack that broke the mother’s back. First released in Japan in 2009, I finally gave up hope that it would ever see release here in North America after the 3DS had supplanted the DS in 2011. Frustrated, I decided enough was enough. I gathered some study material and began my attempt at learning the language.

Video games were my only connection to Japanese culture at the time. As nerdy as I was, I hadn’t ventured too far into the realm of anime outside whitewashed cartoons like Pokemon and Robotech. I didn’t know that much about the country, so it wasn’t until I began my endeavor into learning the language that I started to discover more about the culture. And I quickly fell in love.

It started off innocently enough. I imported some Famicom games, got a subscription to Crunchyroll, and studied. Eventually I discovered Game Center CX, and that’s when things really took off. I watched Shinya Arino talk about the gaming days of yore, visit onsen and game centers, and eat strange snacks. Through studying, I found out about futons and tatami floors, vending machines on every corner, and a railway system that could take you anywhere. The bustling city streets, the omnipresent mountains, the quiet countryside. It was so familiar and comfortable, but completely flipped.

I wanted to go there almost immediately, but there were some barriers. You might expect that my anxiety or unfamiliarity with the language would be my first concerns, but no, it was my picky eating. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how picky I was, but it was legendary among my family. My tacos were meat and cheese, my sandwiches were turkey and mayo, and heaven help you if I see anything green on there. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived, but somehow I navigated cuisine to find the most basic foods possible.

Getting over picky eating is difficult, but I was determined. I quickly introduced as much as possible into my diet that I could. Sushi, curry, vegetables; it was a mad rush to disconnect my brain from my digestive tract. “Put it in your mouth,” I’d tell myself. “Judge it off of taste and not ingredients.” For anyone who hasn’t had the problem, that may sound ridiculous, but psychologically it was turmoil.

My plan for the trip was pretty loose. I wanted to cram as many places as possible into the two weeks as I could while still giving myself time to enjoy each setting; that was it. I had a list of places to see, then I just hopped the ocean with nothing but a giant backpack, a tablet, and a camera. You read that right, I didn’t have a phone. I booked a handful of hotels at the offset, but many of the places I went to I booked the night before.

When I arrived in Tokyo after the 13-hour flight, the first thing I did was take a bath. The second thing I did was throw up, which would be the first time I discovered my anxiety had that symptom. That night, I woke up clinging to my bedsheets. Why? I’m afraid of heights and the room was on the 43rd floor of the APA Hotel in Chiba. For whatever reason, my body became acutely aware of my altitude in the midst of my sleep and decided I needed to know at that moment.

I’m not going to bore you with the entire travel log, so I’ll summarize it for you. It went well! It was actually pretty smooth. As far north as Nagano, as far west as Fukuoka. There were hitches, but there weren’t any nights where I found myself sleeping in a train station. I won a refrigerator’s weight in crane machine prizes, saw a mass salaryman migration, managed to actually eat food that I didn’t recognize, and tried a lot of the vending machine fare. The important thing is that I got to see a lot of the country, had a lot of experiences, and left with all my fingers still attached. The goals of every traveler, I’m sure.

Which brings us back to Akihabara; the last night of my journey. I had two souvenirs in mind to bring home: Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! and a Wonderswan Crystal. I had checked shops all over the country to no avail, but finally I hit the jackpot in Tokyo’s legendary electronic district. I could finally go home accomplished.

And since then I’ve wanted to go back, but my life is in a much different place now. Maybe one day.

My Japanese studies have since fallen by the wayside. After all, I completed my goal, and Japanese-only releases are a lot rarer these days. Even Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! finally received a fan translation, so I can understand the entire thing and share it with my mom. I’d still like to become fluent in the language, but the motivation isn’t quite the same.

Maybe I had a petty reason for abruptly deciding to travel, but I don’t regret it at all. It gave me this confidence that I could overcome any of my issues and achieve my dreams if I just put in the effort. That has proven not to be entirely true; anxiety sometimes wins, children. Still, I don’t think I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t learn that it’s okay to take risks and just go for what I want. And all of this because a tiny robot game wouldn’t learn to speak my language.