Japan can be awesomely eccentric in its hobbies. One of my favorites is stamp collecting -- by which I mean rubber stamp impressions, as opposed to the kind you put on letters.
The hobby is believed to have originated in the days of feudal rule when people on religious pilgrimages had to prove they actually went where they said they did. Temples and shrines each had their own unique stamps ("goshuin"), which they coupled with brush calligraphy ("shodo"), giving people something to show anyone in authority who might question where they'd been.
Goshuin and their associated shodo are still popularly collected today as souvenirs, especially during annual New Years shrine visits. However, they aren't the only stamps available, anymore. Train stations, zoos, landmarks, and parks often have their own stamps (simply called "stampu"). Festivals also frequently include "stamp rallies", with numerous stamp stations around the festival area, each with a different stamp to collect. Sometimes stores or franchises get in on the hobby with promotional stamp rallies, often with a prize offered for collecting all of them.
One such rally, and the largest I've ever participated in, was put on by Nintendo and the Japan Rail (JR) East Line this summer. Thirty stations around the greater Tokyo area, as well as all three Pokemon Center stores, each had their own unique Pokemon stamp.
Although it ran for two weeks, I only noticed this rally's existence four days before it was over. Since I already had a book I'd been filling with stamps, I decided to start collecting these on a whim. However, the whim quickly turned into an obsession as I was sucked into a real-life "gotta catch 'em all" adventure around the actual Kanto region.
The event flyer even had little Pokemon balls to stamp the Pokemon in!
My first thought was that it would be inexpensive. I didn't realize I'd have to pay to exit and reenter every single station to get the stamps. After I started, though, I quickly found that I was invested, and finishing the collection became a goal for which I'd gladly fork over whatever JR East asked of me.
Because the rally stations opened at 9:00am and closed at 4:00pm, it soon became clear that two and a half days, the total amount of time I had available to spend doing nothing but riding trains around, was the absolute minimum amount of time it would be logistically possible for me to visit all the required stations. In fact, it would be cutting it so close that I thought it may not have been possible at all. Even so, I decided to give it a shot. Because I'm crazy like that.
After collecting six stamps, participants were awarded with a special edition Pokemon movie bag and a paper Pikachu hat (think: Burger King crown). Not exactly an overwhelming prize, but I took it -- and of course I wore the hat like a dork to have my photo taken by a stranger in front of the victory sign.
Have I mentioned that most of the other participants were between six and ten years old?
There was no prize for anything between the paltry six and the full set of thirty, so after my paper hat, it was all or nothing. The prize for all thirty? Entry into a drawing to win one of five special edition Nintendo 3DS LL handheld game systems (that's the XL in America) -- or entry into a drawing for one of 100 special edition pillows (but really, who's going to pick that option?).
The heat was absolutely painful. Every day, it was over 90F/32C with humidity in the 60% range and up. There is air conditioning on the trains, but it's minimal; just enough to keep people from having heat stroke between stations. Pocari Sweat, a popular ion replenishment drink and winner of the Least Appetizing Name Ever award, got more of my money than I'd care to admit.
The first step each day was planning out my route. With the stations in about an hour radius from the center of Tokyo, making them up to two and a half hours away from my starting point, I had to be strategic. I only planned out about six stations at a time; after all, there was plenty of time on the train between stations to plan the next leg.
On day one, I had to start after lunch, so I only had time for about five. On day two, however, I was out of the house by 6:30am so I could be at Kumagaya, a distant station, right when the rally opened. And every day I kept running until just after 4:00pm, catching one stamp station on day two just as they were wheeling it away.
I didn't have any time for sightseeing during the rally hours, but afterwards I always made sure to do a little bit of touristing wherever I'd happened to end up.
The most exciting moment, by far, was right at the end of the rally. It was already after 4:00pm on the final day, but I was on a train to the very last station I needed, and I decided not to give up. I was even rehearsing how to plead with the station attendant in Japanese and half-seriously wondering if I could work up a few tears.
When I arrived at the station at 4:15, I ran full speed, following the helpful temporary "Stamp Rally this way" signs from the platform to the correct exit. As I burst through the gates, there was no sign of the rally station; but this wasn't unexpected. After a quick double check, I asked the station attendant if the rally had ended. I was thrilled as he calmly retrieved the stamp from behind his counter.
And I didn't even need to beg!
I walked out of the station info center grinning from ear to ear, and did a very un-Japanese victory jump and fist pump. The "crazy gaijin" stares I got were totally worth it.
I wasn't finished yet, though, as I still had to make a Goal station for my victory stamp before 4:30. The nearest one, Ueno, was only two stops up the line, so I was pretty confident I'd make it, if only just.
At Ueno, I made another dash for the exits, but I had to guess which one to make for as the signs had already been taken down over much of the station. Along the way, I found a station worker stuffing the signs into a trash bag. She confirmed I was headed in the right direction, so I ran on!
Once I'd exited, it was easy to find the goal station. The workers there (all wearing the bright yellow paper Pikachu hats) were calling and waving the Pokemon flyers around, making sure no one would miss them.
After many a "sugoi" ("awesome") and "omedetō" ("congratulations") I got my goal stamp and took another victory photo by the Goal poster, and that was the end of that.
Since I'd skipped lunch in favor of speed, I celebrated my success with a victory dinner of sushi at a standing sushi bar. I had a halting conversation with some of the sallary-men there and made the gruff master sushi-chef smile with my "yum turrets" over his delicious creations.
Seeing as how the prize is only entry into a drawing, I'm not holding my breath that I'll ever see anything more from this crazy adventure; but on the other hand, how many people were really willing to blow three days and an embarrassing amount of money riding trains around for a few stamps?
Wait, this is Tokyo -- probably a lot of people.
Anyway, regardless of whether I win, I'll still have the stamps and the memories, and that's what stamp collecting is all about, when it comes down to it.