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This is san fransokyo…

... an American podcast abroad in Japan. I’m Vivian Qu.

Vivian: In this episode, we are gonna to talk about why we’re making a podcast and how we picked the name “San Fransokyo."

I started this show because my life is about to go through a major change. My partner Dru and I have been living in San Francisco for the last four years. We like our life here, but in the spirit of adventure, we decided to try moving to Tokyo for a few years. We’ve been figuring out the move and getting paperwork ready… now it’s almost official, which is nuts! A lot of what this podcast will cover is the move and, eventually, what our future life in Japan will be like. And before we go on, I have to introduce the other person who is going to frequently appear on this podcast. Here he is...

Dru: My name is Dru–I don't know what to say for that. Do you want me to say: "I'm Dru... Dru here, COMING AT YOU LIVE–"

Vivian: I don’t know, just say a few words like: “Hey, I’m Dru."

Dru: Hi everyone, I'm Dru. I guess I’ll be roped into some of these podcasts too. I'm actually on the verge of moving to Tokyo tonight, so I'm on the advance party. I might disappear for a while but hopefully she’ll have me back on soon.

Vivian: Well, we might try to do some remote skype-podcasting.

Dru: Mm, so I'll be the one with terrible audio recording from my phone where everyone else is luxuriously recorded with this microphone that is currently shoved in my face?

Vivian: Podcasters do this all the time, where they do skype interviews and it sounds like crap, but that bad audio quality makes it sound more authentic!

Dru: I just want the listeners to know that my voice is beautiful, and anytime you hear something that isn't beautiful it's Vivian's fault.

Vivian: Anyway… Dru is about to leave for Japan but we've actually been planning this for the last six months. We had to start a long time ago because we are bringing our dog, Knuckles. There’s a long process to import your pets into Japan if you don’t want them to get quarantined for months. It meant that we had to step up our game and be really prepared.

I had the idea to do a podcast for a few reasons. First, i thought it would be an awesome way to keep in touch with friends and family. Both of us are pretty bad at calling people regularly and there’s so much of our experience that we might not talk about about because we’re busy catching up on our personal lives… or we say something to one person and forget to say it to the other. Things like culture shock and new ways of living and what we want to bring into our own lives... these are all topics we want to share with everyone back home. I also like the podcast format--making videos was never really appealing to me. The emphasis on audio fits better with my own interests, based on the parts of Japan that I’ve noticed most.

The differences in the Japanese soundscape are what fascinate me: the language, the music, even very small things: like each subway station having their own custom jingle. I couldn't find other podcasts that are talking about things that like, so I wanted to make one myself. And these discussions should be interesting to people we don’t know personally too, who want to know more about Japan, whether they’re visiting or planning to live abroad as well. I’m not setting out to make a really popular podcast from the get-go, but I think there’s a lot of people out there who would find this content very valuable. Plus, I’ve been told I have a soothing, NPR radio voice. I don’t know if they meant that as a compliment or as in–"your voice is so boring it puts me to sleep"–but I’m just going choose to take it positively.

That was the original thinking behind making this podcast. And now that we decided to make it, I had to find a good name. I was going back and forth and back and forth, trying to come up with possible names that felt right. And let me tell you, I came up with some real bad ones.

Then I hit on a winner, or so I thought. I found this Japanese phrase, wabi sabi, which means “perfectly imperfect”. Yeah, I said to myself, "I'm perfectly imperfect. This move is going to be crazy. Japan life is going have really great parts and also things we don’t like. I liked the feeling of it, and it also comes across as pretty approachable despite being a foreign language phrase.

I double-checked to see if anyone else had used the name for a podcast, and one had just been released the week before. Damn!

We started brainstorming again. And then suddenly, my wonderful partner, the light of my life, he saved the day when he said: "Hey, how ‘bout San Fransokyo?”

I pulled out my phone, and there was no podcast named San Fransokyo. And the web domain was free. So here we are!

The name, as you might be able to guess, is a mashup between "San Francisco" and "Tokyo." It captures the life transition we're going through, moving from one city to the next. The name also appears in an awesome story. Back in 2014, Disney released an animated superhero movie that was set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo.


NEWS REPORTER: A massive cleanup continues today at the headquarters of Krei Tech Industries. Reports are still flooding in about a group of unidentified individuals, who prevented what could have been a major catastrophe. The whole city of San Fransokyo is asking, "Who are these heroes? And where are they now?"


VIVIAN: That’s a news broadcast from the movie Big Hero 6. The story centers on a teenage boy named Hiro Hamada and his five friends, who team up to fight a supervillain using super-powered robot suits. Think a teenage squad of Iron Mans, plus one adorable, huggable healthcare robot named Baymax.


BAYMAX: Hello, I am Baymax, you're personal healthcare companion. I was alerted to the need for medical attention when you said, "ow."


VIVIAN: The movie takes place in San Fransokyo and the city is almost a whole character by itself. It  provides the backdrop for some truly gorgeous panoramas and high-speed car chases. I didn’t read any of the original comics, so, when I was doing research for this podcast, I was surprised to learn that “San Fransokyo” never existed in the source material, everything took place in Tokyo. 

If it wasn’t in the original story, why did the creators go through so much trouble to create an entirely new mashup city? And how did they do it? The filmmakers themselves have talked about some of their thinking, but a lot of what I’m about to say is my own speculation.

I think the major reason they invented San Fransokyo is that it makes the story more vibrant and appealing to movie audiences. Think about songs or other forms of mashups–they’re really interesting because you not only notice what the creators changed, but also what they didn’t change. For San Fransokyo, they kept the size, shape, and layout of San Francisco, but they added the Tokyo influences into the architectural styles of the building and small details throughout the story.


The movie starts with a camera pan over the iconic Golden Gate bridge. The bridge has been altered to have little flaring roof edges to make it look more like a pagoda, changing it from the bridge we know to one with new Japanese flavor. Then through the fog, the camera zooms across the bay over a building that says “Port of San Fransokyo.” It looks just like the SF ferry building except for those last 5 characters. It’s just enough to make you almost think it’s the same but then sa“wait a second” and take a second look. The opening shot is only about 35 seconds long, yet they are able to showcase so much of this delicate fusion between San Francisco and Tokyo in that time.

There are plenty of these beautiful scenes of the city in the movie. And whenever they appear, you’re engaged as a audience member—constantly looking out for any small changes and trying to notice what changes in this new world. They never reveal this in the movie itself, but in interviews, the filmmakers explain that they were imagining an alternate history where San Francisco was largely rebuilt by the Japanese in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. The creators cranked up the detail on the movie to 1000%—there are some great videos out there about how they actually generated a to-scale digital version of San Fransokyo.

They managed to do that by using real San Francisco building zoning data. They took that data and then algorithmically generated new fusion architectural styles that fit the size and shape of that lot—so you can actually find an alternate version of your own apartment. The amount of detail in the city makes those dramatic camera pans and zooms look like they’re happening in a real, inhabited place. I’ll make sure to link to these videos in the show notes. Disney hasn't yet made the digital city accessible to the public, but I’m looking forward to exploring the city myself.

The movie invents this richly detailed new city made from a mashup of cultures, but it’s still mostly America. At least, that’s how it feels to me. That way the story doesn’t need to explain why the characters are speaking in unaccented American English. Or that they eat ribs and do normal American college things. But putting aside practical reasons behind their mashup decisions, I think the movie still manages to achieve a perfect balance of blending America and Japan together without stereotyping or doing a disservice to one culture.

Roy Conli, producer of Big Hero 6, said in an interview with the JapanTimes:

ROY: In the past, I would look at some of the movies I had worked on, and then cringe. But I think that with ‘Big Hero 6,’ we managed to get it right, because we weren’t aiming for the Japanese effect, per se. We simply took the essence of what Japan meant to the rest of the world—concepts like peace and Zen and technology—and combined all those things into the story. 

VIVIAN: I like this quote from Conli because it reveals the other reason why San Fransokyo—this imaginary made-up place—actually feels quite natural in our minds. It doesn’t feel awkward because the mashed up cities represent the same concepts. San Francisco, and the surrounding Silicon Valley area, is a hub of software innovation--the home of Facebook, Apple and Google. Tokyo is known worldwide for robotics and advanced hardware technology. Just take a minute and imagine a mashup city made from New York and Tokyo mixed together.

"New Yorkyo" just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?


I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the plot—it’s a really great movie, and you should just go see it if you haven’t already—but I can’t resist talking about how cool it makes science look. The main character, Hiro, is a teenage boy who manages to build some really awesome tech.

Here’s producer Roy Conli again:

ROY: Think about the characters in Big Hero 6 for a moment. Hiro, Tadashi, Gogo, Honeylemon, Wasabi, they’re all inventors.using technology in the hopes of a better world.

VIVIAN: These characters resonate a lot with me. I’m a software engineer. And even before I studied computer science, I was always surrounded with technology. My mother builds 3D simulations and my father is a roboticist and electrical engineering professor. He always tried to get me into hardware and robots and I ended up being more interested in the software stuff… I am a little bit sad now that I don’t have the materials or the background to use advanced 3d printers in my garage. I could print robot armor for me and my friends like Hero does in the movie. But before you ask me again, dad, no I’m not thinking about going back to grad school.

For someone with this background, it was really fun to watch a movie where engineering is a major plot point, and no one spends time explaining why the main character is into science. It also makes sense that America and Japan are mixed together in a movie that is centered on engineering--the director himself said that the movie was, in part, a love letter to Pacific Rim, another awesome action movie that is an epic mashup of Eastern and Western influences. So science, superheroes fighting villains, and the fusion between East and West—all these themes make San Fransokyo a pretty great imaginary city to name our podcast after.

Our show is about the experience of living abroad in Japan as locals, as really trying to become integrated into Tokyo, understanding the city, the aesthetic, and the customs of the people living there. At the same time, we are foreigners and we grew up in this totally different context. In the end, hopefully, after a long adjustment period, we will have a lifestyle that matches this idea of the imaginary city of San Fransokyo: a blend of two perspectives, that are both very different and in some ways, very similar. Fused together in a way that respects both, that has a unique, harmony to it. Finding this balance is going to be one of the recurring ideas we talk about on the podcast—how we can create our own imaginary mashup city that is the best of both worlds.

Although, to be perfectly honest, if San Fransokyo was a real place I would just go live there.

That’s all the time we have for today, I want to keep these episodes pretty short. All the research and videos and articles about the movie Big Hero 6 will be up on the website, you can find it in the show notes at sanfransokyopodcast.com. If you liked this episode, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Signing off, or as they say in the movie—


BAYMAX: There is still a way I can get you both to safety. I cannot deactivate until you say you are satisfied with your care.

HIRO: No no no—wait what about you?

BAYMAX: You are my patient. Your health is my only concern.

HIRO: Stop! I'm going to figure out—

BAYMAX: Are you satisfied with your care?

HIRONo! There's got to be another way. I'm not going to leave you here. I'll think of something!

BAYMAX: There is no time. Are you satisfied with your care?

HIRO: Please—no. I can't lose you too.

BAYMAX: I will always be with you.


VIVIAN: I am satisfied with my care.