Akihabara – this is a long and rambling post so feel free to just look at the pictures. If you’re feeling brave you can listen to this music while you read:
Akihabara (Electric Town as it’s also known) is billed as the electronics and nerd-culture centre of Japan. If you like anime, manga, computers, video games, cameras or any other types of electronic and otaku goods then this is the area that you need to visit. I have been aware of it since at least my high school years when I heard of its legendary collection of video game and anime goods. I had pictured a densely packed warren of streets containing arcade dens full of herds of video game nerds clustered around classic beat-em-up game cabinets while anime fans pored through second-hand book stores and cute guys and gals cosplayed colourful anime characters and the scene was complete with the neon glow and anime music cast out by ads on video screens. I imagined myself pushing my way through aisles of goods crowded with other fanboys and fangirls, making my way to holy grails of videogamedom. Even as an adult with less interest in games and anime I still held onto that dream and made it a point to visit it during my first week.
Akihabara wasn’t like I imagined it.
The reality was a little underwhelming when I first visited. There were herds of otaku, alright, but also lots and lots of foreigners (some of whom were otaku) who were also drawn to Akihabara for anime and games. It was crowded alright and you had to push phalanxes of foreigners and families as well as native otaku, all of whom amassed outside stores and around cheap electrical goods products and anime figurines. What punctured the atmosphere even more was the fact it was still daytime and instead of walking down alleys full of arcades and manga stores I stuck to the main boulevard where traffic inched up and down streets lined with chain cafes and restaurants and mainstream electronic stores and the AKB48 Theatre (the AKB stands for Akihabara) where idol girls sing their hit songs to legions of fans. There were cosplay girls (including some dressed up in AKB48 uniforms) there but they were outnumbered by tourists from America, Britain, Malaysia and other places.
Akihabara was not the subculture heaven I had imagined. In reality it is a really commercial area with multi-storey stores owned be commercial giants like Sofmap and Yodabashi Camera while smaller otaku havens like Mandarake and Super Potato operate in the spaces in between. My first trip ended in a dash into a Book Off store which sold second-hand games and then stopping at a sushi restaurant before turning back for home due to a headache. My next visit was a more leisurely one which combined Japanese practice with a friend and game nostalgia. Over the course of six hours and well into the evening, my friend and I spoke in Japanese and English and we perused classic games.
My next visit after was on a splendidly sunny Thursday. I walked from a nearby temple and got involved in serious game and goods hunting which saw me delve into the alleys and the small stores that are nestled between the giant towers. Akihabara has recently become a finishing destination of mine during my long walks from Yurakucho, Ginza, and Yotsuya (which take two to three hours). The stores are a reward for me since I get search through them and relive nostalgia for old games I owned or wished I owned such as Wonder Project J2, Rival Schools, Saga Frontier, and Romancing Saga. I love the artwork and the game music from the ‘90s and I do feel a chill run up and down my spine when I can read the kanji or katakana on a game case and find a lost treasure.
While I don’t have the time to play video games now, I have a collection which I add to from time to time with the intention of running through each game when I do get the chance to play them. Japanese import games form a large part of that collection especially for the Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo DS, and Sony PSP. I have other systems but these are the only ones that are multi-region and I have got a couple of titles during my Japan trip for them but I am not about to break the bank on games and have kept it to sensible levels of spending.
That written, I recently decided to call it a day on buying video games and anime in Tokyo so I had two items I wanted to get as a special goodbye to Akihabara – a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure cup and a PSP game called Tactics Ogre.
The cup was going to be the most difficult thing to get since a search on the different sites came up with nothing in stock except doujinshi aimed at fujoshi and I didn’t want to go trawling through that so I thought I’d head down to the stores to find them for myself.
The first place I went to was Animate which is a huge store dedicated to all things anime and manga. It mostly skews to series and movies that are currently airing or recently ended but it has a wide range of products for perennial favourites. Unlike other buildings targeted at an otaku audience, this one is actually pleasant to walk through. Yes it has the tight spaces and hordes of people poring patiently over manga but there’s a sense that it’s clean and healthy especially with the colour scheme of blue and white, the neatly lined up goods and the bright lights. I slipped in with the crowds perusing the manga and scoured the first two floors of the store before asking assistants some variation on,
ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 のgoodsはどこですか。 – Where are the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure goods?
ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 のgoodsは何階ですか？ – What floor are the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure goods on?
I actually managed to get conversations going with shop assistants based on those two lines which is great since I am meant to be practising my Japanese during this working holiday. I was taken to a shelf with a small basket by a polite and helpful young lady who showed me what was on offer – a diary and a mobile phone case. She apologised for the paucity of items related to Jojo’s and I thanked her for her help. The mobile phone case with Jotaro Kujo was cool (I really did want it) but not what I was looking for (too expensive).
ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 のgoodsはどこですか。– Where are the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure goods?
Again, a conversation started with the store owner who showed me all sorts of goods under the heaps of toys but I didn’t get a cup. There was a Jotaro figure and a collection of shot glasses and we talked in Japanese about how old the products were. I asked the owner,
どんな場所はジョジョの奇妙な冒険 のgoodsを売りますか？– What sort of place sells JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure goods?
Dodgy Japanese aside, he did understand me and was kind enough to tell me about another store five minutes away located in a big black building.
Mandrake is what I had in mind when I first imagined Akihabara. A dark and dingy place with narrow aisles where people shuffle past each other hemmed in by glass cabinet cases full of stuff that reach for the rafters. This is a multi-storey haven for otaku which sells all sorts of goods such as models, key-chains and cards. It covers different eras from around the ‘70s (and maybe earlier) to now and there is a huge range of characters and items from toy cars to Ultraman. There were Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure figures but I didn’t bite since I don’t collect figures. Space restrictions aside, it’s easy to navigate since there is lots of English signage about. If I have one bit of advice for this store then it’s take the lift up and the stairs down since there are eight floors. Just watch out for pushy otaku and crowds in general.
So, the search for a JoJo’s mug turned up figures and shot glasses but no crockery. Well, money saved, I guess. Maybe, if I get some more money I will go back for the mobile phone case. Time for Tactics Ogre.
I love this game. I already have the PAL version and ended it on the perfect save file – I saved my nearest and dearest and got a magical waifu! – so I don’t want to touch it. I wanted a Japanese version to try out new things and test my Japanese. Chances of finding it were good since this version of Tactics Ogre was widely released and quite recent and find it I did at this store.
Retro Game Camp is awesome! This one was tucked away between two huge anime shops selling plushes and figures but as you can see there’s Super Mario sat outside. I discovered it by accident with a friend who I was practising Japanese with. We went in and looked at all of the titles, reading out the ones we knew the kanji for and telling each other about childhood memories. I was gaping at the myriad of different SNES and PlayStation games on offer and talked to one of the shop attendants about how to get the Japanese PCP board out of the Japanese cartridge and into a PAL one but since my Japanese wasn’t that great I lost track after a while. What I did understand was his answer to my question about what his favourite game is. Mario Kart! Good choice!
I also asked if I could take pictures since there were so many games to gawp at and some locked in cases so here are a few shots.
Tactics Ogre was easy to spot due to the use of katakana and I marvelled at the find despite having a special edition released by Square Enix in the UK a few years ago. Since my friend is a fan of Final Fantasy Tactics (another great game), I recommended this one to him due to its perfect combat/job/levelling balance and storyline and music and art. I must point out at this point that I am also a fan of Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII (still the best mainline Final Fantasy game in the series) and both games share the same director, Yasumi Matsuno.
Some of the real bargains in Akihabara are to be found in markets and alleyways so my advice is to get off the main strip where you have huge store fronts and gorgeous girls in costumes scouting for customers for maid cafes and explore a bit by going into the back alleys and plazas where you will find smaller shops and girls dressed as ninjas and school girls scouting for customers for maid cafes. Not much of a change. You will also find markets selling second-hand goods such as vinyl LPs, video games, plushes, jewellery, clothes and more. I was less interested in that and had another designation in mind…
The biggest draw for a lot of foreigners is Super Potato.
I found it late in the evening with my friend after asking a nearby cosplay girl where it was and almost lost my mind when I saw some the games in there. Super Potato is tucked away in the upper floors of an anonymous building but it is special since it hides vintage video game goods that I have been fascinated with since I was a kid. I can honestly say that I walked around with a stupid grin on my face as I examined stacks of Sega Saturns and Super Famicons, hoards of Dreamcast games and lots of PC Engines and all with those brilliant ‘80s and ‘90s anime illustrations.
Split over three floors, the first two feature tight aisles stacked with everything from Super Famicon to GameCube games, Dragon Quest plushes to cups with the Dreamcast logo on. You can find music by the band Serani Poji next to the soundtrack of Secret of Mana and posters from Street Fighter, Kirby’s Dreamland, and Dungeons and Dragons adorn the walls. Music and images from the Donkey Kong games play out alongside the antics on recordings of Game Centre CX whose host plays hard video games through to completion. The lighting is low on the first floor which makes it a little romantic while the second one is bright. In either case you can carefully look at the spines of games and see the history of Japanese video game development.
The third floor offers a video game arcade with King of Fighters arcade machines guarded by a Solid Snake statue (minus his gun) from the Metal Gear Solid series. Despite being less interested in games (I’m starting to doubt that assertion now) I still feel a connection with them and so spent quite a while looking in the stacks. If you go on a weekday morning then you will only have to battle crowds of foreigners but if you go on a weekend then most of Tokyo shows up including families.
There are some treasures still on offer such as Rival Schools, Ikaruga, and maybe Sakura Taisen 4 and one of the Shiren the Wanderer games but I settled for buying a long sought-after video game soundtrack from one of the Suikoden games and souvenirs for relatives. Being in Super Potato was the happiest I had been in Akihabara and I have visited it a couple of times but resisted the urge to buy anything else.
Truth be told, I want to save my money for something special, something unique. Buying games isn’t a priority for me so much as learning Japanese and getting to know people and experiencing Japan without needing a television the screen to watch films or play games, but through games I have been able to meet people and make human connections on my trip as I talked to random people in Akihabara and further afield and discovered we had a lot in common through our shared interest in Japanese games. While I didn’t feel a tight sense of community with the otaku crowd (I am more of a film guy), I still liked the atmosphere and Super Potato is the closest I came to realising that nerdy dream I’ve had since I was a child.
Apologies for the length of this post… Here are some hard facts.
Getting to Akihabara is easy. Akihabara Station is a major JR station with the Yamanote Line and Chuo-Sobu line running through (trains from Shinagawa, Ueno, Tokyo, and Shinjuku stop here). If you’re nervous about travelling then rest easy. Like most JR stations, Akihabara is large and terribly busy but easy to navigate since the station has signs that come in Japanese and English. There are also members of staff who can speak English.
As soon as you step out of Akihabara station’s Electric Town exit you will be in one of a number of areas where you will see an array of otaku-themed businesses like
the Gundam cafe and the AKB48 Cafe sitting side-by-side with more mainstream stores including the ubiquitous Atre Akihabara which has become a regular haunt of mine since it is currently running a series of pop-up Final Fantasy events prepping the populace of Tokyo for the launch of Final Fantasy XV. I’ve seen a couple of Final Fantasy XV cups and t-shirts that I really want…
The nearest Tokyo Metro station is Suehirocho which is at the top of town closer to Ueno. It’s a short walk down towards the more cult stores and you will pass by plenty of eateries. If you’re unsure about local cuisine then there’s always a McDonald’s with cheap food and a Mr Donut with expensive doughnuts but you should definitely try some of the small sushi and ramen restaurants where you can get plates of the stuff from the conveyor belts. There’s also a wallet-friendly Coco’s Family Restaurant which has a variety of meals at cheap prices.
On Sundays, the streets are closed to traffic for a few hours and you can walk freely on the roads which makes it a slightly more relaxed experience.
As for the maid cafes? While I talked briefly with the lovely girls handing out the flyers there was no way I was going into one of them without a Japanese friend with me to make sure I wasn’t going to make a costly error. Akihabara is strictly about video games as far as I am concerned.
Here are more pictures: