Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Japan - Akihabara, Tokyo

It's known as the gamer's and anime fan's paradise, with seedy adult-oriented underpinnings holding up its glittery neon facade. Akihabara - officially designated "Electric Town", unofficially and affectionately called "Akiba" by those that frequent it. Land of the Famicom, cheap electronics, hentai and maid cafes. Does it really live up to its infamous reputation?

Not really, at least not anymore. But it's still an interesting place.

It used to be moreso, at least for me. The first time I visited Akihabara was in the heyday of the PlayStation, when the Japanese game industry was at its peak and the anime industry was close behind. Nearly every store on Chuo-Dori, Akihabara's main street, was a small shop catering to one niche or another in these mediums - often selling rare and used goods that you couldn't find anywhere else, and for cheap prices. Back then, it really did live up to the reputation it had at the time.

I found my Derby Stallion "skeleton" Saturn there for 4,980 yen in 2000 - this is the rarest Sega Saturn ever made. They were clearin' em out in Akihabara! (I believe that is the exact box I purchased.)

These days, there is a "renewal" of Akihabara going on. What this means I can't quite figure out - usually that's code for sweeping out the seediness and replacing it with family-friendly big-box fare. And to be sure, that is definitely happening in Akihabara, where whole blocks have been torn down to await replacement, and where a giant Yodobashi Camera has opened up directly across from Akihabara station (easily the biggest store in the ward, but with what amounts to a Best Buy/Circuit City ethos, to put it in terms Americans would understand).

This is Game One - a random store I took a picture of in 2000, one of many like it. Today, most of the stores like this are gone - and I couldn't find Game One (it may still be there and I just missed it, but I remembered this photo so I was looking).

At the same time, though, the curious new phenomenon of the maid cafe has been springing up, apparently in direct defiance of the government's attempts at wiping out the adult-oriented, thoroughly geeked-out theming of the area. You can click that link for a bit more info but the long and short of it is that maid cafes exist to cater to guys with maid fantasies - something that's apparently universal but as in most things gets taken to a weird and completely illogical conclusion in Japan. (The thing is, their costumes are not even what you'd call "sexy" - they're just girls dressed like real maids... save for the occasional bunny ears.)

If you've come here after Googling for an Akihabara map, you're in luck - though I'm not posting it for informational reasons, really, more as an illustration of how creepy the area can still be when it tries. This is an official map of the neighborhood, chock full of maid cafe advertisements (PDF):

My wife and I actually thought it might be fun to try one of these cafes - her idea! We took one of the fliers being handed out by the maids standing outside the train station and headed over to check it out. We were even a little excited to see something so uniquely Japanese geek pop. But I have to admit, when we got to the door and saw that it was the sort of place that sits in a basement with its windows covered up, we chickened out. No doubt that's to protect the identity of its patrons from public shame rather than to hide anything untoward going on inside, but it made us feel a little icky to think we'd even need our identities protected visiting a place like that. Whether or not it's deserved, there's a stigma attached to going to a maid cafe in Japan.

Walking down Chuo-Dori is actually kind of depressing these days, with several blocks just completely gone and more than a few old stores now replaced by coffee chains or other generic shops. Akihabara was never all that big to begin with, but it seems to have shrunk over the years - you can now exhaust pretty much all that it has to offer in about 1/4 mile of Chuo-Dori.

Still, the area around the train station continues to teem with cheap new and used or grey market electronics. There is still a huge Sega game center. There is still a selection of good used anime and game stores, including my favorite, TRADER.

This store is tiny, but it always has things you just never, ever see. This time, I found several new and shrinkwrapped copies of the Nintendo DS Game & Watch collection, the rarest game available for the system and supposedly only available in Japan to Nintendo Club members by collecting a ridiculous amount of "points" from other DS purchases. I wish I'd bought a copy (only 4980 yen), but elected to save my money for other things. Unfortunately, I never found anything else worth buying.

And there are, of course, the stores that may look pretty normal at first glance...

...until you take a closer look:

I guess now we know where the maid cafes get their uniforms.

This was my first visit to Akihabara when I didn't buy a single thing. A big disappointment, especially after my last trip, when I filled an entire duffle bag with Akihabara purchases. My wife thinks I'm getting old and am just no longer as interested in Akihabara's specialties. I don't think that's true - I think it's Akihabara that's changed, and not for the better.

The thing is, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in Akihabara. But Japan is a crazy place, and Akihabara is really no more special than a lot of other areas anymore. Heck, you can buy maid uniforms in Ryugasaki. You can buy used games and anime pretty much anywhere. And big-box stores like Yodobashi Camera are certainly not exclusive. There's no need to go to Akihabara for these things. It used to be that the sheer concentration of niche stores, the sheer number, the massive selection and the cheap prices made Akihabara a special place. But it's lost a lot of what made it unique over just the past six years.


  1. That's a shame. I'm visiting Tokyo for the first time this Decemeber, and one of the things I was looking forward to was the geeky craziness of Akihabara. Perhaps (not having memories of the Akiba of 2000) I won't be so dissappointed.

    At any rate, I guess it's unsurprising. Urban areas are always in flux like that. I could tell stories about the way parts of St. Louis has changed in the last decade.

    Anyway, as I gear up for my trip, I'll be keeping up with yours. Your observations on Japan have been really fun to read!

  2. Well it's nice to see that somebody's actually been reading this stuff :)

    I'm only about 2/3 done, so lots more is still coming.

    You'll probably still like Akihabara, it's just not as crazy as it used to be. You'll definitely notice the empty blocks, though, unless they've finished constructing whatever new buildings they're building by then.

    Anyway, have fun on your trip, and I hope you get some useful info from my posts.

  3. Anonymous8:44 PM

    You're absolutely right, Akiba has lost a lot of its unique flair in the past few years. When I went to Japan for my first time in 2001, I think every other store I went into had some "interesting" merchandise. But when I visited a couple months ago, it did seem to be cleaned out. It's really too bad.

    As for those maid outfits you saw through the windows, if I recall correctly those might be for people who have full-scale life sized dolls. At least, I saw some of those dolls awhile back in the shops.

  4. Anonymous1:03 PM

    I am going to Japan for a trip. I am going to go to Akihabara. How much Yen do you think I would need to take... I am a gaming and anime freak! ^_^ Thanks

  5. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Actually there are a lot of things that are found only in Akihabara... Some kinds of electronic parts are a good example...


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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