Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tokyo Day 5 - Akihabara Revisited

I'm gonna warn you straight up - this is a post chock full of hardcore geekiness.

I'm getting pretty late with this trip report - been almost a month since we've been back now. But I've still got one or two posts left to go. And I definitely want to say a bit about Akihabara, especially after my last post about the neighborhood, when I was almost completely down on what the area had turned into.

It is still true that "Akiba" has changed. I don't take any personal offense to this (like I do when certain neighborhoods in New York go through major changes). I have no real claim to the area, but some locals and even a lot of tourists seem to be really unhappy with what's going on there. The Japan Times, for example, posted an article about this rising discontent just after we got back.

I was disappointed on my last trip to see that the big box stores and chains were taking over the area, driving the mom and pop shops out in an attempt by the government at "normalizing" the neighborhood. This has always been an area for geeks and their various geeky interests; first with the ham radios, then the computers, then the anime and video games. A lot of that's being literally torn down, even still. But I will say that this misguided urban renewal plan seems to be backfiring on the government; if anything, Akihabara's actually getting weirder now.

I sort of hinted that this was happening in my post last year; it's even more apparent now. The most obvious indication of this is that maids are everywhere. They greet you as soon as you get out of the train station. You see them walking down the street, sometimes alone, sometimes with "customers" who have paid them to walk around arm in arm. You can't throw a rock without breaking the window of a maid cafe. I finally broke down and went to my first maid cafe on this trip - actually a fun experience - but it's almost out of control how many of these places there are now.

I was a little uncomfortable with this at first, but eventually I just learned to go with it. This is the new Akihabara, still home to everything a geek could desire. If that now includes real girls dressed up in maid costumes all over the place, who am I to judge?

That's the building that houses the maid cafe we went to. There's another one on the second floor! The third floor is like a massage place, actually, if I remember right.

(The Japanese have a word they apply to this maid obsession, though, and it's not a flattering one: "moe". Click the link and read about it. When we were on our way to the maid cafe, my wife's sister-in-law actually asked her "are you on your way to moe?")

We also got a little further off the beaten path that is Chuo Dori this time, which you really need to do these days if you want to find the remaining independent stores selling games and computer parts. It used to be that most of the good stuff was concentrated on that main avenue; now, it's almost the opposite.

I also gotta admit that this was the first time I managed to find Super Potato, the legendary used video game store. Yes, "and I call myself a gamer", blah blah blah, I know it's some sort of blasphemy to go to Akihabara and not visit Super Potato. The truth is I just could never find it before. See, Tokyo isn't like New York or really any other city in the United States. Even people in Tokyo have trouble with addresses in the city. It's an ancient city and its address system... well, it just doesn't make any sense. So even major sites in Tokyo always put a little map next to their address showing you where they are in relation to other landmarks in the area. It's the only way to find them.

I never had such a little map for Super Potato so I just missed it on all my previous trips. But I found it this time, with the help of a little thing called "the internet".

I unfortunately didn't get too many photos inside, because they don't technically allow them and I didn't want to get kicked out. Check out their web site, though, and you can see some of what they've got. It's pretty goddamn amazing. Not even like a museum, because museums only ever have one of anything. This place has about 30 of everything, including rare systems like A/V Famicoms and Famicom Twins. Downside is their prices are not very good. If you can manage to find any of this stuff elsewhere (especially outside of Akihabara), you're guaranteed to pay less.

I did take one photo inside, because I wanted to show it to someone:

That's the almost mythical Atari 2800, rarest and most prized of all Atari systems. They've got 'em sitting out on the floor at Super Potato, waiting to be kicked and bumped into by uncaring Japanese consumers on the make for that one Sega Saturn dating simulation missing from their collection.

Anime is also still huge in Akihabara, although there are fewer places to get it. That just leaves bigger crowds for the remaining stores. Check out this line (you may need to open the photo up):

That was actually for some Neon Genesis Evangelion thing - I don't even know what. Incidentally, I don't remember the name of that building, but it was amazing inside - floor after floor of wacky toys and merchandise you probably won't find anywhere else.

Evangelion was almost as common in Akihabara as the maid phenomenon this time; it was just as pervasive.

This is a series that ended 10 years ago! But there was a new Evangelion movie out that hit #1 on the Japanese box office chart while we were there (we went to see it), so interest has sparked again and now there are Evangelion ads up all over the place hawking everything from licensed video games to pachinko machines. After seeing the film, I couldn't help but get caught up in it myself. I bought a couple little Evangelion trinkets at both the Tokyo Anime Center and on the street in Akihabara (right outside the building above):

May be hard to believe for westerners with that level of detail, but that's actually a capsule toy! It came from a machine in this:

The Japanese do take their capsule toys seriously. A lot of them are pretty high quality and they come in sets. I only got Rei, which I sort of regret now. She was only 200 yen - I should have gone for the whole cast of characters. Of course, that's how they get you. They put 20 of every toy in the collection but one in that machine. That last one, they only put a single capsule right on top. You can see it there; it's tantalizing you with the final piece of the puzzle. But you can't get to it unless you buy every single capsule below it first.

I also now have two little tschotschkes hanging off my phone:

That round thing is a NERV screen cleaner from Evangelion. You use it to wipe your phone's LCD screen - the other side is soft fabric. It works like this:

Very handy! These things are pretty popular in Japan. I really have no idea why people don't buy phone accessories in the United States - they cost like $3 each and they add a little personality to your phone while even being occasionally useful. A lot of people in Japan have both a screen cleaner and a keitai strap/charm, just like I do.

Going with the "when in Rome" theme, I had to pick up a box of these when I saw them:

I actually bought a box for my co-workers too, more or less as a joke. It went over well!

Even the cookies themselves are cute. Have a look:

Different cookies actually have different pictures on them! The maid has all sorts of different moods reflected in the facial expressions on the cookie. (I'm not sure which that one is, but she's angry in one of them!) The cookies actually tasted pretty good, surprisingly enough.

The area does still pay homage to its hardcore nerd roots occasionally:

We looked in there and didn't see much that would distinguish it from any other cafe. My guess: off in a corner somewhere, they've got a PC running an unmaintained, obsolete distribution of Red Hat so their geek customers can feel comfortable.

We had fun in Akihabara this time, no doubt about it. You just have to accept the neighborhood for what it is, which it took me a year to be able to do (or maybe it took until it had gone past the tipping point - it wasn't clear when I was there last which direction it was gonna go). These days, it's gone off the deep end into "moe" on the one hand, while on the other, Chuo Dori's been taken over by chains so you really can't just concentrate on it and then consider yourself done with the neighborhood anymore. Maybe that's even a good thing in some ways, if it forces people to visit more of the stores on the side streets and keeps them in business.

I didn't actually buy any video game paraphernalia for the second trip in a row, and except for Super Potato (which caters to retro gamers), I don't really consider Akihabara the best place for game stuff anymore. I have done better on my last two trips just going to WonderGOO and BOOK*OFF in the suburbs. But for the overall geek experience, Akihabara's on top again... just in a different way than it used to be, and maybe for a different kind of geek.


  1. I have something similar to your keitai strap. It's keychain of Ami and Yumi in a yellow car. And I also have a pair of keychains with them with guitars. I got them 10 years ago or so!

  2. I've seen the yellow car version - I almost bought one on Yahoo auctions before my Japan visit. It's more like their Cadillac in Run! Puffy! Run! I'm just so used to the red one now, though, that yellow looks weird to me.

    Ditto for the guitar keychains - almost bought a set but didn't. I do have one of the other keychains from that same series, of Yumi on a bicycle. (I don't have the Ami version.)

  3. Anonymous3:38 PM

    How was the Evangelion movie? Being a huge Eva fan I was wondering how different is it from the anime series? No major changes I hope.

  4. No major changes, but a lot of minor ones. The biggest change is probably that they just totally skip most of the little "social" scenes, trying to fit everything into a 2 hour movie - so you never really get a sense of everybody getting to know each other like you do in the series (and I thought that was a pretty important thing in the series). The only scene like that in the movie is the one where Shinji first has dinner with Misato. The film feels very militaristic and cold. That may be sort of intentional, though; it's about Shinji, Misato, Rei and Gendo. Asuka and Kaoru are coming in the next film and maybe that'll shake things up.

    Otherwise, it's just the first series of battles - I think they showed the first three (or maybe four)? They play out basically the same way as they did in the series, although the last one is drastically extended. Basically the last 45 minutes of the film is preparation for the final battle with that square angel (I never remember any of their names).

    There's a lot of new footage and basically all of the music has been re-recorded and re-arranged. The music is pretty much universally better than it was in the series, but it's the same basic music. The new footage all fits in pretty well, to the point that you might actually mistake some new shots for old. I only recognized some of the new shots by the number of composited layers moving in the shot... the series was all done with cels, but the new footage is done with CGI so they can have an infinite number of composite layers now.

    The final preparation and battle is almost 100% new footage.

    There are a couple of strange edits out of the original series... for example, my wife and I both thought it was weird that Rei kept saying "Sayounara" to Shinji all the time. In the series, they finally resolve this when Shinji saves her from the busted plug and he tells her not to say that anymore. In the movie, that dialogue was cut out, so there's no resolution to this. Weird. That's just one example.

    But it was totally worth seeing for the new footage and the new music. The battles are a lot more intense, especially that final battle.

  5. Anonymous9:19 AM

    hei there...welcome bck to akiba...was there earlier this yr and it looks like it has changed a fair bit since then. I cant wait to return nxt yr...enjoy


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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