Being a geek and living in Japan is kind of like mixing Ecstasy with LSD – it’s one hell of a trip. There are four places in Japan that should be on the must-see list for anyone who calls himself a nerd. The big one is Akihabara in Tokyo and I will be covering that in September along with The Tokyo Game Show. The third spot goes to Nintendo’s world headquarters in Kyoto but there isn’t much to see there because no one is allowed into the facility and tours are never provided. The fourth spot and topic of today’s installment is Den Den Town in Osaka.
Den Den Town can best be described as the poor man’s Akihabara. It is smaller in size, about four or five square blocks instead of an entire section of Tokyo. The businesses in Den Den are also a bit lower scale. In Akihabara, you can find anything that takes a power cord or batteries, both new and used. And you can find porn. In Den Den, you can find anything used or old that is electric and you can find more porn.
In Japan, being an “otaku” is often paired with being a perv. Therefore, where you find computer stores and video game shops, you will also find heaping stacks of porn. No kidding, I have been in a video game shop looking over various titles while a couple of the guys on the opposite side of the aisle were critiquing a porno that was playing on the TV. It is kind of odd at first but you get over it. One thing to remember when talking to women in Japan, unlike the United States, is that geeks are not “in.” If you call yourself an otaku (the Japanese slang for geek) a woman is automatically going to envision you forcing her into some cluttered basement and making her to dress up like Rei from Neon Genesis Envangelion while you giggle and touch yourself. Geeks do not get women in Japan.
Aside from the amazing selection of rock bottom priced porn, Den Den Town has one other strength: old video games. If there is a console that is no longer made, Den Den Town is the place you come to get games and accessories for it. Den Den is also a place for game collectors to come in search of that elusive Neo Geo or 3DO game that they just can’t find anywhere else. With collectors come sometimes crazy prices on the more obscure stuff. An easy to find game like Super Mario Brothers will go for a couple of bucks while rare games like the original Metal Slug for the NEO GEO go for over a grand. Still, if you have the cash, Den Den Town has your games.
The big store to go to for your hard to find game fix is, Super Potato. Super Potato is actually two stores in one; on the first floor you have all of you brand new titles for the modern consoles. On the second floor, you ascend to retro-gaming heaven. Name a system and the miraculous spud of a shop will stock games for it and probably the consoles as well. During my last trip, I laid eyes upon Nintendo’s red-headed stepchild, the Virtual Boy, the famed Neo Geo, and the oft-forgotten PC Engine.
Super Potato specializes in most things from the Nintendo family but they have a pretty broad selection of other consoles as well. Going into Super Potato is like stepping into a pixilated antique shop. On some days the place gets pretty crowded and if slithering your way in between otaku looking to get their fix isn’t your thing, then you can always play the free video games that line the entrance to the shop; on my last trip I shanked some commie ass on Rush N’ Attack.
If Nintendo games aren’t what you are looking for and you crave a broader selection of Dreamcast and other Sega titles, this should be your next stop – Game Something Something. Perhaps it is GameWonderland or Game Bandit or Game Hotdog Princess, whatever it is, I don’t know those three kanji so I just like to make stuff up. Either way, this is your store for the Sega family and some of those pesky Playstation titles you forgot about from a few years back. I don’t usually spend a ton of time in this store because aside from a couple of Dreamcast and Playstation games, there just isn’t much in this store I am interested in. They do get bonus points for taping old video game ads to their floor though.
Den Den Town, like Akihabara, is designed to milk tourists for all they are worth. On the main street that runs through this gaming ghetto you will find all of the big dollar and super popular stores. Sony has a shop here and I think there are three Sofmaps around here, too. If you want a game and don’t care how much you pay for it, stay on the main street and you will be happy. However, if you are a more frugal and adventurous type, stroll down the backstreets of this neighborhood and you are likely to come across what you were looking for at a slightly cheaper price.
If you do stay on the main street and choose to patronize the bigger retailers, be sure to ask them for a discount. One thing that most electronics retailers do not like tourists to know is that if you ask for a discount, odds are you will get about 10% knocked off of the tagged price. This is at the store clerk’s discretion and your mileage may vary but odds are, if you ask politely and the guy helping you isn’t a total douche, you will get a discount. Note that this usually doesn’t apply to used stuff or duty-free merchandise and if you try this is the smaller shops they will laugh at you.
One thing that Den Den Town does not have is a lot of computer games. As much as I hate admitting it, computer gaming is on its way out in Japan. The consoles dominate the market and Den Den Town reflects the trend. If you are looking for computer games and are going to Tokyo, Akihabara is a much better place to go. There still are not very many computer games there but due to the sheer size of the place, you are bound to find something of interest.
Now for something totally different. If you come to Den Den Town or Japan as a whole and all you are interested in is anime and video games, I advise you to stay home. The Japanese, contrary to popular belief, are not all sword-wielding ninjas, gallivanting about on robotic steeds. I know of people who have come here with this mindset and have left my little series of islands rather disappointed. While you are here you will see some really cool video game and anime stuff, this is Japan after all; but you will also be exposed to new foods and cultural phenomenon and I suggest you try some of them. Come out of your nerdy, gamer shells and live a little.
For example, Osaka is known for a food called, takoyaki. Takoyaki are small balls of fried cornmeal with bits of seasoning and octopus inside. It is pretty cool to see how they are made and the little doughy balls are quite tasty. You will find many takoyaki vendors as you meander the streets of Den Den Town.
If Japanese food doesn’t sit well with you and you like to people watch, head into one of the two McDonalds in Den Den Town and take your Happy Set (Happy Meal to you Westerners) up to the second or third floors. Here you will see a new and somewhat sad trend to hit Japan, they are known as McRefugees. Basically, since McDonalds has started keeping most of their restaurants open twenty-four hours in Japan, some of the less-fortunate citizens will come to the Golden Arches and order a cheeseburger or bottomless coffee and proceed to stay the night under the watchful eyes of Ronald McDonald.
As long as you order something, they will not kick you out and a warm plastic booth is better than a cold concrete slab any day of the week. While some of these McRefugees are kind of sad to think about, they do some of the most interesting things while lounging about in McDonalds and it makes for some great people watching.
Whatever you seek in Den Den Town, if it is electronic there is a good chance you will find it. If it is made of silicon and jiggles odds are, you will find that stuff around here too. While Den Den Town may not be Akihabara, it is still a fun place to visit and worth checking out if you are a nerd in Osaka with nothing better to do. Stay tuned because next time I will take you through the crowded alleys and shops of Akihabara – you can expect that tour in about a month or so.