Every hobby and every religion has their sacred place. Baseball fans have Cooperstown. Gamblers go to Las Vegas. Catholics go to the Vatican. Maple syrup lovers go to Canada. For us, the nerds, the geeks, the otaku, we have Akihabara. It is here that we can fulfill our wildest, dorkiest dreams. If we feel like buying the newest video game, Akihabara. If we have a craving for that awesomely drawn manga, Akihabara. And, if we just must be called “Master” by a cute little maid while we have our morning coffee, you got it, Akihabara. There are very few places in the world where a video game lover can come anytime of the year and feel at home. And just like home, Akihabara also has plenty of porn.
The downside to the place also called Akiba is that it is in an inconvenient location for most of the world’s electronically inclined. Once you are in Japan, it is easy enough to find, but getting to that little series of islands in the Pacific Ocean is usually the kicker. I have written about Akihabara’s grungier brother, Den Den Town before, and today I will try to do the crown jewel of geekdom some justice as well. Reading this may not be the same as seeing the place yourself but it is a hell of a lot cheaper and you don’t have to spend eleven hours on a cramped Boeing 777.
First, a little bit of a history lesson. Akihabara and fire have never gotten along very well but it is thanks to a fire in 1869 that the Akihabara we know today got its name. The imperial palace is very close to Akihabara. By train on the Yamanote line, you can ride from the imperial residence to geek central in about four minutes. After the big fire of 1869, the imperial family feared that an uncontrolled blaze could threaten their home and decided to level about 30,000 sq. meters of Edo to act as a fire buffer between the ordinary citizens of Edo and the descendants of the sun god.
After the destruction, a small shrine was erected in the name of fire extinguishing but the local population thought that the shrine actually was the place of enshrinement for Akiba, the deity in charge of controlling fire. Over a period of time the area around the shrine came to be known as, Akibappara or “The Diety Akiba’s Square”. The name Akihabara is what Akibappara morphed into over a couple of decades.
In the mid-1930s, after a period of railroad booms and population jumps, Akihabara started to become known for selling small electronics. During the Second World War, Akihabara was again damaged by fire caused by the US bombing campaigns on Tokyo. After the war, it became a thriving black market and again, a major hub for electrical devices, especially tube radios.
Since that time, Akihabara has evolved with technology. When personal computers arrived, Akiba was the place to go for parts. When robots started to become popular, it was here that the first robot part store opened. Today, if it plugs into a wall, runs on batteries, or has to do with porn or comic books, it can be found in Akihabara.
Fortunately for those of us who are not Japanese, Akihabara has not been kept a secret. This is quite apparent when you visit the area. Tokyo is the most global city in Japan and foreigners are pretty common; the same holds true for Akihabara. Foreigners from all over the world will come to Akiba to see the newest video games or to marvel at the network of stalls that have every kind of electrical component one could possibly imagine.
Others just like to come and see all of the maids out in the street, playing to the crowd in an effort to entice them to come into their café. As soon as you get off the train, you know you are someplace kind of special…or weird.
On an average trip to this section of Tokyo, it is not uncommon to see cosplayers, maids, guys freestyle rapping about their store’s eyeglass selection, and your average nerd. Akihabara has character and a vibe all its own. Did I mention that the place is also a pretty good size? The meat of the district is probably about eight square city blocks with the train station nestled in the bottom middle of the grid. One main street runs through the area and it usually closes during the busy parts of the day so that people can cross the road without fear of being flattened by a taxi.
The downside to Akihabara is that tourists usually stay on the track of stores that line the big street. Japanese people being the sales geniuses they are, know that white people will not usually stray from the path prescribed by their travel guides and so all of the stores on that street are crazy expensive. If you have the time and are not afraid to go down the alleyways and smaller streets, you can find anything the big stores are carrying but for at least 20% cheaper.
The other cool part about exploring is you start to stumble across niche shops that cater to the smaller sects of geekdom. You will find a three story Super Potato store for the video game collectors. The cool part about this Super Potato location is the third floor of the store is a retro arcade where you can relax, have a Dr. Pepper, and play Street Fighter 2.
There is also one section of an alley that deals only in computer parts and software that are more than five or six years old. I have found the same with cameras and minidisc players. There are also a handful of borderline shady shops that deal in piracy accessories like mod chips and flash memory Gameboy cartridges, and swap discs for the Playstation and Gamecube. If you look hard enough, you will probably find what you want here.
That motto also holds true for anime, manga, and toys but there seems to be a greater concentration of those shops in Den Den Town in Osaka. Akihabara has all of that stuff but the primary focus here is electronics and electronic media. If you do have an itch for manga though, you have to go to Mandrake!, which is one of the better manga stores in Japan. A brand new shop for toys and models just opened up right across the street from the main station exit and it has some pretty fun stuff but it is on the more expensive side, and most of it can be found in Osaka for a little cheaper.
As far as video games go, Akihabara has so many stores that stock them I am not sure what to say. One thing is for sure, if you are looking for used games and not just collectible ones, Osaka’s Den Den Town has more stores dealing in used stuff. Brand new games and systems are easy to find and plentiful. Just do me a favor and stay out of stores like Laox, they are there to rip you off because they are playing on the fact they know most tourists aren’t going to stray from the beaten path. Do yourself a favor and explore.
Now I will touch on something that I, quite frankly, have very much experience in: maid cafes. One theme that is very prominent in current Japanese anime and manga is the French style maid. A few years ago, there was a television show called Maid in Japan. At least I think that was the name of it. The show was very popular for a time and in its wake a bunch of cafes sprung up that have maids who replace the normal waiting staff. It is the job of these maids to make you feel like a king. The maids are very submissive and usually refer to the patrons as “master” or some other title of prominence. They will try their best to please you and make you feel like you do indeed dominate them.
For one reason or another, there is a demographic in the Japanese populous that really gets off on the whole maid act. Sure, it is nice to be pampered when you go out to eat but there is a difference between pampering and worship, and having someone idolize me in a language that I only understand half the time is somewhat odd. Since maid cafes have become so lucrative, maid massage parlors have emerged as well as maid hair salons. The odds are pretty good that if there is a service that usually comes with a degree of pampering, there is a maid version of it with staff waiting to worship you. What cracks me up is that the current maid trend is to wear bandages all over parts of your body and pretend like you are hurt. Some guys like feeling like the protector of an innocent, maimed maid and this fad has become all the rage in Akihabara.
The last thing I will touch on briefly is the abundance of porno in Akihabara. Somewhere along the line, an observant Japanese guy realized that the internet is basically powered by sex. He then made the connection that in order to access the net you need a computer and where do Tokyo nerds go to get computer stuff? Akihabara. Finding porn is as easy as finding video games and very often they are both found in the same store. Looking at the newest Zelda game while two guys critique a very moving, awe inspiring sex scene from the opposite side of the same aisle is a somewhat strange feeling.
If you have any hang-ups with porn, you need to leave them with customs when you enter Japan. The Japanese do not view porn in the same light as Americans and for a conservative American, many section of Japan will come off as a bit of a shock in this regard. Simply put, porn is everywhere here, everywhere. Now, if you don’t have any issues with porn and you want browse a selection of a different kind of toy, walk straight out of the main gate at the train station, cross the street and then walk until you hit the next street; the building to your right is a six story sex emporium.
I am not kidding. I have not exactly lived a pure life, but some of the stuff I have found in this place is just mind numbing. The funniest part of the whole store is the promotion they have for the ladies. If you are a female customer and try on some of the costumes that the store sells and them allow them to take a Polaroid of you, you get a discount. This means that the store is riddled with pictures from all sorts of customers. In this sense, Japan is a very different place from the United States.
That pretty much wraps up my literary tour of a very busy and fun place to visit. I recently took a friend to Akihabara and his favorite two words to describe the place were “sensory” and “overload”. That is true with Japan as a whole but it is especially accurate for Akihabara. If you visit, expect an all out electronic assault on your eyes and ears. Have fun!