Gadgets and Geekery: A Visit to Akihabara
By Michelle Clough
Technophiles, gamers and nerds of all kinds find plenty to amuse them in Tokyo’s electronic shopping district.
A knot of Japanese teenage boys scurries into a back alley as we emerge from the subway station, the not-so-distant cacophony of bells and whistles blaring from storefronts and muffling their laughter. To my friend Kirsten, still bleary from jetlag, it seems like any other station in Tokyo. But after a year and a half living in Japan, I can see the little things: the boys’ furtive excitement, the exuberant store jingles, the eager step of white-collar businessmen clutching briefcases. The air is neither choking nor fresh, yet my mind grants it a lingering electric scent. I take a deep breath and savour it. This is Akihabara, the electronic and anime shopping district of Tokyo. It is the land of gadgets, of games, of geekery… and I am home.
Since the 1940’s, Akihabara has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a cluster of black market dealers, selling vacuum tubes and radio parts to students of the local electrical engineering university. The area is still known as “Electric Town,” and lives up to the name with blazing neon signs and flickering flat screen televisions for sale on every street corner. Subtlety is not a part of the landscape, and the air is filled with loud music and blaring announcements.
For those shopping for high-tech appliances and devices such as cameras and computers, Akihabara is the place to go. Several national franchises such as Laox, Yodobashi Camera and Akky International have big-box stores here, with multiple floors dedicated to everything from fridges to fax machines. Technophiles pay top price for cutting-edge gadgets, but bargain hunters can find plenty of slightly older or non-brand items, or try their luck at nearby second-hand stores. Most retailers in the area offer English manuals for their products, marketing to ex-pats and technology-minded tourists.
But Akihabara is not only air conditioners and cell phones. With the Eighties came the growing popularity of video games and anime with the young and not-so-young of Japan. Akihabara embraced this new market and is now as much a mecca for geeky pursuits as it is for gadgetry. As avid gamers and anime fans, our visit here is akin to salmon returning to their birthplace.
Our first stop is Radio Kaikan (1-15-16 Kanda, Chiyoda-Ku). Once inside, the overwhelming clamor fades into a hushed warren of various shops. With its tangled hallways and cramped aisles, it is a maze for nerds to lose themselves in. The shelves of each store are crammed with every geeky vice known to man, from comic books to keychains to rare Asian horror DVDs to action figures. Models of big-breasted anime heroines recline next to Ridley Scott’s Alien and a life-sized Evangelion. Shoppers browse nonchalantly, unashamed of their nerdcred; we take a hint from their confidence as we paw over figurines and stuffed toys.
Next stop is Chuo-dori, the main street of Akihabara. Every inch of the block is alive with flatscreens blazing advertisements, game demos and animated characters. The sheer amount of stores and stimulus can easily overwhelm a newcomer. Skipping the more modern and expensive video game stores, I gently nudge us towards my favorite retro game place, Media Land (1-14-1, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku). We climb its five cramped and claustrophobic stories to find rare titles and good deals on games we’ve never heard of but now just have to have. Then more anime shopping, this time at Animate (4-3-2, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku). The flagship outlet of a nation-wide franchise, Animate eschews the crowded spaces of its neighbours in favor of a calmer, more spacious layout. We spend hours poring over posters and comics, listening to the giggles and coos of Japanese schoolgirls, feeling like kids again.
We emerge onto Chuo-dori to find it even more crowded than before. People spill out onto the street as they travel from store to store: housewives shopping for appliances, teenagers with anime keychains dangling, smartly dressed Blackberry users and bespectacled gaming nerds all mix together. It’s here that we catch our first glimpse of cosplayers: fans wearing costumes of their favorite anime or game characters. Kirsten points and admires, but the regulars take it all in stride. It is accepted as a part of Akihabara, and respectable businessmen brush past Mario and Sailor Moon without blinking an eye.
But there is a darker side to the glitz and fannish glee… a side Kirsten demands to see before we go. Thus we wander the back alleys, where cheery displays make way for posters of half-naked models and suggestive artwork. Many merchants here know that wherever geeks congregate, especially male geeks, there will always be some who are socially awkward and obsessed with… well, women as sex objects. The “maid café” is a trend particular to the area, where pretty and submissive girls in fetishized maid costumes wait on male clientele. Comic book stores like Mandarake (3-11-2, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, 5th and 6th floor) specialize in hentai, or “perverted” comics, featuring lurid pornography of fan-favorite anime and game characters. Scruffy Japanese men lurk silently amidst the shelves, pawing over the selection in search of a favorite character or kink.
My friend finds it hilarious, and soon makes a game of giggling aloud over particularly bizarre artwork to see how many men she can make jump in embarassment. Her record is five at once. I try not to laugh at her; it would only make them jump again.
Our time in Akihabara draws to a close, as Kirsten complains of a headache. I sympathize, as the loud ringing and bright neon lights can be overstimulating even for me. But as our train pulls away from the station, I know that it doesn’t matter… that inside this geek’s mind and heart, the sounds and sights of Akihabara will always be there, waiting for me to come home.
Access: Akihabara is accessible from most Tokyo locations via the JR Yamanote, Chuo and Keihin-Tohoku lines, as well as the Hibiya and Ginza subway routes. Leave the station via the DenkiGai exit. See the Japan National Tourist Organization website for more details.