Japonism: Akihabara is only fun once

Electric Town Akihabara

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Photo Credit: gcorrin

Many gamers and fans of anime or manga know of Akihabara, the Japanese Mecca for video games and comics. Often it is seen as an ideal destination for travel because of its novelty, after all where else in the world are you going to find such a relatively large area packed with stuff for nerds (and I use that term lovingly)? As a Tokyo resident for going on five years now, I’d like to dispel the notion that it is an end-all and be-all for gamers and share why it may not be that great a second time around.

The Internet Ruined Everything

guilty-gear-figureBefore Amazon and other online retailers gained widespread use, there was a specific draw to Akihabara: you could buy things there that weren’t available anywhere else. Old games, limited edition comics, rare figurines… they’re all there in spades. Fans looking to complete their collections could browse through niche stores and find something they may not have. Unfortunately, the Internet’s ability to put everything at one’s fingertips has made purchasing these rare collectibles much easier than it used to be and taken away Akihabara’s corner on the nerd market.

This might not affect tourists in the same way, because seeing Japanese products in person is much better than window shopping on Amazon, but unfortunately large chain retailers have replaced many smaller shops since the latter have a much harder time paying Tokyo’s exorbitant rent prices and the problem of online shopping has probably contributed to a decline in foot-traffic to many places. Huge stores such as LABI, Yodobashi Camera and more have large locations within Akihabara, but they’re also available to see anywhere else in Japan and lack charm. Droves of foreigners, both Western and Chinese, seem to keep them in business though.

 You May Feel like a Creep

akihabara-maid-cafe2Another famous aspect of Akihabara is its prevalence of so-called “maid cafes”. These women aren’t out to serve your every need, but will be very happy to take a picture with you if you pony up some cash. Young women dressed in suggestive French maid outfits dot the street, often handing out fliers for the cafes they work at. They’ll often call customers “master” or “older brother” in Japanese to show their subservience.

akihabara-maidI visited a maid cafe only once and would not repeat the experience. After reaching the 5th or 6th floor, I stepped out of the elevator and into a world full of “cute”. It was as if a daycare had been designed for adults. As a maid brought out the orders my friend and I had placed she made us do a Japanese chant and corresponding hand motions before we could eat. To fully enjoy anything here you have to give up your sense of dignity and play along with strangers to keep the fantasy alive. It may be worth trying for the experience (unforgettable), but I can’t say it’s guaranteed to be comfortable.

Other than the maids, you may notice that Akihabara shoppers are interesting. Two or three years ago I spent time interviewing people for a project and what piqued my curiosity is what they were sitting on the sidewalk doing: showing off Polaroid collections. These pictures were of AKB48 (AKB = AkiHaBara) singers posing individually. This pop group serves as a religion to some and because of the intense male scrutiny, the girls are not allowed to date while part of it. It is fantasy just as much as the maid cafes and encourages the fan base to pick out a few “favorites” to support and vote for in influential polls (often requiring merchandise purchases).

Akihabara hides itself in flashy electronics and cloying fanservice, but look under that and you see an intense loneliness in the most populous city in the world.

It is Worth One Trip

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Photo Credit: Rachel Lovinger

I’ve taken issue with the area’s big-box takeover and the underlying desperation, but there are reasons to visit. The merchandise is fun to see, especially retro games and intricate figures, and the variety of shops will keep you busy for awhile. There’s even a seven floor shop of nothing but adult goods and, if you’re old enough, I definitely recommend. In general the atmosphere is somewhat unique and a five or more hour trip is plausible if you’re really passionate about gaming, anime, manga or computers. Many shops are tucked away in multi-level buildings with little signage, so if you are planning a trip I highly recommend you read up about the area, because it is easy to miss out if you don’t.

Other Places of Interest

There are also other locations which are similar to Akihabara, but are worth visiting for their own reasons. The first, Nakano Broadway, is a must-see if you’re already in Tokyo. Like Akihabara, it focuses primarily on shops that would appeal to our inner nerds, but many offer goods from long ago (#only90skids). Toys from the original Godzilla movie, posters from a wide variety of films and more… it’s all there. This is all in one shopping mall, so it doesn’t have the sprawling presence of Akihabara, but the trip back in time gives great insight into Japanese popular culture and a nuanced look at history.

Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, also has an electric town called DenDen Town. I haven’t visited for more than 10 years now, but if you take a trip to the Kansai region of Japan instead of Tokyo it shouldn’t be left off the itinerary!

Please feel free to share your own Akihabara experiences in the comments below!