World famous geek paradise26 January, 2011 by Chad
Akihabara definitely ranks alongside Harajuku and Shibuya as the districts most recognized by tourists. There has never been any shortage of international coverage, which often plays up Akihabara (like all other featured areas) to be another strange, silly or downright crazy town. Sensationalism aside, if you’re reading this site, chances are you’re probably well familiar with Tokyo’s Electric Town. But today we take a look at the heart of Tokyo’s otaku culture.
The truth is though that what most people refer to Akihabara (or Akiba for short), isn’t actually Akihabara itself but the outskirts of Kanda. The area began as a post World War 2 black market for electronic goods earning the name “Electric Town”. Up until the late 90s, Akihabara was the go to place for electronics. The equivalent of an entire town version of Sim Lim Square or Funan Center.
Akihabara Station is located conveniently on the JR Yamanote Loop in the Northern section of Tokyo. It can also be reached by Tokyo Metro’s Hibiya Line. The station is located at the northern edge between the popular and “real” Akihabara. The sights start as soon as you step outside and electric town occupies all of the streets West of the station.
With anime shops crowding the Kanda area, the few surviving electronic shops have retreated closer toward the station. There are a number of large electronic department stores selling tax and duty free goods such as LaOX, Labi and Yodobashi’s flagship store. These are large retail chains, so don’t expect a huge bargain. In fact, you’ll find multiple branches of each store throughout Akihabara.
Perhaps due to lower rent costs, you can find some of the more niche interest shops here too, so if you’re on the lookout for vintage cameras, analog radios, trading cards or train related items, this is where to look.
Through the years Akihabara’s focus has constantly changed. From radios during the post war era, to computers and then to video games at the peak of the Japanese game’s industry. Modern Akihabara is crammed full of low rise buildings with bright neon lights, banners and advertisements atypical to other areas in Tokyo. Promoters on every corner peddle their wares and young women in french maid dresses point you toward one of the many maid cafes.
Since the decline in its games industry, anime has became Akihabara’s most profitable trade. It has lasted till today where most of the shops sell toys, figurines and other merchandise derived from anime or manga characters. Enthusiasts will be excited to find countless multi-story shops dedicated solely to such items.
There’s always that new item to strive for and keeping up with new releases can definitely put a hole in the wallet. To answer this, some shops also allow customers to trade in their older items for some spare cash (to purchase yet even more items with).
Most associate the word “otaku” with anime and manga lovers and with the widespread media focus on the two, can you blame them? However, the word otaku actually relates to anyone who is passionate enough about a single interest. If you scour Akihabara carefully enough, you’d find a variety of other shops that appeal not just to anime otaku.
A number of amusement centers and pachinko parlors call Akihabara home, such as Club Sega and the Game Taito Station. Some of the claw catchers at Taito Station contain plushes or figurines that are exclusive to the machines.
Ishimaru is a popular chain of electronic malls. It’s particularly famous for a catchy many decade old jingle that is plays in all of its outlets.
In total there are 10 Ishimaru outlets in Akihabara but of particular interest is one of the two located near the border of the neighboring Ochanomizu Station, Ishimaru Soft.
Ishimaru Soft is named such for being the franchise’s flagship “Software” store, which is really Japanese English for “Media”. Ishimaru Soft specializes in selling all of the latest CDs, DVDs and Blurays. What makes Ishimaru Soft special though is the various release tie-ins with the source of this media.
New or less notable artists often hold promo events here with each new release. Statistically, Japan leads the rest of the world when it comes to the sheer quantity of media releases (with the exception of music, for which it takes second place behind America), which is why there multiple such promos held each day here. But most of the artists being promoted at Ishimaru fall under the gravure category. There is the occasional indie musician or adult video actress though.
At first sight, Lamtara looks like any other idol goods store in Akihabara. But while the first floor is plastered with AKB48 photographs, Lamtara falls on the opposite spectrum to Ishimaru Soft, catering almost entirely to the “adult” market. Promo events featuring adult actresses are the norm here.
Then there’s M’s. Which is an amusing seven floor “health” goods store. In plain English, it sells sex toys.
These days, the same young faces are plastered throughout most of the shops in Akihabara. Members from AKB48 no doubt. After a highly successful year, Akihabara’s popular idol group, AKB48 has strengthened its foothold in the town. The shops here have been quick to cash in on their success.
The group calls the Akihabara branch of the Don Quijote (Donki) building their home. They perform daily (or whenever possible) at their theater on the 8th floor of the building and a merchandise store opened on the 5th floor some time ago.
In recent years, Akihabara has been overrun by maid cafes. You’ll find no shortage of conventional maid cafes, as well as “specialty” ones such as the Gundam Cafe that we wrote about last year.
In order to stand out in this increasingly competitive market, many shops have to find a niche or resort to unconventional gimmicks. Apart from just having a maid serve you your meal, many cafes now offer other special services too. Which in the light of Akihabara means something like paying to play video games with your favorite maid.
Many of the cafes get their more presentable maids out onto the streets to draw in customers. A difficult agenda, considering that most otaku would rather invest in 2D people. But regardless of obsession, there is something for everyone at Akihabara.
In many ways, a trip to Tokyo’s famous electric town can be a real eye opener. Visit with an open mind and you’ll be sure to find many interesting sights while you peek into the home of the otaku sub-cultures. Don’t forget to grab some Akihabara themed omiyage to bring back home.
Special thanks to Gabriel Kang for the wider angle photographs.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.