Japan Trip - Around Akihabara

>> Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Akihabara! I had heard the stories--a wonderland of manga, collectible toys, video arcades, and electronics stores--but I was hesitant to believe it. Too often I had gone to a famous part of Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya) looking for my geek fixes and come back disappointed and empty-handed. I was so sure I was going to be disappointed again that I almost didn't slip an extra bit of money into my wallet, but boy am I glad I did...

Right across from the Akihabara train station was my first stop, Radio Kaikan, a building full of independent collectibles shops. Here, finally, I found my heart's desire: toys!

And more toys!

And more toys!

There were toys in boxes. There were toys out of their boxes, in display cases. And just to head off any jokey comments about how I collect dolls, I will quote The Office's Dwight Schrute: "They're collectible action figures. And they're worth more than your car." (And yes, I realize I just quoted Dwight Schrute in defense of my doll collecting habit.)

There were toys based on Japanese anime, like these One Piece characters.

And these kick-ass mechas. One thing my day in Akihabara made me definitely want to do is rent a bunch of Gundam anime when I get home.

They had some Kid Robot collectibles too, which will make Jo happy. One series I saw here that I've never seen in the states is a horror collection, with stylized characters like a Nosferatu and a Yurei (a Japanese ghost woman.) I bought a Yurei, as I've written about one in my Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine story "Okiku and the Nine Plates."

Where I really went nuts were the discount bins almost every store had. These are toys which, for the most part, were sold sight-unseen to consumers, who then opened up the capsule or the box they came in and discovered they already had that toy, or didn't want it. This is a big thing in Japan, collecting figures in a series where you don't know which one of the series will be in the box before you buy it. Kid Robot does this too, and while there's a bit of excitement to opening a box and finding out what you got, much like opening a baseball card pack, there's a fair bit of frustration too. Sometimes I'd rather pay more for the one figure in a series I really want than feel like I have to buy numerous boxes with figures I'm not so crazy about to get it.

In Japan (particularly in Akihabara) there's a healthy secondary market for these toys though, and I was able to pick up lots and lots of little toys for one and two dollars a piece. I went crazy!

Collectible cards are huge in Japan too. I'm not interested in collectible cards, so I didn't go into these shops unless they had figures as well. These stores were usually packed with customers.

Capsule stations can be found all over Tokyo, but they're huge in Akihabara. You put in anywhere from 100 yen to 500 yen (about one to five US dollars), turn the knob and you get a plastic capsule with a toy in it. We have these in America, but not nearly to the degree they have them here. And boy, were there some weird collectible things in these capsule machines.

Creatures of the sea collectible toys.

Fish toys.

One of my favorites: famous busts. I actually saw two guys buying these!

A Jo favorite: Professor Layton!

This is the one I've been pumping money into: stylized Star Wars zipper pulls. (So far I have Luke & Leia, Yoda & Wicket, and, not pictured, Darth Vader and teenage Anakin Skywalker. What I really want are the great Han and Chewie!) Zipper pulls are big here in Japan, and not just among kids. Adults have them all over their backpacks and bags. In fact, while I did see a lot of kids in Akihabara with their parents, there were far more adult collectors like me roaming the aisles.

After you get your capsule, you usually pop it open right there, stuff the toy in your bag, and toss the capsule pieces in a specially marked bin on top of the capsule machines.

As I said, there is a healthy secondary market for capsule toys. Right next to the rows of capsules are the shops that will sell you the ones you didn't get, or the ones you really want without having to pay for ones you don't want. They're sold for collectible prices, but sometimes the ones I coveted sold for less than what a box or capsule would cost--mostly, because I was buying toys for how they looked, not because I knew the character or knew how rare the figure was.

And of course Akihabara is full of manga.

Lots and lots of manga. Again, I really wish I could read Japanese. I was passing one of the 7th grade Japanese classes in the middle school today at ASIJ, and I popped in to say hello to the teacher and the kids. It made me wish I had the time to study the language with them. I'm more interested in learning Japanese than ever now!

There are traditional toys to be had in Akihabara too, like these kokeshi dolls. Forerunners to the collectible plastic toys of today?

I really liked these watches, made to look like the signs that hang on the Japan Rail platforms. The date and time scroll by on the screen, along with destinations on the Yamanote line, which is the big famous train loop around downtown Tokyo with a bunch of famous stops, like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, and the official Tokyo stop. I would have worn this in college for sure, when I enjoyed big honking watches. Now, I'm not so sure I would put up with the size of this just for the cool factor.

Akihabara is full of video game stores too, again with a healthy second-hand market. Some of the games would work in systems we own, but all of them are in Japanese, and I have no idea which are good and which are not. I was tempted to buy a baseball game, since even if I can't understand a thing on the screen, I would at least understand the game play. But I'm too worried about getting a stinker of a game that will just sit, unplayed and unseen, under my television cabinet. Ah well--more money to spend on collectible figures then!


Akihabara gets a bad rap for its more sexist and pornographic offerings, and some of that is deserved. These mousepads for example, with cushy breasts on which to rest your wrist as you surf for, um, Wikipedia articles, are mixed in right next to kids' stuff like Dragonball merchandise.

Some stores had back rooms where more adult items were sold. It was pretty surprising when I would be exploring a shop full of mainstream toys and manga and then duck into a room in the same shop and suddenly be surrounded by porn. I didn't take any pics of those rooms, both out of a sense of decorum here at Gratz Industries and because I wanted to allow the denizens their privacy. I did take this quick picture of some vacuum-sealed body pillows, which are one of the stranger obsessions among some men here in Japan (and elsewhere). These body pillows can be fitted with a slip-on cover that bears the full-body image of a scantily clad cartoon woman so the guy can sleep next to her at night. (I won't speculate on any other uses it might have.) Occasionally men's relationships with these pillows can go a bit far.

Mixed in with all the toy and manga goodness and all the creepy porn weirdness are electronic shops that make Radio Shack look like a child's electronics kit supplier. According to Wikipedia, after World War II, a black market at Kanda developed around the first school of electrical manufacturing (now the Tokyo Denki University). What began as a host of electrical stores selling vacuum tubes, radio goods and electrical items to the students, has today come to be known as Electric Town--and in fact the exit from the station that leads to all the great shops is called the "Electric Town Exit."

These days Electric Town has gone from selling vacuum tubes (although you can still find them there!) to transistors and circuit boards, and you can build a PC from scratch with parts bought at Akihabara.

After emerging from Radio Kaikan four hours later, blinking and still overwhelmed, I realized I must have looked a bit like the stereotypical otaku shuffling between geek fixes. Again from Wikipedia, otaku is a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga, and video games. In English, the term has come to be used much like Trekker or fanboy, but in Japanese the term carries a bit more baggage. In America, otaku is used as a synonym for geek, whereas in Japan the term is often seen as insulting. Some otaku embrace the word and own it; others dislike the word, as it is usually used disparagingly by non-otaku.

Interestingly, the word itself in Japanese comes from an honorific second-person pronoun. It was used in the 1980s anime Macross, which may be where it was pulled from, or it may have come from the works of science fiction author Motoko Arai. Wherever it came from, scholars have pointed out that it's an appropriate moniker: the second-person honorific is a pronoun of distance which keeps the speakers figuratively separated in much the same way that the obsessive geeks literally seek estrangement. Otaku value their privacy and generally do not seek interaction with others, even of their own kind, when trolling the warrens of Akihabara to feed their respective passions. (Language stuff like that fascinates me.)

The ads on billboards all around Akihabara feature manga (Japanese comic book) and anime (Japanese animated TV series) characters hawking other goods and services.

A funny shirt for sale at an Akihabara clothing shop. I'm guessing it was meant to say "ATHLETIC." I was tempted to buy this one. I thought I would see a lot more "Engrish" here, but while there are some oddly named shops here and there, on the whole the English translations are very good. I have to say too that I'm a little less inclined to laugh at bad English translations having spent 2+ weeks here with only about five Japanese words and phrases to my arsenal. Many, many Japanese know a bit of English, and most know more English than I know of Japanese. I think it's kind of unfair for Americans to give them too much crap for making translation mistakes when the Japanese are at least trying and we're not.

A bit of the Akihabara vibe on Chuo dori. I love the big space invader on the Tatio Game Station building. Arcades are huge here in Japan, as I posted before, and Akihabara is the king of big arcades.

This covered outdoor plaza was turned into a makeshift arcade while I was there. Dozens of players played the same fighting game on big machines throughout the plaza, while the premier match-up was shown on a huge screen, watched by this big crowd. I would have taken more shots, but they had guys in the crowd telling people not to take photographs. (They got to me just after this photo.) At first I didn't realize this was a temporary set up until I strolled by later and they were loading the machines on to truck and breaking everything down.

As in Shibuya and most other places in Tokyo, you have to make sure you look up when you're shopping, or you may miss shops that are different from the shop on the ground floor. This slim building had multiple floors of independent shops selling role playing games, cards, and collectible toys.

You know when you've found a shop worth exploring when the stairwell is plastered with ads. The stair risers are often used to tell you what's on each floor too, if you can read it. The pictures help me a lot.

This shop was at the top of a long, precarious flight of stairs.

Up off the street level is where you can find Akihabara's famous maid cafes, like the pink @home cafe here. Maid cafes are another reason people roll their eyes and laugh at Akihabara, and not without reason. In these cafes, young, cute waitresses dress up in skimpy French maid outfits and treat customers as though they are their masters. In fact, most customers are greeted with an enthusiastic, "Welcome home, master!" when they walk in the door. The customers aren't allowed to touch the girls, and photographs are forbidden unless purchased, but maid cafes definitely feed a popular otaku fantasy.

Out on the street around dusk, I did a double-take when I saw a blimp going by. I almost didn't catch it, and my attempts to run after it and get a better shot were for naught. I have to say, it did feel a little Blade Runner to see a blimp go by, even if this one didn't have a winking idoru on a giant LCD screen.

I liked this little two-story building, squeezed in between two towering giants to each side. How long before it gets torn down and replaced by a ten-story building filled with video game stores and maid cafes?

I'm still amazed at the little things I find here and there in Tokyo, like this pair of clay rabbits sort of randomly placed in a stairwell.

An octopus ball shop. These are a Kyoto delicacy, but there are octopus ball stalls here and there in Tokyo.

All around the Akihabara area I found signs like this: historical markers that explain in Japanese and in English what these neighborhoods used to be like in the Edo period. It's amazing to think that this area was once inhabited by samurai when you look around and see all the toy and manga shops. I know it's a bit cliche, but I wonder what a samurai from 400 years ago would think of Tokyo if he could see it today...

He would certainly be as overwhelmed as I was, and perhaps feel as much like a foreigner here as I am.

As night fell, I said sayonara to Akihabara, by far my favorite neighborhood for shopping so far. I came home with bags of toys, and spent...well, let's not talk about how much I spent. I know it won't be my last visit to Akihabara either; I'm already planning to take Wendi and Jo back with me when they get here in less than two weeks. (!)

Next up: I visit the Seibu Dome in Saitama, home of the Seibu Lions baseball team, and go to an FC Tokyo soccer game at nearby Ajinomoto Stadium.


cool games April 13, 2010 at 12:05 PM  

Wow, ure so lucky and Japan is so awesome :D

Can't wait to get enough $$ to go there :P Collecting some stuff at the moment, thanks for feeding me with this, just makes me wanna go more :P

Wendi April 13, 2010 at 4:54 PM  

I LOVE those little rabbits! And I kind of want the "pathetic" jersey. . .

tanita davis April 16, 2010 at 5:31 AM  

I kind of want the "pathetic," jersey, too. I mean, it's a sports jersey, and I *am* pathetic at sports...

I think I would have possibly ended up having to ship some toys home. The collectibles are absolutely cool.

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