Sunday, November 11, 2007

Akihabara Electric Town (秋葉原)

Akihabara, or Akiba as the locals seem to prefer calling it, is basically the capital of anything and everything electronic and electric in Tokyo. May be that's why they call it the Electric Town. Its fame is well beyond the borders of Japan - I heard about it when I was back in the US - so I know I had to go see it for myself now that I happen to live in Tokyo...

Getting to Akihabara from Kichijouji (吉祥寺) is pretty painless. One can take the Chofu line local directly there for example but since this is a local train it makes lots of stops. I instead took the Chofu Rapid from here to Ochanomizu (御茶ノ水) which takes about 25 minutes, and then took the local JR Chofu-Sobu train from there to Akiba. The whole trip takes about 30 minutes and costs ¥380. On an unrelated note, Ochanomizu seemed very pretty from the train with a river going across it. I might check it out if/when I get a chance.

Once you get out of the train station, the first thing you realize, I guess if it is during the weekend, is that there are lots and lots of people. It is kinda like Shibuya (渋谷) from that respect but here people are not just on the sidewalk but also on the road. Just like Ginza (銀座) they cut off the traffic to let people roam around. This does change around 5 pm though and the traffic is left back in.

There are lots of stores with "Tax Free" signs designed to attract tourists. Basically, if you are a tourist you can buy things a little cheaper is what they mean. Of course that's assuming you were't paying more than you would somewhere else to begin with... Since they get a lot of tourists the big stores (and they are big, they all have at least 5 floors) have people who can speak different languages. In fact, in the last store I stopped at I heard someone talking in Turkish trying to sell memory cards to some tourists from Turkey. They also sell equipment designed for overseas usage. This means what you buy from there would work with both 110V and 220V but more importantly it would have and English user interface and manual. You can even find game consoles and games for other regions as well as computer software like Vista and Office in English. I even saw computers with English OSs for sale. I bought a region-free slim DVD player which also plays DivX and DVD audio.

Of course they do not just cater to foreigners in Akihabara. There are lots of trading card collectors browsing stores as well as manga enthusiasts. I even went through a store dedicated to building models. One floor was purely robots, another trains, yet another warships and warplanes and yet another lots of different kinds of guns.

One quick hint - even the most benign looking store might have a floor dedicated to... well... pornography. So don't be surprised if you find yourself surrounded by animated porn when in the previous floor you were looking at something very innocent. If you don't want to be surprised just check for the number 18 - even if you may not understand the rest of the sentence the number is a good hint.
There are huge buildings filled with arcade games of all sorts. Some of these are your typical arcade games you can find pretty much anywhere but I saw some games that are built completely different. Leveraging the IC technology that they use in Suica and putting that together with collecting Trading Cards, Sega and other game makers built arcade machines that require you to use Trading Cards to play. For example, there was a soccer game where you use the cards to determine the players you will field. The better your cards are, more competitive you become in the game. They also have huge versions of the "claw" machines where you try to adjust the claw and get it to pick up and give you items. In the US the biggest item I saw these things to pick up was a kid's soccer ball. Here, they have claws picking up huge stuffed toys and various other things including medium sized nude models of characters from video games and anime and electric tie racks.

I feel like the 4-5 hours I spent there was not nearly enough. I will definitely go back to give the place a more through checking may be next week.

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