Thursday, December 4, 2008


(View of Akihabara from the UDX Building.)

Most people world-wide don't really recognize the name "Akihabara". It is an area in Tokyo that's famous for its electronics shops and maid cafes, but the name itself isn't all that well-known. Unfortunately, the area does have a reputation as "otaku central", so when people finally do realize where you're talking about, the response will generally be along the lines of "oh, that geek place", whether it be for the "electronics geek", the "anime geek" or the "maid cafe pervert". The over-all impression is a negative one, in that either the people going there are being childish, or morally corrupt. However, the majority of the visitors here on the weekends are actually just regular people who've come in to buy a TV or laptop.

(People lined up waiting for the store to open to buy a TV or MP3 player.)

If you look at a map of Tokyo, you'll see a series of train and subway stations that are all interconnected. The stations on the same line (i.e. - the circular Yamanote) are about 1/2 to 1 mile apart. The stations themselves are treated as being town centers (such as the town of Akihabara, or Shinjuku or Nakano), yet they only represent areas with a 1/4 or 1/2 mile radius. So, while a specific station may have a reputation as a fashion center or food center, that center might only be 4 blocks by 4 blocks. Plus, there's no fence between centers, so the shops leading off away from one train station are in fact leading closer to the next station. The different parts of the city blend into one another, and the electronics and video shops found in Akihabara can be found around the rest of the city as well, making the boundaries very vague.

(Facing Chuu-ou dori, from Akihabara station.)

So, what is Akihabara, exactly? According to two sources (wikipedia and Kochira Kameari), Akihabara's history with electronics started out in the mid-1930's as a place to buy electrical supplies as Tokyo's rail system grew, then as a support center selling parts to the students attending the first school for electrical engineering (Tokyo Denki University) nearby. Later, vacuum tube radios became available. Then, in the 1980's, personal computers arrived. And, since PC's need software, applications and game shops opened up. Eventually, laser disc players were developed, and we got shops that exclusively sold movies and anime discs. With the explosion in the amount of anime and manga available on video tape and DVD, the number of small shops carrying it increased to the point of visibility, and thus exposure to media ridicule.

(DVD and arcade game stores on Chuu-ou dori.)

But. If we actually explore the area, we'll find that there's more to it than that. The small parts shops (little stalls that only carry one kind of product, like cables or light bulbs) are mostly located in a covered building about 2 short blocks long and one block wide, on the first and second floors. They are also scattered randomly around town. Big electronics chain stores like Laox and Softmap are mostly in a 4-block long strip on the main drag of Chuo-dori, running close by the Akihabara station. But, there's maybe only 10-20 big stores. For anime, we have Animate and Tora no Ana. For manga, K-Books, Animate, Mandarake and Book Off. However, books stores like the Book Tower, and Book Off, carry mostly non-manga titles. There are probably another 20 big buildings that house arcade video games, pachinko parlors and UFO Catchers. There are lots of little shops that specialize in things like used video games, or cosplay costumes, but it's about on the same order as in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Then, we have the maid cafes.

(Maids handing out fliers to their cafe, on Chuu-ou dori.)

Maid cafes are also badly misrepresented in the media and in popular opinion. Essentially, a maid cafe is nothing more than an over-priced dining spot where the staff is in some kind of standardized uniform (Japan is big on standardized uniforms, as can be seen if you go to a bank, or stand in front of Laox). Food and drinks can range from just coffee and pastry, to beer and curry rice. The food tends to be uninspired, and the inflated prices are due mostly to the cost of rent. In Heidi Club, the staff wear 1800's Swiss clothing in keeping with the "Girl of the Alps" anime theme. In Cafe with Cat, the staff wears tattered black maid's outfits. The greeting of "welcome home master", is only used in a couple of cafes that actually are themed to making customers feel richer than they are; but, it's not used everywhere as the media would like us to believe. But, there aren't that many cafes (again maybe only 20 to 40, with an average seating space of 10 people at a time) and they tend to be in little hole-in-the-wall locations, forcing the staff to go out on the street and hand out fliers to attract business. The resulting visibility of cute girls in colorful maid outfits is then what gives the area its "bad name", simply because it's not that common a sight elsewhere in Tokyo.

(A shop specializing in fans and wiring supplies.)

So, what's my point? Simply that in an approximately 4-block by 4-block area, we've got maybe 20-50 buildings that give Akihabara its rep. The rest of the 1000+ buildings are offices, restaurants, coffee shops, temples, shrines, apartment complexes, pachinko parlors, etc., that all have nothing to do with selling electronics or anime. And, that a lot of what can be found in Akihabara is also available spread out across the rest of the city, such as in Shinjuku, Nakano, Odaiba, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, among others.

(More of Chuu-ou dori, facing north.)

What started this rant? Outside of getting fed up with reading puff pieces by idiots in the English press describing Akihabara tours put on by self-important gaijin wearing Goku costumes... The last couple of nights I wandered the city prior to going to work as an English teacher in an office building just off from the train station. In my walk, I discovered a large shinto shrine that no one talks much about (Kanda Myojin), an enclosed area dedicated to Confucius (Yushma), clothing and fashions stores, hundreds of office and apartment buildings, and a huge number of non-maid cafe coffee shops that cater to the local office people.

(Viewing platform next to Kanda river, along Chuu-ou dori. Closed. Pole Coffee is just around the corner to the left.)

One such coffee shop (Pole Coffee) roasts its own beans on-site, and has various puzzle toys scattered around for the patrons to play with while talking to each other. To further dispel the "otaku image", the customers in the stop at the time included 2 elderly housewives and one guy married to one of the women. That is, this place was just a convenient watering hole for the neighbors. Plus, they had really good coffee and reasonable prices. There's also the transportation museum (now closed) , and the Japan Football Association headquarters and museum.

(Detail of a sign for a shop selling glasses.)

I like Akihabara largely for the anime-related stuff that takes place here (and, after seeing the Gegege no Kitaro all-maid dance event, it's hard to argue against the rep Akihabara has), and I like looking at the plastic figurines and used manga. But, there's more here than that, and that makes the city worth exploring outside of some canned guided tour designed to misrepresent "Akiba" to newcomers and reporters.

("Cat Fight" - an all-female wrestling center.)

Such as the all-girl wrestling matches across the street from the UDX building. That's next on the list of things to check out...

(Police station at south end of Akihabara.)

(A small bike shop.)

(Getting into the Christmas spirit, at a plastic model shop.)

(A boxing gym, 2 blocks west of Chuu-ou dori.)

(A quieter part of Akihabara, with sound mixing studios.)

(Train bridge leading from Akihabara station.)

(People lined up waiting to get in to play pachinko.)

(A view of Kanda river from the bridge.)

(A side alley running along the elevated train tracks.)


Shiroibara said...

Is this the section of Tokyo that they show in animes where they have the big video screens and the intersection where people cross diagonally?

TSOTE said...

No, that's Shibuya. Although, technically, there are quite a few intersections where you're allowed to cross diagonally, including in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. But, the most famous intersection is the one in Shibuya, just outside the Yamanote train station, in front of the 109 building. It's famous because the area is a popular hangout for teenage girls, and has a lot of fashion shops and department stores. Akihabara is on the opposite side of the Yamanote loop, about a 30-minute train ride.