Saturday, May 2, 2009

Radio Land

(Radio Kaikan)

Unless you're actually in the market for electronics components, large sections of Akihabara are really nothing more than cramped, noisy little mazes. As I've written before, Akihabara is more than just anime shops and maid cafes, and the people wandering around here aren't just otaku that still live with their parents at age 35 doing nothing but watching DVDs in darkened rooms and dressing up figures. Akihabara has a lot of attractions that appeal to a wide variety of people, and the bigger electronics stores carry mundane things like clothes washers and air conditioners. But, anime, maids and otaku are all that anyone really writes about (usually disparagingly).


Thing is, Akihabara started out around the 1940's as an electronics supply market for students at the nearby technical university, so you'd kind of expect components shops to still be part of the mix. It's just that if you're not buying components, there's not much reason to pay attention to them.

(Specialty shop. Guess which specialty.)

Initially, I just wanted some mono speaker plugs to use for connecting the Gakken phonograph kit to an external AC power adapter. Then I needed some toggle switches, and I already wrote about trying to use an LED to get a 1.5V drop for running the phonograph motor. Things started to escalate when I bought some super-bright white 3V LEDs for the kaleidoscope and movie projector, along with a grounding plug and 3 photo resistors for the theremin. But, still, it was just a case of in-and-out - looking for the first stall that had what I needed, buy it, then leave.

(Facing Chuu-ou Dori from the station. Radio Kaikan is just ahead.)

Things finally starting taking over my consciousness when I decided to build the keypad for the SX-150 synth. I didn't know if half of what I wanted was available, or if it was, where to look for it. This meant that I had to start haunting the less-visited corridors of Akihabara.

(Next to one entrance into the rabbit's warren.)

While there are dozens of little hole-in-the-wall shops all over the 4-square-block neighborhood that makes up Akihabara's main shopping district, most of them specialize in a single finished product, like bicycles, fans, USB drives, or anime DVDs. If you want component parts, you need to go to Radio Kaikan (AKA: Radio Land). Radio Kaikan are 2-3 covered buildings about 1 short block wide and 2 short blocks long, on the first and second floors, and is connected to the west side of the Akihabara JR train station. Within one of the buildings are three long, narrow aisles. At the ends of the aisles, the shops are a little bigger, maybe 15-20 feet square, and sell volt meters, power supplies, drills, and various other tools. As you go down the aisles, the stalls get so small and cramped that the owner ends up sitting in one spot all day, with only a few inches of space between him and the shelves to fidget around in.

(Other side of the warren. The station is just to the right.)

The stalls can either have a wide variety of parts with only a couple of sizes each to pick from, or specialize in just one thing (i.e. - resistors, wire, or LEDs) and have every size under the sun available. This is where the fun begins.

(In the warren. Wire to the left, tools to the right. Resistors straight ahead.)

The U.S. used to have Tandy and Radio Shack shops all over, where you could buy any electronics components you wanted, but Tandy folded its stores and what little Radio Shack does still have is way over-priced. You can buy parts mail order or online, but you're usually faced with buying in minimum quantities, and the shipping costs will kill you (ignoring the fact that it takes several days to a week for your order to arrive, and the company may still not have what you're looking for). With Akihabara, you can get what you want within minutes, pretty much regardless of what it is. And often the owners or clerks are really friendly and will help you with any questions you have. In English.

If one stall doesn't carry what you want, they'll direct you to the one that does. Even so, they do compete against each other, so with a little hunting, you can find the place with the cheapest price, and if you buy in bulk, they may give you a 10% discount, or throw in a few parts for free. (One place did that - I wanted 12 LEDs, but the discount price was for a batch of 10. I asked to buy 10 of the LEDs instead, and the clerk volunteered to throw 2 more in for free just to empty out the tray. Score!)

At first, I just wanted to know which stall had what, and at what prices. Then, I started fleshing out my shopping list: 4"x6" circuit board; 12 1.6V red LEDs, a handful of 3x5mm bolts, nuts and washers; 12 of some of relay; 12 of some style of 50 K ohm pot.; etc. Next, I went back and compared on prices, styles and voltages. Then, I started buying sample quantities of the parts to test in-circuit to see if the design would work. This meant remembering where I bought each thing to be able to go back and buy the rest of what I needed if the design worked out. Pretty quickly, a mental map of the aisles built up and I was able to see a number of the owners and clerks as more than just nondescript faces in the shadows. That is, the people started actually turning into people.

I'm not ready to call Radio Kaikan "home" just yet. But, there's nothing comparable anywhere I've visited in the U.S. in the last 20 years, and as long as I keep wanting to modify the Gakken kits while working in an office building just 2 blocks away from the JR station, Radio Kaikan will be a common detour point when I get into Akihabara prior to my starting my shift. Plus, there's my plan to document all of the maid cafes, too...

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