Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Net Cafes

(Tenmonkan cafe)

Lately, I've been getting kind of antsy. I haven't been able to play real video games since coming to Japan over 4 years ago. In part it's a lack of space for a TV and game console, but it's also that I really need to spend the time doing more productive things (like playing solitaire on the computer). I've tried visiting the game arcades, but the majority of them have switched over to slots and mahjong gambling machines. There's also quite a few of those "coin pushers" now. (I first saw them in England a long time ago. You drop a coin in the machine and it lands on a flat table. A bar pushes the coin towards the far edge of the table and whatever falls off is yours to keep. However, the lip of the table is angled up and it's designed to keep as many of the coins from dropping as possible, so it's mostly a ripoff.) But, there are almost no traditional arcade games anymore (like Street Fighter or any of the old side scrollers), and those are the ones I really miss. I know of three arcades in Kagoshima, one at the top of the Kagoshima-chuo train station building in Amu Plaza, one across the street from the station on the 5th floor of the Daiei department store, and the third in the Tenmonkan shopping complex, near Maruya Gardens. And none of them have anything I want to play (two of them have the zombie shooter games, but those use up money real fast, since they're 100 yen ($1.20 USD) per credit).

(Maruya Gardens cafe)

In a way, I'm lucky, though (ignoring that fact that I'm not spending money on games). That's because I live in the middle of an area that has the main train station 5 minutes away from me in one direction, and Tenmonkan 5-10 minutes the other way. This puts two big entertainment complexes within easy access, and I'm generally going to one or the other almost daily because that's also where the grocery stores and 100 yen shops are. So, when I go to work, head down to the International Exchange Center for the lunchtime English lessons, or go food shopping, I'm either in or near Amu Plaza or Tenmonkan. And that means that I've gotten pretty familiar with most of the shops in both locations, on both sides of the station (even if I haven't gone inside them).

(Services card for the Maruya Gardens cafe)

The point is that I know where 5 different internet cafes are (used to be 6, but one went out of business). 2 are on opposite sides of the train station, 1 is above the 100 yen shop next door to Maruya Gardens, 1 is in Tenmonkan near Maruzen bookstore and the last one I took photos of during one of my long walks, in the direction of the Running Sakura-jima machine. Most of them advertise access to video games, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the ones that offer online games (like Lineage II) don't actually let you play those games as part of the package deal. Rather, you get a PC with internet access and shortcut links to 20 or so online games. Those games are commercial subscription pay-for-play (ala World of Warcraft) and you can't sign up at the cafe - you need to create your player account at home and then log in to the account from the cafe. The one cafe that I joined where I just ended up reading manga instead, is on the east side of the train station and just has online games, along with about 8,000 manga.

(The cafe I mentioned in an earlier post, east side of Chuo station.)

The Tenmonkan net cafe near Maruzen bookstore is right along my route for the conversation school that I teach at part time. The place looks like a dive, and the only way in is to take an elevator to the 3rd floor (the elevator only stops on floors 1 and 3) after first walking through a 15-foot-long corridor lined with 3 slot machines and coffee vending machines.  However, after studying the advertising banners out front, where it said "Playstation games", I figured that I'd at least go in and look around.  The listed prices were 280 yen for the first 30 minutes, 100 yen for the next 15, and then bulk packages starting at 1000 yen for 3 hours. I went in and filled out the membership application (required by law now, to crack down on hackers that had been working anonymously from net cafes), which took a few minutes. Like the first cafe near the train station, there's a 100-200 yen sign-up fee, but either it was waived or they forgot to charge me for it again.

(Tenmonkan cafe entrance.)

On a lark, since I only had an hour before needing to be home for dinner, I chose to play pool instead, but I did at least ask about their video games (they have about 20 PS2 games, most of which are party or puzzle games, plus Orochi). Soft drinks (orange soda, Pepsi, ice coffee, tea and Calpis soda) are free, beer is 200 yen per glass. They have cheap food, including 100 yen curry rice, but I don't trust it. It was late, and I had the 2 pool tables to myself. I'm still really rusty (haven't played in over 10 years, and I was never very good at it) but I managed to get in 4 games against myself (and drink 400 yen worth of soda and ice coffee). The total came to 480 yen for the hour, which I think is cheaper than what a billiard parlor in the U.S. would be.

(Cafe on west side of Chuo station)

The next day, again, on the way home from the school, I had 2-3 hours to kill before dinner would be ready. This time, I wanted to see what PS2 games there were. With the membership card, you just go inside, hand over the card, and they assign a booth that is set up for the PS2. You pick the game you want, and they give you the disk and playing instructions, and a pair of cheap headphones. Pop the disk in the machine, turn on the TV, plug the headphones into an extension cable, and you're set. Thing is, there's no memory card, and most of the games won't play without it. I'd initially asked for Orochi, but I had to take it back for one of the puzzle games that don't require the card. Happily, they had Puyo Puyo 15th Anniversary, and I took that instead. 3.5 hours later, I came up for air. I had no idea it was so late, so I had to bolt for home. The best part, though, was the price - I was expecting the 1000 yen + change for the 3-hour bulk package, but they only charged me 780 yen. It was raining, with a typhoon coming up towards Japan, so it could have been a "rain day discount" like with maid cafes (at most maid cafes in Akihabara, you get points on a points card for every 500 or 1000 yen you spend, double or triple points for rain days), but I'm not sure about that yet. Regardless, I do occasionally have days where there's 2-3 hours between lessons at the school, and I had been spending the time at Maruya Gardens at a coffee shop (700 yen for a cup of coffee and a sliver of cake) rather than walking home and then back to the school again soon after. Now, I can play pool for 2 hours for almost the same price, and if I really need a game fix, I know where to go.

(Close up of Chuo station cafe window. One Piece posters.)

What interests me the most, though, is that even the net cafes work at differentiation. I think there are at least 3 different companies running them, assuming that at least two are part of the same chain), and they advertise different things. The one place is covered in Lineage II artwork; the second has net games and a big selection of manga; and the third has pool, karaoke rooms, really cheap food and beer and the PS2s (technically, if I have my own memory card, I could buy a used game myself and play that at the cafe, if I wanted to).

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