My backpacking tour of the Far East in 2012 took me to Tokyo, where I spent a fantastic week sightseeing, eating, cycling, and then eating some more. Tokyo has such an amazing number of places of interest that it’s simply impossible to cover everything in the little time I had. Nonetheless, there were two places which I made a point of visiting more than once: the first one was Shibuya (渋谷区) where I went to experience the Shibuya Crossing, world-famous for the throngs of people that flood it at night and during the day. The second place was Akihabara (秋葉原), the shopping hub of the capital city that specialises in computer goods, games, anime, and manga. It is the latter of these two areas that I’d like to write about today.
Somehow, Akihabara came to be referred to with a few other names. It is popularly known as the Electric Town (秋葉原電気街 Akihabara Denki Gai), but some also refer to it as, simply, Akiba. It is a fairly central district of the capital city that welcomes thousands of visitors per day, both Japanese and foreign tourists, who come here with very specific purposes.
One of the things that Akiba is noted for is gaming. There seem to be video game arcades everywhere, one next to and on top of the other. Some are huge monstrosities, with multiple floors each devoted to a few different kinds of games. In the evening those places swarm with both guys and girls, gaming in complete abandon. It’s really an interesting sight. What’s more, you can actively participate in it and try your luck at one of the gaming stations. In that, the Electric Town’s multi-levelled game arcades are definitely well-worth a visit, even despite the fact that you might end up losing some money really fast.
In Akihabara’s gaming arcades even the loos are not exempt from the presence of severe competition. In the gents, the unsuspecting out-of-towner can find himself initially perplexed by the sight of urinals which have been fitted with screens and bull’s-eye-shaped touch sensors. So aim your stream well lads and go get scoring those wee points! Seriously though, I think something like that is only possible in Japan. I certainly have not encountered interactive urinals in any place in the world I’ve been to. Still, it can be amazingly addictive!
MANGA, ANIME AND OTAKU
Akihabara can definitely be dubbed the Mecca of Otaku. But who are otaku? I already mentioned otaku in one of my previous posts (Japan: The Background of My Trip to Tokyo) but just to recap: our good old Wikipedia informs us that otaku (おたく/オタク) is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests. In nowadays Japan, central to the otaku subculture are works of manga and anime. This leads us to another question: what are manga and anime? Well, manga are Japanese comic books whereas anime is a term that represents animated productions of manga.
Shelves and tables in dozens of Akiba’s specialist manga & anime shops offer a ridiculously large number of titles. For otaku, this is the very definition of being spoilt for choice!
Manga and anime are created for fans of all ages. The fact that it is all hand-drawn and often coloured doesn’t mean that the target audience is that of kids and teens. And so, as the manga and anime dens of Akiba cater to customer of all ages, it is not hard to find some rather raunchy volumes flying off the shelves.
Another thing that the otaku can find aplenty here are tiny figurines usually representing various characters from manga, anime, or video games. Particularly popular figurine appears to be that of Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) – world’s first ever virtual singer. Yes, virtual! Meaning, she doesn’t really exist! Curious? If so, check her video on YouTube taken from her live gig in Sapporo here and be astounded.
THE MAID CAFES
Being such a vibrant and colourful place, it’s no wonder that Akihabara draws locals and travellers by the dozen. But apart from the above, there’s yet one other very particular experience that especially the male visitors to Akiba might not want to miss out on: it is a visit to a maid café. Indeed, if manga and anime is your fetish then Akihabara is the best place to indulge it in.
Maid cafés are really quaint establishments. Inside, girls in maid costumes serve their customers treating them as masters of some old household while they themselves are the oh-so-very-humble eager-to-please servants.
I would venture to say that the whole maid café affair is a very Japanese thing, only because I have never seen or heard of it existing anywhere in the world. In this respect, maid cafés can be seen to be as Japanese as sushi or sumo wrestling!
All in all, I think I’ve given everyone enough reasons to visit Akihabara while staying in Tokyo. I reckon it should definitely feature on every traveller’s itinerary, even if they are not interested in gaming, or anime, or manga, or the maid cafés; a visit to the Electric Town can still provide a fantastic glimpse into the vibrant modern Japanese pop culture.
I personally recommend a visit in the late afternoon or evening when the streets of the Electric Town are ablaze with hundreds of neon lights, music spills out in decibels onto the streets from every gaming arcade or manga shop whose door are left wide-open enticing otaku. Akihabara doesn’t allow your senses to ignore her which makes a visit to there a one of a kind experience.