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A Technicolor toy chest of personal passions

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

A Technicolor toy chest of personal passions

Akihabara is a busy interchange station, where major Japan Railways lines like the Yamanote, Sobu, and Keihin-Tohoku meet, spilling crowds onto the streets.

Take the Denki-Gai exit from the station, and you'll see the Radio (pronounced Rajio) Kaikan building. It's a department store operated on a tenant system, which means it tends to function as a small-scale representation of what's hot in Akihabara at any given time.

Ever since the post-war years when a street market sprawled here, people looking for electric and electronic parts have come to Akihabara. Many stores near the station, such as the ground floor of Akihabara Depart or Tokyo Radio Depart ("depart" being short for department store), still sell highly specialized goods.

On the ground floor of the Gashapon Kaikan building you'll find many vending machines selling capsule toys.

There are stores that rent "showcase" spaces. Here, fiercely dedicated (and proud) hobbyists display their collections in diverse genres and offer items for sale. Walking through these stores feels like looking into an otaku's bedroom.

The moment one leaves Akihabara's perfectly ordinary train station and steps out into what is known as Electric Town is like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when a drab black-and-white world suddenly explodes into color.
Yellow, red, and blue neon signs suddenly dazzle the eye. Posters and banners, perhaps decorated with drawings of giant robots or pretty girls wearing cat ears, seem to emerge from every surface. Sound systems blast perky pop music. The competing cries of street vendors hawk everything from secondhand electronics to the latest DVD releases.
Then there are the "maids." Living symbols of today's Akihabara, these flesh-and-blood young women clad in ruffly apron uniforms hand out palm-sized packets of tissues in the hopes that prospective "masters" will come and visit their cafe for a refreshing cup of Royal Milk Tea.
Walk down Chuo-dori, the area's equivalent of the Yellow Brick Road. Here you'll see brightly colored skyscrapers where animation and comic specialty shops like Comic Toranoana and Animate make their home. From such a vantage point, the area seems to resemble Times Square or the Vegas strip remade for fanatic consumers of anime, manga, figures, and video games.
In other words, for otaku.
Ota who?
The stereotypical image of an otaku (Japanese for "nerd" or "geek") is a young man of the "never been kissed" variety in bad jeans and a buttoned-up shirt, someone who would rather lose himself in a world of fantasy than deal with bothersome reality. Sure enough, there's no shortage of such types in the many stores hawking over-sized pillows shaped like popular female anime characters and in game emporiums offering virtual girlfriends.
But it can be surprising to find out who else is coming to Akihabara on a regular basis. After all, hardcore fans of anime and manga aren't the only hobbyists the area caters to. As the weekday evening sets in, a surprising number of salarymen just off work descend on Akiba. Some of them are surely into collecting gashapon, the capsule toys sold in vending machines, and relaxing in the company of so-called maids, but high-end stereo equipment, home theater accessories, and every possible form of electronic gadget are the lure for others.
On weekends, Akihabara is packed with people even less like the textbook image of the otaku. Tourists from around the world and the curious from around Japan have made the area one of Tokyo's unlikeliest new "must-see" neighborhoods. This native curiosity stems in part from recent television-and-movie combos like Densha Otoko (Train Man) and Akihabara@Deep that depict Electric Town as a strange city-within-a-city, a place with its own unique culture and eccentricities. But perhaps there is even more that draws people to Akihabara.
Other Tokyo areas, such as Roppongi Hills and Omotesando, can seem cold and impersonal at times, like a city planner's blueprints made real. But there is something vibrant and alive in the streets in Akihabara. Where did it come from?
Architect and theorist Kaichiro Morikawa, who reproduced a section of Akihabara's Radio Kaikan building at the 2004 Venice Biennale, writes in his 2003 book Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of a Personapolis, "Otaku taste which traditionally has been enjoyed only in private rooms of otakus, is [in Akihabara] displayed in the city streets with unprecedented density…Personal taste here has emerged as a power to restructure a city."
It's easy to write off hobbies as a waste of time, and there's nearly always a guilty pleasure in collecting things such as toys and comics, which perhaps had been given up when childhood ended. But a place like Akihabara reminds us of the real value of such things.
When imagination meets technology head on, the possibilities are endless. You are sure to encounter some of them whenever you walk out of the station at Akihabara.


text by Patrick Macias




Computer enthusiasts go around Akihabara's countless stores comparing prices before purchasing. Many shoppers come from abroad. Carry your passport to get the benefits of duty-free concessions.


The Walmart-sized Don Quijote super-store has become a new landmark on Chuo-dori. The store has a whole floor dedicated to costume play, a maid cafe, and an event space for hosting idol gatherings.


In an area known for its relative shortage of eateries, Doner Kebab and Canned-Oden (sold from vending machines) are the famous street foods of Akihabara.


From frilly French maids to nurses, the outfits found at costume stores reflect otaku fantasies.


Nintendo's Family Computer (called Nintendo Entertainment System) launched the likes of Mario Brothers. There are many places in Akihabara selling retro games for out-of-date consoles.


Whether it is comics or computer games, there is a strong market for fan-created goods like dojinshi fanzines, attesting to the power of the consumer-as-creator.

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