Akihabara, also known as Akiba for short, is Tokyo’s electric town. While it was originally geared towards people looking for radio parts, electrical cables, and the like, its focus has changed and evolved over the years. Although the stores in Aikihabara contain just about every electronic gizmo, gadget, and appliance imaginable (from computer parts, to digital cameras, to electronic dictionaries, and more), these days its primary focus is on anime (Japanese animation), manga (Japanese comics), video games, and an endless array of related merchandise.
If you have no real interest in those types of things, you’ll probably walk around for half an hour just to see all the crazy store displays and be ready to move on. If you’re looking for a new camera, MP3 player, or laptop, you may want to spend a couple of hours comparison shopping the electronics stores. But if you’re a self-styled otaku (a Japanese slang word for someone with an obsessive devotion one hobby or another and an American slang word for fans of Japanese anime, manga, and/or video games) you can easily spend a full day or two (and a small fortune) browsing its many stores.
Conveniently located on both the Yamanote line train and the Hibiya subway line, Akihabara is very easy to reach from just about anywhere in Tokyo. If you’re in the Ueno area it’s not a bad walk either, but without a good map you’ll likely end up hopelessly lost.
If you took the train, follow the signs to the Electric Town Exit and you’ll quickly find yourself at the entrance to the heart of Akihabara’s shopping area. If you came by subway, follow the signs for Exit 3 and you’ll come out right in front of Yodobashi camera. From there, follow the sidewalk around the store to the left, cross the street to the train station, and take the clearly marked East – West passage, which will take you to about the same place you’d be had you taken the train.
What to See
Akihabara isn’t much for attractions, it’s all about shopping. There are a couple of shrines around, though none are particularly worth seeing, and there’s a visitor center, though it’s a little out of the way and there’s really no pressing reason to visit it either. About the only thing that could be considered a true attraction is the AKB48 stage, though getting tickets takes a bit of work (more on that later).
Shopping in Akihabara
The afore mentioned train and subway directions will leave you at the start of Akibahara’s main shopping area. Following that street a short distance and you’ll hit a main road (which is conveniently blocked to cars on Sundays). From here, the shopping district encompasses a roughly rectangular area starting about one block back and to your left and stretching two or three blocks in front of you and quite a ways to your right. There’s an enormous amount of stores crammed into the surrounding high-rises. Many are either stacked one on top of one another or occupy several floors of a single building. Some are even spread out between several buildings scattered throughout the district, with each one focusing on a different product (Softmap, for example, has a store for computer hardware, a store for music, a store for anime merchandise, and several others I can’t remember off the top of my head).
If you’re just looking for a new camera, the major electronics stores (Yodobashi Camera, Bic Camera, Softmap, and many of the smaller ones) are pretty easy to spot if you just walk around a little bit. If you’re an otaku browsing for anime and game merchandise, many of the best stores are tiny little places hidden away in a basement or on the fourth floor of some random building. But when you’re looking for that rare CD, game, or figurine, exploring different stores and seeing what you happen to find along the way is half the fun. Due to its confusing layout, it’s hard to give a good description of what’s where in Akihabara without drawing a fairly detailed map and, as I just said, if you’re the type of person who is going to be spending a lot of time there, you’ll have a good time just wandering around and checking out every interesting looking store you come across. So for now, I’ll just list a few of my favorite shops and give some general directions to help you find them. Please note that I’m barely scratching the surface here and could gone on for ages.
Yodabashi Camera: The Japanese electronics giant has its main store in Akihabara and it has everything (from electronics to anime figurines). If it’s new, hot, and in any way related to electronics, they probably have it. And, if you’re living in Japan, they have a point card that makes all the ones from US stores pale in comparison. That said, it’s rarely the cheapest place to shop (though the point card can swing things in its favor at times). Also of note is the excellent food court on the 8th floor, which contains a very wide variety of excellent restaurants, many of which have English menus. Yodobashi is a huge impossible to miss building right outside the Electric Town Exit of the subway station. If you came be train, reverse the subway directions I gave in the Getting There section.
Gamers: Occupying a large building on the right when you first enter Akihabara’s main shopping area by either of the routes I gave, it’s probably one of the first stores you’ll see. It has a great selection of anime, manga, games, and every sort of related merchandise so it’s a great place to go when you want to scope out the latest items But, if you’ve got time to hit up some other shops, you can usually find better prices elsewhere.
My Way 2: This is actually a little shopping mall primarily specializing anime and game figurines and various types of model kits (though the K-Books store on the third floor has a very good selection of used manga, music, and games as well). This place is easily overlooked, so keep an eye out for the My Way sign and a lone escalator across the street from Gamers.
Mandrake: Across the street, way to the right, and a bit set back from that first big intersection I mentioned, Mandrake has a tall black building all its own. When it comes to used amine, manga, games, and related merchandise they pretty much have everything you could want.
Super Potato: Cross that street at that afore mentioned intersection, keep going for another block, then head right and keep an eye out on your right for a sign featuring 8-bit Pacman and Mario. If you’re looking for used games for older systems (primarily the original Playstation and earlier) or game soundtracks you really don’t want to miss Super Potato. They’ve got a nice retro arcade on the top floor as well.
Tips for Shopping in Akihabara
1. The major stores like Yodobashi Camera and Gamers have excellent selections of new merchandise and are good places to see what's new and what the average price of stuff is, but you can usually find better prices elsewhere if you've got time to spare.
2. Quite a lot of shops specialize in used things. Unlike in the US, most used merchandise in Japan is in mint or near mint condition and considerably cheaper than buying new. Used is also the way to go when looking for old and/or rare items.
3. Many stores are spread out over several floors of the same building. Even if you're not leaving the store itself, make sure you always pay for your items before changing floors (or, in some cases, sections of floors).
4. With so many little stores spread all over the place, it's rather difficult to do much serious comparison shopping. Instead, try a get a feel for the average price of what you want and then just grab it once you see a price that you're happy with.
5. Most sets of figurines come in random boxes and you won't know which one you got until after you open it. While that can be fun, there's a lot of stores that specialize in selling used / open figurines. Note that in any given set some figurines are going to be fairly cheap and others really expensive so whether or not it pays to just buy the ones you want or get some boxes and hope you get lucky varies by situation.
6. If offered a point card at a store, go ahead and take it, some of them give pretty impressive discounts. Though keep in mind that some stores won’t give point cards to people not living in Japan.
7. Look everywhere. There's a lot of great little stores hidden away up long flights of stairs or down small alleyways. Exploring is really half the fun.
8. As a rule, remember that Japanese DVDs (nearly all videos and some PC games) won't work in US DVD players and drives (they're region locked). Ditto with most video games (games for the Gameboy and Gameboy Advance, regular DS (not the DSi), PSP, and PS3 being the notable exceptions). CDs (both music and software) are fine, as are most Blu-ray discs.
9. There are a lot of products of an adult nature available in Akihabara, ranging from mildly suggestive to highly explicit. Most stores put such items on their own floor (though, if you can’t read Japanese, it isn’t always obvious which floor that is) or separate them from the rest of the store with warning signs but some smaller stores do not. Furthermore, some perfectly harmless items often end up located in the same areas as the adult products. I’ll go into the reasons behind this is a future post but for now just consider yourself warned and if such things offend you, or you have kids in tow, be careful where you go.
Many of the area’s best restaurants are clustered near Yodobashi Camera (or in its excellent food course), though there’s some good cheap places scattered about as well. But if you want to try something that Akihabara is famous for, you can visit one of its many maid cafes. If you see girls on the streets of Akihabara in costume handing out flyers, that’s what they’re advertising. In maid cafes, the waitresses are all young cute girls dressed as maids (though there are some with different themes such as nurses, anime cosplay (costumes), etc. Aside from the eye candy, the draw is that they’re extremely friendly and submissive, addressing customers as “goshujin-sama” (master), making small talk, and generally acting like the perfect doting maid. The food isn’t anything amazing (and costs a bit more than it would at a regular restaurant), so they’re more a place to go for the experience than a meal. If you’re interested in going to a maid café, keep in mind that your average maid doesn’t really speak any English so knowing some Japanese (or having a Japanese friend come along) is a good idea.
If you’re tired of shopping for games and want to play some, Akihabara has a number of large arcades though as many games cost 100 yen (around $1) per play, they can get a little expensive if you’re not careful. As in most Japanese arcades, expect a heavy focus on UFO catchers (claw machines), music games, fighting games, and games tied into collectable trading cards.
AKB48 is a J-Pop (Japanese pop music) idol group that’s unique in the fact that it contains 48 girls (from early teens to early twenties) divided into three teams (A, K, and B), plus a fourth team of understudies. Their songs are known for their complex dance numbers and make an effort to give every girl a chance to shine. They’ve become so popular over the last few years that they’ve spawned two spin-off groups in other parts of Japan. Another thing that sets AKB apart is that they perform multiple concerts every week at the Don Quixote store in Akihabara (though these days most of the concerts are done by Team Kenkyuusei (the understudies) rather than the main girls). That said, they’re still really good and at only 2000 yen (a little over $20) per ticket, their concerts are great for J-Pop fans and those who are just want an introduction to popular Japanese music. Getting tickets, however, isn’t all that easy (it’s a very small stage so the demand for the tickets is far greater than the supply). Hopeful attendees have to sign up on the band’s web site and enter a lottery for the show they want to attend (said lotteries generally only open several days before the concert date). If you win the lottery then, and only then, you can go and purchase a ticket a couple hours before the show (the counter is on the top floor of the Akihabara Don Quixote store (take a right at the first big intersection, walk a few blocks, and it’ll be on your right). While they have no problem with foreigners attending the concerts, the web site is all in Japanese, though you can probably puzzle through it with the help of Google Translate.
If you have no particular interest in anime or electronics, Akihabara is a curious place to visit for a little while. For a real otaku, however, it can easily become a highlight of any Japan trip. Either way, it’s another Tokyo location that shouldn’t be missed.