Japan 2019 Day 4June 23, 2019
Japan 2019 Series
Today was another reasonably late start - we didn’t get out until the afternoon. This is partially driven by yesterday’s late night, both Joel and I were up till 3am blogging and working on some PhD work respectively, but also the strange adjustment that comes to travelling east.
It’s not clear if our body clocks are working on UK time or some strange Frankenstein combination of Japan’s time zone and back home’s. Either way, I’m typing this up at 5am Japan time and I’ve not been able to sleep for a couple of hours!
The goal of today was to go to Akihabara, Tokyo’s most bizarre district. Originally home to a number of niche electronics shop, it’s now grown to encompass otaku culture and is home to a large number of anime, manga, card, and video game shops. Akihabara is also home to things that to a westerner are just plain weird: Animal cafes, that allow you to feed and pet animals such as cats, hedgehogs, and owls over your lunch; maid cafes, where waitresses dress up in anime costumes or, more commonly, maid outfits; and entire multi-level buildings dedicated to arcade games.
We started up by heading to Don Quijote, a large discount store that stocks pretty much everything you can imagine, and is also home to a maid cafe, a floor of arcade machines, and its own girl band - AKB48. Going through Don Quijote, was a bit of a disconcerting experience - a theme common to most of Akihabara. The first few floors of the building, the bits that housed the shop, mixed items that you wouldn’t logically expect to find together. You would round a corner after looking at Japanese kitchen knives to see a wall of Pokemon hats and adult costumes!
The arcade level was probably the most interesting level of Don Quijote - there nearly the entire floor was in use. Unlike the west, which typically has very light games most of the machines here felt like full featured video games - either allowing users to save their progress on hardware tokens or as part of an online account. Joel paid 100¥ to have a go on a Gundam fighting game - he ended up accidentally playing online in a 2v2 match and getting rather handily defeated. Judging by speed and coordination with which some of the locals were playing around us it was clear that this visiting the arcade was pretty common for them.
After leaving Don Quijote we headed for the SEGA arcade building, which houses seven levels of arcade machines. We played a two player pong variant which had paddles controlled by a twisty knob - looking back I’m not entirely sure if the paddles were computer graphics or physical paddles! As an aside - Japan, at least from my brief glimpse into its culture, seems to have retained a far more tactile relationship with technology than the west. ATMs have physical mechanical buttons, the Oyster-like card reader on the Tokyo metro whilst contactless still acts as a pressable button, and the preferred controller scheme here for fighting games (in fact most games) is large physical buttons and a stick over a controller. It’s a small thing but I prefer it - it’s easy to view technology as a distant unknowable thing when the magic is hidden behind a capactive touch screen but when you have to physically do the work with buttons it changes the dynamic slightly. It’s an experience that haptic feedback can’t quite replace. That said, I was surprised at the West’s technological penetration here - when we visited the Yodobashi electronics store, the shop was filled with brands we recognised: Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. In fact it was scary how much of it was familiar - it at points might as well have been a large Currys store.
There was plenty of Akihabara that wasn’t like back home though. Joel and I visited a few anime and manga stores that were, for at least me, full of unfamiliar shows and characters. Joel however was in his element! Whilst I obviously expected a lot of DVDs/Blurays and merchandise I was surprised at how many of these shops had a dedicated space for replica figures and statues. Even shops that were focused towards gaming had a section dedicated to popular characters - including to my surprise Marvel characters. Equally surprising was the shops’ attitude towards sexually explicit content - most shops had a floor dedicated to hentai and whilst nearly all of that content was contained to the top floor, there were often promotional posters displayed on earlier levels that were often barely censored.
Whilst I’m not a huge anime or manga fan there was still stuff I could enjoy! Inspired by a anime from the late 1970s, Gundam, mechs (also commonly known as Gundam) have taken on a life of their own. Metal Build, a company that creates precise replica (and new!) model Gundam, have a massive showroom where they display their products and offer a behind the scenes preview into how they design, build, and paint them. We took a look around and I have to confess if I was a rich Japanese person I’d have a few on my shelf. We also ate in a Gundam themed cafe - which honestly was a less impressive - it just played clips of the anime and had slightly overpriced thematic foods. We were told it was a must visit and frankly - it wasn’t.
The best part of Akihabara was definitely the retro gaming shop Super Potato, the shop is made of three floors: the first of which is dedicated to games and consoles from the NES-SNES era, the second of which is all things after the SNES, and the third floor is an arcade. Whilst I wasn’t so hot on the third or first floors (although I always enjoy looking at old games) the second floor made me feel like a child again. The GameBoy was a solid chunk of my childhood, and even a small part of my teenage years. Super Potato also have a lot of cool hard to find stuff - I spotted an AGS-101 GameBoy Advance SP, orange Gamecubes, and even a couple of unopened special edition consoles.
Not all of Akihabara is as niche or modern as it sounds from the above. We spent some time just before lunch at the local shrine. Apparently a popular shrine for young Japanese IT professionals, the shrine allegedly confers a blessing on those looking to innovate or build technology. I didn’t give the blessing thing a shot but I did enjoy the shrine’s aesthetic.
After spending the best bit of the day in Akihabara we went back home, recovered for a bit, and set out again. On Day 3 we visited Skytree - the tallest tower in Tokyo but opted not to go in due to both the price and the fact we wanted to see the Rainbow Bridge. This time we decided to go to Tokyo Tower, the second largest tower in Tokyo, and check out what it was like. Although the price was only a little cheaper that Skytree I’m glad we decided to go! The tour (that unfortunately, compulsorily comes with the ticket to the highest observation platform) was surprisingly well done, and did a reasonable job explaining the origins of the tower (it was constructed post World War II as a beacon for innovation and technology) as well as showing off Tokyo’s skyline.
Afterwards, we headed home and crashed out to prepare for an early start for our Studio Ghibli tour!