Friday, February 26, 2016

Japan, A Shopping Overview: Akihabara Part One

So what can I say about Akihabara, or Akiba as the locals call it, that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before? Well despite the thousands of articles written about the place in the last 10+ years, there isn’t any comprehensive, up to date guides to the area in English or Japanese. Kind of a common theme in my posts, right? Of course you could just wing it, but why waste time randomly going to shops? Going in unprepared on a holiday is a pet peeve of mine, especially on overseas holidays. The other thing which craps me is the preconceived notions people have about the place. If you want to believe that that it’s all maid cafes and porn, then whatever, go right ahead. It’s your loss.

I get that people see Nakano Broadway as being more “real” and that Akiba can be seen as sterile and fake. However if you do a bit of exploring you can find a lot of interesting shops in nooks and crannies in the back streets. Also the large department store-like otaku shops aren’t necessarily sterile and full of the latest crap otaku shows you despise. Akiba is what you make it really.

Make no mistake; Akihabara is a large and exhausting place to explore. Originally this was going to be a single post. But as I kept writing, I realised that I needed to make it a two parter. Rather than go through individual stores like I have with the previous entries in this series, I’d thought I might explain what I have personally done in my attempts to conquer Akiba. First up, you’re going to need a game plan. Do you want to do it in one day or over two? Do not underestimate the place or the size of it. Though it’s fun just exploring, you may want to pre-plan which stores you want hit and have a list on hand of the merchandise you want get. You also have to realise that by half through the day (or earlier) you’re probably going to be weighed down by the loads of stuff you’ve purchased from the various shops you’ve been to. So here is where you either end the day prematurely or shove your purchases in a locker. Of course the problem is finding an empty locker. Even when you do you still have to hump all of your crap back to your hotel, wherever you’re staying.

If you’re really serious about conquering Akihabara in a day or so and have decided that most of your shopping will be done there, you probably want to stay here for your entire trip. To be honest there doesn’t seem too many great options on Airbnb, so the Washington Hotel might be your best bet. Once you’ve worked that out, you can figure out where the speciality stores are that you want to hit. For a general physical map head to the Tokyo Anime Center in the UDX building for an Akiba Map. The shop is open from 11am, so probably going there first on the day before you tackle Akihabara is the best bet. If you want to make your own map, you could do worse by going to Japanese sites like Akiba Scope. Now while the list of shops on that site and others may be relatively substantial, you can guarantee that some of that information is out of date. Shops are on those lists which no longer exist or have moved. To double check the information (for actual location and opening times), look at the actual shop’s website. Luckily most of these stores, even the tiny ones have websites. Of course the problem with Japanese addresses is that even putting them on Google Maps sometimes won’t give you an accurate mark on the map as to where the shop is. This is when Street View comes in handy. Even so for tiny shops it may be really hard to find where they actually are. Just a quick note before we start on the shops proper, I am not including things like card shops, doujin shops, game shops, maid cafes etc. I am mostly concentrating on shops which sell anime figures, CDs, Blu-rays, DVDs and books.

Once you’ve done your preplanning, it’s time to hit Akiba. First of all, like all shops in Japan, nothing really opens before 10am. I usually get to Akihabara station, departing from Okubo station (on the Chuo-Sobu Line, mainly because I love staying in Shinjuku) at 9:15 am or so. Never go on a Saturday or Sunday if you can’t stand crowds. I prefer the weekdays when it’s uncrowded and easy to move about. The only problem with getting to the station this early in the morning on a weekday is the peak hour crowds. Go after 9:15am if you’re not too keen about riding in overfull trains. I use the Central Gate to exit the station rather than Electric Town Gate. This is because the first port of call will be Yodobashi Camera.

Open at 9:30am, Yodobashi Camera deals mostly with electronic goods, however it is also full of anime DVDs, Blu-rays, games, figures, model kits and toys. As I said before the best thing about this shop is the discounts due to direct competition with rival electronics chain Bic Camera. You’ll save around 5% to 10% of retail prices here. On the seventh floor of the building are a small Tower Records branch and a small book store with lots of niche magazines. I usually spend about half an hour in the Yodobashi Camera building.

Once you’re done there, if you’re outside the main entrance of the store, turn to your left and follow the road under the bridge where you will see a massive tower. This is the Shosen Book Tower. Open from 10am, it is mostly full of otakuish books; the fourth floor has tokusatsu, music and mainstream movie books, the fifth mostly has military books, the sixth has seinen, josei and older manga, the seventh has shonen and shoujo manga as well as some anime artbooks and the eighth floor has sci-fi manga and Gundam books. Anime artbooks in particular seem to have a very limited shelf life in bookstores. However I have lucked out a number of times in this shop, most recently with a pair of “Love Live!"  books.

Once you’ve had your fill here, cross the street and walk west until you come to Book Off. While some may cite the Shibuya branch as the best Book Off store in the city, the Akihabara one is filled to the brim with otaku stuff like CDs, Blu-rays, games, manga and the like. A little further west along the same side of the street is the main store of X (or “Ekkusu” as it’s pronounced by the locals). This shop is filled with competitively priced figures and a few other character goods. If you’re after recently released figures, this is a pretty good place to find them. There is a second store deep in the back streets of Akiba. A few tens of metres up is one of the Liberty shops (designated as shop number 2). The small chain of stores that this company owns are mostly dotted up and down the main street of Akiba. This store mostly has gachapon toys and figures. Beyond Liberty is another hobby store called Aso Bit City. Run by electronics duty free store LAOX, it features hobby and anime character goods (figures, model kits etc.) on the fifth to seventh floors.

In the next part, I’ll be looking at some of the bigger stores on the main road in Akihabara, as well as the shops outside the Electric Town exit and of course the speciality shops in the back streets.

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