Akihabara, Tokyo 秋葉原
by Sheila Cancino
During the Edo era (the roughly three hundred years prior to Japan's modernization in the 1860s) the area was known as Aioi and was the quarters of lower-class samurai. Its reputation was for 'fires and fights'.
In 1870 a shrine was established there to celebrate Akiba-daigongen, the bodhisattva who prevented fires. Before long the district itself became known by the name of the shrine, but with the addition of the word 'hara', or 'plain', the consonants altering slightly to read 'Akihabara', or 'autumn leaf plain'. In 1890 with the construction of Akihabara railway station, the name became official.
Even before World War II the area had a number of electrical wholesalers and retailers, but after the war it became even better known, first for its black market in radio parts, and then from the 1950s for its thriving trade in all things electric and, in the past three decades, electronic and, even more recently, otaku, or nerd, culture.
Akihabara is the perfect place to spend a super-charged afternoon for anyone with a fascination for electronics, gizmos, computer hardware, software, and accessories .
For computers there is nothing that isn't stocked in every spec imaginable, and at prices that can't be beaten. Although it's not known to be the central hub for camera shopping, there are also branches of domestically-known camera stores here. Mobile phones, televisions, and even second-hand goods, are here in plenty.
There are large stores like Laox and Sofmap that offer duty-free shopping on purchases over 100,000 yen. There are also small shops that are worth checking out to find a bargain. PSP videogames, game software and MP3 players, including the ubiquitous iPod, are sold here as well.
This panoply of consumables doesn't stop with electronics, but extends to all electric goods, even as far as the home appliances that the area's commerce was originally built on. You can even find that staple of basic consumption: the 100 yen store, the Japanese version of the American dollar store, but sporting a far greater variety of products.
Akihabara is also a mecca for the computer/electronic geek: the PC DIYers. Then there are the video game nerds. This area is known for its gaming-related stores, stocking a vast array of video games and games accessories.
Yet another Akihabara crowd is made up of the tourists who come just to experience the restless, dizzying maelstrom of downtown commerce combined with the wide-eyed wonder inspired by cutting edge hi-tech components.
Read the full guide to Akihabara shopping
But Akihabara's true depth is revealed in its reputation as the sacred ground of Japan's otaku: the country's distinctive brand of pop culture nerd.
Although the term otaku is a general term in Japanese to mean anyone fanatic or obsessive about a particular topic or hobby, it most commonly refers to people minutely familiar with the details of manga (comic books and graphic novels) and/or anime (animated cartoons and computer generated graphics), this obsession often going as far as dressing up as one's favorite comic strip character.
Wherever you are in Akihabara, you won't have to walk any more than a block in any direction to come across stores selling manga, toys and video games that feature or depict manga/anime characters, books, figurines, posters and anime CDs and DVDs. One of the big anime/manga stores is Animate (or here: Animate) made up of several floors each stocking different types of manga.
Then there are the manga cafe "manga kissa" (kissa being an abbreviation of "kissaten", or cafe throughout the area where you pay by the hour to watch DVDs, use the internet and/or read the wall-to-wall manga collection. For enhanced relaxation, some even offer free coffee. Some of the manga kissa are open 24 hours meaning that, for a price, you can sleep there if you missed the last train home.
The characters that liven the pages of manga can also be seen in 3D almost everywhere in the form of small plastic models packed inside the kind of plastic balls you might get from a bubble gum machine. There are also, of course, the manga character key chains, novelty hats, and enough costumes, party crackers, streamers, masks, fans and fairy lights to see you right for every birthday or fancy dress party you're ever going to have.
The costumes sold in some stores reach the heights of otaku fantasy, turning you, for a sum, into anything from the pink-haired punk samurai 'Kenshin' in the Rurouni Kenshin series of manga and anime, to Barbie, to Godzilla to an S&M leather master. Prices share the diversity, and some of the most coveted costumes can cost you in the range of 100,000 yen (approximately $900) for just one item, for example, a blouse.
Costumes find their true element in the so-called kosupure (i.e. "costume play") cafes. Staffed exclusively by young women, each is typically attired in a maid outfit bespeaking anything from the prudish to the prurient, depending on the shop.
The customer here is, for however long he can afford it, master. One is greeted on entry with "Welcome, Master!" and seen off with "Have a good day, Master": surely a most frisson-generating experience for the modern 'lower class samurai', AKA lower manager, whose ears are no doubt still ringing from that afternoon's bellowing out. You can drop off your laundry for the 'maids' to clean and mend at certain establishments, or have them play games with you while you imperiously sip your tea. 'One or two sugars, Master' 'Oh, cream, Master? Yes, of course, Master.'
Check out a couple of such kosupure cafes here: Cure Maid Cafe, Cos-cha.
Akihabara Dining - Eating Out in Akiba
If the tea and biscuits, or perhaps even the lovingly prepared lady's finger of a cucumber sandwich, did not satisfy Master's, or Mistress's, hunger, there is many a crepe shop along the main street to fill the need. 300 to 500 yen will get you a fresh, chewy crepe filled with something dessert-like such as ice cream, cheesecake, pudding, or chocolate sauce, or, if you're more in the mood for a good square meal, a crepe bursting with hot strips of ham and dripping cheese.
Failing this, back at JR Akihabara station are a few counter shops for that hot, ten-minute and for the price generous and more often than not appetizing chow-down.
Akihabara is now the hub for the Tsukuba Express train connecting Tokyo with the futuristic Tsukuba City in Ibaraki Prefecture. Tsukuba, also known as the Science City is noted for its universities and museums. From Akihabara to Tsukuba takes less than an hour and costs 1,183 yen one way.
For more information on this old but ever-new hustle and bustle known as Akihabara check the Akihabara Tourism Promotion Board website.