Special

Tokyo Scenes: Akihabara’s Electric Town

April 19, 2013

Photo: Getty Images

As the centre of the world’s largest metropolitan area, Tokyo is more than just a city.

In fact, with a population greater than that of Canada, Tokyo is in some ways like a country in its own right, with its many local districts resembling little cities-within-a-city and catering to every possible interest a person could have, and perhaps the most famous and notorious is the “Electric Town” of Akihabara.

Situated on the eastern edge of Tokyo’s Yamanote Line loop line, Akihabara is famous as a mecca for fans of anime, manga, idol music and electronics, a shining, glittering city-spanning shopping mall devoted to every aspect of Japanese geek culture. Of course, with all its niches and nooks, there’s always going to be more to discover, but for newcomers, this guide can hopefully be a springboard for making some of those discoveries.

In terms of music culture, Akihabara is closely associated with idol music, and in the past, aspiring idols often used to perform at weekends on the Chuo-dori main street, which was closed to traffic on weekends. The singer, DJ and anime voice actress Halko Momoi is one artist who made a name for herself performing outdoor shows in Akihabara, and has since gone one to a successful career as a songwriter and producer, currently working with Afilia Saga, an idol group drawn from staff members of a well-known chain of maid cafes.

AKB48 Theater

Maid

Photo: Getty Images

The street concerts are largely a thing of the past now, and after the 2008 “Akihabara massacre,” where a lunatic drove a truck into crowds in the pedestrian area and attacked people with a knife, the police largely shut down the outdoor activities. Nowadays, Akihabara is perhaps most famous as the home of the idol pop mega-sensations AKB48 (who take the “AKB” of their name from Akihabara). Situated on the town’s Chuo-dori main street, the AKB48 theater occupies the eight floor of the Don Quixote discount store and various members of the group still perform there daily, although because of their massive mainstream popularity, tickets are now only distributed by lottery.

Idol music in Akihabara doesn’t end with AKB48 by any means though. Rival idol factory Alice Project has also set up a theatre in the neighbourhood, where groups including the heavy metal-themed Alice Juban and the steampunk-themed Steam Girls perform. Another group currently making a breakthrough from Akihabara roots is Dempagumi inc. whose energetic performances and backstory as a group of anime and gaming nerds has endeared them to fans.

The line between idol culture and the maid cafe business has been getting thinner and thinner over time. Appearing as a fad in 2006, cafes staffed by girls dressed in French maid costumes have certainly passed the peak of their popularity, but are nevertheless an integral part of local Akihabara culture. Covering a range of styles, the maids at some cafes will play the roles of anything from bubbly and cute to aggressive and insulting, depending on the particular cafe’s theme, while other places will offer different costume themes. Food and drink are often pretty straightforward fare, but then you don’t go to a maid cafe for the fine dining.

The most popular maids often have their own dedicated fanbases and maid cafes sometimes act as springboards for amateur music, manga or other DIY works. Indeed, it’s this close interaction between the girls and customers that music producer Tsunku (of Morning Musume fame) was hoping to capture with his Backstage Pass “idol training cafe.” At Backstage Pass, customers are cast in the role of producers and accrue “points” based on how much money they spend, which can then be used to support certain girls who work at the cafe in their aspiring musical careers.

TaitoStationWhile maids and idols might be enough for some, others will prefer entertainment that packs a bit more punch, and Akihabara is a haven for video game enthusiasts. Taito has a couple of arcades in Akihabara, including “Hey!” — one of Japan’s premier gaming spots, especially for fans of shooters. Sega also has multiple locations around the area, including one just outside the “Electric Town” exit of Akihabara Station and Club Sega just over the street, while Try Amusement Tower and video game store Super Potato’s 5th floor arcade are good for retro gaming.

And in the end, it’s the shops that are what Akihabara is really all about. From the warrens of alleyways selling high end audio cables, security cameras and drilling equipment, to the packed multi-floor manga bookstores, Electric Town is one big shopping mall. It originally got its “Electric Town” nickname from the electronics stores, and small shops selling computer hardware and software still thrive in places, although tower blocks constructed by big chains like Yodobashi Camera and Sofmap tend to dominate these days.

As well as the aforementioned Super Potato, the big flagship stores of Animate and Gamers are obvious stopping-off points for visiting otaku, with floors dedicated to comics of every conceivable genre, light novels, idol and anime music CDs, cosplay clothes, character goods, trading cards and more. The relatively new Akihabara Cultures Zone building, as well as being home to the Backstage Pass cafe, houses everything from idol posters to a shop dealing exclusively in yo-yos.

MandarakeMandarake2

Probably closer to the original spirit of 1980s otaku, however, is the excellent Mandarake store. Dealing mostly in used goods, it also has a strong line in doujin-shi, or fan-made comics (although beware: a lot of this stuff is definitely not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for kids!) Mandarake has a fascinating array of retro manga, art books, anime cels and even teleplays, toys and figurines not only from anime but also from old monster movies and TV shows, as well as some surprisingly familiar sources.

Beyond these stopping points, however, Akihabara culture runs far deeper, with many hidden gems (or creepy and terrifying places) secreted away on the upper floors of obscure buildings. So while this guide can hopefully be a useful introduction to the otaku Mecca of Akihabara, it will only be a stepping stone for fans to discover their own Electric Town.