Anyone with even a passing interest in modern Japan will have heard of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, most likely through squealing newspaper or blog stories detailing just how weird and depraved the one-time electronics Mecca is.
After all, anywhere that encourages grown men to dress up as Sailor Moon characters or visit borderline-Lolita cafes where staff outfitted as French maids address them as “Honorable Master” can’t be healthy, right?
On the contrary - as we’ll demonstrate, there’s a hell of a lot more to Tokyo’s geek haven than internet fantasies, computers and in-your-face oddness.
Akiba - as the few blocks of specialist stores two Yamanote-line stops north of Tokyo station are almost universally known - is clearly no longer the destination for hardcore otaku it was from the late ‘90s PC boom to the 2008 broad-daylight murders of seven people on a Sunday afternoon stroll, but what is it now?
Tokyo resident and tech observer Martyn Williams saw the shift: “I don’t think the killings there changed much in terms of its image, although they did give the authorities an excuse to close down the pedestrian Sundays, which means some of the fun of visiting there on the weekend is gone.”
As a result, the few blocks of gadget and toy stores can seem like little more than a down-at-heel shopping district populated by a lot of badly dressed overweight young men and even more head-scratching tourists wondering what all the fuss was about.
Not buttoned down
Instead, as Akihabara evangelist Patrick W. Galbraith explains, it’s come to be a place where like-minded people gather to express themselves in ways impossible in other parts of buttoned-down Japan.
“Akihabara is a place where the unusual often is the usual. The order of the day is a publication of the private, so people tend to get a little carried away in ways that don’t fly in more socialized settings,” he says.
Galbraith, Akihabara tour guide and author of ‘Otaku Encyclopedia’ from Kodansha, also concedes that the murders in 2008 changed the atmosphere of the place, but that doesn’t mean there’s less to see.
Newcomers to the scene might want to check out Dear Stage of a Saturday evening for a spot of all-night idol-focused singing and dancing, while the more-established AKB48 51-strong song-and-dance troupe is always a hot-ticket show during the week, especially with the group currently on heavy media rotation in Japan.
Pimped their rides
For a more casual glimpse under the hood of Akiba, Galbraith recommends following the fumes to one of the commonplace gatherings of itasha – custom cars lavishly decorated with cartoon characters from fans’ favorite anime and girl groups.
Sign up for one of his Sunday-afternoon tours and he’ll peel back the layers to reveal what it is about the weird that isn’t so, well, weird.
As he says, there’s something ever-so-slightly not Japan about it all: “It’s cool to see the drivers making connections in a way they might not in other places.”
Just make the effort
In other words, make an effort to see beyond the throngs of beetle-browed geeks in plaid shirts and snow-wash denim and you’ll be rewarded with a view of Japan the surface-skimming Western media tend to – willfully or otherwise – completely overlook.
Instead of focusing on the glittering palaces stuffed with electronic baubles we can all buy online for less anyway and the secretive-seeming hobbies of the otaku, it pays to focus on the individuals, not the labels.
Galbraith sums it up: “I think once we get past the surface weirdness of Akihabara, we begin to see otaku as people looking for fun and a place to be.”
And, after all, who isn’t down for a little of that from time to time?
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