Akihabara. The very name draws a resounding “wowww” from those familiar with it, and a corresponding “HUH?” from people who have never heard of it. For those unfamiliar with this Tokyo microcosm, Akihabara is a neighbourhood that looks like it was built by 16 year old American teenagers whose only knowledge of Japan came from Japanese anime and video games. It is essentially Japanese culture, twisted and on steroids, and is a popular destination for both locals and tourists alike.
Here’s where I began:
Admittedly, I went to Akihabara expressly to look for this very narrow definition of Japanese culture, complete with giant edifices of anime characters and seizure-inducing neon lights. However, when I exited the metro station, I was immediately drawn to a small crowd fawning over an electronics showcase, including friendly but slightly creepy looking robots and a magnetic levitation train set.
In my journey to catch a glimpse of stereotypical Japan, I kept trudging forward and followed the crowds. Surely they would lead me in the right direction! However, this tactic works maybe half the time and instead of ending up on the correct streets, I ended up inside an electronics department store that can only be described as Best Buy on crack.
If I’m not mistaken, the name of the place is Yodobashi. This place had seven floors (that’s right, SEVEN floors!) of literally everything you could possibly need for your house, and even stuff you don’t need but want anyway ‘cause it’s awesome. They carried literally the largest selection of everything I had ever seen.
This store definitely had the largest selection of phone cases I’ve ever witnessed, with rows upon rows of shelves with thousands of phone cases ranging from the classy:
To the clever:
To the suggestive:
To the downright Disney:
Go up an escalator and prepare to catch your eyeballs when they pop out of your sockets after feasting your eyes upon hundreds of computer mice…
…every tripod ever made…
…and an astronomer’s wet dream.
Wandering through the endless shelves of LEGO, I came across this:
They also had several metres of those machines where you insert a coin, crank the knob and a little plastic ball with a figurine inside shoots out at you. And right nearby, a swarm of people had their eyes glued to the screens at a mini-arcade.
After a grueling journey reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, I finally made it to the seventh and final floor of this godforsaken technology wonderland. Expecting to meet a giant, flesh ripping robot or maybe a machine that could whisk me away to an alternate reality, I was relieved to discover that the final leg of my uphill journey ended with a smooth escalator ride to a tranquil bookstore. The range of books was enough to satisfy everyone from manga addicts to the business savvy to young students. And I think I may have stumbled into a hentai (manga porn) section at one point, so if that’s your thing, well, then good for you.
I was browsing through the seemingly endless selection of books (not the hentai!) when suddenly I heard what sounded like a concert in the store next door. Being the natural sleuth that I am, I rushed over to see what the fuss was all about.
Turns out, there was a concert in the next store, a music store of course. A girl group with colourful outfits and even more colourful hair were singing songs to a small crowd of mostly dudes (though I think I spotted one or two embarrassed looking females) who were whooping and cheering, reciting the lyrics word for word and even performing choreographed dance moves with the synchronicity of bees in a hive. Their unabashed enthusiasm was almost infectious enough for me to want to join them. Almost.
After listening to a few songs I still wasn’t sure what genre this group was. After deciding they were a strange blend of Japanese pop, punk, and alt rock, I began to walk away. Immediately, almost as if the group was saying to me “you can’t define us!” they started blasting a heavy Metallica-esque track and screaming their lyrics in raspy voices. A confused smile crept onto my face and I decided that this group and their fans were badass after all.
I made my way outside and about ten minutes later I finally stepped foot into what you could call pure, unadulterated Akihabara. It was exactly as I was led to believe, which left me simultaneously ecstatic and disappointed. Walking the streets and gawking at the lights, the anime, and the many maid cafes, I wanted to see something that was different from what people normally imagine Japan to be. So I wandered further down the road, away from the commotion, and though it didn’t completely change my worldview, it was interesting to see the difference that existed on the fringes of Akihabara, sandwiching a pastrami-sized helping of Japanese stereotypes on overdrive. At the very least, it reminded me that Tokyo is an international tapestry that constantly adapts itself to global trends.
On one end is 2k540, an underground (more like underbridge) shopping street where artists and artisans peddle their handiwork. Their products range from handmade clocks to handbags to cool little trinkets. It was a successful exercise in hipster chique and, admittedly, reminded me a little of home.
On the other end, there was a bar by the riverside with a classic Central European feel to it, as if it had been carved out from an old brick railroad station. I like to think that the patrons there sip their alcohol and imagine that they’re in a fancy bar in Vienna overlooking the Danube. It is somewhat perplexing that although located so close to Akihabara, this sort of thing doesn’t feel out of place. In fact, it somehow feels as if it is necessary, that its purpose is to let any visitor, local or foreign, know that Tokyo is unpredictable, and it’s that very unpredictability that makes it one of the most influential cities in the world today.
Akihabara, in the span of a few blocks, can prove all your assumptions about Japanese culture right.
But it can also prove all your assumptions wrong. And this is why I feel Akihabara is a great representation of where Japan has been, where it’s at now, and where it has the potential to be in the near future.