Exploring Akiba: An Otaku’s guide to Akihabara
Ask any Otaku (オタク hardcore fan) of Japanese animation and video games which part of Tokyo (東京都 Tōkyō-to) they would most want to visit and the most likely answer you’re going to get is Akihabara (秋葉原).
Only two stops away from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) on the Yamanote Line (山手線 Yamanote-sen), stepping into this small district of a few city blocks may give you some of the biggest culture shocks you’ll have visiting Japan yet. True to its reputation as the “Holy Land of Otaku”, hundreds of gigantic anime posters sprawled across buildings, thousands of small and suggestive anime figurines laid displayed like a neverending toy museum and dozens of cosplaying maids advertising sketchy establishments on the street. This is a city that has embraced the fantastic (and admittedly bizarre) world of anime and wears it proudly as a shopping destination.
As soon as you exit the station you stand at the precipice of the anime side of Tokyo. (Image credit: Afiq / JR Times)
The first thing you’d want to do as you disembark your train at JR Akihabara Station (秋葉原駅 Akihabara-eki) is to head for the Electric Town Gate, on the west side of the station. From here, you’ll want to take the South Exit, which leads out into a side street funnelling into the main street of Akihabara. First-timers to this part of Tokyo can expect to be welcomed by a sensory overload of bright colours, J-pop musical tracks, and crowds of enthusiastic pedestrians.
The many shops and buildings unique to Akihabara can be broadly categorised into three groups: anime merchandise shops, themed cafes, or game centres. There’s not much to explain about the arcade side of Akihabara—just walk in, exchange your yen for coins and play the video games—so in my article today I’ll be going in-depth about the other two types of stores, and by the end of this, you’ll be able to navigate the anime mecca of the world like a pro!
Sofmap is an electronics chain that has five stores in Akihabara alone, specialising in anime goods. (Image credit: Danny Choo/ CC BY-SA 2.0)
One facet of Akihabara that is literally impossible to miss is the immense numbers of anime figurine specialty shops sprawled across the streets. Figurine collecting is a very popular hobby amongst anime enthusiasts, and with the millions of anime characters created across the century come millions of collectibles of said characters.
A trip to Akihabara is said to be a rite of passage for Otaku everywhere, and tracking down rare figurines of their favourite characters is a big part of that. Whether you be a diehard animation junkie or someone who grew up watching Pokémon a couple of times, there’s always something for everyone in the world of anime paraphernalia. Here are three personal tips on how to optimise and make the most out of your figurine shopping spree!
1. Window-shop the big stores, buy at the second hand stores
(Image credit: Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0)
While it may feel like there is no distinction the first time you visit Akihabara, there are several differences in the way certain shops present and sell their products. Shops with large complexes or branded names like Sofmap, Kotobukiya or Animate tend to sell brand new and newly-released goods straight from the shelf. These would always come in their original box/packaging and are usually very expensive.
The shops of Akihabara seem extremely chaotic at a glance, but there is a certain method to the madness. (Image credit: IQRemix / CC BY-SA 2.0)
What I would do is browse these stores first in order to get an idea of what the current catalogue is like, and then head over to the second-hand stores such as Mandarake or Radio Kaikan to find the same figurines at a lower price. Second-hand figurines in Japan usually come in very good condition, and sometimes you can’t find any real defects with them and they may as well be brand new (without the box, of course).
2. Never buy the first nice figurine you see
Pre-owned figurines are kept in near-mint condition, and may as well be brand new to the casual eye (Image credit: djedj)
It can be incredibly tempting to simply walk into the first store you see, have a figurine catch your eye, and then buy it on the spot. A smart shopper, however, would hold off on buying anything until roughly the end of their allocated time for shopping. Akihabara is essentially a city-sized flea market, and chances are if you see a specific figurine you want, you can easily find the same figurine in a different shop for an even lower price! Keep a notepad with you as you go through your shopping trip, note down the prices and shop locations you pass through and only start spending once you are near the end of the day and can fit all the finds you want snugly within your budget.
3. Get a foldable travel bag
Getting one of these bags is a handy travel hack for souvenirs in general, not just for figurine shopping. (Image credit: Afiq / JR Times)
At the end of your figurine shopping spree, you may realise that you have bought one too many and now have a pile of bulky boxes stacked up in your hotel room. It’ll be very difficult to stuff all of these large and fragile items into your regular travel suitcase, so a solution that I’ve discovered is to purchase a foldable travel bag exclusively for your figurines and other souvenirs. Just request some bubble wrap or protection foam whenever you make your figurine purchases, and you’ll be able to safely tuck them away in your bag and bring it with you as a carry-on on your next flight home! You can easily find one of these at the Yodobashi Camera right outside Akihabara Station, or at any travel goods shop you find in Tokyo.
If a piece of media has a large fandom, you can bet it has had a themed cafe pop up at some point in time. (Image credit: Afiq / JR Times)
Akihabara is also home to a bevvy of unique themed cafes and restaurants. These are places that are usually centred around a singular gimmick, and while they are indeed food establishments, they usually focus much more on providing an otherworldly experience to their customers rather than a full-fledged dining menu. As such, I would recommend that you visit one of these themed cafes outside of your regular lunch or dinner time, as a place to grab a quick bite and rest your legs from all the touring and shopping. From the ubiquitous maid cafes that litter the streets, to animal cafes and video game-themed cafes, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an interesting midday stop that suits your cup of tea (and probably serves it too).
Despite their rather questionable promotion tactics, maid cafes are entirely family-friendly and respectful of personal boundaries. (Image credit: Guilhem Vellut / CC BY 2.0)
The first permanent maid cafe in Japan, Cure Maid Café, is said to have been established right here in Akihabara in 2001. In the decades since, there has been a veritable boom in maid cafe subculture, with them becoming increasingly prevalent in anime shows throughout the early 2000s. It is now impossible to walk the streets of Akihabara without having at least one maid-costumed girl in your field of vision, either handing out flyers or holding signboards promoting her cafe. (Note: Akihabara maids do not, in fact, perform domestic household services)
Did writing my name in ketchup really make the omurice taste better? Maybe in the moment it did. (Image credit: Afiq / JR Times)
The actual cafes themselves are definitely not for the faint of heart. There is a standard flow to a maid cafe experience—first, the staff (who will be dressed as maids or some maid-equivalent) will heartily greet you with an “おかえりなさいませ、ご主人様” (“Welcome home, Master”). Then, one of them will be assigned to you, seat you at your table and explain their unique cafe menu. These food items usually involve an interactive element such as the maid drawing your name in ketchup on your plate or blowing a kiss on your drink to make it sweeter. Certain establishments might even have live karaoke performances by their maids while you eat to liven up the atmosphere and invite you to join in!
At the end of your meal, you would usually be offered a commemorative photo with your maid of choice if your spending went above a certain threshold and the larger cafes may even have retail sections available at checkout.
You don’t really eat all that much at these “cafes”, you’re mostly there to chill and play with the residents. (Image credit: photoAC)
If the concept of maid cafes sounds a bit too intense for your tastes, fret not, for a more relaxing alternative is available for the weary Akihabara shopper. Japan is known for having a huge variety of animal cafes, where you can have a leisurely tea time break in a cafe surrounded by small, fluffy animals! And while you soothe your soul as you bask in the presence of your furry friends, you can rest assured that the animals will also be equally comfortable in the shop. The animal cafes of Akihabara in particular are exceptionally well designed and maintained, with places like the Owl Cafe Fukurou being consistently ranked as one of the top activities for tourists in Japan by Tripadvisor! Cafes that I can personally recommend are the owl cafe Akiba Fukurou, the bunny cafe Moff Rell, and Cat cafe Mocha.
The Akihabara main street looks especially vibrant at night, though keep in mind most stores close by 8! (Image credit: photoAC)
There are many other aspects to Akihabara that are not covered in this article, such as its mysterious electronics market, Japanese Idol scene and much more. What’s for certain is that once you visit and delve deep into this spiritual home capital of modern Japanese subculture, you will surely feel spirited away into a world unlike any other.
Header image credit: pohjolanpoluilla / CC BY-SA 2.0)