Akihabara Electric Town: the good, the bad, the simply bewildering
As listeners to the PC Pro podcast will know, I’m stuck in Tokyo thanks to a certain volcanic eruption. As listeners will also know, my colleagues have absolutely no sympathy for me, and for good reason: Tokyo is geek paradise, especially if you head on the metro to Akihabara Electric Town.
On my first trip to Akihabara, I initially stumbled into a number of small electrical shops that wouldn’t look out of place on London’s Tottenham Court Road. Some almost resemble market stalls, except that instead of selling bananas for a pound they want you to buy pocket translators and portable TVs.
If your wallet is tighter than the UK General Election, don’t get too excited. None of the prices made my jaw drop in wonder. Instead, what you get in Akihabara is choice. And at times, that choice is so overwhelming you may want to have a nice quiet sit down with a cup of green tea.
Your first choice is where to go. If the stalls and small shops don’t have what you want, then you’ll need to head to the larger streets where the big boys reside. These shops sprawl over a number of floors, each dedicated to a particular type of electronics: things like laptops, TVs, peripherals and games. But oh, there’s so much more.
Sofmap: my first mistake
After my first visit to Akihabara, I thought I’d found the area’s biggest store: a six-storey Sofmap shop on the main street, which puts PC World’s superstores to shame with its stunning array of goods, from PCs to digital cameras to those USB peripherals you never realised you wanted.
It also makes the shelves of PC World look terribly quiet and old-fashioned. Got a spare centimetre or two of wall space? Put a special offer there! Not used enough red and yellow on your posters? You’re fired!
The barrage of exclamation marks and bawdy colours is only matched by the sounds endlessly ramming into your ears – excited people gabbling on about the latest piece of technological wonderment, all matched by jingly tunes so horrendous even Pete Waterman would walk out of the shop.
What kept me there (and trust me, after 15 minutes of listening to the same music on a loop I wasn’t looking for reasons to stay) was the products. Not just all the tiny computers you expect to find in Japan, but the quirky ones. Two of my favourites include these:
That’s right, why put up with a boring old battery recharger when you can spend 2,980 Yen (that’s around £21 and $32) on one the shape of a dog? And surely the perfect gift for any computer lover is a doughnut-shaped cloth to wipe your screen clean? At 580 Yen, it’s a steal.
Yodobashi Akiba: the monster shop
What I hadn’t appreciated was that Sofmap’s six-storey store is but a tadpole to the blue whale tucked away at the Showa-dori exit of JR’s Akihabara station. (Confusingly, Tokyo’s metro isn’t really one network but a multitude, all of which co-exist separately yet also, on occasion, share stations. Wikipedia’s description of Tokyo’s transport system explains it about as well as anyone can.)
Yodobashi Akiba occupies nine storeys, which is in itself quite impressive. What’s truly impressive, however, is the size of each floor. Think aircraft hangar and you won’t be far wrong: in terms of sheer square footage, and for each floor remember, it’s about the same size as a large food superstore.
This allows it to dedicate aisles to products that any British retailer would squeeze into half a shelf. I turned one corner to be greeted by a whole section of laptop backpacks. (If you need such a thing, and you’re in Tokyo, then just head to second floor.)
Or perhaps you want an iPhone case. Or a book on Windows 7. Or a digital photo frame. In every case, Yodobashi Akiba has an incredible range from which to choose – and without the terrible music that plagues Sofmap.
That said, you will have to walk past a man shouting about the latest mobile phone offers if you happen to wander in near that entrance.
So, what’s so bewildering?
Throughout Tokyo, you’ll struggle to walk past an open shop without someone attempting to lure you by bellowing special offers into your ear – or at least that’s what I assume they’re shouting about, my Japanese stretching to “thank you”, “good morning” and “sorry for just knocking you over, I really didn’t mean to” – or thrusting a leaflet in your hand.
Akihabara is no different, and on the main street in particular you’ll find yourself passing pretty Japanese girls dressed in maid outfits. Not quite to the levels of Carry On films, but sometimes not far off.
And, as I mentioned at the very top of this article, you can only navigate your way through the area with difficulty due to its size and sprawling “design”. Even though I’ve now been to Akihabara several times, I’m still not sure I’ve found all there is to find. Wander into a back street (such as in the photo below) and it still bustles with activity, while electrical shops abound at every turn.
The other type of shop it’s near impossible to avoid sells anime; often, floors and floors of anime books. Now, it may be tempting to buy a cartoon-laden book for a child, but flick through carefully: amidst the innocent-looking scenes you’ll suddenly find animations that would make an estate agent blush.
You might expect that such explicit images would make the books private reading, as such, but this isn’t the case. Hordes of young Japanese men can be found at all hours flicking through the books on display.
But I digress. The final thing to mention to anyone coming to Akihabara to buy electronic goods is think carefully before you buy. For one, browse the different shops, and even the different floors of the shops, before buying anything: prices vary quite notably from shop to shop. Note also that the display prices don’t usually include the 5% sales tax.
What caught me out in particular was buying with a credit card. In a rash moment, I bought some cables and a keyboard that I realised, back in the sanity of my hotel room, that I didn’t need.
Returning them proved a battle. At first I was told I couldn’t return them because I’d used a foreign credit card, and the exchange rates change on a daily basis. Having carried a keyboard with me into town, the thought of carrying it with me for the rest of the day led me to argue in a thoroughly un-British way.
Eventually, having seen the steely resolve in my eyes, the sales clerk muttered about the need for “special paperwork” before sending me away for 15 minutes. I returned, having practised my stern look in the store’s bathroom mirror for a while, and watched as he filled in this special document. It took about two minutes.
While you could see this as a consumer victory, I should point out that I’ll be stung by the extra credit-card charges: because I wasn’t returning everything that I’d bought, he had to refund the whole initial purchase and then recharge me for the goods I hadn’t returned.
Despite this less-than-convivial episode, Akihabara remains one of my favourite places in Tokyo. Going back to PC World won’t be a pleasant experience.
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