The great Mecca of otaku culture, Akihabara is home to innumerable shops dedicated to anime, manga, cosplay, trading cards and collectible figurines. The world’s first Maid Cafe was established here, and you can also find cheap electronics stores, grand arcades, multi-story hobby malls, and much, much more. It sounds wonderful, so we were surprised when we didn’t like Akihabara all that much.
Akihabara was Tokyo’s original “Electronics Town,” where, in the post-war years, people could buy the newest household gadgets. It was also the first area in the city to embrace computing and so it became known as a place with a futuristic outlook. The young, geeky gamers of Tokyo congregated in Akihabara’s bars and cafes, and it developed into a natural center of otaku culture.
Otaku is a tricky term, which I’m not sure I fully understand. Basically, it’s the Japanese version of “ultra-geek,” referring to people who are maniacally obsessed with things like manga or cosplay. Like “geek,” otaku is a traditionally negative term which has come to be embraced by its community. Today, a large percentage of Japanese self-identify as otaku.
Whatever it is, we saw otaku culture at its strongest in Akihabara. We walked through the arcades where guys were playing insane games involving digitally-imprinted playing cards. We squeezed into stores to look at ridiculously expensive anime figurines, and marveled over the people actually buying them. We explored comic shops which spanned seven floors. We ambled down the streets, dazed, politely shaking our heads to every maid that tried to win our attention. Far quicker than than we had anticipated, we’d had enough: Akihabara is not for us.
I don’t know what went wrong! I consider myself rather geeky… I enjoy the occasional role-playing game, and could list off a dozen members of the Green Lantern Corps without blinking. But I’ve always kept my geekiest impulses under control, afraid what might happen should the flood gates open. In Akihabara, confronted with truly unrestrained geekery, I had solid proof that moderation is the best policy.
There’s something cute about a maid cafe. There’s nothing cute about dozens of maid cafes. And there’s something downright creepy about hundreds of young girls dressed in suggestive costumes standing around on street corners. Same with the collectible card stores… who doesn’t like card games? They’re fun. But try visiting one of these shops where literally hundreds of various Magic-type card-battle games are sold. Where people will spend a fortune on a single rare card. There’s little joy to be found here, just obsession. After Akihabara, I wanted to grab a fishing pole and go sit on a lake. I wanted to spit in the dirt, and rub mud on my face.
Still, it’s a crazy area and maybe on a different day we would have enjoyed it. At any rate, Akihabara is worth seeing, and if you’re in the market for cheap electronics (or comics or games or maids), it’s probably the best place to go in Tokyo.