I was fortunate enough recently to take a two-week vacation across various parts of Japan, mixing urban and rural locales. Of course, when visiting The Land of the Rising Sun, there are plenty of nerdy treasures to behold. Whether you enjoy anime, manga, video games, or even maid cafes, there is a lot to do aside from the more traditional tourist spots. Of these, there might not be a more prolific place than Akihabara.
Tokyo’s resident geek district, Akihabara boasts a neon-lit main drag full of arcades and shops, as well as smaller ones of each on a few side streets. It’s a lot to take in and it can be overwhelming. This is especially true if you’re like me and don’t make the necessary preparations before visiting. Thankfully you can learn from my mistakes with the list below, making your Akihabara excursion as fruitful as it can possibly be.
#1 Know What You’re Into
When I first departed from the train at Akihabara station and made the quick walk to where all the action was, I was gobsmacked. Towering, multi-level arcades and stores begged to be explored. Giant, brightly-lit signs and advertisements dominated my immediate view overhead. It was hard to decide where to explore first, which was fun but also a problem.
I hadn’t done much research before arriving. All I knew was that I wanted to go there. This made things unnecessarily difficult because I didn’t prioritize my destinations within Akihabara. I knew I wanted to look for retro games and that I was also interested in statues and a little bit of anime. In this case that’s a bit like walking into a dealership and saying that you’re interested in something with four wheels and an engine. There is just so much to explore, horizontally and vertically, that it’s easy to waste time unless you’re into literally everything. Even if you are, there are some stores that basically amount to department stores that likely won’t be your first choice to visit.
I would suggest familiarizing yourself with exactly what stores are in Akihabara so that you can pare down the list of establishments that you want to visit. I, for example, realized very early on that I just don’t really go to arcades anymore and that the ones in Japan typically have more games of chance (like crane machines) than traditional video games. That would’ve allowed me to gape at the towering arcades for a few moments, but also realize that my time was better spent elsewhere. I would’ve also known ahead of time which of them also had shops, so as to not rule them out completely.
#2 Have Wi-Fi (or a map at least)
It goes without saying that if you’re well-versed in what stores exist in Akihabara and the ones you want to visit, you’ll need to know how to get to them. This might seem obvious, but even after days or weeks in a country like Japan, getting around on the street can still be a little bit tricky. The reason is that even if you get to the general area you want to be in, shops won’t always have English signage. Again, it seems obvious, but you might not realize how difficult it is to find a small store that’s tucked on to a side street where everything is written in Japanese until you’re actually there.
Thankfully, the wonders of technology have us covered here. If you’re traveling to Japan, hopefully you caught on to the fact that they sell Wi-Fi routers at the airport that are as small as a deck of cards, and they can be lifesavers in a foreign country. In our case, one of these cost $100 for our entire two-week trip with unlimited data. They need to be reserved online before your trip to ensure you get one, but can be picked up as soon as you arrive then returned at the airport when you leave, even if it’s a different airport! If you’re spending enough money to be traveling to Japan then this is likely a small extra expenditure that is well worth it. I would suggest renting more than one if you are with others on your trip. It’s handy in case you get lost or even if you want to split up and do different things.
With your trusty router in hand, pocket, or purse, you’ve now eliminated a lot of the confusion while exploring a place like Akihabara. Simply having the internet at your disposal will put you more at ease and allow you to explore comfortably and at your own pace. We take for granted all the convenience that our smart phones offer, so I would recommend not skimping in a place where you really need to know your way around. If all else fails, obtain a map, though these were strangely hard to come by in my experience. I never asked anyone at the front desk of any of our hotels, however. The people in Japan are extremely polite and helpful usually, so I could see them having maps or even perhaps willing to print some out for you.
#3 Know the Exchange Rate and Spend Smart
I know. Duh, right? You would be surprised how swept up you can be in all there is to see in Akihabara though. It’s easy to spend money. There are items in all forms and varieties for every otaku out there, all the way down to the gatchapon toys you can get out of vending machines (one of the many Shenmue-inspired reasons that led me to Japan in the first place).
Gatchapon machines are a great example to use here actually. They typically cost 200, 300, or 400 yen each depending on what’s inside. That comes to about $2-4 US per toy. Not exactly the 25- or 50-cent gumball machines we’re used to here in the States. Now to be fair, the toys, especially the more expensive ones, are actually beautifully detailed and painted perfectly. You need to know what you’re spending though or else you might be shocked at what you’ve spent over time on something so small.
Another example is when I went to a retro game store and asked if they had a copy of Holy Diver for the Famicom. The clerk showed it to me and named a price of 9,000 yen. As of April 2018, that is about the equivalent of $85 US. I knew that Holy Diver went for about $100 on eBay, possibly less, so the deal wasn’t enough for me to spring for the game just because I was in Japan. On the other hand, I found a complete copy of the Super Famicom version of Super Mario All-Stars for 2,000 yen. Basically a $40-50 game for around $20. Now that’s a good deal. I could have easily passed on it had I not done the math though. I hate math, but if you’re like me, it seems that 1,000 yen is worth a little less than $10 US these days, so it’s not hard to figure out.
I should also point out that I understand that many people might not care about their budget. Shopping is often part of the fun when on vacation, especially halfway around the world. The above is not to dissuade you from spending money, but if you’re prone to impulse buys and shocking credit card bills, it might be worthwhile to have a gauge on what you’re spending and whether or not you’re paying what you could easily pay at home whenever it’s convenient. This as opposed to hauling expensive items all over Japan when you could’ve simply ordered them on Amazon for the same price.
#4 If You’re Looking For Specific Products, Know Them Front to Back
You may visit Akihabara and not have any particular goal in mind, stopping off at different arcades, browsing a lot, and generally wanting for nothing in particular. Nothing wrong with that, of course. You can buy almost anything online anyways really, but if, for whatever reason, you have more specific buying desires, then you will want to really familiarize yourself with the products you’re looking for. Remember how I just mentioned how it can be difficult to spot certain stores due to the Japanese signage everywhere? Well, it can be even more difficult to find that statue or toy or manga that you’ve been eyeing up online, because it’s located on a shelf surrounded by dozens like it.
This turned out to be a challenge for me in Book Off!, a popular chain of stores in Japan that are basically like Half-Priced Books in the US. There were a lot of strategy guides and art books in the video game section, and there were probably more than a few I would’ve liked to own just for fun, but I couldn’t scan the spines since I can’t read Japanese characters. I found a Metal Gear Solid book that interested me and then tried to find the Japanese characters for “Metal Gear” on sight after that in case there were more. That’s not how you want to approach things. If you’re looking for particular items, familiarize yourself with what the title of the show/movie/game looks like in Japanese, and if an item has packaging, study that as well before you go and take some screen shots on your phone if necessary. This is all assuming you’re not going to learn at least decent written Japanese before you go.
All of this is especially true for retro games. I knew what systems I collect for and maybe a few specific titles I wanted. I figured that was enough. Wrong. Between navigating Tokyo itself then, eventually, the stores of Akihabara, then scanning the thousands of labels on shelves at retro game stores, it can be hard to find anything. Clerks at these stores were very helpful, and if you know the titles you might be fine. There is no substitute for knowing your stuff though. You’ll find what you’re looking for faster, and if you read a lot beforehand, the difficulty of browsing games you can’t read becomes a non-issue. Overall, it eliminates confusion and saves time. Speaking of which……..
#5 Give Yourself Enough Time
This one might supersede everything else so far. I didn’t do this, and my experience suffered.
Now it wasn’t completely my fault. The nature of our trip dictated that we would never be in one place for more than two or three days. With all the sights to see just in Tokyo alone, I knew I wouldn’t have the amount of time I wanted to spend in Akihabara. With that being said, I didn’t come close to making the most of my time there partly due to time constraints. Even if you think you have enough time, you may not. There is just so much to see, play, find, and possibly buy.
If you think one evening will do the trick, I would say I highly doubt it. Two evenings might suffice, though optimally I would suggest at least two visits totaling 3-4 hours each when the shops are all open. I phrase it this way because stores in Japan typically close at 8PM, which is a little earlier than we’re used to in the US. Also, this is by no means a hard and fast rule, which I learned the hard way and in Akihabara of all places. After a quick stop there just to check it out the previous night, I arrived at about ten minutes ’til 7PM. By the time I got some semblance of my bearings shortly after, a good number of shops had either closed or were closing. By 8:00PM, almost everywhere that sold commercial goods was closed for the night.
Basically, I wasted my one short evening budgeted to browse and shop around what is arguably the nerd mecca of the world, or at least Japan. I picked up one or two things and left wishing I had prepared better. Thankfully, I found other places around Japan to look for retro games (Retro Game Shopping in Japan by Chris Kohler is very handy if you’re also a retro gamer on the hunt for games there), but I certainly missed out on something somewhere.
The recommended 6-8+ hours above may seem like overkill, but it’s really not. If you have very diverse interests then you’ll want to cover a lot of ground. If you’re like me, you’ll want to take your time and soak it all in too. You’re on vacation after all! Lastly, those department stores I mentioned earlier? They may not be high on your list, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to shop in. As mentioned, they’re not the only establishments that have multiple floors either. It’s easy to be deceived as far as the sheer number of places there are to visit on each street.
In conclusion: Have fun!
If you feel like any of these tips are sucking the fun out of your experience, then by all means ignore them! I realize that a person here or there gets the most out of their vacations by simply going wherever the wind blows. Overall though, I think they’re pretty simple and easy-to-follow guidelines that will help most of you that are interested in getting the most out of Akihabara, and Japan in general.