For any self respecting person with an interest in gaming, electronics or photography, no trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Tokyo’s electronics centre Akihabara. Informally known as Electric Town, this historically has been the place to go to snap up bargains. That’s not the case any more, based on our experience, but it’s still a place where you’ll get to see and potentially buy the latest in Japanese technology.
We first visited Akihabara in 2009, when the exit sign at the JR station was exciting enough for me to take a photograph of it.
On that trip, we focused on the masses of shops specialising in electronic goods, from Soft Map to Yodobashi Camera via LAOX. We picked up some bargains, including a secondhand DS Lite for me, but it wasn’t the mecca for cheap goods that we thought it would be. We were ill-prepared on our first trip, and the system of getting back consumption tax on our purchases was a mystery to us. We knew nothing of where we might be able to claim back the tax (major department stores and electronics stores), how we could claim it back (by taking the purchase to a customer service desk with our passports on the day of purchase) or when we could claim it back (when we’d spent more than 10,000円 on a product).
It was a mind boggling place to wander around, though, and lived up to the idea of Japan that most Westerners have – crowded streets, sky scraping buildings, neon, noise, and lots and lots of weirdness.
We went into one building just across the street from the Electric Town exit of the station and found shops that sold collectible figurines, gatchapon toys, and, er, BB guns and tazers.
On subsequent visits, we’ve experienced the joys of the Gundam Cafe, seen maids gunning for business on the night time streets, visited the 24 hour Don Quixote store that is (allegedly) home to AKB48, and felt our arteries constrict just looking at a display of fried bread sundaes in the window of a cafe.
Akihabara is about more than just electronics and otaku culture, though. We went shopping in an amazing little farmers’ market store built underneath the railway line, just up from the Gundam and AKB48 cafes. Chabara was full of local products from around Japan, a real showcase of the country’s culinary delights.
Staying at an apartment in the area also gave us a different viewpoint. We saw Akihabara at different times of the day and consequently understood it in a different way. It’s a place where people work, worship and live. Wandering around the back streets brought interesting sights and revealed Akihabara to be a very attractive place with a unique character.
Akihabara has a rival for the Electric Town title. Head south from Nipponbashi in the Nanba district of Osaka and you’ll hit a long road lined on either side with electronics stores, shops selling collectible figures, record shops and gaming places. This is Osaka’s own Electric Town, known as Den Den Town.
Osaka’s Den Den Town is smaller than Akihabara, but I liked it. It felt more ‘real’, somehow, less self-conscious. A place to actually shop rather than have an experience of shopping. The electronics stores were a curious mix of the brand new and the recycled, with many displaying bins of old hardware at the front. Lost your charger cable for your old point and shoot camera? Chances are you’ll pick up a replacement in Den Den Town. Need an old bit of kit to butcher for parts to salvage your own equipment at home? Den Den Town could well be the place for you.
And if, like us, you are a fan of capsule toys, there are numerous stores that will cater to your obsession. Some of the electronics department stores will have capsule machines dotted around the store. There’s a huge branch of Super Position, but my favourite is the place that has a statue of a Go Nagai-designed mecha robot outside. The staff inside are really friendly and will do their best to help you find what you’re looking for.
Not that it’s really a competition, but if I had to issue a verdict on which out of Akihabara and Den Den Town is my favourite, I’d probably sit on the fence a little bit. I much preferred Den Den Town as a shopping experience, it was more relaxed and friendly, but I preferred Akihabara as a place to explore and get behind the façade of. I took more photographs in Akihabara, because there was more to see. I bought more stuff in Den Den Town!