The Zen of Akihabara
In the heart of the world’s largest electronic extravaganza
By Catherine Pawasarat
Akihabara is convenience incarnate, in a land where convenience is king: it’s a mere two stops and $1.50 from central Tokyo Station, and is bursting at the seams with just about everything electronic the world has to offer. As you get off the train at Akihabara station, a modest sign points downwards towards “Electric Town,” and step by step one descends into this high-voltage alternate reality. Before one has exited through the ticket gates, window displays have started peddling the latest gadgetry, and posters or even large compact-car-sized stickers affixed to the floor coyly invite purchases of “My Princess” anime software games.
In the Edo period, Akihabara was the residential area for low-level samurai, and was known for outbreaks of fighting and fire. The place retains a certain roguish seediness (the male - female ratio is about 30 to 1), and the hum and verve of the innumerable electric currents lend a perpetual feeling of somebody’s fuse being on the verge of popping. The modest origins of the world’s grandest electronics extravaganza date to post-World War II, when the availability of radio parts here spawned a thriving black market.
But before heading to this part of town, heed the words of the Girl Scouts: Be Prepared. You need a high tolerance for sensory overload in order to spend much time out and about in Akihabara. This is not the place for quiet, peaceful types. I get ready for jaunts to Electric Town with a three-day regimen of resisting sleep and subsisting on a diet of coffee and the Japanese equivalent of twinkies. Then I fit right in.
Though this is the universally acknowledged mecca for computer and consumer electronics technology, ironically, the quintessential Akihabara is under the train tracks. Here, vendors in a rabbit warren of stalls sell everything from batteries and Christmas lights to surveillance cameras, transistors and controllers. Most of the stalls are no more than 10 feet square, with often only enough space cleared for the vendor to sit wedged in on all sides by his merchandise. Yet, astonishingly, these people look entirely comfortable and content (is it all those twinkies?). Overhead the ceilings are no higher than six feet, regularly lower due to the serpentine amalgamation of air conditioning vents, pipes, and fluorescent lighting fixtures.
Clearly heaven for the hard-cores who design their own computer systems, under the tracks a mechanized cornucopia overflows with every electronic component imaginable – and then some – tidily stacked in rows and compartments (think of table-sized fishing tackle boxes), with uniform neon-colored tabs neatly marked with the product number and price. All the little boxes of bright plastic colors and shiny metallic surfaces bring to mind a candy shop, and it’s easy to imagine the child-like joy evoked in the hearts of the electronics die-hards who come here.
Despite the nature of the merchandise, the set-up of this part of Akihabara is much more like a bazaar in a trade town of the Middle East. I keep expecting to turn a corner and find a camel, but the closest thing to a dromedary is our friend, Hello Kitty.
I walk out of the rabbit warren and onto the street, into sunshine, traffic generously belching CO2, jostling crowds, and eye-catching signs and mega-noise bursting forth from virtually every shopfront. Fortunately I am well-armed, with a pair of dark glasses, some mantras on tranquility, and a robust sense of humor.
Akihabara begs the question: Do you know what you want? Make sure you know what you’re here for. Better yet, write it down, as you are likely to forget in the eight-storeyed shops of consumer temptation, conjoined with the general Akihabara-induced daze. Some people come to just to catch a buzz or marvel at this great wonder of the electronic world, while not a few come just to pick up some software and blank CD-ROMs, which they forget -- instead going home with some PlayStation games and a miniature fountain to gurgle in the corner of their room. Compulsive shoppers, beware.
Without a doubt the hands-down ubiquitous feature of Akihabara (besides the general noise and electric hum) is the keitai, Japan’s tiny feature-packed cellular phones that rival Captain Kirk’s hand-held device for number of features and (of course) convenience. Q: Where can a person in Japan get privacy, a social life, a computer, and inexpensive email and internet access? A: Their pocket, assuming that’s where they keep their keitai.
By last March there were 60 million mobile phone subscriptions in Japan, accounting for nearly half the population. These toys allow Japanese (most noticeably, young women) to keep in touch with their friends, anywhere, anytime (rather everywhere, all the time), as they expertly punch out brief but meaningful messages – like, “I’m hungover” -- on their diminutive handsets.
But this is no joke, especially for content providers, who making serious money by enabling wireless net surfers to read the news, trade stocks and reserve air flights. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, to download an animated mascot for the cellphone screen background, changed daily for less than $1 a month (and raking in about $10 million a year for the provider).
The average Akihabara electronics shop sells about 50 different keitai models, with larger stores offering hundreds. Silver is the hip color these days. Prices for cell phones range from less than a dime (for older, simpler models) up to $200 for the latest models from the humongously profitable DoCoMo, with 256-color screens and internet capability. New models come out every few months.
My favorite part of the keitai culture is the accessories, like the different kinds of straps you can attach to suit your personality or different moods. There are different colored plastic straps ($4, and boring), metallic chains, crystal beads, Indian beads, feathers, and my favorite, dolls – the inch-high Miffy the bunny, Snoopy, or a set of the entire 10-member music band, Morning Musume (“Morning Daughter”), so you can fickle-y rotate your favorite musume.
Better still are the changeable antennas: Some flash when your phone is ringing, others can be set for different colors at different times. The crème de la crème is “Fairy Seven,” which flashes in seven different colors in succession for a mere $30.
These are the toys, and then there are the games. Games software specialty shops have large monitors our on the street with the newest games loaded. Pedestrians walk by, see the game, stop to play, and a small crowd gathers until the joy-sticker moves on.
Walking into one game software store, I mistook a PlayStation2 baseball game for an actual televised pro game. The characters are actual Japanese pro baseball players, and the graphics are excellent. I realized with a start that it won’t be long before it’s impossible to tell whether characters are created with computers or real people.
One of my favorite products is the computerized refrigerator: You can determine the temperatures of the different compartments, turn on a child lock, set a timer, or leave messages, as in the demo’s, “Junior! There’s cake in the fridge!” (not to be used, I presume, in conjuction with the child lock.)
Another fave is the “Eye-Trek,” by Olympus. It is like a pair of cool ski goggles, except you see a TV monitor inside. Initially I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. “Doesn’t it make more sense just to look at the TV monitor?” I asked one of the clerks. “But with these, you can lay down or face the other way, and still watch TV -- you don’t have to strain your neck,” he explained. Get it? For the wealthy couch potato -- $500 and up.
Anime has a very respectable presence in Akihabara, whether it’s the software games, the DVDs, the merchandising (a special mention goes to the Hello Kitty electric fans), to a fairly large selection of animated soft porn with the characteristically Japanese cute factor.
Cute is like mother’s milk here, and there is a niche of cutesy computerized games. One store has a whole section of “love games,” which are the romantic kind, as opposed to the “adult-o ge-mu.” The former are designed for girls and young women (I guess, since the only female I saw in the games shops was about 17 and in this section). They have titles like “To Heart,” “I miss you … your smiles in my heart,” and “A piece of memories.” On the flip side, the same shop has an entire floor of adult-o ge-mu, populated by pulse-racing Japanese lads and the occasional suit and tie.
Heading back to the station again, the bazaar-ish nature of Akihabara is heightened with some very festive salesmen outside the station. One guy selling Japanese knives has a plastic box full of veggies on which to demonstrate. But he is a hi-tech showman -- he has an invisible mike and an amp so that his voice easily carries to the small crowds that gather. He cuts wire cable, wood, paper, styrofoam, and ... oh yes, vegetables, to show how good his knives are. The next guy sells kitchen-cleaning devices, to get the scum off the bottom of your pots. Another is selling magic tricks, and a fourth man is selling a hi-tech veggie peeler, all under colorful sun umbrellas over their stands, adding to the fair-like atmosphere.
With a tinge of relief I buy my return train ticket, head up the stairs to the platform, and get on a train towards Tokyo Station. My eyes are buggy and my body is both revved up and tired. I feel as though I’ve been zapped with 1000 volts, but when I look at my reflection in the windows my hair is still as straight as it was this morning.
As I feel the voltage humming through my synapses subside, I reflect on how “Akihabara” translates literally to “field of autumn leaves,” and I cannot recall having seen a single tree.