Exploring Akihabara

Exploring Akihabara
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Image courtesy: heiwa4126
 
This post is part of Project Pacific Circle, a journey of more than 25,000 miles from Orlando to Los Angeles, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.

The white office building in Kyoto might have seemed like the Holy Land from far away to this gamer’s eye, but true paradise awaited in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. It’s a strange, chaotic paradise filled with dissonance, but a paradise nonetheless.

Akihabara is known as ground zero for otaku culture worldwide. It’s a term applied to people with obsessive interests, most often in anime or manga, but can also apply to those drawn heavily to technology or gaming, too.

The street level is filled with a mixture of manga shops, electronics stores, arcades and flea markets filled with bizarre equipment. Need a used oscilloscope of a certain model year? It’s in the markets, along with every type of wire imaginable. Want to play a game? Go across the street; the arcade is 8 stories tall. Interested in some manga? There are stores to your immediate right and left, and probably behind you. Want a game for an obsolete system that hasn’t been available anywhere else for decades? No worries.

If you geek out about things, the thing you geek out about is probably here.

Akihabara Uncovered

The inside of some of the stores in Akihabara can be deafening, with j-pop blasting from speakers in every direction. Shelves are crammed so tightly you must often carefully rotate in place to avoid knocking anything down while looking. Action figures don’t describe what’s for sale at many of these accurately; instead, miniature works of art retailing for several hundred dollars can be found in the forms of Iron Man and Batman, along with a host of anime heroes.

The dissonance of Akihabara is how blatantly sexual much of it can be. Nude female figures sit a few feet away from the superheroes, covered half-heartedly in certain areas by tissue paper thin enough to easily see through.

The same is true of the manga shops; much of the ground floor might be dedicated to mainstream adventure and mystery stories, but obscene hentai posters are often casually tacked on the walls here, not limited to an upstairs or downstairs area restricted from children. Compared with the pure-cut childhood joy bursting from most of the district, this feels out of place. The line between “Awesome!” and “What the…” is often all but nonexistent, even in the more buttoned-down stores.

Super Potato

I turned off of the main road and found the place I was looking for about a block away: Super Potato is the name of the store, and it’s one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever visited.

The store is three stories in height:

Level One

The first floor is filled with gaming’s beginnings, with a collection bordering on the unimaginable to an American visitor. Piles of Famicoms, the Japanese version of Nintendo’s NES console, are to the immediate left of the doorway. So too, though, is a pile of hybrid Famicoms with Disk Drives included, a variant manufactured by Panasonic for only a limited time. These systems would be hard to come by anywhere else in the world, but a half-dozen sat lazily in a corner here.

Further down, the by-gone names of console generations. 3DO, TurboGrafx, Neo Geo and Sega’s Master System are just a few of the long-dead consoles available in quantity here.

The edges of the floor are stacked high with consoles, an 8-bit museum where everything is available for purchase. In the store’s center, though, lies the gaming equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. Bookshelves stacked six rows or more high are crammed to an impossible density with games for each of these systems. It’s hard to imagine anything less than complete catalogs for each console are here, one cartridge at a time.

Unfortunately, nearly all of these games are region-locked and only play on Japanese systems, so there’s no taking home a long-lost favorite without buying a system to go with it. That’s enough to keep me from making many purchases on this floor, but in the rare gaps where space can be found to put items around, in front of or between games, gaming apparel and merchandise never seen in the US can be found. I grabbed magnets, a coin purse, a couple little figurines and a beach towel and hauled my loot upwards to see what else this store could possibly be hiding on its other floors.

Level Two

Level Two is filled with the second half of gaming’s history, picking up with Sega’s Genesis, Nintendo’s Super Famicom and going forward in time all the way to the Sega Dreamcast and PlayStation 2.

There’s not much newer here; why would there be? If you’d like a PlayStation 3 or Wii game, those are common, and Super Potato is dedicated to the rare.

That’s why a demo unit Virtual Boy is set up on this floor, presenting a rare chance to play Nintendo’s biggest failure: a goggle-based console that made 3D images from laser-red outlines, sure to burn your retinas and put a crick in your neck. Virtual Boys can be found in the US, but I haven’t come across a demo unit since the year of its release, 1995. Only about 700,000 were sold worldwide during its 8 month lifespan; it’s unknown how many remain today.

An incredible selection of Sega Saturns and Dreamcasts can be found on this floor, along with a dazzling array of games for these last two consoles Sega released. Nintendo GameCubes are left gathering dust in a corner, stacked a dozen high in several columns like Lego blocks of many colors.

In the glass case are some more recent but rare artifacts: a Game Boy Micro with a Famicom paint job, for example. It’s a very rare and popular piece, released for just a moment in December 2005. The system sold for $99 then and has recently sold secondhand for as much as $300 on eBay. Super Potato had a couple still sealed in their boxes for a bit over $200.

I found a prize on this floor, too: a white GameCube controller, brand new in its box. Not a remake or third party piece, but a truly new, name-brand controller for a system dead for nearly a decade. It was the last one they had, notable for a store short on nothing.

Level Three

The third floor, it turned out, was a small arcade and LAN party room. No more treasures awaited for me here, so I went along my way, catching a train to Yokohama and the Pokémon Center at Landmark Tower about an hour away.

The Pokémon Center

The world’s greatest Pokémon store is in a wholly unremarkable place, on one of the middle levels of a large mall located on the bottom floors of a large tower.

A couple floors above a Marble Slab and a short walk from a Hard Rock Café, you can find a place filled with Pokémon related treasures not available elsewhere, and certainly not in the United States.

I was surprised by the amount of infant apparel the store sold, but perhaps that’s a result of the series being nearly 20 years old. A folding fan, a hand-carved and painted wooden Pikachu and an adorable plush Squirtle were a few of the prizes I took home.

As I was leaving, I noticed a number of people gathered in an artificial canyon below the mall. A new Pokémon movie was scheduled for release in just a few days in Japan and a multi-week celebration with a special presentation was supposed to be happening at the mall, but wasn’t planned to begin until a few days after my visit. I guessed that this might be a dry run or sneak preview and was right. A projection show lit up the walls of the canyon as hundreds of Pikachus ran about, children cheering and clapping all the while.

I was glad I waited a few more minutes to check it out before heading back to Shinjuku. It was a fitting cap to a day dedicated to gaming culture, history and lore.

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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