Maid cafes, cosplay (costume play), gachapon vending machines, canned oden noodles and otaku (geeks) — lots of otaku: I thought I knew Akihabara, or “Akiba” as its fans affectionately call it. I bought my first Apple computer (a secondhand Macintosh Powerbook) there in the early 1990s and had visited many times since, both to research my “Rough Guide to Tokyo” and, later, my “Rough Guide to Anime” when the area became synonymous with anime and manga.
But there is always something new to discover in the dense, multilayered, eternally evolving metropolis that is Japan’s capital. And so up on the sixth floor of Akiba’s famous Radio Kaikan, I find myself in Volks, marveling at beautiful — but creepily realistic — Super Dolfie dolls that are priced at over ¥100,000. In an adjacent case a miniature figurine of a limping, black-eyed girl with a hand inching its way out of her emaciated chest is displayed beside a pop band of perky, innocent-looking teenage schoolgirls. I had passed through the rabbit hole and, like Alice, emerged in a wonderland where anything is possible.
Appropriately, what had led me here was White Rabbit Press’ audio-guided English-language walking tour of the area, titled “Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara.” It’s the second in a series of audio tours, launched in 2008 with a trip through the city-center adult-entertainment hub of Kabukicho, that is the brainchild of the White Rabbit Press founder Max Hodges.
The publisher of a successful series of cards for learning kanji, Hodges got the idea for the first tour while exploring the seedier back alleys of the Shinjuku district (of which Kabukicho is part). Always roaming with his camera, Hodges’ artfully composed images grace the “Tokyo Realtime” product packaging.
“If I had just wanted to describe Tokyo in facts and figures I would have written a book,” said the 190-cm tall, talkative Texan. “Instead, I wanted to create an experience that will be unforgettable.”
To do that, Hodges has crafted the aural equivalent of what looks set to become the next big technological leap for mobile- phone devices: augmented reality. The hourlong audio tour can be downloaded to an iPhone, or any other portable device that can play MP3 tracks — or you can get a physical packaged version which includes the audio file on CD, an area map (printed on a synthetic, waterproof paper), and a booklet of area photography. Hodges’ concept is to present a continuous soundscape and cohesive narrative.
“You’ve got one foot on the street,” he further explained, “and one foot in this virtual world. It’s like being a character in ‘The Matrix’ — having someone breaking down the culture and feeding you insider insights on what’s happening around you. The tour adds layers of drama and narrative to the reality on the street.”
Hodges has carefully timed everything to make sure even dawdlers will be able to cover the ground between each of the narration points. There are also handy instructions along the way on where to pause if you get ahead of the commentary.
There’s no need to worry that you’ll stand out from the crowd either. As my friend who takes the tour with me noted, “Everyone else in Akihabara is in their own little world, so nobody bats an eyelid when you wander into a shop, ears plugged into iPhone headphones, because that’s how everyone else looks.”
In something of a casting coup, Hodges hired Patrick W. Galbraith, author of “The Otaku Encyclopedia,” to be the tour’s main narrator. Dressed as Goku from “Dragon Ball Z” the University of Tokyo PhD researcher into information, technology and society in Asia has made a name for himself by personally leading tours around the area. In the “Tokyo Realtime” script he interacts with a cute-sounding electro-chick named — what else! — Navi.
Dropping in for guest appearances are other Akiba experts, including Morikawa Kaichiro, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo who is the author of “Learning From Akihabara”; the blogger and dancing stormtrooper Danny Choo; and Patrick Macias, editor of Otaku USA Magazine and the author of “Cruising the Anime City.” Macias really hits his stride, going into raptures over the range of old-school computer games on sale in Super Potato. Myself, I’d have called it a graveyard of used, dated, ephemeral electronica (sorry Pac-Man and Super Mario!) — save for the fact that there’s clearly a market for this stuff.
Sex never goes out fashion either — allowing Macias some droll comments during the section of the tour that leads you into Tora-no-ana, an emporium specializing in dojinshi (fan-created and published, short-run manga that typically are highly salacious sexual parodies of mainstream manga) and gal-ge and ero-ge (computer games involving sex).
Back on Radio Kaikan’s ground floor there’s more eye-boggling matter on view in Treasure Market Place, where stacks of display cubes are rented by the month, many housing figurines with engorged breasts and exposed genitalia. My companion can’t help but notice how the lovingly placed pubic hairs on the dolls are carefully covered up with swatches of masking tape. It’s to “preserve public morals,” I explain. For his part, Morikawa calls Akiba “an externalization of an otaku’s bedroom” — and in places like these you really understand what he means.
In short, by directing your gaze at the salacious detail of Akiba, the audio tour is not exactly something all the family can enjoy together. Hodges counters that there’s much of the same erotically charged stuff on show in every convenience store in Japan. “If we put an adults-only sticker on the tour, you might as well put a similar label on every plane ticket to Japan.”
Open-minded parents will, however, be pleased to note that the audio tour is not solely fixated with titillation and the outre byways of Akiba. There’s some educational value, too, as the history of the area is succinctly covered right up to recent events such as a stabbing rampage in 2008 when a man ran amok killing four people and injuring eight others. That tragic incident led to the suspension of the 35-year tradition of Akiba’s main street being closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays. You’ll also be alerted to the place where the cult group Aum Shinrikyo once owned a shop selling computer parts. A shiny new black tower block now stands on the site, indicative of the move Akiba is attempting to make toward respectability.
Going further back, you’ll learn that decades before it morphed into an otaku nirvana, Radio Kaikan was one of the buildings from which Akihabara built its reputation as Electric Town. It was there, in the 1960s, that all of Japan flocked to buy televisions and white goods — sacred treasures at a time when Japan was beginning to rise from the ruins of war.
Before that, radio technology had been all the rage, and some antiques from that era can be still be bought in the cable-strewn stalls of the radio market crammed beneath the JR railway tracks. If you know what you’re doing in this electronic Aladdin’s Cave, you can apparently buy all the components needed to build a computer for around ¥10,000.
The tour finishes up at the Gachapon Kaikan, above which is to be found the area’s very first maid cafe. “We deliberately constructed the tour to finish there so that participants could take away a cheap souvenir as a memento of the tour experience,” said Hodges.
My tour companion, who had already picked up a fetching pair of JR Yamanote Line-design socks from a cheapie Don Quixote store en route, was more than happy to try his luck at securing the miniature figurine of his dreams from the ranks of gachapon machines.
I was a little disappointed that the cake-in-a-can vending machines the commentary promised had apparently moved on, but was otherwise highly satisfied with this polished new product.
Cocooned from Akiba’s constant onslaught of noise by the tour’s creative and curiously soothing mix of music, narration and sound effects is the perfect way to drift through this famously electro-geeky area. Now, having since taken the excellent Kabukicho tour, I’m looking forward to the third in the series — the youth-fashion mecca of Harajuku.
Simon Richmond is the author of “The Rough Guide to Japan,” “The Rough Guide to Tokyo” and “The Rough Guide to Anime,” among other titles.
“Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara” is available from www.tokyorealtime.com and selected bookstores, and in Akihabara at Yodobashi Camera. The full package, with CD, map and photobook is priced at ¥1,890 — MP3 downloads are available through the Web site, at ¥1,260. Also available is “Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho,” a recent finalist in the prestigious Audie Awards.