Akihabara — not just a treat for the tourists


Growing up means putting away your toys. At least that’s the accepted view. But in truth, adults don’t forsake toys — we just buy more expensive and interesting ones.

Those seeking to indulge themselves will find a land of opportunity in Akihabara, the Tokyo suburb that is famed as the nation’s No. 1 marketplace for electronic goods.

Tourists love Akihabara — it’s an essential stopping place for most visitors to Tokyo — and Akihabara loves them, as is shown by the plethora of duty-free shops in the area, including major players like LAOX, Nishikawa, Nakaura, Takarada Musen, Akky International and Ishimaru Denki.

These stores dedicate part of their establishments, usually a floor or more, to the international trade. Beyond the obvious advantage of not having to pay sales tax, these havens of temptation usually also offer multilingual staff, with English the main (but not the only) linguistic option.

Apart from the ease of communicating with sales staff, these stores also cater to non-Japanese speakers by providing user manuals for their gadgets in foreign languages and computers with non-Japanese operating systems.

The variety extends beyond languages to a prodigious range of gadgets — everything from wrist watches to giant plasma TV sets, with a spread of souvenirs such as yukata, hanging scrolls and imitation swords thrown in for good measure.

Such a bounty of choice entails risk as well. Savvy shoppers have to try and ensure that what works in Japan will perform equally well back home. In particular such things as voltages and video/DVD formats need to be checked with staffers.

No such problems need bother Japan’s foreign residents. Though foreigners living here aren’t eligible for the tax-exempt prices — aspiring duty-free shoppers must have their passports on hand and need to have been in Japan for less than six months — they can take advantage of Akihabara’s linguistic diversity. Store staff are often able to supply multilingual manuals to customers buying goods for domestic use.

While the major stores cater to just about all consumer cravings of both tourists and locals, they are just a slice of the Akihabara fun. Along just one 600-meter stretch of the main street, Chuo Dori, there are about 500 stores. Many of the area’s establishments are small shops packed floor to ceiling with goods that spill out onto the pavement.

In particular the area around the transport hub of JR Akihabara Station is a veritable rabbit warren of alleys lined with stalls. This is the land of spare parts, for those who aspire to build their own toys — or just to keep existing ones running. One store may be filled almost exclusively with the small colored lights associated in the West with Christmas trees, while its neighbor moves up the technological food chain to display silicon chips.

The variety of merchandise is the essence of Akihabara’s attraction for shoppers. Price-wise, the best deals may not always be found here and haggling for a discount is not as easy as it once was. But this town reigns supreme in terms of convenience and deserves its reputation of having the cutting edge of consumer electronics on show.

A purchasing agent for the LAOX chain said that while Akihabara has changed over the years in terms of what it sells, its basic character as a place where everybody can find just about anything electronic has survived.

“Over the 20 years that I’ve worked in Akihabara, the principal merchandise has changed,” he said. “It used to be audio goods, and then it changed to personal computer goods. Now, animation goods are popular. I think these only attract a few percent of the Japanese population, but these people make this town really interesting. And foreign visitors come here all the time.”

Topping the list of must-buy items these days are digital cameras, he said, with tourists favoring the high-end products. One advantage of this fad for all things digital, he explained, is that analog cameras using film are tumbling in price.

The agent added that tourists’ liking for the best also extends to the digital camera’s close relative, the digital video camcorder.

“Light, compact models with the latest, state-of-the-art technology are the most popular ones with tourists,” he said of the camcorders.

“Small is better” is also the mantra of those shopping for mobile phones. Cell-phone models for use overseas that are half the size of their domestic brethren are selling especially well, he said.

But the newest and best aren’t the only popular items on offer. Just as history moves in cycles, Akihabara is returning to its roots. The area first gained prominence during the war years as an electronics haven that did a roaring, black-market trade in recycled radio parts. Today, a growing trend in Akihabara is the sale of secondhand computers. Selections of such pre-loved machines are cropping up all over, including in the bigger stores. Laptop computers from a few years back can be found sporting price tags of just 5,000 yen or so.

Also melding retro with high-tech in Akihabara is the Smoker’s Style net cafe on Chuo Dori that, as the name suggests, is a haven for tobacco lovers. As Chiyoda Ward forbids smoking in public these days, the cafe is sought out by those wanting to indulge two addictions at once.

Those who shun tobacco have a slew of other net cafes to pick from. But arguably the most popular eating establishment in the area shuns the otherwise ubiquitous computer. All is distinctly low-tech at the Jangura Ramen cafe near Chuo Dori, which gives proof of the popularity of its low prices and tasty fare by the the length of its lunchtime lines.

Visitors looking for a different kind of diversion can check out the Transportation Museum next to the Chuo Line train tracks. Charging just 310 yen for adult admission, both train enthusiasts and the merely curious can indulge themselves.

The museum’s location in Akihabara is apt. Trains were once the acme of every boy’s toy fantasies, but the shelves of Akihabara’s “Electric Town,” piled high with electronic goodies, show how far we’ve come.