It was a very cold day when we visited Akihabara.
Akihabara (秋葉原) is also known as Akihabara Electric Town (Akihabara Denki Gai) and it is located less than five minutes by rail from Tokyo Station (which in turn is about 60 minutes from Hon-Atsugi by rail).
Akihabara is probably the largest shopping area on Earth for electronic and computer goods, including new and used items. The newest items are mostly to be found on the main street with used items of all descriptions (software, hardware, and junk galore) to be found in the back streets and alleys.
Parts for the do-it-yourself PC builder are available everywhere. Tools, electrical parts, wires, micro-sized cameras and more are to be found in the cramped (some might say dangerously so) passageways of Soto Kanda (near the station).
After venturing through the 3rd passage I became extremely nervous. The passages are incredibly narrow and in some places, it’s not even possible to stand up straight(!). We decided to move on before either getting stuck or sideswiping the entire content of a display shelf.
Most of the foreign tourists tend to visit the big name shops like Laox or other speciality shops near the station. The locals, of course, know where to find better variety and prices a little further away. Going into the bigger shops is like walking into a meeting place for foreigners! Thus far, Akihabara is surely the one place with the largest gathering of foreigners we have encountered as yet. Oddly, there is a different “vibe” noticeable. By now we are quite used to the overcrowded feel of shops and city sidewalks. (On most sidewalks it’s not even possible to walk side-by-side). Yet there always seem to be some or other perception of order. Sheer politeness of the Japanese makes bearable what I would normally consider being insufferable. Somehow this feeling was lost when surrounded by foreigners. By this, I’m not suggesting that only Japanese people are polite and the rest of us are all boorish, ill-mannered bastards. However, it does leave some food for thought.
There are good reasons why all the foreigners only visit the bigger shops. Most of them have a duty-free section to start with. Secondly, this is the only places where you MAY find English speaking staff. And believe me, if you don’t know EXACTLY what you want (down to the precise model number), or are either semi fluent in Japanese, or have a Japanese person accompany you, these will be the only shops that will be of any use to you.
Let me give you an example of the average Japanese salesman’s tactics (in the smaller shops and also some bigger ones):
There you are browsing through some goodies that all look like (say) mp3 players. All you can read is the price. The model may or may not be an international one. The packaging is written in Japanese. The specifications and user guides are written in Japanese. For all, you know the one you pick up is actually a hi-tech potato peeler.
The Japanese salesman stands a couple of meters away, pretending not to see you. If you look over towards him, he will do one of the following:
1. Pretend that he’s busy with someone else.
2.Pretend that there’s something in his eye.
3.Wave his arms and says something like “No English! No can help!”
4. Run away.
Once there was a guy who was standing perhaps two meters from me as I was (rather clearly) confused while looking over some electronic goods. Now, I was never even going to try and talk to him. I've learnt the hard way. Suddenly he started humming loud and annoyingly – I’m certain he was actively trying to get rid of us. As soon as I stepped away from the shelf (mostly because of the annoying humming), he hurried over and rearranged everything I had just touched!
But yes, there are some really nice stuff to be had for reasonable prices if you shop around.
Akihabara really isn’t the ‘showroom of cutting edge of technology” as we were expecting. There was nothing that we hadn’t seen before. The prices was ok, not great. The premium you pay for having to go to the bigger shop for the sake of English speaking staff more than offsets the benefit of shopping there.
99% of all Japanese people (and other people living in Japan I suppose) use similar cellular phones. The market is dominated by flip-type handsets provided virtually for free with the signing of a contract. And these phones are fantastic! Quite compact with large colour displays, camera, SD card slot and more. Sadly they only work on the (unique to the rest of the world) Japanese cellular network. For that reason, it’s also very uncommon to see any “brand name” cellphone handset like we normally do. I.e. Nokia, Ericsson, etc. And definitely no Korean stuff.
But fear not! We did not leave Akihabara without some goodies!
We also discovered a very cool 3-floor shop in Shibuya which (we think) used to be a 5-floor 100 Yen shop originally. All kinds of oddities are to be found there. Lisa was in heaven and I’m still not sure how I got her out of there eventually.
We managed to catch the fullest train we’ve been in so far at Shibuya - in which an Irish guy tried to talk to us in German. The poor chap must be dying for some conversation. I really pity all the people who have to commute like this everyday. The Irishman is teaching English here for 10 months and with 3 months to go, he can hardly wait to get out of Tokyo. The photo of the train (to the right) would suggest that there is no more space. Right? I've got a video to prove otherwise. At least 3 more people squeezed into the closest door. We took the next train. They say you shouldn't wait for the next train hoping it'll be emptier. It never is.