Sprite Nation – A Gamer’s Guide to Akihabara (and more…)

This year we had the tough task of sending one of the team to check out Tokyo; gaming’s ground-zero.              Sprite Nation’s Tom Middler drew the short straw, and last month, we shipped him off to Japan to report back on the state of gaming affairs over there. Amongst all the maid cafes and Geishas in Akihabara, he found time to send back this missive…

Sensory overload is hard to avoid anywhere in Tokyo. The lights, the colours, the sounds, the everything!

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have read a fair bit about Akihabara and the gaming scene in Tokyo before even making the pilgrimage to this legendary site. From the new pretender of Nakano Broadway to the rising prices of the famous old shops, is it even worth visiting at all these days? Well luckily I have done the legwork for you, and I can share the findings with some kind of gamer’s walking-tour of Tokyo!

First off, it’s worth pointing out that we all have different expectations and aims when we’re searching for a shop which we would call a genuine treasure trove, so it’s only fair to point out that this writer was in the mood for a healthy dose of rare and retro console gaming and merch, with a slant towards the Nintendo side of things. For those in the hunt for trinkets, toys and figures, the twisty old mall at Nakano Broadway with its numerous Mandarake departments is an absolute must-see, and could cost you a few merry hours. Strictly on the gaming side though, I was slightly underwhelmed, and didn’t come away with any bargains. Luckily, a 20-minute hop along the yellow Chūō/Sōbu Line will see you arrive at Akihabara station with ease (note that the wonderful Studio Ghibli Museum at Mitaka is also found along this local train line).

Akihabara, or Akiba for short. Still worth seeing?

In contrast to the quiet, and in truth, dingy mall at Nakano, Akihabara is a town of open streets, lanes of busy traffic and skyscrapers: quintessential Tokyo, all things considered, but the side roads are where the real gems are tucked away. The whole area is not quite as overwhelming as I expected, and there are really only a handful of shops that you won’t want to miss, all neatly perched within a stretch of roughly 1 km, and therefore easy to traverse. Don’t be fooled by the scale of some maps, you can see all this easily in one visit, your wallet may decide how long you can stay…

Akihabara station starts you off at the southern end of the stretch, and around here you’ll find Yodabashi Camera. Well stocked and pristine, but no retro rarities here, although it’s early opening time may make it worth a go, as many of the other shops don’t part their doors until 11 am or later. Nearby is the first Book-Off store on your route. A place with many floors and lots of old stock to root through, they’re well aware of the value of their items, and as such you may well find what you want, but it won’t be cheap. The famed Final Fantasy cafe is also in the area here, but you will need a reservation in advance, and it’s actually a Final Fantasy XIV cafe, which ruled me out at least, having never played that particular installment.

No trip to Electric Town should be complete without a quick stop at the nearby Kanda Myojin.

Crossing over and sticking to the area left of the main street (Chūō Dori) is perhaps wise for retro gamers, as the main drag gets crowded quickly, and is filled with arcades, girls shouting at you with megaphones (which apparently attract hundreds of young Japanese men to gather) and even the more famous shops here such as Trader and Sof-Map / Bic-Map are mostly overpriced, dealing in the newer end of the gaming market or focused on other consumer electrical items.

Heading left, though, will reward you with Akiba’s own stunning Kanda Myojin. Do yourself a favour, head up the steps and collect a stamp from the shrine, with its own nice little nod to the gamers’ paradise in which it sits. When you come back down, you will find Super Potato. It may be famous, but it’s bright, beautiful and a pleasure to shop in. Friendly staff, retro goodies everywhere and not unreasonable prices mean this place lives up to its reputation as the home of game shopping. Head upstairs for a cool, cozy arcade and snack bar, plus some of the best Gachapon machines in Japan. I picked up a handful of beautiful old strategy guides at tiny prices, so my artwork fix was fulfilled for next to nothing.

That’s Super Potato second on the left there. What are you waiting for? Go!

Two other stores of particular note are just a stone’s throw away from here. Mandarake Complex is seven floors of geek heaven, with every cabinet filled with interesting goodies, and prices which wildly vary, leaving definite room for bargains to be had. An old set of Nintendo Hanafuda cards was my best find, but the selection of rare games on the upper floors also cost me a chunk of both time and money. You’ll wish you brought an empty suitcase to come home with after seeing this place. Only one other stop on my trip beat Mandarake for pricing and range, and that was the oft overlooked Surugaya Specialty Retro Game Store. They stocked some ultra-rare games which I didn’t see anywhere else in Japan, and although they weren’t bargains as such, they set me back around 1/3 of the price you’d need to pay to import them, so I left satisfied, after several visits.

Moving north, the Friends Game Shop is the final stop on the tour. With its slightly tucked away location, it’s more akin to a quiet gaming library than the other Akiba shops, with no bright colours or flashy lights, but another vast selection of goods fit for its bookstore feel. Two floors of mom ‘n’ pop goodness, it’s a worth last call.

The town changes after dark, but the lights only get brighter.

Speaking of last call, why not check out Game Bar A-Button while you’re there. It’s certainly nothing fancy, but it’s full of industry curios and has a surprisingly good selection of tasty drinks to boot. The welcoming owner added to the charm of the place, too, eager to show off his F.C. Tokyo shirts and test out his English. If that’s not your thing (if you’re reading this it probably should be), then you may be in luck, as eyebrow-raising maid cafes are ubiquitous in this town. Once you battle your way past the disconcerting schoolgirl massage parlours and the odd-but-awesome vending machines you’ll be invited into plenty of these places, and although you won’t see any girls in there as customers the atmosphere is more, well, sad, strange, and yet somehow charming than it is seedy or sinister. You’re paying female bar staff to sing songs at you while dressed in anime costumes, surrounded by single (surely) Japanese men taking Polaroid fan-photos, what’s not to love? Wait, don’t answer that. All I’ll say is try it once for the surreal Disney-esque experience.

Looking Further Afield than Akihabara

After a day of checking everything out, I can happily report that Akihabara is still very much alive, and yes, well worth visiting. It’s worth noting that there are quite a few other shops which I didn’t include, as I’ve touched on what I believe were the best places to rummage. Of course other places will cater for other tastes, and there are huge numbers of anime, book, electrical junk and PC gaming stores which you can’t miss if you’re strolling around, and stopping off at an arcade for a go at the irresistible Taiko Drum Master may well be a good investment of time, too.

If you have more than just a fleeting few days in Japan, then Akamon in Nagoya also contained a few fantastic retro game stores with cheaper prices than Tokyo. I didn’t spend much there as I assumed, wrongly, that Tokyo would have a much better selection of goods, but in truth Akamon is a neat little street in a lovely city which may well be on your route anyway, and if you don’t have the time or energy for Akihabara then an hour spent on Akamon Dori may be all you need, and you’ll probably still find what you want. Stop off at Smash Head for an amazing burger afterwards, too, you won’t regret it. Elsewhere, Book-Off and (the wonderfully named) Hard-Off stores around Japan also offered unpredictable selections of goodies at low prices, and are highly recommended.

Overall, I’d say if you see something you really want at a fair price in Japan, then just go for it. Common games (Note: not always the same as common or rare EU/US games) are dirt cheap, but rare games are still rare and the prices are not bargain basement as they perhaps used to be. It’s the range and selection of games where Japan really comes into its own. Virtually anything for Sega, Sony and Nintendo consoles is available, so write a list of a few favourites and you’ll likely sniff out some stunning Japanese copies to add to your collection at prices way below import costs. Most of all, it’s fun to look around these shops which, to a European eye, are more like museums and libraries, so go and enjoy yourself!

If you want to know any rough prices or the availability of certain things before you travel, just shoot me a comment below and I’ll do my best to get back to you.

 

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