Our Man in Japan: Your Quick Guide to Akihabara, the Geekiest Locale in the World

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Tokyo’s Akihabara district is a never-ending electronics-geek carnival, drawing in tech enthusiasts to check out stores brimming with both vintage and cutting-edge electronics. All manner of otaku come to purchase anime, manga, and other items to feed their nerd obsessions, and hordes of tourists come to raze duty-free shops and gawk at cosplayers.

But Akihabara—the geek-culture center of Japan, if not the world—hasn’t always been such a tourist draw, nor an otaku enclave. Since its origin as a black market for radio parts in postwar Japan to its current incarnation, the shopping district has always reinvented itself. Most recently, a push to sanitize the area has done much to change the feel of the neighborhood, leaving many to wonder if corporate interests and a freewheeling vibe can coexist.

After its start as a market for hot tech schwag, Akiba, as it’s commonly known, shifted to become a retail center for home appliances and electronics, and then later manga and anime. But as the district became more of a tourist draw, the government worked to clean up the area, and, from 2005 onward, various large-scale projects—including a new train line and numerous office towers—have changed both the landscape and feel of the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, an offbeat spirit remained, particularly on Sundays, when the district’s main road, Chuo-dori, was closed to form a pedestrian mall, creating a street-fair atmosphere. Cosplayers showed off elaborate costumes and impromptu dance performances took place on the street. Sadly, the fun ended in June 2008, when a man drove a truck into the crowd, killing three people, and then fatally stabbed four more. The government responded by ending the Sunday street closure, but despite these changes, Akiba retains its allure. While some old-timers say it’s not what it used to be, the point is moot because Akiba has never stayed the same for long.

Should you be lucky enough to visit Tokyo, a pilgrimage to Akiba is a must. Here are four spots I emphatically recommend you see.

Radio Center: Just steps from the train station, Radio Center is a two-story warren of tiny shops, each with a narrow focus—transistors, capacitors, connectors, LEDs, and power supplies to name a few. While big-box stores dominate the skyline, they can’t compete with the niche, razor-sharp focus of the Radio Center shops.

Radio Kaikan: Dedicated to obsessive collectors and hobbyists, Radio Kaikan features seven floors of character figures, model trains and aircraft, and other goods. Kotobukiya, on the first and second floors, stocks a mind-bending array of anime figures, as well as tchotchkes more familiar to Western audiences. If you need an R2D2 water bottle or a 1/6-scale Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds , go here.

Vstone Robot Center: Not surprisingly, there’s more than one place to buy robot parts in Akiba, but Vstone, which focuses on kits rather than individual parts, stands out for friendly, helpful service.

Maid Cafes and Linux Café: If you’ve ever wanted to play cards with a woman in a French maid outfit while eating a rice omelet, Akiba was made for you. In fact, it’s difficult to walk 10 feet without passing a costumed woman inviting you to lunch. And if maids aren’t your thing, your go-to lunch spot should be the Linux Cafe, a five-story building that offers free Wi-Fi, a lounge, and lecture space.

So that’s my Akiba primer. What else do you want to know about technology in Japan? Send your requests to Tom@MaximumTech.com.

Tom Edwards is an honored member of the Maximum family. He served as managing editor of Maximum PC from 2007 to 2009, and currently lives in Tokyo.

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