My dream of travelling to Japan has two sides to it. Of course the nation’s fascinating history, beautiful architecture and gorgeous natural beauty interests me. To walk in the footsteps of samurai and ninja, climb Mt Fuji and bathe in the spray of waterfalls will no doubt be amazing.
On the other hand, I am a textbook geek. I grew up obsessed with Pokemon and Digimon, mesmerised by Godzilla, Gamera and the Power Rangers, enjoying a wide range of Anime. For as long as I can remember, Nintendo and their games and characters have been a key part of my identity.
It is therefore no coincidence that I’ve started my Japan journey here in the Akihabara district of Tokyo. Legendary in so-called Otaku culture, Akihabara’s Electric City was once considered the consumer electronics capital of the world and has long been a mecca for enthusiasts of films, comics and videogames.
The short walk from my hostel, via a train station, to the Electric City itself was like transporting between worlds. I was already in the beautiful and unique Tokyo, with its mix of traditional and ultra-modern, but then I was bombarded with enormous, shiny buildings, bright lights and colours, adverts on billboards, enormous screens and miles of signage.
All at once I was hit with anime characters, videogame companies, J-pop music, food and drink and voices. It was like comic-con but the size of a town, and all year round. Just walking around the streets for hours was remarkable, never mind entering anywhere.
Several of the buildings were shops selling figurines, models and all the most high-class memorabilia, floor-to-ceiling. These could go as high as ten storeys, every floor containing more cool robots and action figures than I’d seen in my life up to that point.
The temptation to blow all my savings right here and now was ridiculous. The things that I’ve always loved, Transformers and Godzilla and Digimon, felt like niche interests for most of my life. Back in the UK a model of a kaiju or obscure videogame character was a rare thing, and the collection I’ve built up took a long time and a lot of luck. I might get to see a decent array of Transformers or retro bits and bobs once a year, at conventions.
Here, every character I like from every sci-fi or fantasy property was represented in a dozen different high-quality products. Obscure transformers toys I’d read about on internet forums in 2007 were piled up on the shelves. It was mesmerising, almost overwhelming.
I spent much of a day just walking around and taking things in, enjoying these shops like a museum exhibit of Gundam mechs and scantily clad manga ladies. In every display was some little curio or surprise to keep me interested.
I felt vindicated to see a number of huge displays of Splatoon and Monster Hunter merchandise. In my years of championing these slightly obscure game series, I’d fallen in love with the myth that they are given their due attention here in Japan. I was glad to see some evidence that they really are that big over here.
Beyond the shops were the arcades. Buildings just as big as the vast emporiums, here was the original gaming space, almost extinct in the West. Most of the buildings had given over their lowest couple of floors to UFO catchers, what we might call Crane Machines in the UK, just as the arcades in the West have had to do.
Climb further up, however, and the arcade gaming scene is alive and well. Players gather around Street Fighter cabinets to throw down, tiny children play dancing and music games with speeds that look superhuman to my eyes. I even saw a number of Mario Kart machines, which I earmarked for a return visit.
I did notice a prevalence of games which seemed weird to me, closer to PC MOBAs or tabletop card games than the console and arcade games I’d expected. On the top floors, though, I’d often find the really amazing stuff: room-scale VR experiences, or big sit-in mech driving games with full size immersive cockpits.
Just observing the arcade scene of Akihabara was an experience, and I’m looking forward to properly returning next weekend and trying my had at getting stuck in and playing some of the machines that most capture my interest.
Mainstream opinion seems to be that Akihabara is in decline. I will admit that I didn’t see a great deal of the most modern, high-tech gear. It doesn’t feel like the nexus of forward-thinking culture any more as much as a love letter to geekdom past. The repeating similar anime and game merchandise may speak to a recursive culture, but the City is still alive with Electricity.
And I hadn’t even found Super Potato yet . . .