Area: Akihabara

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2000

by Daniel Scuka

akihabaraYou'll know you've found Akihabara, Tokyo's famed Electric Town and one of the most animated places in the universe to shop, when you see the lights and the people. The lights, like the myriad electronic products on offer, range from cool to gaudy, while the people, who seem incapable of standing still for very long, range from lightweight electro-nerd to hardcore technophile. The overall effect is equal parts exhilaration, delight, and exhaustion.

Akihabara is Tokyo's electronics Mecca, a dense retail zone where Japan's big-name consumer electronic and computer makers compete to be the first to market with the season's latest products. And compete they do, with some product lifecycles reduced to just a couple of months, making Aki a churning, self-renewing bargain hunter's destination.

The lore and legends associated with Akihabara seem to grow with each visit, reflecting the area's long history as a Samurai training ground. In 1869, a devastating fire broke out, leveling the (even then) densely packed dwellings, and leading to the area being left open as a firebreak. Later, a shrine was built to house the God of fire protection, named Akiba-dai-gongen, and the district gained its modern name of Akihabara (phonetically equivalent in Japanese to Akibahara).

Post-1945, Akihabara became famous as an electronics wholesale district, and if most of the goods on offer were surplus items discarded (or otherwise appropriated) from the American occupation forces, no one seemed to mind too much. Aki is still home today to a thriving trade in pirated software and boxes of computer parts that have "fallen off the truck," although such transactions occur discretely, off the main thoroughfares and away from public scrutiny.

Sigi RindlerAnd don't forget the tiny one-person electric part shops packed commuter-train-tight into the back alleys and side streets, taking their inspiration from that other quintessentially tiny Japanese commercial concept, the capsule hotel. For ehobbyists and computer otaku of all stripes, these bulk component jobbers are a treasure trove of microchips and capacitors, transistors and toggle relays, and connectors, cables, and coils -- all available new, used, or in-between. One such otaku is 53-year-old Sigi Rindler (right), known as "Mr. Akihabara" at the Tokyo PC User Group. "Watch out for the roll-up carpet warranties," he warns. Sigi's been coming to Aki for 20 years, and he's learned to differentiate the shops that will honor their warranty and refund promises from those that won't by looking at the shop flooring. "If it's the cheap kind, they're fly by night, and will be long gone by the time you try to get a refund on a defective hard drive," he says.

blue blockOne of the newest Aki shops is Tukumo's Robokan, dedicated entirely to building your own robotic devices from kit or from scratch -- and we don't mean cheap, remote control doggies that simply jump and bark. Robokan focuses on sophisticated microprocessor-driven robots, and the level of electromechanical integration is truly awesome. The blue block (left) is part of a robotic insect whose shell is to be lathed from hard plastic, and the animated artificial jellyfish below is completely autonomous so long as its tiny solar power panels receive, like a real chrysaora quinquecirrha, sufficient light. It glides through a large fish tank in the center of the shop in a startlingly realistic fashion, and although there's no word on what it thinks, we hope it's programmed to avoid any predatory robotic sharks.

jellyfishSpeaking of fashion, Aki street corners are replete with mini-skirted dolls (most merely cardboard, but often in the flesh) hawking the latest gadget or PC for the (largely) male audience of passersby. We guess it won't be long before some bright light from Robokan figures out how to automate them, too.

Aki is the sales and marketing home of many of Japan's best known post-war electronic brand names, including Casio, I-O Data, Toei Electronics, and, of course, Sony. Back then, these names were unknown, and the firms' founders were driven by hypercompetitiveness to sell the most products and win bragging rights to the largest market share. The competition was quite serious: the success or failure of more than a few now-global manufacturers was determined at least in part by their Akihabara sales results. The tradition continues today with New Economy companies, like the mobile network operators NTT DoCoMo, J-Phone, and KDDI, whose independent vendors vie to make the most sales. Only this time, the products aren't tinny 1975 AM radios with earplugs -- they're the most urbane urban communicators ever devised.

As the digital economy has grown, Aki has changed, acknowledging that sales of content and software can be far more lucrative than flogging hardware boxes. Manga, anime, videodiscs, and game software are the new million-sellers, and the sight of gamers camped out in front of their favorite Aki geimu-sofuto shop the night before a major title release is now common.

And when you're tired out after a tough days' shopping, and that initial exhilaration has turned (as predicted) into exhaustion, you'll appreciate having bought your return ticket upon your arrival that morning. Evening lineups at JR Akihabara station ticket machines can often run 20 deep, and you'll curse Aki something fierce if you didn't plan ahead.

But don't sweat it! Both you and the Akihabara merchants can be certain of one thing: you'll be back.

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