Welcome to Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town, with the craziest gadget stores you'll ever see
Once a mecca of cheap electronics and gadget goodness, Akihabara has become something different, but no less incredible, and is still home to perhaps the largest electronics store in the world.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Tokyo is a wonderfully frenetic city of lights, high rises and concentrated insanity. It's equal parts "Blade Runner," "The Fifth Element," "Ghost in the Shell" and, well, just about every other sci-fi movie you can think of.
For years, Tokyo's Akihabara district was the place to score cheap electronics. As the Internet became a thing and manufacturing largely moved out of Japan, Akihabara became just another place to snag gadgets, albeit one with a lot of cool stores.
Then the situation changed again, with the arrival of Yodobashi Camera. The Japanese chain is legendary for its stunningly massive stores and low prices. Think of it as a sort of Walmart on steroids that focuses on electronics. Stack eight Best Buys on top of each other, and you're only starting to get close.
For any gadget fan, the area is amazing. Here's what it's like.
Take a tour of Tokyo's crazy Akihabara Electric Town and massive Yodobashi Camera (pictures)
Day or night, the Akihabara Denki Gai (which translates to Akihabara Electric Town) has a vibrant energy (though, in fairness, so does most of Tokyo). Just a short walk from the subway station, the main street is lined with tall buildings covered in colorful ads depicting sales and anime characters. There are names you'll recognize, like Sega, and many you definitely won't.
These stores are only part of the area's electric charm. Take a turn onto one of the side streets, and smaller stores hawk far more specialized wares. Better still, enter one of the side buildings. Alleyways transition invisibly to corridors. Tiny shops focus on one microscopic niche of the electronics world. Need a new switch for your old VCR? How about a single LED for a DIY project? Fuses, cables, random parts you've never seen before? You can probably find one here.
The narrow alleys and corridors remind me of a modern-day Japanese Kowloon Walled City, with turn after turn, stairway after stairway, and just endless stalls and stores.
Akihabara isn't what it once was. It earned its legendary status as a home for electronics. But as those became commodities available anywhere thanks to the Web, the focus of Akihabara started to change. Soon there were more and more stores selling DVDs and manga. As those grew in popularity, other stores shifted their focus to cater to these new types of customers: otaku.
Otaku roughly translates to "fanboy" or "fangirl." While it generally refers to those passionate about manga or anime, it's really anyone with an intense interest in a certain topic.
More than just selling the content, stores popped up to speak to the otaku themselves. There's the Gundam Cafe, for example.
Go to Akihabara in the evening, and an even more obvious example of a quirk of the otaku culture will appear. Every few stores will have a young woman outside, dressed as a maid or an anime character, handing out fliers for drink specials. Maid cafes are essentially hostess bars, a sort of Hooters without the revealing clothing...and with cosplay instead.
The transition away from pure electronics stores was probably not hurt by Yodobashi Camera. The eight-story colossus is probably the largest electronics store in the world. Walking in is an assault on multiple senses.
First, it's incredibly bright. The Japanese tend to over-light retail stores, but Yodobashi does this to a whole different level. Searing fluorescents annihilate all shadows in a greenish-blue scorch that messes with your brain. (Seriously. Walk outside after being under these lights for a while, and the sun seems sunset red at any hour.) Impossibly shiny linoleum floors plus glass and chrome display cases all conspire to make you squint. Sunglasses would not feel out of place.
Then there's the noise. On top of the usual background din of any electronics store, there's the Yodobashi Camera theme song to add to the cacophony. Behold its greatness:
Push past this, and you'll get swallowed up by, quite simply, the most amazing collection of electronics you'll ever see. Want some headphones? Try on a few hundred. Want a TV? Seemingly every one on the market is here on display. Speakers? There are three rooms for that. Vacuums? A floor (I think). If it plugs in or takes batteries, it's here, and there are probably a few hundred options to choose from.
By the time you reach the top, going floor by floor gawking at the awesomeness, you'll probably be hungry. No worries, there are a bunch of restaurants on the top floor.
Akihabara is one of the best areas to see Tokyo do what it does best: condense a whole lot of something into a small space, and add a dash of madness.
It's amazing and fantastic and totally worth seeing. If you can make it, check out Japan-Guide's take on it. If you can't, check out the photo tour above.