Those who have been away for awhile and return home often find that the towns and cities they left behind have transformed. My husband first experienced the shock of this about 10 years after he had lived in Japan and went home. His hometown had been noticeably transformed such that it didn’t feel like home to him. I haven’t been home for a very long time though the last time I went, my home had been plowed down and my family had moved.
If you stay in one place long enough, you find that it undergoes similar transformations but you don't tend to notice it happening if it is making that transition bit by bit. However, in Tokyo, you can still see some pretty stunning transformations because it is so vast that you may find that you don’t get back to an area for quite some time in some circumstances. Such has been the case with me and Akihabara.
Ads for various bits of electronic equipment paper the platform when they aren't edged out by ads for otaku-related interests.
When we first arrived, Akihabara was a bustling hub of businesses selling electronics at prices that were lower than the local shops. Most of the time there was little variation in pricing for most major items but, occasionally, you’d find something which was a cut below the others. My husband and I made frequent trips to Akihabara between 16 and 12 years ago when we were both working, bringing in plenty of cash, and in a frame of mind to build up our lifestyle. That period of time also was when the tech boom was going on and new computer equipment every few years to keep up with the leaps in speed and capability made a lot of sense.
Our earliest forays to Akihabara were spent prowling the major stores looking for the best prices on large appliances for our apartment. There was no shortage of rather old-fashioned buildings which had a plethora of options and we picked up a big refrigerator, washing machine (and a now long departed dryer), oven, stereo, and television. Most of the shops were fronted by middle-aged men shouting out and offering flyers about certain deals.
Macs and Apple products are a lot easier to buy in Japan now compared to a decade ago. Prices are also relatively similar to those in the U.S. though they do tend to be slightly higher in Japan.
The next several rounds of shopping there consisted of me prowling the side streets for stores that carried Macs. At that time, Macs were hard to locate even in Akihabara because they simply were not all that popular in Japan. They still aren’t all that commonly-used but the popularity of iPods has brought about an increase in shops that also carry other Apple products including Macs. We’d have to scour the shops petty hard and sometimes we’d run across one sad little Mac model in a sea of PCs. There’s be the odd glittering jewel of a shop which carried a variety of models like La-Ox Mac but they were the exception.
In my case, the shopping was all the harder because I’d be searching for an English language model. In the pre-OS X days, Macs did not come with system software with every language available. With OS 8 and 9, you got what came with the machine and that was usually Japanese. You could replace the OS with an English one but that required buying an English version which added to the cost overall. The last Mac model I made the trek to Akihabara for was a PowerPC G3/DT 266. After that, I gave up and started buying my Macs from the U.S. and having them sent over via my in-laws.
The inside of a typical small electronics shop. These places are a pain to navigate but can be good places to get the best prices, particularly on specialty items such as electronic dictionaries.
The internet started to change the way in which folks made pilgrimages to Akihabara. With the ability to comparison shop via web sites and make orders effortlessly, who would choose to slog around the grubby streets of “Tokyo’s electric town”? The truth is that, up until changes started to be made in Akihabara, it wasn’t that fun a place to visit. Back during one of our appliance-hunting sojourns, I recall we had trouble even finding a vending machine that carried a palatable beverage. They didn’t carry water or Diet Coke and there were very few of them. There were also almost no restaurants within reasonable walking distance of the station and shops. It simply was not profitable enough compared to the value of the land to build a McDonald’s or whatnot for people to eat at, particularly when the space could be used for a more lucrative electronics business.
Ishimaru was one of the few big shops that had a relatively old-fashioned picture in its window. Most of the other shops had huge female anime characters on them.
Rather than shrivel up and die, the services offered at Akihabara started to change. Since there were already a good number of geeks making pilgrimages there to shop for DIY (Do It Yourself) computer parts and software, businesses that catered to their lack of social skills and fantasy-based social needs started to crop up. In my opinion, the birth of the cosplaying maid-manned places can be directly linked to the need to offer something more than low-priced electronics because of internet shopping.
Pervy toys for like-minded boys. Note all the submissive and inviting poses...like these women are female dogs presenting themselves for entry.
For those who don’t know, Akihabara is currently as well-known (or possibly better-known) for the way it caters to otaku (rabid aficionados of anime or other generally juvenile interests or collectors). It’s now quite common to see women walking around in maid costumes handing out flyers, traveling to and from the station and going to lunch. In fact, it seems that there are more women in costume sometimes than there are shopping, at least on the older side of the station.
Maids walking through the station. I get the feeling one shouldn't mess with the one who has a skull hanging off her skirt though it's possible she's involved in some sort of "highly specialized" service.
The point of these places seems mainly to allow men to be catered to and served by women who roleplay not only their anime-based fantasy characters but do so in a completely deferential and subservient fashion. The whole situation has relatively perverted overtones but it is mainly about psychological gratification rather than physical though women do give foot rubs and whatnot. The perception is that men go to these places because they are too shy or lacking in social skills to socialize with women in real life but I don’t know if it’s that or if it’s essentially paying women to cater to their non-sexual whims.
Beyond the somewhat kinky addition of the cosplay service business, Akihabara has experienced some other big changes. Remember when I mentioned that there were few places to eat or drink before? That has most certainly changed. The station has been re-built and there are a great many places that seem to be catering to women and families. I believe the growth of shops selling sweets and cakes is for female customers because Japanese men are not known for their consumption of sugary treats. For men, the main vice when it comes to eating and drinking is alcohol. For women, it is sweets.
An import food shop which carried the selection of Spam in a previous post.
I was shocked that so many European-style bakery options had opened up and that there was even an import shop in the station. I hadn’t seen Akihabara for quite some time though so these places may have opened up a long time ago. It could be that these areas are there to cater to the number for foreigners who flow in for a bit of shopping but I doubt that.
If the number of foreigners walking around shopping isn’t a clue that it’s a major tourist destination, the presence of a currency exchange kiosk in the station (something which is relatively rare in most stations in Tokyo) would be a major tip-off. Akihabara has always been a popular tourist spot but I’m guessing it’s more so now that there’s the freak show nature of the maid cafes in addition to the overwhelming number of electronics shops.
Back when we were frequenting Akihabara, one side of the station was pretty dead and both sides were pretty dirty and rundown. One side still does look pretty worn and crummy as you can see in the picture above. There were few shops of value on one side and that side was not doing much business.
That all changed when a huge Yodobashi Akiba shop was opened. This is sort of a mega-store where you can find everything in one place if you’re not inclined to search up and down the many streets on the other side looking for the best possible deal.
Akiba is the sort of place that’s built for comfort rather than for price. The area in front is open, clean and clear. There are restaurants in the building so you can have a sit down, a drink, or a meal. The whole Akiba experience seems to me to draw in families. In fact, my conclusion about the changes in Akihabara is that some business savvy people have learned how to lure in every demographic with some savvy changes. The young males are drawn in by the maids and cosplaying businesses. Women and families are drawn to Akiba and the increased number of shops which carry food and non-electronic items and men seeking bargains can go to the older shops.