Diving into the anime/game culture in Tokyo
Around the end of our trip to Tokyo, we still had a few neighborhoods to visit like for example the infamous Akihabara: the geek area as I would call it. Akiba is the epi-center of the anime/manga/video game culture in Tokyo and everything you'll see revolves around it.
We took an early metro from Tocho-Mae Station to Akihabara station (Oedo line) and arrived within 35 minutes. It seems like a long ride but it went very quickly, there is so much to observe in the metro! Everything is different from Belgium :) When we exited the station I found a shop called Chabara which you must visit if you pass by Akiba Station!
Chabara is a cool food store next to Akihabara station, a lot of bloggers talk about it and for a good reason: it has a large selection of Japanese specialties and a lunch corner. I found so many good condiments and sweets, things that I have not found anywhere else. Additionally the food prepared onsite is just delicious! It was the first stop of the day and a great find!
Next we started to head towards the "towers". In Akihabara, you'll see mainly tall buildings home to game centers and entire floors dedicated to the manga/anime culture. I was really curious to visit these towers and to dive back into a world that used to fascinate me. There was indeed a time when I loved mangas and animes, the very reason why I started to learn Japanese, so finding myself in Akiba felt exciting!
The first tower that we visited was 7 storage high and each floor had slot machines and Gachapon (vending machine dispensing capsule toys). I was so surprised to see people spending hours and thousands of yen playing these machines for just a stuffed toy or less^^' The more we walked, the more Gachapon and slot machines we found...It's a central element of the Japanese culture I guess.
We then found the main street (Akibatashiro Street), where the real visit started! We stumbled on a first game center that scared me, really...The noise, the atmosphere and the set-up bothered me a lot. Machines lining up with people absorbed by their screens, smoking, eating fatfood and not aware of anything happening around them. It felt like an episode from a creepy movie where people are brainwashed... We checked lower and higher floors and it was the exact same scene over and over...So scary...I was happy when I stepped outside and could hear myself talk again, see daylight and smell fresh air... What a nightmare, I really don't get how so many people can spend hours in there, absorbed by a game...
At that moment, I wasn't sure about entering an other tower ^^' But when I saw anime figures on display, it felt safer to wander in. I say safer but still I wasn't too comfortable when I saw what was inside of some of the stores. Usually an "anime tower" is about 7 storage high with the top floors dedicated to sex... And some of the guys in there looked either quite young or quite weird/borderline shady. I guess it takes a certain type of person to be into anime characters sex toys/dolls... ^^' And trust me Japan manufactures a bunch of weird items...Some I had never though of or knew existed. It felt also strange to see people so absorbed into their anime/games/books, the overall attitude didn't feel too healthy, more like an obsession...
While visiting another tower, we ended up at a Maid Café (cosplay restaurants). Since we were planning anyway to make a stop somewhere we thought "why not here?". It would be an experience and in a way, a real dive into the geek culture. In case you are not familiar with the term 'Maid Café', it's actually a little café/restaurant where waitresses are dressed as anime characters or maids and treat customers like masters. In a Maid Café everything is supposed to be cute and "moe~~" so expect a lot of childish games and sentences ending in "-nya~~".
The fee for just sitting in that maid café was 500 Yen per person and when we sat we received some cute head bands with animal ears. We received some instructions about what to do or what to say when signaled: gestures and cute sentences to say in an anime like intonation. Once you are sitting in, the maid will try to entertain you so you stay longer and spend more. In the end, the goal of the maid is to make you spend as much as possible with : food, drinks, games, activities like taking pictures with the maid, getting the maid to sing, etc.
We spent about an hour in the Maid Café, being entertained and sipping on our drinks while chatting (and we totally did the heart thingy above!). After that break, we kept on visiting Akiba and walked into random shops to check what they were selling. We found more and more slot machines, gachapon and anime figures re-sellers. I remember that we were looking for a figure to offer to a teenager and my parents struggled a lot because most designs are sexy > the figures are female with big boobs and they are usually lightly dressed :p
That morning of walking the streets of Akihabara gave me a new perspective on Japan. I still like the Japanese culture but I saw first hand a sort of dark side. Everyone I met was extremely polite, clean, cute and reserved which is not bad but there is also a feeling of deep discomfort among a certain population strata I think. Examples include how people prefer to get affection from maids rather than friends or how people create relationships (even sexual) with anime characters (that depict sometimeskids)...
I felt like a part of the population is really not into the real world, not satisfied with human interactions or even willing to build some. As a result they bury themselves into a fantasy, be it an anime, a manga or a video game...I've seen guys & girls playing a relationship video game and entertaining the idea that the character was nicer than a real person, I've seen a guy buy anime sex toys and rushing out to probably try them.... All of this suggests that a strata of the population doesn't want to face the world and interact, it's indeed easier to deal with a scenario/algorithm than a person with feelings and opinions. That realization was scary because all of a sudden, and looking at all the towers I visited, it felt like a lot of people were in this situation.
Aside from this, I found a really good (amazing!!) restaurant in Akihabara, away from the main streets: Gyukatsu Ichi Ni San. It really lightened the mood and changed my mind, even though I had to wait 20 minutes to get a seat (since the place is so small). This restaurant, located in the basement of a building, serves the best Gyukatsu (deep-fried beef cutlet) I have ever tried, the wait is definitely worth it! The choice was extremely easy since there is only one dish on the menu with a few side dish variants and that's it.
The food arrived quickly, a lovely plate with a mountain of cabbage, a miso soup, three different sauces, a bowl of rice and the Guykatsu just deep-fried but not fully cooked. I really liked the fact that I could cook to my liking the meat using the little hot plate in front of me...That brought the experience to a whole new level...And damn the food was so yummy!
After this stop, I felt really energized and decided to check a few more second hand anime figure stores and found something to bring back as a souvenir ^^ I also decided to at least try once a gachapon machine...I am not a big fan but since I was in Tokyo, why not try and bring back something, like a Pikachu?! I also discovered in an alley a small expo about a new video game. There was some merchandising available (at crazy expensive prices) as well as a branded luxury car.
After this tour in Akihabara, we decided to end the day in Asakusa because believe or not, we liked the temple but were also craving Melon Pan ^^' As such, we took a metro and headed back to Senso-Ji!
At Senso-Ji we checked again the shops on the main street but quickly walk to an alley leading to the melon pan store. After buying a few of these yummy breads, we headed to the covered alley nearby to look at some craftsmanship and discovered a whole new side to Senso-Ji that we missed the first time. We found a store selling some incredible taiyaki with chestnut/red beans filling, we found some extra cute stationary items, we spotted some lovely girls in kimono... What a pleasant walk!
At some point we found a shop selling glass items and wind bells that had a gold fish scooping game which is something you'll see specifically in festivals (matsuri). Yet you could play it inside that store and it was great! We also found a bunch of shops selling pickles and customizable spices, it was a really nice discovery. Don't hesitate to dive deeper into the area, there is a lot to discover especially in the small alleys. You'll find kimono seller, izakayas, kitchen ware makers, and more traditional items that you might want to bring back home!
We stayed in Senso-ji until it was getting dark, the perfect moment to take a metro back to Shinjuku and to figure out dinner! We ended up finding a good Korea BBQ restaurant almost next to the hotel. I don't think I could have found it without the help of Google, it was well hidden! But we found it and ate a good dinner, even though Korean food is expensive...Especially the "beef extra" which is imported from Korea...
Did you wander into Akihabara? What did you like most? Drop a comment below without your thoughts.