Akihabara - A Guide For Gamers

Akihabara is a small area in Tokyo, Japan, renowned for its electronic stores. It’s equally as famous for being the centre of Otaku culture, and the home of countless manga stores, maid cafes, and of course video game shops.

I spent four of the last five years living in Tokyo, and for the majority of that time I resided within walking distance of Akihabara. I wiled away many an evening in its stores, restaurants and izakayas, coming to know the backstreets like the back of my hand. Akiba kick-started my retro video game collection, provided the opportunity to buy reasonably affordable US games and played host to countless nights-out of varying debauchery, where I'd eat and drink far too much before murdering some classics at karaoke. Alongside Taketomi Jima in Okinawa, Akiba ranks as my favourite place in Japan. Despite being far from picturesque and offering little else that you couldn’t find elsewhere in Tokyo, I always enjoyed my time there and felt very much at home strolling along it's streets.

What follows is a Gamer's Guide to Akihabara, recommendations for a great day out indulging in some video game rummaging of the highest order. Please note, this guide is current as of September 2010.

1. General Information 

Anyone visiting Akiba for the first time is likely to be drawn to the colossus electronic store, Yodobashi Camera. It’s a great place to start, but the best way to enjoy the area is to hit the main road and then check out the backstreets.

Aside from the large and well connected Akihabara station, which can be reached by any number of subway or over-ground trains, Akiba can also be accessed easily from Suehirocho St (Ginza line) and Ueno Okachimachi St (Oedo Line) among a handful of other, nearby stations.

2. The Main Stops

A. Sofmap (ソフマップ) 

Not exactly the best kept secret in the world, Sofmap is a large electronics chain with locations all across Japan. In Akiba they have a building dedicated almost entirely to video games, used and new. It’s not to be confused with the newer, flag ship electronics store 50 metres down the road, or the numerous other specialist branches littered throughout the town. 

The first two floors are all new games and are full of bargains, but it's the second floor, the used section, which is the jewel in the crown. In the UK I avoid buying second hand games, but in Japan I bought used more often than new, as they were always in pristine condition. Sofmap stock Famicom right through to PS3, and everything else in between, and the prices are invariably the lowest you can find. They also have a fair stock of import (US and Asian) games as well as a good range of cheap consoles. 

I really can’t recommend visiting this store enough. Although it may not be particularly tourist friendly or interesting for the casual gamer, it’s a great stop for anyone looking for a bargain. The only real downside is that the shop staff are on a constant mission to restock the shelves, and are completely oblivious to perusing customers, often wandering blindly between you and the shelf you are trying to look at.

B. Super Potato(スーパーポテト)

This branch of the oddly named Super Potato has become rather famous and is frequented by large numbers of tourists who pack into its relatively tiny floor space. It’s  somewhere I would take visiting friends who aren’t really into video games, as it’s an interesting introduction to the culture. It showcases retro gaming, featuring shelves stacked with old consoles, a playable Virtual Boy, a life size Naked Snake and a whole floor dedicated to retro arcade machines. 

While Super Potato is a lot of fun and features an impressive array of products, it’s not always the best place for bargains. Occasionally you will spot a great deal, but they are few and far between. I particularly wouldn’t recommend buying a console without checking the other shops first. Still, it's a great place to visit, where you can take in decades of video game history all under one roof. But be warned, in the Summer it acquires its own unique, musty aroma thanks to the crowds of sweaty men who file-in and perspire.

C. Trader(トレーダー) 

The new and improved Trader sprang-up about a year and a half ago. Located on the main road, heading away from the station, it's packed with games old and new. The first floor is full of retro titles, and has an area set aside for discounted “junk” games. They are labeled as junk as they have not been tested, but will most likely work just fine, and you can find some real gems if you have the time to rummage. I have picked up a number of Sega Saturn games here for a couple of hundred yen, which would have cost me an arm and a leg elsewhere; it’s quite possible to come away with 20 games for a thousand yen. The ground floor houses more modern games, all of which are used. Like Sofmap, this is a great place to pick up discounted import games. 

Trader is cheap and cheerful, and not as dingy as some of its counterparts. However, it can get a little crowded, especially at the weekends.

3. And The Rest

A. Friends(フレンズ) 

Don’t let the name put you off; this is a shop for serious gamers! It is a little difficult to reach from Akiba Station, located right next to Suehirocho St on the Ginza Line. Catering strictly to fans of retro games, it offers a particularly good range of 8 and 16 bit titles at really good prices. At times, they have a box of free games outside the entrance, providing some extra motivation to make the trip.

B. Retro Game (レトロゲーム)

Can you guess what they sell?! They do offer some great discounts on more common titles, but items that are not in the bargain bins are usually over priced and best avoided. The first floor also sells wigs, just in case you have the urge to change hair colour whilst rummaging through Famicon carts.

C. Liberty(リバテイー)

Located nearby Retro Gam, its sells a wide range of games at relatively low prices. They have a couple of boxes of heavily discounted games outside the entrance, which I could often be found sorting through after a hard day in the office. 

D. Mandarake(まんだらけ)

One floor of this Otaku heaven, I cant remember which, is dedicated to games. It's near the very top though, so be ready for a long slog up the fire escape stairs, which are best avoided if you suffer from vertigo. This is the store that was selling the entire Famicon (NES) back catalog a while back, and it carries some rarer titles for the consumer with a larger budget.

4. Other Shops & Entertainment

A. The Rose & Crown

For that taste of home away from home, be sure visit my old watering hole in Akiba! I had a tendency to turn my nose up at any so called "British" pubs in Japan, yet I loved the perfectly situated Rose & Crown. It’s a great place to go for a pint after a hard day buying video games, or, if you are like me, a great place to go prior to shopping, which can lead to some very interesting purchases later on.

The best time to visit is during happy hour, 5-7pm every day of the week. It can be found next to the electric town exit of Akiba Station.

B. Don Quijote (ドンキホーテ

You can’t miss this huge building with a penguin on the side. Selling virtually anything you care to imagine, and some things you probably cant, it always makes for an interesting visit. The building also houses a maid café and a large floor of arcade games and UFO catcher machines.

C. UDX Building 

One of the newer attractions in town, UDX is a large tower located next to the station. It houses a vast array of restaurants and an anime store, as well as an exhibition floor. I particularly recommend Shanghai Bar on the ground level, and the tonkatsu restaurant on the 1st floor.

D. Yodobashi Camera Building (ヨドバシカメラ)

Aside from Yodobashi, which carries a staggering array of electronic goods, there are a couple of other reasons to join the masses that pack into this building. There is a Tower Records on the top floor as well as a good selection of izakayas and restaurants, with the sushi shop on the ground floor being the best. Though be warned, if you are looking for somewhere to eat on a Friday or Saturday night, you should be prepared to queue. 

E. Liberty (toy shop) (リバティー)

This huge toy/collectibles store is a 5 minute walk away from the station along the main road. Even if you aren’t that into figures etc, it’s still quite an interesting place to visit, if not just to laugh at some of the more ridiculous looking toys. It’s also a great place to pick up souvenirs if you are on holiday. It’s certainly a lot more original than chopsticks and sandals.

Aside from the places above, there are plenty of Izakayas (Japanese pub/restaurants), with Amataro and Watamin-chi being my personal favourites, far too many maid cafes and cosplay shops, no shortage of places to do karaoke and of course a handful of arcades, most notably SEGA and Taito. Enjoy!


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