Whether it’s robots or smartphones, AI or premium audio products, Japan has always been at the forefront of any conversation about technology. We recently spent several weeks in Tokyo discovering not only what some of the biggest names in new tech are creating, but also taking advantage of the exciting location to test out the best smartphone cameras, and discover the charm of its popular tech-tourism destinations. Make sure to check out other entries in our series “Modern Japan.”
For decades, Tokyo’s Akihabara district been known around the world as a place to visit and buy electronics. From radios to computers, processors to tiny components, tech fans everywhere imagined Akihabara as somewhere they could indulge in every consumer tech fantasy they had. Yet when Digital Trends arrive in Akihabara — or Electric Town, as it’s also known — our senses were assaulted not by tech but by bright images of manga characters, anime shows, and other geek subcultures. Today, anime/manga fans called otaku seem to rule, and crane games, collectible figures, and gaming dominates Akihabara’s center.
Does this mean the tech that made Akihabara so famous has been pushed aside? Have PCs been replaced by plushies, and megapixels by maids? We visited to find out, and we’re pleased to report that not only is it still the eclectic, electric town we dream of, it’s so much more.
Electric Town has a mix of specialist tech shops, warren-like marketplaces, and giant retail centers to serve the tech fan. Visit them all for the full Akiba tech experience — then go beyond to really understand what made us love it there.
Have PCs been replaced by plushies, and megapixels by maids?
Akihabara’s electronics markets are a maker’s dream. Spread over several floors, each level is a maze of stalls filled with a bewildering array of components and cables, parts and pieces, odds and ends. Let’s say you want a switch. There’s not just a single option, there are dozens. Some with cables, some without, others with a plastic tip on the arm, or with different colored casings. The same holds true for knobs and buttons and dials and displays. And if that’s the choice for common elements, imagine what it’s like for rarer parts. If it can be used to build something, you’ll find it somewhere in an Akiba market. It’s not just tiny parts either. There are housings for mainframes, and oversize cooling fans that probably belong in industrial plants, but could easily be called into action for other uses, and masses more.
The marketplace feel continues with the huge variety of often unrelated products in many stalls. Some concentrate on one particular type of product —many sell two-way radio systems, for example — while others have a tech bric-a-brac ambience to them. Often products are stored in glass cabinets, where you need to ask the vendor for an up-close look at anything that catches your interest. It could be a classic camera, a long-discontinued watch, a forlorn looking phone, or even something you don’t recognize (did it fall off a passing UFO?).
We found some classic gems that really make the visit fun. One cabinet was full of brand-new, still wrapped up audio cassettes, ready for anyone still using a tape player to snap up. Look closely at the prices, and you’ll see quality attracts a higher cost. A Sanyo C60 cassette costs 300 yen, or about $2.60, while a Sony C100 will set you back 2,500 yen, or $22. How about a copy of Michael Bay’s first Transformers film, or Mission: Impossible 3? They were both there on HD-DVD, the defunct format that lost out to Blu-ray more than a decade ago. The Transformers film cost 2,000 yen, or $17.50.
Out on the street
Emerge from the markets and you’ll have to walk away from the main road to find most of the electronics stores. It’s where you want to go if you’re a PC fan, a gamer, or a budding roboticist. One street is home to at least six stores all selling components with which you can build or modify your own computer. All major manufacturers are represented here, and everything from a monitor to memory can be purchased and taken away on the same day. Want to build a robot? Several stores sell off-the-shelf kits, as well as additional parts to upgrade it. We’re not talking a C-3PO-style droid, but we’re pretty sure all the parts to make one could be found somewhere in the town.
We were sorely tempted by a Sharp Star Wars special edition phone.
Gamers are very well served in Akihabara, as you’d expect. Razer has a boutique store, and branding for the hardcore Republic of Gamers line from Asus is common. Most stores have systems to try, so walking in doesn’t mean having to guess whether something suits your needs, you can give it a try. Virtual Reality systems get similar treatment, but in the store we visited a same-day appointment was needed to try out the HTC Vive and experience a series of demos. Perhaps your gaming needs are more of the retro variety: Nintendo rules in Akihabara, and entire walls are filled with cartridges in dedicated retro-gaming shops. All Nintendo consoles are also sold, at often-reasonable prices, with cartridges starting at less than 600 yen ($5).
If you’re after a new smartphone, then visiting one of the dedicated network stores is probably the way to go; if you’d like something used, however, you’re in for a treat. The iPhone still rules in Japan, but there are plenty of Android phones to choose from too. Hundreds were on display inside glass cabinets in just a single store. Want a Nexus 5? A black, white, and even a red model could be yours for about 10,000 yen, or $90, while a Nexus 6 could cost three times that. Japan-only Sharp Aquos phones were plentiful, along with masses of Sony Xperia phones, and the still popular flip phones from manufacturers including Samsung, Panasonic, Sharp, and Fujitsu. In a corner we found some old Nokia phones, including a Nokia N8 (which uses the Symbian OS), for 15,000 yen, or $130.
We were sorely tempted by a Sharp Star Wars special edition phone, which came out with the Rogue One film, packaged with a set of limited-edition collectible figures and ships. It was $350. A boxed Hatsune Miku limited-edition Xperia phone was a little cheaper, at 32,000 yen, or $280. These special phones were never sold outside Japan, making them highly collectible.
Digging around the smaller stores could easily fill a day if you take your time or are deliberating a purchase, but for the latest tech there are two must-visit stores in Akihabara — Yodobashi and Bic Camera. Yodobashi is a huge tech department store near the main station, and it packs six floors (nine if you count the book store, food court, and event space) with everything from washing machines to in-ear headphones. Bic Camera is very similar, and prices are comparable, but both require a visit.
Google had just put Google Home on sale in Japan during our visit, and there were many displays for the smart home speaker. Google Home and Google Home Mini were available to buy, along with Chromecast dongles. Wander inside each store and Sony’s Xperia Hello smart home controller and robot system could be purchased. We’ve seen this as a concept at trade shows under the name Xperia Agent for a few years. It’s on sale now in Japan for a massive 162,000 yen, or $1,450. The Sony Xperia Touch projector is also out for 150,000 yen, or $1,320.
There are other large retail stores in Akihabara, and several offer tax free prices for tourists, so take your passport if you’re thinking of making a purchase. It’s not just hardware on sale, there’s software too, plus smaller consumer tech products like phone cases, memory cards, and even non-tech products from pens to watches and cosmetics. Yes, all in one place. Yes, it’s as packed and exciting as it sounds.
Don’t stop at electronics
While the Electric Town is as high voltage as ever, there’s more for the geeky-at-heart to do in Akihabara than ever before. It’s not solely a shopping destination: Take your time there. Play some crane games, have coffee with an owl, visit Kanda Myojin, have lunch at the AKB48 cafe, wander the many floors of Animate or Mandarake for anime and collectible merchandise, grab some gachapon, try some cosplay, and stay in the evening to enjoy a live Japanese Idol show.
Akihabara isn’t only for tech tourism, in other words: It’s where subcultures of all types come together, some mainstream and others considerably less so, in a glorious, uniquely Japanese, highly concentrated, one-stop location. So spread your geeky wings the next time you’re there. Akihabara welcomes you with open arms, because it likes all the same things you do.