Akihabara, the place to be in Tokyo if you love video games, manga, or anime culture. Even if you don’t love them, you should still pay a visit to the Electric Town, a nickname it deserves. The neighborhood battles for your attention from many sides. Shopping centers selling electronics, anime paraphernalia, manga, retro video games, cute ice cream desserts from a Maid Cafe and of course, floors upon floors of video game arcades.
Chances are that whatever weird anime you’re a fan of, surely you can find a collection of episodes or figurines in pristine condition. Or maybe that video game you played one time when you were 10 that you’d forgotten about. It’s here, and you’ll have no problem finding it.
Most of the stores catering to anime sell toys, action figures or collectibles. There are stores selling media, but in much fewer quantities. You can find popular things like Astro Boy, Voltron, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon and things I’ve never seen before. None of these are toys for kids. Not just because of the barely dressed anime girl figurines, but because they can be expensive. There are inexpensive figurines, but the majority aren’t. Beyond the exaggerated bodies depicted in the figurines, upon closer inspection, you will find intricate and impressive details. Can I call it art?
I was tempted to buy the Optimus Prime action figure I always wanted as a child and never got. Well, “I got one” as a child…sort of. My father bought an ‘Ultra Magnus’ and was told it was ‘Optimus Prime’ but dressed in white! WTF! Who does that? Transformers don’t have dresses!!!
I wanted an Optimus Prime Transformer:
I got the imposter, Ultra Magnus:They are completely different things!
Anyway, I’m clearly over it.
Just like there are multiple buildings with multiple floors catering exclusively to anime, the same applies to video games. All of these buildings are more or less organized in the same way. Multiple floors for prize machines like “The Claw,” one floor just for music/rhythm games, one floor for VR, one floor for racing games, and the rest for everything else ranging from fighting games, retro games and sports game. They even have obscure games like “Typing Of The Dead” and “Luigi’s Mansion” as proper arcade machines.
The machines are well taken care of. The staff constantly wipe the machines from sweat or whatever else falls on them to make sure it’s clean for the next gamer. Some machines even have outlets to make sure your phone is charging while you play and of course, for you long gaming marathons, you need your cup holder for your sugar fix.
One detail that I found interesting, is that all fighting game arcades only have one set of buttons for one player. You can still play against another player as the machines are linked. That means that each player sits comfortably with his own machine but still enjoys the competitive nature of the fighting game with another human being. Furthermore, no two machines linked together are side by side. That is, the two opponents are far apart from each other as to not let the other read their next move by looking down at your joystick direction. Some machines even face each other which means you can’t even see your human opponent. If you’ve ever played ‘Street Fighter’ in the arcades, you know how important a detail this is.
The gamer demographic during the day are teenagers for the most part and adults in the evenings. I was quite surprised as to how many grown adults come to these places either alone or with pals instead of a bar. Equally as surprised was the number of females playing games. I would say around 10-20% were women partaking in all sorts of games. From the prize machines, to rhythm games, and even fighting games. There’s even enough female gamers attending these arcades that there’s a wedding VR simulator.
I played VR in the states, trying the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and even the crappy Samsung VR. The difference with the VR here is that you can actually walk around. It’s a simple feature but it has such a big impact on the experience: to see a place in the game world and actually walk to it. While playing with VR, er, not the wedding simulation, but Mortal Blitz, I had to keep reminding myself this isn’t real. It’s not that the graphics were amazing—they weren’t—it wasn’t even focused properly, but your mind actually gets tricked into feeling the actual experience portrayed. For example, in the game, I was high above a platform and had to cross through a narrow bridge. It took me a few seconds to convince myself that I cannot fall because it’s a game. But your body and mind are used to reacting a certain way when you’re walking near heights. It was amazing and something I’d like to do again.
The premise of a Maid Cafe is that you have very young girls (I assume at least 18), that dress up in maid outfits and cater to the guests that are called masters. If the guest is a woman, she’s called a princess. The maid is supposed to do what the master says, as in taking the order for coffee, juice, beer, or ice cream. There’s also food, but I can’t imagine anyone orders food. You can also ask the maid to do a show for you, which consists of singing Japanese pop tunes.
The maids behave energetically, much like the girls in anime do. They try to engage with you to repeat after them little mantras that are cute and funny in order to receive your drink or ice cream or whatever you ordered. Pictures aren’t allowed, unless you pay $8 per photo and you only get a physical photo. Nothing to share on social media. And that’s on top of the $5 entry fee plus whatever you consume.
If I had to label it, I’d say the entire experience is awkward. On one side, it is fun and cute and it feels like you’re inside an anime. From the other, these young girls are dressed like maids and owners are charging to enter a cafe. Half of the people in there were couples, just wanting to see what the fuss is about. But there were a few guys alone, which was creepy. You know they’re there for other reasons than just ice cream. I found myself sometimes giggling with the awkwardness surrounding me. The girls are entertaining guests as if everything was okay and there’s a few dudes oozing with lust. It’s weird and creepy and damn it, it’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Even if it’s awkward as fuck.
I plan to go back to Akihabara and play more games. Depending on your time in Japan, I’d recommend checking out the Electric Town if you’re remotely curious about anime and video game culture. And if you’re not, visit a Maid Cafe and have some ice cream. I hear it’s good and who doesn’t like ice cream in the shape of a cute bear?