A few months ago, I joined American expat Carl Kay in Japan as Web director and fanatic of Japanese popular culture in building TOKYO WAY. The new service offers people visiting Tokyo to experience the area in unique ways matching their hobbies and interests with local experts. Earlier this month, we were happy to open our new Web site at tokyoway.jp for people to browse and what we have to offer and sign up for events.
The creation of the Web site, combined with the subject matter, was a rare compelling experience. I’ll get into the technical details related to Web development on Rémi Code another day. For now, not only as a programmer, but also as a cosplayer who loves the otaku subculture and a traveller at heart, I thought I ought to at least try our Otaku Experience, set in Akihabara.
Last week, with other guests interested in world of otaku, I joined local otaku expert, Patrick W. Galbraith, a Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and author of various works related to the phenomena of the area, including the latest title, “The Moé Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Games.”
After we gathered in front of a convenience store near Akihabara station, Patrick led the way around the station, beginning with a walk between little shops of radio, lighting, and electronic equipment nearby. He explained how Akihabara got the nickname Electric Town, as the area became famous for the tiny stores forming the compact two-floor market in which we were. Called Radio Center, reflecting the passion of radio the frequent shoppers there shared in the yesteryear, the shopping mall was formed after World War II and remains much unchanged since.
Before venturing further away from the station, we visited the floors inside Radio Kaikan. One of the first tall buildings in the area after the popularity of Radio Center, it closed in 2011 for renovations and finally re-opened in July.
Walking along the train tracks above us, then down one of the most crowded streets of the area, we peaked inside several stores of manga, arcades (or “game centers,” as they are called here), cosplay pieces, and boutiques selling second-hand items or material made by fans of popular anime series. Patrick explained how most places in Akihabara target men with some objectification of women, as opposed to Ikebukuro where women are usually targeted. This makes me think the police concerned about disturbances isn’t the only reason why taking photos is usually forbidden.
All this walking made us hungry, just in time for the unique culinary experience of the trip: canned oden sold in a vending machine. The recipe for oden normally consists of konjac, daikon, boiled eggs, and fishcakes in broth, and usually varies by family and region. But this industrially-prepared oden, with its canned taste, was probably made by old rusty robots. Somewhat fitting, as people eating it are properly early-risers who have no where else to go for breakfast. For processed food, it’s passable — I wouldn’t expect the meal of a fancy restaurant in a can. Besides the taste, I did wonder if the meat was not actually a mix of tofu and konjac. What resembled a boiled quail egg had a strong yolk that spread itself down my oesophagus, and nothing seemed to wash it down. My oden experience was also diminished by the dispenser not giving me a tiny plastic fork like it should have, so I had to dip my fingers in the can to find that little toothpick poked in the piece of konjac inside. I certainly washed my hands since then, but rubbing those fingers extra hard to get the sticky oden broth off them formed into a habit of mine during my morning shower. I’m fairly certain the experience would have been greatly enhanced by that missing plastic fork. Damn you, greedy vending machine! At least, the konjac was nice.
Talking of things that look like eggs, a stop by a gachapon store was in our plan. The place welcomed us with rows and rows of colourful machines dispensing gachapon, little plastic shells with tiny toys, fake jewels, or mini figurines inside: put in a few coins, turn the dial, and see what you get!
On our way back to the station, Patrick pointed to a shrine. Tucked inside a cluster of skyscrapers, the Hanabusa Shrine is currently visible through an open piece of land currently for sale. As everything around it is private property, including the narrow alleys leading to it, people without permission are forbidden to get there. In spite of that, it is good fortune, so it was kept intact. I was still hoping to prey there for the gods to help me get rid of that quail egg that slid down my throat, but I relied on more coffee instead.
Even if I lived in Japan for 5 years now, I still learned a lot from Patrick during our walk around Akihabara. Thank you, Patrick! He lived in Japan for twice as long as I have, and his knowledge of the surroundings showed that — the two-hour walk was only scratching the surface of how much he knows. For TOKYO WAY, Patrick is curating two regular events in Akihabara: the short one of two hours we participated in that day, and another one of four hours on weekdays, revealing more details and secrets of the electric town.
If you are curious to know how to join Patrick on his walk around Akihabara, check out the experiences offered by TOKYO WAY. And if you join him, there’s no need to bring a plastic fork for the canned oden — I’m sure that was only a fluke. Besides, food is clearly not the only thing Akihabara has to offer.