From multi-storied computer stores and back-alley discount camera shops to anime-themed cafes and the latest in costume-play fashions, Akihabara is Tokyo's thriving epicentre for electronic goods and otaku (geek) culture alike.
Renaissance of geekdom
For many years Akihabara was off the radar for most foreign visitors, aside from a few in-the-know tourists looking to score some cheap electronics. However, following the rapidly increasing global popularity of otaku culture - and indeed all things Japanese - a visit to Akihabara is becoming something of a Tokyo staple.
So what exactly does it mean to be an otaku? At the general level, an otaku is a person displaying an obsessive interest. In reference to Akihabara however, an otaku is someone (generally male, but not always) who devotes considerable time and energy to watching anime, reading manga (Japanese comics) and playing video games.
While admission of geekdom once carried a strongly negative connotation, the otaku movement is currently enjoying a global renaissance. One prominent example is the former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, who proudly admitted his love of manga to journalists, and included the promotion of this culture on his foreign policy agenda.
With its street touts hawking cheap goods, electronic bells ringing with inimitable sound and fury, and frenetic street scenes of lights and beeps, Akihabara can quickly overwhelm the senses. This self-proclaimed "Electric Town" was born out of a post-war black market for radio components, and later matured into household appliances.
For a nostalgic glimpse at the past, the Akihabara Radio Center (1-14-2 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku) is a two-storey warren of fifty-plus electronics stalls that lies under the elevated railway. As the original, still-beating heart of Akihabara, this area caters strictly to old-school electronics otaku.
These days however, the bread-and-butter of Akihabara is computers and their associated parts, which fosters a growing DIY-community. Considerable spotlight also shines on the recent proliferation of so-called "maid cafes", where anime-esque waitresses greet patrons in otaku speak. But Akihabara is ever protean, and always a step ahead into the next consumer phase.
Start off at the Kaiyodo Hobby Lobby (4th floor, Radio Kaikan, 1-15-16 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku), a hardcore collector's plastic dream as evidenced by the Neon Genesis Evangelion statues outside. Inside are figurines from all walks of Japanese science fiction.
Continue on to the Tsukumo Robot Okoku (1-9-7 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku), a shop at the forefront of the home robot revolution. Here you can pick up a futuristic bipedal humanoid robot or a cutesy-cool talking Hello Kitty.
A highlight of Akihabara is the Tokyo Anime Center (4-14-1 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku), which promotes the latest happenings in the ever-expanding world of anime. An onsite theatre hosts regular movie screenings and frequent appearances by voice actors and animators.
How to go
Narita Airport (NRT; Narita City) is approximately 65km east of Tokyo, and offers flights to major world cities. Inconvenient location aside, it is an excellent, modern airport with a plethora of services.
If you are travelling by train, the JR Yamanote, JR Sobu and Keihin-Tohoku lines all stop at Akihabara. By metro, the Hibiya line stops a bit east of the main electronics neighbourhood. Accommodations and eateries abound in the neighbouring commercial and residential district of Kanda.
The article 'Tokyo: The allure of Akihabara' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.