Let's Visit Akihabara! Part I

by Zac Bertschy,

I travel to Japan every couple years to help cover AnimeJapan at Big Sight, and we usually try and do photo travelogues while we're there – this year we were far too busy to pull that off (look forward to some special content coming soon) but I'd like to still share updates and photos from the usual nerd haunts in Tokyo (Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Nakano Broadway and beyond) and talk a little bit about how things have changed over the last few years. Let's get right to it, shall we?

We flew Japan Airlines out there, which I highly recommend because they have awesome stuff in the seatback entertainment. This time they had MAPPA's masterpiece In This Corner of the World, subtitled in English. I had no other opportunities to see this film – it isn't playing in theaters in Japan anymore (at least not widely, or in English) and SHOUT! Factory's release isn't exactly immiment, so this was a real treat. They also had the most recent Doraemon film, The Birth of Japan - you usually get the chance to see recent Japanese theatrical releases if you fly JAL. Totally worth it.

This is us after 17 hours of transit time, waiting for the NEX train to take us to Shinjuku, where we stayed.

This is our neighborhood. While I would absolutely recommend a tour service if you've never been to the country before and are nervous about getting around, AirBNB is really phenomenal in Japan and if you get an apartment close to a train station (we were right next to the Ueno line and the Fukutoshin line, both of which are a straight shot to most things you'd want to see as an anime fan visiting Tokyo) it's super convenient. Google Maps has mostly-great train directions, too – just type in where you want to go and it'll spit out the train you take, nearest station, even the platform you should be on.

First order of business: katsudon.

The packaging for literally everything in Japan is better than it is anywhere else. This is a dog treat, for example.

The city is absolutely preoccupied with the upcoming 2020 Olympics right now. I didn't speak to a single person who was actually looking forward to this or thought it would be good for the city, especially when you consider that hotel space in Tokyo is perpetually at a premium due to the flood of international tourists the city already enjoys.

Good slogan though, I like it.

It's Hanami season, which means people are busting out their picnic gear to drink and celebrate under the blossoming trees. It also means plenty of gimmicky fast food items, like this strawberry waffle sandwich (pink is “sakura flavor”, remember that) and this truly ill-conceived McDonalds Sakura Float, which is fizzy cherry soda with a little turd dollop of soft serve ice cream on top. Once you drink the soda you're left with a wad of soft serve ice cream on top of ice cubes, which is difficult to eat and totally screws up the soft serve consistency. Gross.

There's public art everywhere in Tokyo. Every other building is a unique façade, something to gawk at. I never ever tire of the sheer design diversity on display in the city.

Alright, let's look through Nakano Broadway, currently celebrating 50 years of being the best place to shop for old anime crap.

This totally badass poster was laying in the hallway and felt like NakanoBroadway.jpg to me.

Your next Halloween costume?

Mandarake's dedication to the 90s grey alien theme in Nakano Broadway has diminished a little over time but they're still hiding around the place.

Japan gets some exclusive Marvel merchandise, like these odd-looking Avengers. I love Hawkeye's pose.

Nakano Broadway is where you'll find stuff like Seymour from Final Fantasy X imploring you to drink Coke. This is why we come here.

You can't escape Minecraft or Five Nights at Freddy's, even here.

Nakano is also known for having unbelievable artifacts from the 1980s – this time I saw a vintage promotional shirt from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom circa 1984, items from the launch of MTV, and of course, all the bizarre Michael Jackson merchandise your eyes can handle.

I'm not sure what the exact percentage is but a significant amount of the fun I have every time I visit is combing through gacha machines looking for weird, fun shit. There's plenty of it.

This is a $1000 Sonic the Hedgehog statue. Someone somewhere would definitely pay that for it but I'm pretty sure this was here when I came in 2014.

Let me tell you how much I regret not buying these deeply rad Street Fighter II vinyl toys. The CGA Zangief – colors from the Super Street Fighter II bootleg board, if I'm not mistaken – was really really hard to pass up.

What a fantastic name for this product!

I was in the market for a cheap Kaworu figure and nearly got this one, where he's giving a “what's up, my bitches?” pose. Ultimately I went with the shirtless one (pictured) because EVERYONE would've bought the shirtless one instead, that's why.

These were everywhere - I think they're both a cosplay novelty AND a legitimate beauty product.

I'm fascinated by Tokyo's many retro game shops – back in the day you used to be able to come here and load up on cheap cartridges from across the classic spectrum, from Famicom to Megadrive to Game Boy to Neo Geo. You can still do that but they largely price these things for tourists now (look up what you're buying on eBay first and find out how reasonable the price is) so that means they want nearly $500 for a Zelda Game & Watch. As this stuff slowly disappears, snapped up by guys my age with enormous amounts of disposable income raiding the stores to recreate their childhoods, the prices are only going to go up.

For instance, this copy of Famicom Battletoads costs three hundred and fifty dollars. For that price you can buy a PS4 (although it wouldn't come with Battletoads).

Street Sharks are everywhere old toys can be bought in Japan. I saw one once hidden in a display at the Ghibli Museum, that's how ubiquitous they are.

Do you think Rin played Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, and if so, does she already know that Sonic is in to human ladies?

Ram and Rem were absolutely everywhere. New, used, consignment, gatcha, dakimakura, entire bedroom sets – everything. With much more on the way, according to the preorder advertisements they have up in every shop.

This store specialized in Ghibli museum merchandise over the ages, kinda like the mom & pop shops near Disneyland that sell retro merchandise from the park. They had this incredible Mononoke Hime mask, along with plenty of treasures from the place I've never laid eyes on before.

We got to visit the not-particularly-secret headquarters of Makoto Shinkai, although he didn't let us swim around in his enormous Your Name money bin (or take any more photos). Look forward to our interview with producer Kouichiro Itou, who has produced every one of Shinkai's films going back to The Place Promised in Our Early Days.

Hey, we're in a train station!

Ufotable's café is open for reservations – we didn't go in, but I'd like to think the menu was written by Nasu and is 40,000 words long.

Every single time I visit they blow me away with the animal gatcha. Every time. That's a collie in a calzone, people.

It's no secret that I am a pretty major, mostly insufferable Disneyland otaku – I have hundreds and hundreds of visits to the one in Anaheim under my belt, and last time we hit Tokyo Disneysea, which is an entire theme park full of incredible exclusive attractions. This time I wanted to hit Disneyland proper – mostly to see how different it is from the original, and to check out the park's exclusive rides. I'll make it quick, I promise.

First, if you're curious about Tokyo Disneyland but don't want to waste a bunch of your time in Japan going to a Disney park, the place sells an “After 6 passport” that allows you entrance for half price after 6pm – with the exchange rate being what it is, we managed to get in and see everything we wanted for the cost of train fare and one full-price ticket (about $65, which is literally half what it costs to visit Disneyland in the states). The lines are very long, but if you have an agenda and play it smart, you can absolutely see everything you want inside the 4 hours or so they give you (it closes around 10pm, though a lot of stuff shutters at 9:30ish).

This is Pooh's Hunny Hunt, the most hyped-up exclusive ride they have at Tokyo Disneyland and a local favorite. Japanese Disney fans absolutely love Winnie the Pooh (as is evidenced by his inescapable presence in Harajuku and elsewhere) and this is a world-class dark ride with incredible animatronics and a unique trackless ride system. I thought the last half or so was kinda underwhelming, but there's a lot of promise in here (the Oriental Land Company, which licenses these parks from Disney and spends billions of dollars keeping them in amazing shape, is planning an elaborate Beauty and the Beast-themed ride based on this technology. We'll come back for that one).

The Oriental Land Company manages everything about these parks, which is why they're so immaculate and opulent – the usual Disney costcutting is gone, and they allow their Imagineering artists to run pretty wild, so you get really unique parade floats, spotlessly clean sidewalks, and full sponsorship of attractions just like the Disneyland of old. I especially liked how Kirin, a major beer manufacturer (among many other things, but there are Kirin beer ads everywhere in Japan) sponsored Pirates of the Caribbean (which you can absolutely skip if you've ever been on it before – the version they have here is fine and in great working order but there's nothing unique about it).

They still have the original StarJets, which are vintage 1955 Disneyland. They also have a flawless Space Mountain, which has been kept up very well and still features the original ride music. Frontierland is called “Westernland”, which made perfect sense to me, pardner.

By far the most impressive ride we went on was this exclusive Monsters Inc. dark ride where you use a flashlight to trigger icons throughout the experience – it's frantic and highly interactive, and the animatronics are just killer. I was totally in love with this thing and wasn't expecting it to be this fun and well-made – I hope it comes Stateside eventually.

They make a lot of these buttons – “it's my birthday!” “it's my first visit!” “we just got married!” – this one was hilariously specific and totally perfect for this park, given the clientele.

Our little apartment in Tokyo was gorgeous and adorable but also very very small. This felt like actual size.

This shrine was on our way to the subway station every morning. It was gorgeous and much bigger than a lot of the little local shrines I've seen – they even had a little Inari shrine on the side.

Up next: Ueno park, which is where the cherry blossom trees really explode. We got totally screwed on the weather this year, though – unseasonably cold and rainy (to the point where we had mixed snow and rain at one point) and so the blossoms were too timid to come out, so we walked past the bare trees and decided to check out the Ueno Zoo, which is referenced in anime pretty often and features pandas.

It's a good thing we went inside, because the only tree I saw with flowers on it was in here. Thanks guys – I appreciate you coming out early.

This is the sign for the Nocturnal House, which looked like it belonged outside a bar in Gotanda or a Mandarake satellite store.

“Hand Shakers is on – the gorillas love that show”

An enormous pagoda on the zoo grounds – this is right next to the Japanese bearded deer, who looks like something straight out of Mononoke Hime, or Jeff Bridges.

This Pallas cat totally amazed me – these guys are super cute and notoriously shy, and generally will not come out and say hello. This guy was just relaxing right here, watching people as they walked past, allowing us to admire him.

I deeply regret not eating this while I was there and am kinda thinking about going to make my own.

Back in Shinjuku for a spell – this is Robot Restaurant, which is featured in countless “WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU VISIT JAPAN” articles and struck me as a tourist trap that leans hard on the “wacky Japanese” stereotype. It's legitimate performance art, but what's built up around it makes it feel a little less than that, and at $80 a head it didn't seem worth it to me.

You can take your picture for free with these ladies out in front of the place. I didn't see any other Japanese people around here save the cashier – plenty of guys like me, though.

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