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back to article Akihabara unplugged: Tokyo's electric town falls flat

Special report Tokyo's Akihabara district may be fabled the world over as a geek wonderland and a tech writer's dream, but the reality as El Reg found out last weekend is rather different. Step out of the station’s “Electric Town” (denki machi) exit today and it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Along spotlessly …

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Anonymous Coward

AKB48

When you’ve got AKB48, who needs electronics?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: AKB48

ahh I remember seeing them about 12 times back in the day.

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Anonymous Coward

Hrmm yes, Akihabara is not really the birck a brack electric town it once was. But then there aren't many iron-mongers left in London either.

However having mentioned darts - you must have gone to LittlePSX the best maid bar in town. Sadly most of our maids have left - sad ties.

Saying that the mayor has a part in the otaku nature of the town is hilarious though - he hates the youth of the nation is a raging racist and fascist, and is generally one of the least likable characters you could come across in politics. If he was German he'd be shunned and possibly in prison. Also the police aren't much better having removed the closed street for almost a year after a tragic event where a man who had nothing to do with the scene murdered a number of people with his car and a knife after being bullied at work.

The mayor even said that the giant tsunami was due to the Japanese not being Japanese enough... God... I could point out more of his wtf moments.

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I thought everyone knew that Akihabara is pretty much devoted to the otaku culture these days, anyone who knows anything about anime/manga knows the name Akihabara, the same as anyone who knows tech knows silicon valley.

If you want to find Japanese tech you really need to look for the weird and wonderful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUuJI9dqnXw part 2 is where it starts to get weird with the tech, although part 1 does include security robots.

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It used to be Harajuku was the rage

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harajuku

In 2004/2005 I visited the Shinjuku/Shibuya area, and the Harajuku Girls and related crowd seems to have been all the cosplay/other rage back then.

Akihabara was heavily redeveloping then, and traffic would be stopped for construction work. Akihabara had some interesting stores, but even back then, most of the VCR/Betamax/VHS stuff was, to me, literally fading. I went into an electronics store to use a computer to find out something about some product, but was asked to stop researching the product on the Internet in that store.

Escalators are wild in some, compact yet spanning 5 levels reversing like snakes, and disgorging people immediately into a display area. One of the things that really really excited me was the ultra-quiet, very small/compact, table-top dishwasher that must've been a hit since many homes and kitchens are so small.

One store-related entry sign I will ALWAYS remember in Akihabara, which I deeply regret not getting a photo of, is:

"MEMBERS AND NON-MEMBERS ONLY!"

That one got my crazy imaginative juices going all over the place, and even into wondering what any NTI (non-terrestrial intelligence) or other beings might think if they saw such a sign written by earthlings, hahaha.

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It truly was a geek paradise

I first visited in 83 and came back with so many goodies that just didn't exist in the Tottenham Court Road. I still have some gold plated phono plugs in a box here somewhere.

Best of all was an Akai open reel cassette pack. It was a cassette shell that opened up and contained tiny removable metal reels of 1/8th inch tape. The idea was that you only needed to carry one cassette for your Walkman but still have access to 10 albums. The reels came in a soft gold-coloured tubular belt pack that apparently enhanced your roller skating experience. Daft, tacky, impractical but too funny to not buy.

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Unhappy

Re: It truly was a geek paradise

You say that, Tottenham Court Road used to be pretty impressive back in the 90s, but that all disappeared too.

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Thumb Up

Re: It truly was a geek paradise

I used to go up to town regularly by train, back in the 60s and 70s just to shop in Tottenham Court Road.

It was the most marvellous geeks paradise, with shops full of new and second hand electronic equipment of every sort.

Ha, those were the day but sadly, all good things must come to an end.

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Two different planes of existence

This story is so typical of journalistic excursions to Japan. It says more about the writer's inability to access Japan, than it does about Japan.

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Boffin

Re: Two different planes of existence

Partly agree with this comment, though the implication that a real Japan exists elsewhere is dubious.

Not a Maker myself, but I found these people to be friendly and knowledgeable about what goes on where in Akiba :

"Handaduke-Cafe" in Akihabara (3331 Arts Chiyoda, 3F http://handazukecafe.com/ )

Literally "soldering iron cafe". Just turn up, use their equipment and tap their experience. When busy it is likely to have an English speaker present.

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Re: Two different planes of existence

Can't say I fully agree with your point there, I would say that broadly (apart from the mayor piece) the jurno got it fairly accurate. When I first visited "Electric Town" in 93 my neck almost broke from all the shiny, shiny new stuff there (WTF is a mini-disc player!).

Have seen it deteriorate in the years since and last time i was there in 09 it was very much a "meh" moment, nothing there I couldn't find in any tech store around Tokyo just more concentrated and certainly nothing eye poppingly new or funky.

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Re: Two different planes of existence

Well I totally agree.. every time I see some article about Akihabara it makes me want to cringe. Usually it's the opposite tone to this article though usually it's "Wow I couldn't get these standard parts anywhere else in the world, I want to move to Japan".

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Windows

Re: Two different planes of existence

"Literally "soldering iron cafe". Just turn up, use their equipment and tap their experience."

That looks really fun. I wonder if the hackspaces in the UK will ever give rise to something like that. Might get the teenagers into hacking with hardware.

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Re: Two different planes of existence

"Might get the teenagers into hacking with hardware."

Sounds good... until some twat realises that half of teenagers are children, soldering irons get really hot, and then proceeds to drag out some lame Health&Safety excuse for closing the place down.

I say let the buggers burn their hands. Teaches respect for the thing. And, speaking from experience (I was 12), you'll only do it once...

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Re: Two different planes of existence

Agreed, but in this respect at least, it is better here. Under their parents' observation, from around the age of three or four Japanese children tend to be allowed to use "handihanabi" - hand held fireworks that are a little less hot but more colourful than British sparklers. I was introduced to the soldering iron cafe through my eight year old daughter's (sadly) fleeting interest at Tokyo's Make07.

On a slightly related note, I was ashamed when I brought my children to the UK, to be required to leave a room full of toddlers because I had not been vetted. Social acceptance of default distrust disgusted me. It had apparently arisen during my absence and is thankfully not yet present in Japan.

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First Tokyo, next London?

So will we get a story about how the Tottenham Court Road (or even Lisle Street) isn't the electronics paradise of old?

I suppose that comes of being able to remember when Maplin sold electronic components by mail-order, rather than having shops full of no-name plastic tat they have to discount heavily to make space for the next wave of tat no-one wants.

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Re: First Tokyo, next London?

Maplin still sell parts by mail order, though I suspect they're a little overpriced.

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Re: First Tokyo, next London?

Maplin overpriced?

By about 4:1 to 10:1. Even including the postage from Hong Kong.

A visit to Maplin is pointless.

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Coat

Re: First Tokyo, next London?

"So will we get a story about how the Tottenham Court Road (or even Lisle Street) isn't the electronics paradise of old?"

We used to hire a coach to go to London for the RSGB Exhibition in the early 1960s - before the M6 made it an easy motorway journey. The new Blue Boar service station had glamour - but not the big mug, big bacon sandwich value of a transport cafe on the A5.

The afternoon would be spent walking round the war surplus electronic shops in Tottenham Court Road (Proops and ??), Lisle Street, and Greek Street. For new components we might venture to Henry's Radio in Edgware Road - was Morgan's there then? The exhibition itself also had many component stalls.

One of the favourite buys was unsorted germanium transistors at 40 for ten bob - and lengths of fibre optic cable were a novelty. Another magnet was going through boxes of crystals looking for those frequencies that could be nudged by judicious grinding or application of a lead pencil. The manufacturer stalls displayed things like the KW-2000 SSB transceiver for £1000 - and was the same as pushing our noses against toyshop windows to see a Christmas train display.

There were other diversions too. There was a small conjuring shop in Tottenham Court Road and possibly some under the counter magazine/film shops. In Greek Street the older members acted as outriders to shepherd the youngsters past the ladies standing in doorways - or avoiding the strip-joint pimps. The entertainment on the coach was provided by one of our many "characters". He took over the coach microphone and proceeded to act as our "English Speaking Guide" - with a joke repetoire that was decidedly blue.

That was before Tottenham Court Road became the new hi-fi and spy equipment mecca - and Henry's went downmarket. Proops and the conjuring shop lasted a while longer.

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But it is those independently owned places that still remain that are the gems - scratch under the surface, and find the hidden shops on the upper floors and you discover the remaining independent traders which made the area what it was. Radio Kaikan may be a hole in the ground, and there may be a different current visibly flowing through Akiba these days, and Den-Den Town in Osaka is slowly falling into the same trap (but still fantastic in it's own right), but stores such as Super Potato (which still sell original unwrapped mint copies of Gameboy Games out of the original carton that was found at the back of an old warehouse for only 300 yen a game), or the hard-to-find Arcade shops on the fringes of akiba (that will let you handle some of the rarest arcade boards known to man, and then sell you a mega pile of spare buttons and joysticks for only 25 pounds) are what really make those places shine.

And what have we got in London? Tottenham Court Road? I'd rather have a Maid Cafe than a DFS, and Yodobashi Camera than PC World, thank you very much....

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>>Super Potato (which still sell original unwrapped mint copies of Gameboy Games

I've found mint condition gameboy games for 100 yen a piece at Hard Off many a time... there's so much of that tat floating around you can pick up similar items at any old "recycle" shop.. even out in the sticks. My wife used to work in one of the most run down recycle shops imaginable and she still managed to bring home mint condition virtual boy games that they couldn't shift.

>>Arcade shops on the fringes of akiba

The arcade shops in Akihabara are expensive.. they might be cheaper for MVS carts etc than in the UK but they aren't cheap in the scheme of things when you look up some of the prices for stuff on Yahoo Actions. G-Front was the only PCB shop in Akihabara that had any really rare stuff last time was bothered with that stuff.. and they were also the most expensive and least friendly.. they went from a open plan with stacks of CPS2 boards all over the place and a guy that would help you out if you spoke Japanese to a counter where you had to beg for the guy to get the game and they he wouldn't budge on the price even if you were taking 500 or 600 quids worth of boards off of his hands (I was trying to buy a complete set of Mr Driller games among other things).

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Silver badge

"The arcade shops in Akihabara are expensive.. they might be cheaper for MVS carts etc than in the UK but they aren't cheap in the scheme of things when you look up some of the prices for stuff on Yahoo Actions. G-Front was the only PCB shop in Akihabara that had any really rare stuff last time was bothered with that stuff.. and they were also the most expensive and least friendly.. they went from a open plan with stacks of CPS2 boards all over the place and a guy that would help you out if you spoke Japanese to a counter where you had to beg for the guy to get the game and they he wouldn't budge on the price even if you were taking 500 or 600 quids worth of boards off of his hands (I was trying to buy a complete set of Mr Driller games among other things)."

I think the board hoarders changed their tune when the gaming preservation culture kicked into high gear. These enthusiasts realized that classic arcade games were losing out to the ravages of time and company liquidation, so they started a crusade to preserve their vital information so they can still be reconstructed in future. Research began to be collaborated throughout the net, and a "hit list" of rare and desired boards soon appeared. The board hoarders were savvy enough to check out those lists as well and then set their prices accordingly.

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Devil

I'd rather have a prostate exam than a PC World!

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Anonymous Coward

Yes, we know.

It's been like that for a while now. I can't understand why Japanese nerds are into manga. I'd think think comics of any sort too juvenile to be of interest to a nerd. But then again, I don't know many nerds born in 1980. The lot of us was more into killing snakes and make small bombs. Can you say BMX? I think we were more interested in the creative possibilities than the technology itself.

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Re: Yes, we know.

"I can't understand why Japanese nerds are into manga. I'd think think comics of any sort too juvenile to be of interest to a nerd."

A "troll" icon would have been appropriate for your post if you weren't hiding behind the "Anonymous Coward" mask. First of all, individual nerds like what they happen to like. Some people are huge into Star Trek, others are big on Doctor Who, some build and launch model rockets, some enjoy video games, and then there are some who enjoy reading comic books and/or Japanese manga. Calling someone else's past time "juvenile" is throwing stones while living in a glass house, as I am sure that there are things that you're interested in that might not be seen as worthy pursuits by everyone else around you. You may not have to like what other people choose to spend their free time doing, but don't go badmouthing other peoples' interests either.

With that said, while in the West comic books and cartoons are often (unfortunately) seen as works that should be made primarily for children, in Japan that is not the case. In Japan, comic books and animation are seen as a medium, not a genre, and as a result you can have any kind of story, ranging from light-hearted stories meant for small children all the way up to dark and serious stories meant strictly for adults, placed in animated or comic book form. So calling the reading of all manga "juvenile" is painting with an overly broad brush, because many popular manga titles in Japan are specifically created for and read by adults. And besides, I don't know why you have determined that reading comics and manga has to be an exclusive pursuit. There is nothing that says that someone who enjoys reading comics or manga couldn't also be an avid BMX cyclist and/or enjoy working with technology as well.

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Re: Yes, we know.

Go watch Another (anime) and see if you'd consider that suitable for kids - it's not, it's a horror story and pretty darn good. Most anime is from manga (comics) or from light novels which turn into manga, the Beano it is not.

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Re: Yes, we know.

Another goes down hill in the last 2 episodes, far better are Serial Lain and Boogiepop Phantom.

Also for Manga Lament of the Lamb, MPD Psycho, and a list that goes on and on.

Complex well written stories. There are also great simple stories.

Manga and anime aren't a genre they're a medium. And mediums that spawn more material (dojin works, computer games, live action, American Live Action rip offs, music, animated movies, models, costumes, etc, etc, etc)

But as said mr troll, people like what they like, and a lot of people like anime/manga/cosplay/maids/blah

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Re: Yes, we know.

"I can't understand why Japanese nerds are into manga"

The reason you can't understand this is quite simply because you don't know a damn thing about it. If you'd watched some and didn't understand the appeal, then fair enough. But your comment demonstrates that you haven't even done that, and you don't even know what manga *IS*.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Yes, we know.

Lain seemed to get a bit too metaphysical towards the end. Haibane Renmei I found thought provoking while at the same time much gentler on the viewer. But if you really want to get mashed to the ground with a jackboot, try Texhnolyze (yes, that's the spelling). Or perhaps Saikano. I'm also aware of two anime/manga that, while avoiding being completely NSFW, can be regarded as "just plain disturbing": Gantz and Elfen Lied. For kids, these definitely aren't.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Yes, we know.

Oh my Elfen Lied... a very good piece of work. I should really finish Gantz.

Pretty sure, Haibane, Lain and, Texhnolyze are all the same main guy. Think he did one more show. neia under 7??? something like that.

Saikano T_T many tears were shed, I only ever read the Manga.

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Re: Yes, we know.

After "Another", try "Higurashi no naku koro ni" (typing from memory). I'll let the OP come back to us when he gets the point that "manga != comic" and "animé != cartoon".

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Transistor Teaset

"Transistor Teaset" is a manga set in the electronics subculture of Akiba, where a teenage girl is trying to keep her grandfather's parts stall running, building robots (which don't work very well in a strange way) and coping with friends, life and bureaucracy.

Commoditisation of electronics has led to places like Yodobashi Camera and the rival Bic Camera chain but Akiba still supports more modern hacker cultures, in robotics for example or in modelling -- there's some fabulously accurate model parts made using micro-CNC machining and laser cutting systems and if you want something custom made then supply them with the CAD files and turnaround can be as little as half an hour if they have suitable feedstock on hand in the back of the store.

Time moves on and the old Akiba is not what it used to be, but it's still packed every weekend with shoppers, gawkers and hawkers (and me, occasionally).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Yes, we know.

Manga doesn't always mean comic .. the long running animated series like chibi maruko chan are called "manga" around here at least (hint: mt fuji is visible with the naked eye from here).. people that know about 5 Japanese words and think they know the difference between manga and anime should be careful not to try to lord it over others..

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Yoshitoshi ABe

The creative director, scriptwriter etc. for Haibane Renmei, Serial Experiments Lain and Texhnolyse was Yoshitoshi ABe. He does a lot of scribbly semi-amateur manga (which I buy when I can find it in the doujinshi department in the Mandarake store) which is sometimes used as the basis for anime. There's a new work in progress, Despera which has supposedly been optioned for production as an anime but it seems to be in Development Hell at the moment.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Yes, we know.

not always but about 99% of the term the word Manga is directly related to official comic books. Only in a few rather niche events is this not the case.

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Windows

Re: Yes, we know.

"So calling the reading of all manga "juvenile" is painting with an overly broad brush, because many popular manga titles in Japan are specifically created for and read by adults."

The same is true in some European countries - particularly France and Belgium. Not necessarily manga - but French adult themed satire - as well as the all-ages Asterix etc. My bookshelf has some editions of "Tranches de vie" by Lauzier - bought one morning en route from the hotel to a technical subcommittee meeting in Brussels. Had to run the last few hundred yards to avoid being late - having been entranced by seeing the contents of a dedicated "comic" book shop.

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Re: Yes, we know.

And there are mature American comics as well. You just don't hear about them. V for Vendetta and Watchmen both began as graphic novels, Preacher was definitely not for the kids, there was always Sandman, and the current election climate makes me want to go reread Transmetropolitan. And those are just off the top of my head.

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Re: Yes, we know.

'With that said, while in the West comic books and cartoons are often (unfortunately) seen as works that should be made primarily for children, in Japan that is not the case.'

It's not the case in all of the West, either. Here in France there is a big BD (bande dessinée, that is, graphic novels) culture. You can find BD everywhere - hypermarchés, bookshops, newsagents, etc. There is also a big manga culture here, too. If you wish, you can even get American comic books (in French, of course). The art form is definitely NOT considered just for children. There's even a television station for geeks and otakus.

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Coat

Re: Yes, we know.

Actually, there have been all sorts of moves by various animators over the years to try to get adult audiences interested in animation. Bear in mind that, back when animation was in its first flush of youth, it was adult audiences it was aimed at. Consider, for example, why some of the Fleischer animation, Warner and MGM animation and so forth was so violent. Consider the risque nature of characters such as Betty Boop in her earlier work before the Hayes office got involved. How about Disney's Fantasia? That wasn't aimed at children at all.

Even in recent years, from Heavy Metal to Rock N Rule, there have been attempts at getting adult viewing in animation. I won't go into detail about children's animation titles such as My Little Pony but consider that one reason why there are so many bronies is that the people behind the animation realised that adults watch this stuff too for any amount of reasons, so what better way to work with this than to write intelligently so that the whole family can enjoy it?

The attitude to animation that "it's for kids" is not a global phenomenon either. As Daggersedge rightly mentioned, the French have a culture that allows for adult animation. So do the Italians. So do the Canadians - consider some of the output of the National Film Board there. And so, to bring this back on topic, do the Japanese, whether it be the latest Ghibli movie that puts the American product to shame or a bit of pornographic Flash or some ultraviolent OAV or whatever.

What it comes down to is that animation is a film and television medium like any other, and can be turned to any topic you like as long as you can imagine it. (Whether or not you watch it... I'm the one with Azumanga Daioh in my pockets!)

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Maids

The one lingering memory I will take with me from my recent visit there was the abundance of cuties in French Maid outfits touting their wares in the street. Don't book your plane ticket just yet! They're there to hustle for business in said cafes where you get charged an arm and a leg for service. And they don't take kindly to being photographed - you will get some severe verbal if you try to snap them in the street, which is a bit of a downer if you're a photographer. In the cafe, you will be dispensed a series of instruction cards telling you not to touch the maid, take photos etc., all rather depressing really. Not so much that you can't do those things, but the realisation that there are groping pervs about who try that kind of thing.

Shinjuku is much more fun. The maids aren't there but you will find rows of smiley uniformed ladies with loud squeaky voices in the doorways of electronics shops, all trying to get you inside to buy the latest mobile phone in a continuous stream of unintelligible Japanese. Awesome.

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Unhappy

Re: Maids

The depressing bit is that nobody gets to photograph maids because of a few pervs that, when given the opportunity to grab a picture of a girl, always try to do upskirt shots.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Maids

well you can often get 2shots, and as an obvious foreigner you can often get pictures with the maids outside, and when they have the closed street there are often cosplayers who you're welcome to take photos of.

Various maid cafe/bars/etc are of different styles and qualities, from MaiDreaming (very much made for the tourist) with their hyper genki maids, 1000yen chiki, and sweet drinks and deserts. To LittlePSX with the more stern maids and a slightly dingy feeling reminiscent of an old school dive, play darts, eat pizza, drink a few beers (until 5am), LittleBSD with its tsundere maids force feeding you. Both these locations you get a chiki if you fill up a point card. The Imouto Cafe where the girls pretend to be your little sister, the schoolgirl cafe where the girls wear school uniforms and the tables are school desks. To the butler bars (where pretty men in butler uniforms server you.) The maid cafe up the stairs credited with being the first maid cafe in akihabara, no chiki, but the foods actually good. Defenetly the place for a nice coffee and a cake. The dodgy maid cafe where the girls seemed to have one shared cardigan to go out looking for business. So many options, and so many different pricing structures. There's a porn star one aswell.

Of course compared to Kubukicho Akibhabara is a shinning beacon of innocent fun. The places there with mirror floors and no underware for example lol.

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Anonymous Coward

"vaguely sinister Lolita/S&M overtones"

If the shop's title, as in the first picture, is "MaidReaming" then it's not really vaguely sinister...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "vaguely sinister Lolita/S&M overtones"

It does depend on where you want to place the capital letter, but maidreaming (which would be pronounced My Dreaming) is very very commercial, and focused mainly on visitors as opposed to locals. It's expensive, too genki, and charges by the hour. Did a nice christmas meal though (fried chicken, as is the standard lol.) Every hour they do a sing and a dance, nice uniforms, nice central location, good decor.

You certainly wouldn't go there twice, had a friend that worked there nice girl, and lets face it, maid cafe's are no worse than hooters, and the service is better than pretty much any other place you'll go (as that's the whole point.)

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Yodobashi Camera

Yodobashi Akihabara these days seems to be full of Chinese visitors spending a lot of money on TVs, etc. I would imagine that quite a lot of what they're buying is made in China....Astonishing how times have changed.

I miss the old Akihabara, it really was geek heaven.

I visit reasonably often, and it is interesting to chart the history of 3D TVs. I can remember when they first came out Yodobashi was full of them, with very prominent displays of many different 3D TV sets. It wasn't long before that changed. Nowadays they are still there, but it definitely isn't a selling point.

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Anonymous Coward

Akiba Ichi building was a park before it was built

This article is all wrong..

Akiba Ichi was a boring flat concrete slab with some basketball hops before it was built.

No small stores were driven out of business by the mayor to get Akiba Ichi built..

Here's proof in case you don't believe me.

http://www.geocities.co.jp/SilkRoad-Desert/4530/akiba1.htm

Get your facts straight and do some proper research before you pretend to know everything about Japan by watching "Manga".

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I was in Akibahara in 2001, and it was very much geek paradise then. Did not buy any electronics, I was too busy not losing 25 science students in the maze that was then Akibahara. I did get an eyepiece for my scope at the time. I also remember the "German Beer Cellar" they had in Ginza street, with waitresses in German dirndl dress. Weird (but they had good beer).

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Unhappy

The world moves on

I visited Akihabara for the first time in 10 years last year, although it was something of a disapointment, some of the old place still remains. One of the rabbit warrens of little stalls selling components under the railway is still there as is the Tokyo Radjo Departo, but the Joy Plaza (not a maid cafe but a radio control model shop where the owner used to fly a big model helicopter in the street on sundays), the guy selling nothing other than ball races, and the little shop that sold great knives are all gone.

I first visited Akihabara in 1980 when the Australian dollar got you 270 Yen and everything was cheap, the place seemed like a wonderland but left me with a customs problem on the return home. I suppose that it is progress in a way, but I'd still rather have the place where you could buy a calculator with built in abacus (in case of battery failure) and other such wacky things.

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I suppose it only be a matter of time...

Until stores such as Circuit City (Circus city), or Best Buy (I won't go there) start popping up.

Thankfully places like Fry's electronics here in sillycon valley still exist (not that I'd ask a sales droid the time of day). They still have components so you can get some (non ROHS!) solder and make it work.

Now that the Raspberry Pi is on its way (they just billed me!) I can play some more!

Two sayings:

The difference between Men and Boys is the price of their toys.

He who dies with the most Toys wins!

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Nev
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FAIL

Re: I suppose it only be a matter of time...

Even Fry's (at least the ones in Silicon Valley) have nose dived terribly over the last couple of years.

Used to buy plenty of stuff each trip. Nothing the last couple of times.

Sign of the times?

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