A real visit to Tokyo, Part I: Hello, Akihabara.

Unsurprisingly, it was raining Tuesday. (Seems like whenever I take a short trip within Japan, it has to come with some sort of precipitation.) Regardless, I shouldered my duffel bag, opened my umbrella, and hoofed it to the bus stop in front of the dorm. On weekday mornings, public transportation is much more frequent, so it wasn’t long before I was on a full bus to Hoshigaoka. From there, I boarded a packed train to Nagoya and fought my way through the crowds to the opposite side of the JR towers. I had little time to spare, but fortunately for me, the Willer bus primary color is pink, making its employees really easy to spot. They hadn’t yet boarded; in fact, I didn’t even see the bus. What I did see, however, was a girl I’d met at the I-House party where we’d all moved beans and played bingo. It took me a while to remember her name — Misa — since I’d seen her exactly once for about two seconds since then. I’d also forgotten her English was pretty good, so she switched back and forth as we walked a fairly long way down to our bus. She and her two friends (whom I hadn’t met before) were on their way to Tokyo Disneyland; they were taking the bus to get there, but returning via the (faster but more expensive) Shinkansen. Actually, I learned later that a few more people I knew went to Tokyo in those three days off, including the Japanese girl across the hall from me, the girl I’d eaten shabu-shabu with a few months ago, and a new friend from the previous night’s Halloween party (and all of them went to Tokyo Disney). Misa’s friends seemed amazed I could speak Japanese, one of them even asking, “Can you understand what I’m saying right now?” Misa explained that she tried to get to Tokyo at least once a month (which tells me she must have a well-off family). Their seats were toward the front, while mine was toward the rear. This bus wasn’t equipped with movie/game screens like the last one, but instead had a feature I found much more useful: a hood you pulled down, much like the canopy of a baby stroller. Short as I was on sleep, the privacy afforded by that hood was exactly what I needed, and I managed to sleep for most of the five to six hours we were on the road. We stopped twice at the usual waystations, and ultimately arrived in the sprawling megalopolis that is Tokyo.

Takashi had given me directions on how to navigate the trains from my arrival station to Minami Senju (known for having the cheapest hotels in the city), where I’d be staying, so my next stop was the train station. Misa and her friends walked with me and helped me find where I needed to go. I learned just before she left that they weren’t actually going that direction; in typical Japanese fashion, Misa had gone with me rather than just explaining. I thanked her and her friends, and we parted ways.

Grey skies over Minami Senju, Tokyo, not far from where I stayed.

The trains were all above-ground, and featured an extra screen for advertising beside the one for station/line info. I asked directions once I reached my destination, and found the hotel was really close — basically just down the street. The hotel staff greeted me and had me put my shoes into a box (yes, it was slippers all the way past the front door). They gave me the basic rundown: Shower rooms were in the lobby, 100円 for five minutes, but if you showered in the morning, they’d give you ten minutes for free. Internet was also free; the hotel had wi-fi, and there were one PC and one Mac in the lobby for public use. Bathrooms were on each floor, as well as garbage cans, a hot plate, and a microwave. Finally, if you left the hotel, they asked that you drop your key off at the front desk. I took the elevator up and checked out the room. It was small but sufficient, like most business hotels, with a TV, fridge, and a door leading to a postage-stamp balcony that gave me a view of the nearby streets and even the station I’d just come from. Once unpacked, I strapped on my camera and headed out. It was early yet, and I wasn’t going to waste the day.

A brief word before I continue. Last year, when the WVU group went to Tokyo, it had a cultural purpose. We originally had some free time on the first day, while the second day was already planned. Eventually, after some arguments (which I wasn’t really part of, if you can believe that), we were given our entire first day to ourselves. This was great, except Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, and one day simply isn’t much time. Granted, we were there for education, so any unscheduled time was a boon. Of the many things I had the option to do, I chose the wisest: Finally meet, in person, some friends I’d known and been playing games with for years online. The downside was that it afforded me very little time to explore the one place any self-respecting anime/manga/game-loving geek is honor-bound to visit when anywhere near Tokyo: Akihabara. I’d spent maybe two hours there and the only thing I bought was a gachapon screen cleaner with a Persona 4 character on it. This time would be different.

The impressively-large Akihabara branch of Yodobashi Camera by night.

By pure coincidence, Akihabara was on the same line as my hotel was, only five stops distant; I’d actually passed by it on the way in. In no time at all, I was there, but it did take me a few minutes to find the actual heart of it — the train drops you nearby, not inside. The place was even more amazing than I remembered. The English-language signs referred to it as “Akihabara Electric Town,” and that was no exaggeration. There were lit signs everywhere, and while buildings were narrow, they were also tall, each floor holding something different. In fact, space was at such a premium that several stores had multiple installments whole buildings or blocks apart, some specializing and some just offering an additional place to shop or sell. See, you can not only buy things there, but sell them as well; the number of used-goods shops is staggering, from retro games to electronics to game-center and convenience-store-kuji goods. I was after two very rare games, neither of which I expected to find, and had only a few hours left in which to find them, so off I went.

There are numerous game centers in Akiba, and I visited every one I found, marveling at the variety of prizes and the zeal of the employees. Some carried tambourines to shake when a customer won something. Some wore hats or carried stuffed figures from previous prize selections. They stood out front with megaphones, trying to get people to come in. I loved every minute of it. I also browsed some stores for games and other otaku goods, and everywhere I went, the sidewalks were lined with cute girls dressed as maids, handing out flyers to get people to come to their maid cafés. When I got hungry, stopped at the Akiba MOS Burger and had a fish sandwich and acerola soda while they played Queen and Sade on the in-store music. It was perfect.

Of course, the stores eventually started to close and the temperature dropped, though at least the rain had stopped. The poor maids looked cute but cold, and it wasn’t until much later that I saw them wearing coats. Though it was still early by bedtime standards, it was finally time to go back to the hotel and get some rest; I’d be seeing friends the next day, and I wanted to get plenty of sleep. I stopped at a convenience store on the way back and got something to eat for later, went back to my room and turned on the TV in time to catch a random episode of one of the Tiger and Bunny series, and studied a little for a big test I’d have the following Monday before going to bed.

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