Two of Tokyo’s hubs of pop culture, Akihabara and Harajuku, are fun microcosms to explore the culture of modern Japan.
Akihabara for electronics, anime and video game toilets; and Harajuku for fashion, sweet treats and cat costumes!
Akihabara earned its nickname ‘electric town’ several decades ago when this was the place the buy all kinds of cheap electronics. Now, its a place where everything is electric; huge neon billboards, video games, vending machines, arcade games.
The energy of the crowds is also electric – manga superfans, the tech-savvy, curious tourists, cosplayers, gamers and card collectors – all crammed into the streets to go shopping. The streets are closed to cars during the day, so people swarm freely.
Gachapon (capsule toy dispensers)
Arriving by train, we were distracted for a good half an hour before even leaving the station by the cluster of capsule toy dispensers (gachapon). There were several dozen, complete with change machines, enthusiastic crowds choosing their mystery toy with care. Cindy walked away with a Harry Potter keychain of Dobby, whilst I ended up with a creepy zombie pineapple figurine.
The Japanese love of claw games
The claw games are not just specific to Akihabara – arcades can be found everywhere, all around the country. Prizes range from enormous plush toys of Pokemon, to collectors’ action figures, even chocolate bars and cups of noodles.
Unlike claw machines that steal your money in the western world, claw games in Japan are designed to let you win sometimes, and that’s what seems to keep them popular. There are tricks to winning, for those with practiced hands – using the claw to edge a giant plush close to the edge, and hoping for a lucky bounce when it inevitably falls is a good method.
A video game urinal
When it was time for a bathroom break, I wandered into the nearest pachinko parlour. Ducking upstairs to escape the crazy noise of the metal balls clanging around inside the machines, I found the bathroom.
Each urinal had a sensor on the urinal, and a screen directly above. It was a video game, played by the force of the pee! As I peed, my martial artist guy was punching and kicking and helped me defeat a giant monster. Another guy next to me was playing his own game, and the inside of the toilets sounded like an arcade!
Akihabara is also the home of ‘maid cafes’, cosplay restaurants where the servers are dressed as French maids, with these maids in the streets advertising and handing out flyers in full costume.
Souvenirs, toys, and figurines
More than a few of Akihabara’s billboard-covered high-rises are completely stocked with toys and collectibles. There are many internationally recognised brands – everything for fans of Studio Ghibli, Nintendo, Marvel, One Piece, Yu-Gi-Oh, and many many more that I didn’t recognise. There are plush toys, cookie jars, elaborately crafted display figures, cups, T-shirts, and much more.
Harajuku is centred on two very different main streets. The first is Omotesando, a wide tree-lined shopping haven with expensive international brands and glittering fairy lights (like the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo).
But we came here mostly for Takeshita Street and the surrounding backstreets, the home of Tokyo’s alternative culture.
It’s a pedestrian street, papered with concert posters and filled with junk food, souvenirs and curiosities. Down the side streets are skate shops, ramen restaurants, cat cafes and caricature studios.
And between the tourists and the soberly dressed locals are the hipsters, goths and Harajuku girls dressed up in their Lolita costumes and fluoro wigs and stockings.
Standing near Harajuku station, there was a girl with a pale green wig, bug-eyed sunglasses and a furry leopard-skinned coat. Our first ‘Harajuku girl’ – spotted! We had ice creams in hand, and we were trying to see more of the famous alternative fashion of Harajuku.
We knew what to look for – curled purple hair, Doc Martens, frilly Alice in Wonderland dresses and cutesy anime makeup. Maybe a top hat, or rainbow socks, or a fluoro baseball jacket. Sadly, winter seemed to be the wrong time for outrageous Tokyo styles to step out, so Harajuku was mostly filled with shoppers and tourists instead.
Although Takeshita street is one of the more touristy places we saw in Tokyo, there are lots of great things to discover in this neighborhood. Something that caught our attention immediately was the shop selling dog and cat outfits. At 5,500 Yen per suit, they’re not cheap, but to have a dog running around the lounge room looking like a tiny samurai or R2D2 droid, maybe the cost is justified!
Along the road is Zakuzaku dessert shop, serving one of Tokyo’s greatest snacks. It is an extra-crispy deep fried churros-type thing, piped with fresh cream. Delicious! They also sell soft-serve ice cream, topped with the same fried batter crispies.
We didn’t get far in Harajuku without bumping into the big displays of the plastic crepes. You can’t miss the displays; every topping combo they offer is frozen in plastic and up for display on a huge wall. The crepes are crazy sugar overloads, rolled into a cone shape, filled with chocolate, or banana, or strawberries, and smothered in whipped cream.