Akihabara – Where Real Life and Japanese Media Collide

As a fan of Japanese video games and anime, Akihabara was easily one of the places I looked forward to the most in Japan. Little did I know that it was even more outlandish than I had imagined.

For those who don’t know, Akihabara is a district in Tokyo well known for its numerous stores and shops with anime-themed goods. It is the center of otaku lifestyle in Tokyo, which means that it’s by far the nerdiest area of the whole city. I’ve seen Akihabara called the mecca of anime by friends and by other in the fandom, but part of me thought it was an exaggeration spurred by over-the-top depictions in lots of anime shows. However, I realized I was wrong as soon as I entered the JR Akihabara train station, since the first thing I saw when going down the escalator was large advertisements with anime girls plastered on the walls. I can only wonder what someone’s reaction to this place would be if they weren’t already into (or at least aware of) anime, manga, and other forms of Japanese pop culture.

Never thought I would see a billboard for "Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax".
Photo by Lester Maceren

On the first day after I flew into Japan, I was due to meet a friend at an arcade in Akihbara called “Club Sega.” Little did I know that there were actually multiple Club Sega’s in Akihabara, so with that and my lack of a stable wifi connection, I ended up missing out on meeting my friend that day. However, I did end up getting to wander the area on my own, which worked out in my favor since I had specific stores I wanted to go to, and it also gave me my chance to explore and see things on my own.

First of all, let me say that I don’t think there is anything close to an equivalent here in America. I’ve never heard of any American city (or even neighborhood) having such an abundance of arcades, video game shops, or anime stores like there is in Akihabara. Video game stores are common enough in the states (though they’re usually Gamestop, by far the largest video game retail chain in the US), but anime stores are much rarer, and from what I have seen, they tend to have very similar merchandise mostly for the popular, more mainstream (relatively speaking, of course) shows like “Naruto” or “Attack on Titan”.

For me, I was looking to purchase souvenirs from more obscure franchises that my brother and I were interested in. I had to do a lot of online research before I left the US just to find out which stores carried what I wanted. Even with a map that labeled the specific store in question, I got lost for a good half-hour or so before I literally stumbled upon my destination. Once inside, I spent about an hour browsing through two small floors of T-shirts, plush toys, CDs, games, and a plethora of other random goods plastered with characters and logos. I ultimately splurged on a few music CDs from doujin groups (think of them as the equivalent of indie bands in the US) and a few other small souvenirs that I would never be able to find in the West (and would cost significantly more to import, if the option even exists).

Other than buying merchandise, I knew that I wanted to get a taste of the Akihabara gaming scene. Not only were there plenty of stores selling Japanese games (many of which I wouldn’t be able to play anyway), but arcades populated the streets like Starbucks in New York City. Arcades are a dying breed in the US, but not only were there multiple arcades in Tokyo, but they were alive. The ones I went to (like the aforementioned Sega Club) were often filled with diverse groups of people, which surprised me compared to the almost entirely male crowds I’ve seen in US arcades. Of course, I’m sure there are a few reasons for this; this was around the New Year’s holidays, and my friend mentioned that a lot of students were on break, so I can imagine that was big factor in the young crowds (many people there were either high school or college-aged). Also, many of the arcades had multiple floors with different types of games. Typically, the entrance to these arcades were lined with many amusement park-style games, where you pay some money for a chance to get a cute prize like a plush toy or a character figurine. If you go higher up in the building, you would see the more hardcore or competitive games, and those floors usually had an older male demographic. In one instance, I saw one or two suited businessmen, playing fighting games as if they were taking out their stress by pummeling their virtual opponents.

When I visited the arcades in Akihabara, I spent most of my time on the floors with populated with fighting games such as “Street Fighter” and “Tekken.” I enjoy fighting games in particular, though I would never say that I’m a master at them, and it didn’t help that I’m used to console controllers instead of the arcade sticks used on actual arcade machines. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to try my luck at a game that I would otherwise never be able to play in American arcades.

The full name of the game I played is called “Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code,” but since that title is basically a potluck of random English words, I’ll call it “Melty” for the rest of this post. It’s a game that was never released in the US, but there was a small following in my college, and eventually I got into it as well as my first real attempt to be a competitive fighting game player. I found a Melty cabinet that had only one player, meaning anyone was free to drop in a 100 yen coin and challenge the player. An interesting thing about these machines, compared to those I typically see in the US, is that instead of being side by side playing on the same screen, these machines were basically two-in-one; two screens face outward and each player sees only their screen, but not the other player. It creates an interesting dynamic, not knowing what your opponent looks like and not being able to interact with them directly.

After about 800 yen worth of matches, with each match being a best of three rounds, and two matches per 100 yen… I won about two rounds. Not matches. Rounds. In other words, I got absolutely destroyed! I wasn’t surprised though, given that I hadn’t played in about a year, and even at my prime, I was merely an intermediate Melty player at best.

But to my own surprise, I wasn’t upset about my utter defeat. In actuality, I would have kept going if I had more coins to put in. It was a humbling experience, but it was also one that I knew I would not replicate outside of Japan. The thrill of in-person competition, playing against your opponent where one wrong move can cost you the match… and then doing it in a foreign country where people barely spoke your language.

As I mentioned, I ended up taking two rounds from him, and honestly, I still don’t know how I pulled those off. Maybe he went easy on me, maybe he got distracted, or maybe I just got really, really lucky. But despite those two minor glitches, he obviously controlled our matches from start to finish. The best part is, he could have stopped playing a newbie like me, but he kept going without saying a word. Probably because it didn’t cost him anything (since, if I recall correctly, only the loser had to pay 100 yen each time to keep playing), but still, I like to think of it as him being a good sport about it. I would have gone up to him after to say “good game” but unfortunately I didn’t have that particular phrase in my Japanese guidebook.

Before and after my string of losses, I took some time to walk around and watch other gamers in the area. At the time, there was a large crowd of people huddled around a few “BlazBlue” matches. I think there was a tournament going on, as after every match they seemed to go to one person who would then write something down and have another match started. BlazBlue is another Japanese fighting game series that doesn’t seem to be quite as big in the West, but I was glad to see that it was still thriving in its homeland. I also saw people playing other games such as Tekken, which does have more of a Western presence, but through console gaming moreso than arcades.

Going to Akihabara with my friends was an eyeopening experience that I would have loved as a kid, but I appreciate now that I’ve grown older. It was an experience that combined my childhood hobby of gaming with my current interest in travelling to new destinations. While I may spend less time with games and anime nowadays, I couldn’t help but feel like a kid in nerd heaven as I walked through the colorful streets of Akihabara, and experiencing it will always beat merely seeing it in the animated shows that I watch.

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