The secret shops of Akihabara

Whether you’re looking for electronics, hardware, anime, games, or anything remotely geeky, you’ll find it in Akihabara, a bustling shopping district in Tokyo, Japan. Located just north of Tokyo Station, Akihabara is really three towns in one. It’s a haven for tech hobbyists, a paradise for anime fans and gamers, and a popular tourist destination.

Above: Today, Akihabara is a giant web of super stores and high-rise buildings. But it was born under the train tracks

But it wasn’t always this way. Akihabara used to be all about radios. Shortly after World War II, a black market for radio and electronic parts sprung up under the train tracks of the Akihabara rail station. During that chaotic post-war period, people were eager for news - and with radios being a scarce commodity, specialty shops like these prospered. Today, there are still a number of shops that cater to hobbyists under the train tracks. In the one shown below, it’s even possible to buy vintage radios from the 1950s.

Above: Akihabara may have changed a lot since 1945, but you can still find evidence of its radio roots 

Messe Sanoh

While the import scene in America has died down as more niche Japanese titles are released in America, the import scene in Japan is heating up. Japanese gamers used to say “you-ge kuso-ge” (western games are crap). But all that changed with the beginning of the current console generation. Japanese next-gen titles were rarely of the same quality as their western contemporaries. To feed their need for next-gen titles, many hardcore Japanese gamers turned towards western games.

Above: Gamers who want western titles go to Messe 

But since Japanese versions of western titles are often never released, where do gamers get their hands on them? If they can make it to Akihabara, they buy them at Messe. The store’s shelves are always stocked with Asian versions of western titles. These imports are primarily sold in China and South-East Asia, are usually identical to the North American release, and often sell for quite a bit less than $60. Combined with the current weakness of the dollar, this means that newly released imports at Messe often cost less than they would in America. Plus, stores usually get games around the same time as western outlets, and don’t care about street dates. One shop we visited was selling Modern Warfare 2 well before its official western release.

Super Potato

Akihabara was once filled with tiny retro game shops that offered great bargains. Unfortunately, a sharp rise in property values between 2006 and 2007 pushed many of these specialty stores out of business. Giant super stores, like Super Potato, took their place. Super Potato is a three-floor retro game shop where one can find almost any title ever made. The selection of games in Super Potato’s library is one the largest in the world, with the rarest titles displayed prominently in glass cases. There are still other retro game stores in Akihabara, many with cheaper prices. But it’s Super Potato’s wide selection that keeps it in business. If you absolutely must find an old school game, the Super Potato will have it. Just be prepared to spend a few extra yen in order to get it.

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  • grayguwapo - November 11, 2010 2:59 a.m.

    Awesome! I've been to Japan before but not in this area... If and when I do get to go back there, I'm making a trip to this heavenly place... Now, all I need is a lot of extra cash to go shopping there... Great article Ryan!
  • TommyG - November 25, 2009 8:08 p.m.

    Nice article. It should be the start of a series of similar pieces - I'd read em!
  • Stockholm - November 25, 2009 7:42 a.m.

    @Everyone Above Me None of you will set foot in Japan. Ever. Not even college boy up there. Wanna know why? Cuz' your mom ends up dying of Lyme disease three days before the trip and you spend the next 3 months crying instead. Most of you who where angered by my comment will likely die alone. This is how things are. Sorry if I offended any of you. How do I know this? Well you'll all just have to trust me. I'm the voice of reason (a.k.a. you're not going to Japan, it's just not realistic.)
  • nikrusty - November 24, 2009 8:26 a.m.

    wow really informative. Thanks GR :)
  • AnonymouZ - November 20, 2009 10:21 p.m.

    i agree with souleater... what happens if you WIN that rock/paper/scissors game oO?
  • rxb - November 20, 2009 1:18 p.m.

    I was lucky enough to go 6 years ago. It really is amazing. I spend ages walking around looking in every shop mostly because I couldnt read the shop signs. Also buildings have different shops on different floors. I kinda wish the maid cafes were around just to try one out. I went on my own so at least I wouldnt get blackmailed. One tip, stay away from the drinks vending machines they are bloody expensive.
  • deathrebellion - November 20, 2009 12:49 p.m.

    *sigh* i wish i cud visit Japan with shitloads of moolah :|
  • wrapdump - November 20, 2009 12:38 p.m.

    God I remember going to most of these places, and then feeling my knees buckling under all the crap I was carrying home on the train. Why do NES's still fetch more than Megadrives in Akihabara?! That call for a gamer's guide to Japanese is a good idea. I'll gladly help if anything like that happens.
  • Unoriginal - November 20, 2009 11:32 a.m.

    Sorry for double posting but: Amazing article Mr. Winterhalter (Kickass name BTW). You just increased my longing to go to Japan one day, and it was pretty substantial already.
  • Unoriginal - November 20, 2009 11:30 a.m.

    @Above Oh man, I am sooo going to Japan sometime!
  • Collymilad - November 20, 2009 9:43 a.m.

    "Fun Fact: The commenters who post things along the lines of "Oh man, I am sooo going to Japan sometime!" will likely NEVER end up going to Japan. The more you know!" I haven't commented before now, and I'm not saying I will go to Japan, but how do you know what people are going to do? It's not like it's THAT hard to go. Douche.
  • Samael - November 20, 2009 9:14 a.m.

    @Stockholm Yeah, except we are going to Japan. We're in the middle of setting it up. Don't make assumptions, you know what they make you. /endrant
  • Dameon Angell - November 20, 2009 7:25 a.m.

    This may be a odd sounding question, but do you guys have a desktop sized version of the picture you used for the news-bar to this article? I thought it was really interesting looking for a desktop picture. Thanks
  • Stockholm - November 20, 2009 5:54 a.m.

    Fun Fact: The commenters who post things along the lines of "Oh man, I am sooo going to Japan sometime!" will likely NEVER end up going to Japan. The more you know!
  • Samael - November 20, 2009 2:33 a.m.

    Going to Japan next year with my college anime club! It'll be simultaneously awesome and frighteneing. We already intend to visit Akihabara, so this was a great and informative read.
  • GameManiac - November 20, 2009 2:08 a.m.

    I think I just died and went to gamer's heaven after reading this article. [Cue angelic choir]
  • TheRussianConcussion - November 20, 2009 1:25 a.m.

    Wow! that was a really well put together and informative article. I thought you were going miss the video game themed bars. Thanks and keep up the good work.
  • defiance0fchaos - November 20, 2009 1:07 a.m.

    Janken is Rock paper scissors, you always start with paper...
  • souleater77 - November 20, 2009 12:19 a.m.

    what happens if you win one of those janken games? you were decidedly circuitous in that area...
  • JoeMasturbaby - November 19, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    this is probably the most fascinating article ive ever read on GR. i knew nothing about this, and its interesting to me. Maybe someday i'll visit.