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 ofsuper 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

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.

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.