Tokyo's underground game bars

Shikoku, one of the four major Japanese islands, is renowned for its Buddhist temples. With a history stretching back for over a thousand years, tourists and followers of Shingon Buddhism regularly come to visit 88 of these holy shrines as part of a traditional pilgrimage.

But today, many visitors see Japan as a Mecca for the modern and geeky. It’s the birthplace of Miyamoto and Mario, the home of the Akihabara Electric Town, and host to the Tokyo Games Show. What these travelers don’t realize is that Japan hosts much more than the latest games and tech; there’s a thriving sub-culture, which has been built up around them. If you like the idea of strong drinks served with a side of 8-bit nostalgia, there’s another kind of pilgrimage available.

Scattered around Tokyo, lie six diverse videogame-themed bars. Popular amongst fans and game developers, these establishments allow customers to combine their love of games and alcohol. Most walk right past them, without even realizing they exist. That’s why we put together this pilgrim’s guide to Tokyo’s videogame shrines and cocktail lounges. The addresses and websites (when available) have been provided along with the description of each bar. We’ve also done our best to include an estimate of how much a night of “moderate” drunken gaming will run you.

All photos by Dawn Lucovich and Ryan Winterhalter.

GameBar A-Button

Official Website
Street Address: Taitou-Ku Taitou 1-13-9

How much will it cost?
About ¥1885 - ¥4714.5
About $20 - $50
About £12 - £30

The first stop on our pilgrimage is in Akihabara. This Tokyo neighborhood is packed to the brim with videogame stores and arcades. Whether you’re looking for the latest next-gen titles or bargains on rare classics, you’ll be able to find it here. That’s why for many gamers, Akihabara is the first and last stop on any trip to Japan.

Above: Visit A-Button after a long day of shopping in Akihabara

But if you walk just a few blocks from the stores and arcades, you’ll find a little bar called A-Button. Surrounded by quiet houses and apartment buildings, A-Button is the newest and friendliest of the establishments on our drunken pilgrimage. The décor mixes retro and rare gaming equipment. A giant 42” high-def TV hangs over the bar - and is hooked up to half a dozen consoles, including a development kit for the Sega Dreamcast. Vintage game controllers line the walls, while CRT monitors and consoles - dating back to the ‘70s - add a bit of old school flavor to A-Button’s retro atmosphere.

Head into the A-Bar on Friday and Saturday nights, and you’ll find a crowd of both game fans and folks from the industry. According to one bartender, “Japanese arcade culture isn’t what it used to be, it’s not as popular. So, about a year ago, we decided to make a new community based around this bar.”

It seems that the community has responded well. “Are we regulars? Yeah, something like that,” says one patron speaking on behalf of a crowd of customers. But don’t expect to be shunned if it’s your first time at A-Button; there are always lots of newcomers too. “It’s my second time,” says one young woman before turning her attention back to her boyfriend. She’s busy teaching him the ins and outs of Super Mario Bros. 3 on a nearby station. “Number four,” she says while pointing at the screen (apparently, he needed to know how to get to the giant world).

Above: A-Button is a popular watering hole for game industry insiders

Above: The intimate interior is packed with consoles and playable games

Above: A-Button’s impressive collection of classic controllers. Don’t forget to tip the bartenders, who somehow manage to serve drinks amidst the chaos of old school consoles

Above: A closer look at the consoles connected to just one of A-Button's many televisions