Akiba dies after 8.
This is a common refrain among some people I know, and it’s not hard to see why. Every night, as “Auld Lang Syne” plays over the speakers of shuttering electronics and anime shops, there is a mass exodus as consumers go home to enjoy the fruits of their shopping labors.
But as these folks move out, a different demographic comes in: one less concerned with Akihabara’s things than with things you can do in Akihabara. As shops selling consumer goods close, those in the business of experiences open up. Akiba doesn’t die, but it does transform.
I’ve been writing about anime, manga and other otaku-related topics out of Tokyo for years, and I’ve been to Akiba to cover events any number of times. Still, I’m nowhere near an expert on the place. Writing this column will give me – and you, I hope – a chance to discover the side of Akihabara that only comes out at night.
For the inaugural edition of this column, it seems obvious what to do: when it comes to learning more about a place, there’s no substitute for hitting the street. So one mid-December night, camera in hand, I set out to prowl the streets of Akiba.
An undeniable and ubiquitous part of Akiba’s nightlife: mizu shobai. Literally “water trade,” mizu shobai is a fancy Japanese euphemism for men paying women for night-time entertainment – not, in fact, sex – at least, not usually. Instead we’re talking about girl’s bars, maid cafes, hostess clubs and all these sexual-but-not-sex establishments of the night.
Of course, Akihabara doesn’t have a monopoly on mizu shobai – far from it – but it definitely has its own version, one that seems to focus on youth, purity, moe, or extreme specialization, like one bar I pass that specializes in zettai ryouiki, the exposed skin between knee-high socks and skirts.
Is mizu shobai plain old exploitation or a kind of empowerment? Is it right to apply western moral thinking to this Japanese form of nightlife? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear this is one an essential piece of the Akiba puzzle.
Akihabara doesn’t strike me as a place too interested in what season it is – when do nerds ever talk about the weather? – but it appears to be getting into the Christmas spirit in a limited way, at least.
Frequently spotted on the streets of Akiba: itasha, literally “painful cars,” automobiles painted in tribute to one’s favorite anime. This is the offshoot itansha: painful motorcycle.
Where does Akihabara begin? Where does it end? Stray from the area around the station, and the streets become far less busy – but something gives me the feeling Akiba’s most interesting nightlife happens here.
I happen on this ramen shop, Ryuuten, in an alley near Akihabara station. The shop, which has been around forever, is temporarily closed, and the notes, I learn later, are well-wishes from regular customers. One post-it quotes The Terminator: “I’ll be back!”
After hitting the street, I meet up with some Beacon colleagues at a yakitori place called Toriman not far from the station. My colleagues have chosen Toriman because it’s shibui (old school) both in taste and atmosphere, and they’re definitely right. No trace of electronics town/otaku mecca Akiba in this joint, which has been around since 1957 – just good grilled chicken.
We quickly jump into some conversation about what’s going around town. A couple of guys in the group are hardcore Akihabara history buffs, and they’re pretty pessimistic about the current situation. Places like Toriman are becoming increasingly rare. Lots of family-owned small businesses are disappearing, and cropping up in their place are chain restaurants and cafes. This isn’t a problem unique to Akiba, but one that stings nonetheless.
One particular problem in maintaining some of Akiba’s history as an electronics town is that nowadays one can simply buy electronics anywhere. This comes back to the idea that Akiba has to start selling experiences rather than things. But here the history buffs are cautiously optimistic: We talk about one shop in Akiba’s Radio Center that seems to be keyed in on this idea, inviting tour groups to actually solder together their own simple electronics in-store under the watchful eye of the owner.
Saying thanks to Toriman’s owner.
Just a few hours in Akihabara have made it clear: there’s a lot to be explored here.
Matt Schley is an editor and writer at Otaku USA, a magazine devoted to Japanese pop culture, and a contributor to several Japan-related publications. He loves the Yakult Swallows and makes a mean Denver omelette.