Exploring “The Other Side”
For first-timers at Akihabara station, the obvious choice of exit is Akihabara Electric Town – the very name anticipates the electrifying experience of sights and sounds promised in countless guidebooks and websites.
Take Akiba station’s Showa Exit, and the difference is almost shocking. Any indication that this is the promised mecca of anime and video games is nowhere to be found. Instead, this side of the station hosts karaoke boxes, pachinko parlors, cafes and bars: in other words, no different from any area surrounding any major train station in Tokyo.
In my last column I posited that some of Akiba’s most interesting nightlife spots might actually be off in these less obvious corners of town, and so the day after Christmas I crawled out of bed to test that prediction.
The most obvious landmark on side of the station is the gigantic Yodobashi Camera, an electronics store which I imagine displaced a lot of locally-owned electronics shops when it opened up here in 2005. Taller than most of the surrounding buildings, Yodobashi looms like a symbol of the homogenization of Tokyo’s neighborhoods.
Locally-owned versus corporate is on my mind as I wander this side of the station, perhaps because the place I have in mind to visit is strictly the former. I’ll go ahead and spoil the suspense now: it turns out once you get deep enough, there are indeed pockets of interesting nightlife even on this side of the station. The place I’m headed, Game Bar A-Button, is one such spot.
The reason I wanted to visit this particular bar is because of rumors that after almost nine years of business, A-Button owner Shinichiro Nagamine is closing up shop.
Thankfully, reports of A-Button’s death have been greatly exaggerated, Nagamine assures me as I walk in. Since the announcement the store might close, visitors have been increasing. Nagamine’s also trying new strategies to attract new customers, like opening the bar at 3pm, changing to no-smoking (vaping is okay) and removing the seat charge, a common sticking point among foreigners not used to that particular Japanese bar custom.
I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Game Bar A-Button? Simply put, it’s a bar run by (and frequented by) people who really like video games. It’s essentially a miniature museum to the first two decades of video game history where you can have a have a drink – with video game industry folk, more often than not, as a wall lined with business cards of past visitors attests.
But while A-Button has its regulars, Nagamine has seen an increasing share of his business come from foreign customers, especially since the weak yen has encouraged so many people to visit Japan.
People from different countries supporting a local business – I’m not a huge fan of buzzwords, but is this what they mean by “glocal”?
Whatever it is, if it keeps A-Button open, I’m all for it.
A bit more Showa Exit-side wandering reveals another game-related treat: Natsuge Museum, a tiny retro arcade. I pop in for a round of Time Pilot, a Konami shooter I hadn’t played since high school.
Suffice it to say, no one’s making a fortune on places like A-Button or Natsuge. They’re labors of love, and as A-Button’s close call proves, they need the love (uh, and money) of patrons to survive.
Our final stop for the night is Singari, an izakaya mere meters away from the arcade. They’re booked up with end-of-year parties but the weather is unseasonably warm, and my pal and I grab a seat outside around a barrel that substitutes for a table and grab some scallops, tuna, oden and the all-important beer.
After the place clears out a bit we’re invited inside and discover the place is decorated with art by Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure creator and artist Hirohiko Araki.
Look hard enough and even the Showa Exit side of Akiba feels like the Akiba we know and love.
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.