Many interesting people live in Akihabara.
While wandering the city, we talk about who are they are and why they love Akiba.
Akihabara People 01: Alvin Phu
Developer and publisher
Alvin Phu is exhausted.
And not without reason. Not only is the indie developer hard at work on his own upcoming game, he’s in the middle of publishing two others, adding constant updates and improvements to last year's, and helping out on a new digital doujinshi venture. Oh, and he just launched his own company.
Not bad for someone who only moved to Japan three years ago.
Phu’s plan for stemming the tide of stress and exhaustion: grilled meat and beers the size of our heads. Seems sensible enough to me.
To that end, our first Akiba stop is Jiromaru (Sotokanda 1-2-3), a standing-room-only yakiniku spot under the Sobu Line tracks. In my time in Tokyo I’ve been to standing bars and standing sushi places, but yakiniku is a first. The taste is just as good as if we were sitting, though, and the beers seriously wouldn’t look out of place at Oktoberfest.
Even if you don’t know the name Alvin Phu, if you’re at all interested in Tokyo’s indie game scene, you’ve likely run across something he’s had a hand in. Since coming to Japan, Phu has launched two hit indie games, Block Legend and Wan Nyan Slash. He’s also the founder of Tokyo Indies, a monthly meetup for local game developers to present their projects, trade advice and knock back a couple drinks. In a business where you’re often working as a one-man team, that last part might be the most important, Phu tells me while waiting for the beef tongue to sizzle.
After getting our fill of grilled meats, Phu and I head onto the Akiba streets. It’s Friday evening and the town is filled with its usual mix of businesspeople, tourists and homegrown otaku on their way to their next destination.
Ours is JAM (Sotokanda 3-2-13), one of Akihabara’s longest-running maid cafes. While taking in the JAMbience (sorry), Phu fills me in on his new business venture.
Hanaji Games (you know in anime when blood starts shooting from someone’s nose? that’s hanaji) is a bigger, badder version of Phu’s former game company, Dot Warrior Games. Aside from continual updates and new ports for Phu’s own games, Hanaji is set to publish Japanese indies in the west (and vice versa).
Though Hanaji is technically based on Shibuya, Phu’s home base is definitely Akihabara. Aside from living here, he does a lot of his coding in cafes not unlike this one. But why choose Akihabara in the first place?
“I got into Akiba through stuff like Densha Otoko and Akihabara@DEEP,” says Phu. These mid-00s shows set in Akihabara and featuring its otaku culture struck a chord with the game creator, who made it his mission to move to Akiba once he came to Japan.
At this point JAM “fairy” Himeka offers to take us on a tour of the cafe. As we take some photos, she explains why JAM is more than your average maid bar. JAM, which turns 12 years old this year, gets its name from the idea of various folks from Akiba coming together in a kind of maid cafe jam session. The atmosphere is relaxed, there’s no table charge, and both wifi and power are available, making it an attractive spot for digital nomads like Phu. And, Himeka notes, there’s plenty of beer.
By this point, our yakiniku is feeling like a distant memory, so we’re off to our final destination: a hot dog stand called Machigaine, which claims to offer Akihabara’s “no. 1 street food.” As I bite into my jalapeno hot dog, cooked up on the spot by owner Yui Fujiwara (who Phu knows, natch), I can’t say I disagree.
Unfortunately, in the short time between Phu and I visited Machigaine and now, the shop has shut down. As I’ve written before in this column, staying alive as an independent business can be tough in Akiba – even if you’ve got the neighborhood’s best hot dogs.
Still, for better or worse, Akiba is a town undergoing continual change, and in a way, that’s part of the fun.
“You know in RPGs when you go around talking to people and learning new information?” asks Phu. “Living in Akiba is like that. Everyone has the same interests – games, anime – nerd stuff. Learning from those kind of people is fun.”
That’s a metaphor fellow game developers and fans will no doubt appreciate.
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.