The New Year is the biggest Japanese holiday. Being in Japan for this would probably suck in most parts of the country, because everything closes... but Akiba doesn't. Nothing is sacred in Akiba.
My hatsumode (first shrine visit) was perhaps the fondest memory of my entire visit to Japan. I walked with all my new drinking friends from our regular bar to the local temple... and I had my mind blown. I understood that the new year was a big deal in Japan, but here in this temple at midnight stood thousands of locals lined up to make their first offering. The place was enormous and naturally beautiful, which are two things that impress you even more when you're very drunk.
On account of the line being so long, we opted to just stand around and enjoy new year's snacks (Yakitori! Takoyaki! New Year's Sake! Asahi!) as we hobbled around the shrine. See a shrine. They are beautiful. You will not regret it. Just don't show up drunk, I figure that's gotta be a cultural faux pas when it's not New Year's Day.
I actually was only at Comic Market for maybe an hour and a half. I know, I know, this is the biggest comics gathering in the world. But I simply didn't have any plans to buy anything, and I especially didn't want to end up with something that would give me trouble at the border... and you don't know what's going to be in those doujinshi unless you check every page! We saw some friends with books to sell-- including one person we met at the hotel breakfast!-- checked out the cosplay and got going to the life-size Odaiba Gundam.
You still have to see Comiket, if you're in the area at the time. It is an overwhelming spectacle of otaku crowding. The pictures you've seen cannot prepare you for the actual scale of the thing. It is bigger than the anime convention you are thinking about: lines for a single circle will exceed the lines at a big US convention, with the poor schlub at the back of the line forced to hold a big cardboard sign featuring terrible things being done to Nanoha.
That said, you can just walk on in pretty easily if you don't have to be there as Comiket opens on account of some book that's in short supply. (I heard of a Sword Art Online book that went to 30,000y the day after it was on sale!) We showed up around 2: the crowds were still insane, but it was pretty easy to get around. Again, you should definitely not miss it, if only to understand the sheer size of the event. It is the biggest otaku thing you'll ever see in your life, guaranteed.
5-foot Great Mazinger outside a figure shop in Akiba.
I actually didn't do a ton of otaku shopping because I knew my budget would only allow so much loot straight-up dropped on toys and such. Also, one floor at Kotobukiya really did me in.
If you're buying anything, go to Nakano Broadway. Damn right I'm taking you out of Akiba. This is the home base for Mandarake, the biggest otaku goods chain. Press through what appears to be a normal, bustling shopping mall for a little while, and you'll start to notice something: there is no end to this place. To call the complex merely massive is a criminal understatement. Nakano Broadway is a black hole of commerce. Get all the way back, and you'll see Mandarake outlets for every otaku and fujoshi niche that it is possible to sell products to. If you were blown away by the shops in Akiba, your head is going to come flying clean off in this place. Everything you were thinking of, from new to extreme vintage, is here and it is reasonably priced. Make it to the top and behold the ultimate vintage robot moonbase, complete with shrine gates, atmospheric noise, and the enbalmed body of an alien. One of the robots was a million yen! The cashiers I bought stuff from were dressed like Quattro and Red Buster.
There are apartments here, people live here. What a life! They don't have to go far from home unless they get lonely, I presume.
I didn't run through a lot of the stores but I did check out Kotobukiya's entire store. This never comes up on Astro Toy, because we don't do PVC, but I actually really like Koto's stuff: they pride themselves on their quality and it is indeed consistently high. Their store, like so many others, is divided by audience. The bottom floor has merchandise from the major current hits like Eva, Fate/Zero, imas, and others. The next floor up (don't quote me on exactly what the layout was) was definitely girl-ota-oriented, with a general mountain of pretty boys, cute mascots, and JRPGs. The next floor up was the one after my own heart, with robots and tokusatsu stuff. After that I believe there was a misc floor, and the top floor was a temporary exhibit on Sword Art Online.
Yo, guys, little etiquette. I know SAO sucked-- trustworthy sources told me so emphatically-- but do not leave asshole messages in English like “NOVEL WAS WAY BETTER” (but you've left this message in English!) or “ANIMATE SUCHANDSUCH INSTEAD” on these people's Post-It wall. This makes you unbearablel. People pretend to listen to you in conversation, but they only do so out of politeness.
Anyway, I bought:
Akibaranger DX Moe Moe Z-Cune: this is the gun that the Akibarangers use to transform. There is also a large-scale PVC figure inside! Surprisingly the gun was on half-off sale at 6000y (about $80), but I haven't noticed any serious problems. The insane design of the item demands that you be pretty careful with it, which means don't wave the gun around too much... but what did anybody expect from a toy gun holding a PVC figure inside of it?
The middle poster of this Ideon set.
Charge Man Ken mug. There was a whole display case full of Charge Man Ken stuff, including stuff commemmorating great episodes like "Dynamite in the Brain!!" and the special "Charging Go!" PVC.
Generic towel with Japanese “Dododododo” sound effect printed all over it, hiding in the Jojo section (fooled me!), Garo bandanna featuring the Horror inscriptions from the show, Zaruba clear sticker to put on my next computer/tablet.
I put away a lot of things that I wished I could afford. I am still sad over Hot Toys Ryo Saeba (10,000y on sale!!), Soul of Chogokin Leopardon (Spider-Man's robot), and a huge, very ugly 600y figure of Guy Shishio from back when Gaogaigar was on TV. Again: when I come back it will be with twice the time and three times the money.
So the Odaiba Gundam is a mall ornament. This isn't to say it isn't astonishing: it will pull the breath right out from your lungs. But you need to know that it is a mall ornament.
Diver City is a typical and boring mall that would really like you to check it out! That's why they have this “Gundam” thing in the back. They make it really hard for you to actually find the Gundam: it's not even on some of the maps! Facing the main entrance, go left where it looks like there's nothing around. Just keep going that way. You will eventually come upon it, even though nothing really indicates that you will. As a tourist, it's probably a total waste for you to hang out in Diver City-- see the H&M! The Lacoste!!-- though we did have food court udon superior to most I've eaten here.
The Gundam is actual size. Go ahead and gawk, that's what everybody else is here for. Oh my God, holy shit. Wow.
A family chuckled at us as we made fools of ourselves in front of it. The dad was complaining that the Gundam didn't hold a beam saber.
They sell Haro meatbuns and Gundam taiyaki here, and also at a little stand outside the full-fledged Gundam Cafe in Akiba. Both were decent. The girl who took my order there was wearing a Celestial Being uniform. We didn't eat at the actual Gundam Cafe because I heard from a lot of people that it's actually pretty lame, and I'm willing to believe that. Don't waste good meals when you're on vacation!
If you're in the area of the Gundam you're also right by Tokyo Joypolis, one of Sega's amusement parks. Again, I wish I'd had a couple hours to spend there. We thought it'd be lame, but it's a full-scale amusement park. There's a high degree of interactivity, since it's Sega and all, and nearly all the rides are also games to some degree. We saw a huge amount of “awesome!!-- oh no the line is an hour” attractions and rode none because we had somewhere to be. For gamers and Sega nerds, there's a version of Initial D that lets you ride in full-scale models of the cars from the series, and alternate versions of House of the Dead 4 and Let's Go Jungle that take place in movie-theater-size chambers. And of course there's a Sonic Land. It's definitely a place to spend a day: day passes are 3000y, if I recall.
This is still a surviving institution in Japan, unlike most places on the earth! When the guys and I were not actually seeing people and doing things, we were probably having fun in the arcades around home base: the three Club Sega locations, HEY, TRY Tower, and Taito Station.
They're all basically laid out like this: UFO catchers and kids' arcade games on the bottom floor, and then progressively more “gamer” things as you go up. Music games, then shooters, then fighters, and after that the really hardcore stuff like card games, Derby Owner's Club, and others of that ilk. Mahjong is usually around there too.
Pretty much any of the places I hung out in in Akiba-- but especially these places!-- would make an arcade game geek from anywhere else in the world weep. The difference is that vast. Games that would be impossible treasures elsewhere in the world (like, say, complete histories of Cave, including footnotes like Batsugun and DDP2) were just sitting around in these joints.
If you only go to one it has to be HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard). Their centerpiece, a custom-made Darius II featuring two screens the size of a grown man, forced me to reconsider art and life themselves. I grinned really hard when the line “I ALWAYS WANTED A THING CALLED TUNA SASHIMI” came booming in. Don't take pictures, it's not allowed. Be nice.
Coming down from the station, the third Club Sega (presently it has Virtua Fighter and Border Break signs way up on the building) has a museum floor at the top where techs in Sega jumpsuits keep watch over a historical archive of massive deluxe cabinets. Present is the super-rare F-Zero AX, an Afterburner Climax doubles cab, Ferarri F355, and others, including the humble Super Hang-On sitdown. No Sega fan should miss this floor. On F-Zero and Afterburner, make sure you buckle the seatbelt to activate the machine's motion features. Climax in particular is an exhilarating ride.
The staff got my bag when I lost it playing MJ5 and presumed it lost forever. Nice bunch of guys. I think that by the last day or so they recognized me (you know I couldn't go a day without Afterburner). Thanks.
The most popular game overall is easily Gundam Extreme Vs. (FULL BOOST). The game that started back at Federation Vs. Zeon on the Dreamcast has grown tremendously over the years and I don't think anyone who watched it could question it as a solid versus shooter. Every place has an enbankment of at least eight of these machines, and usually they have two such units.
However, like any arcade fighting game, it's really hard to actually learn anything: multiplayer cabinets will throw you into deathmatches with highly skilled strangers who will combo you into dust without pity.
No joke, I was actually Gundam-bullied. Some guy saw me playing, sat down on the other row, picked Wing Zero, and mercilessly chased me and only me for as many games as it took for me to get up and walk away. What a dick!
The only other game that was really occupied all that much that weekend was the new Blazblue version, and a little SF4 at HEY. Under-Night was there, for example, but I didn't see a single person play it but me. These didn't really seem like fighter hotspots. Plus, in my experience, people were straight up scared to play with the foreigner. I got through an entire game of Garou on the only free machine in that arcade (TRF) and nothing!
Fans of “poverty” (lesser-loved) fighting games will want to go to TRF at the top of Nakano Broadway, where guys laugh their way through the incredibly difficult “basketball combos” of Hokuto no Ken and play stuff like Breakers and Chaos Code on the side. This was the arcade most like the American fighting game scene with which I'm familiar. TRF used to have a maid.
The coolest game you'll never play was Gunslinger Stratos, by the Gundam Vs. developers. It's controlled by a 9mm and Magnum (concept by Gen Urobuchi, natch) with thumbsticks on them to move the player. Gunkata motions as seen in Equilibrium are required of the player. Seriously, the guns are magnetic and you have to pose. It's an insane game and according to a friend who's quite skilled himself, “I think you have to be a genius to play it”.
The "variety" order at Baird in Harajuku, which brews its own beer. So does TY Harbor, actually. Don't get the impression that that's common, those are just the kinds of places we drank!
Next post is all mahjong stuff, pictures of the beautiful new set I bought, thoughts on the MJ arcade games. They're pretty sweet!