Sunday, May 18, 2008

Visiting Akihabara in Japan

It's likely than when Eddy Grant was belting out the lyrics to the 80s tune Electric Avenue, he was thinking of Akihabara, a small town in Tokyo, Japan that serves as the destination for anything and everything electronic. OK, so he probably wasn't thinking of this high-tech area, but the Japanese do call it "Electric Town", clearly stated via a sign that greets you upon arrival. If you thought you've seen a lot of technology in one spot, I can almost guarantee that you haven't seen anything like Akihabara.

My first stop was a popular tourist shop called Laox. It looked pretty standard, with digital cameras, camcorders, and knick knacks occupying the relatively small space. No big deal - I see the same sorts of stores walking down Yonge St. in Toronto. Luckily, I was with someone who had visited before, and walked me to the back, where a discrete elevator opened to reveal the option of 6 other floors. Wow! They were all filled with knick-knacks that any tourist would like - fans, kimonos, playing cards, T-shirts, and the like. Moving over to a huge department store had me stopping in awe at the entrance to snap photos. The best way I could describe it would be 1,000 Best Buys or Wal-Marts jammed into one. Aisles upon aisles of electronics. Again, I found myself face to face with a sign that outlined 8 floors of goodies. One for gaming, one for home A/V, one for pretty much anything you might be looking for. To navigate just this one store would have easily taken a full day, and then some. One neat tidbit I learned from walking around? Japanese books actually open from the opposite side, so they're read back to front. Who knew.

I wish I had had more time to explore Akihabara, but my quick glimpse was definitely an interesting one. You probably won't be saving any money by purchasing something there versus in Canada or the U.S., nor will you find the stores filled with too many items that you can't find at home. And I can't fathom anyone shopping there as a regular destination spot. But the sheer magnitude of the area and the stores within it is eye-opening, and worth visiting at least once if you're ever in Japan.

I was really surprised to see how Westernized Tokyo has become. For every restaurant, shop, or street sign that appeared in Japanese, there was another one right beside it declaring the English translation. A short visit to a Macy's-like department store in the Shinzuku area (about a half hour subway ride from Akihabara) reminded me of any old department store in Toronto. Except instead of the standard "welcome" greeting, I received the same with an inviting Japanese smile.

It's important to note that the situation wasn't like this everywhere, such as in the Hot Springs hotel that we visited in Matsumoto where the majority of staff did not speak English, nor was there any (gasp) wireless Internet access. This was a nice change, though, as we were all able to truly appreciate the experience instead of pounding away on BlackBerries.

I can imagine that visiting Tokyo as a whole isn't quite as intimidating as it was 20 years ago. Thankfully in my case, the language barrier has been eased just a bit. Domo arigato!

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