Winter in Japan – Day 6 Asakusa & Akihabara

3.1487937076.akihabara-lit-up-at-nightWe hesitantly rolled out of bed around 10:30 AM and were struggling hard from the previous night’s excess. We still wanted to stick to our plan of roaming Asakusa and Akihabara today though so we got ready and headed to the train station where we picked up breakfast from Tokyu Foodshow. We opted for a bakery stall called Andersen where we selected a variety of cheesy breads that were easy to grab and go. We took the train to Asakusa (which is pronounced a-SAK-sa by the way, super fun to say) where we strolled through the market stalls outside of Sensoji temple. These stalls have a variety of souvenir items, they are fun to browse but very crowded. We ended up veering off onto a side street in search of coffee and found a small inn with a café attached to the back – we enjoyed a matcha and coffee before heading back out to wander the neighborhood a little more. We found a ceramics shop that we recalled passing through on our previous trip as well as a handmade brush shop where we spontaneously splurged on a bathing brush. The shops outside of the immediate temple area seem to be more permanent and interesting and the streets more charming and inviting than the temporary stalls.

We knew we should pass through the Sensoji Temple so we made our way over and briefly explored it. There are instructions on how to cleanse and worship at the temple (hand rinsing, clapping and coin tossing) as well as a smoky incense well where worshipers waft smoke into their own faces which we concluded must be some kind of cleansing/healing ritual. It is a sight to see and experience, though we seem to prefer people watching on these ventures over partaking in the festivities. After passing through the temple we went to find the Hinatomaru standing sushi bar that we had eaten at on our first trip to Tokyo – we recalled it as extremely fresh fish, a good experience and a small price; and it did not disappoint. We each ordered 2 kinds of tuna, snapper, white fish, shrimp, 2 pieces of salmon, and finally 3 kinds of tuna (variations in fattiness to the cuts). It was all fresh and delicious and under $30 USD for both of us. They also have powdered matcha with hot water spigots at each standing spot so you can mix your own green tea right there. It is a very casual experience, you stand and order each piece as you eat then stop and pay when you decide you’ve had enough. Though we don’t necessarily need to see Sensoji Temple a third time, we would likely plan to return to the neighborhood on a future trip just to enjoy this sushi joint again.

Asakusa has a noticeable lack of modernity compared to the other districts of Tokyo we visited. Japanese tourists often rent kimonos and shuffle around in geta (platform thong sandals) to pay respect as they take in this historic district, which adds to the atmosphere of historic and respected area. We explored more back streets before making our way to the train station and heading for Akihabara.

Akihabara is known as “electric town”, it is famous for its massive electronics store, Yodobashi Camera, and its anime fan culture (maid cafes and arcades). We started at Yodobashi Camera which is sort of like a Best Buy on super steroids – it’s 9 floors with each one dedicated to different groups of electronics (one floor for cameras/small appliances, one floor for laptops/phones, one floor for home theatre/audio, etc… the top floor is a driving range and batting cage). We spent over 2 hours exploring every floor. It is astonishing how the Japanese take everything and make it better or more convenient; we left convinced we needed a new, top-of-the-line rice maker, espresso machine and bidet toilet (all separate devices). They have a very cool selection of toys and electronics for kids – last trip we picked up souvenirs for our niece and nephew here (Japanese super heroes) and this time found a model Shinkansen (bullet train) with track for them. Even if you don’t need anything from this store it is worth entering and exploring just for the sheer impressiveness of size and selection. You can try out the latest high definition headphones (which Ryan did), see what’s the latest in vacuum cleaners and crock pots or lounge for a full body massage in the most high tech massage chairs available.

There is even a food court on the 8th floor of Yodabashi Camera where we stopped for dinner. Amanda had spicy miso ramen while Ryan ate chicken wings, gyoza and a don rice bowl. The food was tasty and quick so we could move into more of Akihabara, we were excited to see “electric town” lit up after dark. Akihabara might be the most culture shock we experienced in Japan, the district embraces fan-boy/fan-girlism and fantasy. There are “maid cafes” where women are dressed like French maids and act extra sweet and subservient throughout your meal. There are fetish shops on every corner, multiple pachinko slot rooms for gambling on every street, six story arcades filled with every variety of video game imaginable. There is no shortage of figurine shops where collectors purchase toy statues/models of anime and manga characters; also, apparently on Sundays, people pack the streets dressed as anime and manga characters (we didn’t get to witness this). There are huge, bright advertisements covering every building and loud music pouring out of every arcade and pachinko parlor – it’s sensory overload.

We walked through a pachinko parlor – it was unbearably loud and smoky, but interesting to see so many business men looking like they had just gotten off work and come straight to the parlor where they focus intently on the bright screen in front of them. It looks like a very isolating activity – no social interaction with neighboring players at all. In fact, this is how most of the arcade and video games seemed, many professional looking men focusing so hard on a single screen, I guess it is their way to let loose after a long, difficult day at work (Japanese culture has a grueling business/work mindset).
We walked through all six floors of a SEGA arcade, there were 2 floors of grabber machine games, where you try to hook a toy or figurine onto the claw in order to “win” it. It was surprising to see a grown man place coin after coin in repeated succession into a claw game to finally win an anime school girl figurine. As you ascended the games got more intense and creative – the next floor had some old fashioned shooter games and racing games, but then you started getting into the new-aged unique control arcade games. One floor was almost fully dedicated to some sort of single-player League of Legends type game that used a knob style controller that functioned like a mouse. There was one game that used a ship’s wheel and involved some crazy naval battles, and there were quite a few games that utilized actual card decks. For example, one game had a giant touch-pad area that correlated to a war-zone on the screen – you’d place a card from your deck down where enemy troops were located and some attack specific to that card would play out. There were rows of these machines and very few were unoccupied. The sixth floor was dedicated to music/rhythm games… some of them were like Guitar Hero on extra-steroids. The drum and piano games in particular were insanely complex and the Otaku wonderkids would hit like 2997/3000 notes. We probably stood and stared for 30 minutes (don’t think they even noticed us) before descending back downstairs.

Our curiosity got the better of us on the way back to the train station so we wandered through a fetish shop, which you kind of have to do in this area… pretty entertaining. We debated wandering further away from the train station but decided we were too exhausted after our previous night’s adventure, so we caught the train back to Shibuya and went to bed.

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