Godzilla, samurais and vending machines selling used panties. Tentacle porn. Kimonos. That famous temple in Kyoto. A futuristic megacity. A lot of people think Japan is like Memoirs of a Geisha by day and a pervert’s version of Bladerunner by night.
And that’s partly true. The blend of the traditional and modern is one of the most captivating parts of living here. Nonetheless, life in the suburbs is about as humdrum as it would be in any developed country.
Although daily life mostly consists of convenience stories and crowded commuter trains, the reason why Japan captures so many peoples’ imaginations is always bubbling under the surface. One of the best places to witness this very unique gap between fantasy and reality is Akihabara in Tokyo, a mecca for otaku (geek) culture and Japanese style escapism.
All that weird stuff you’ve heard about?
Visiting a Maid Cafe
This is a pretty straightforward concept. An informal place to eat where the waitresses are young girls who wear french maid outfits, act obnoxiously cute, and greet you at the door by saying ‘welcome home, master.’ Nothing odd about that, right?
I went to a popular made cafe chain called Maidreamin’ with my new colleagues shortly after arriving in Japan and it was one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been. After you’re shown to a table you don some bunny ears (obviously) and investigate the menu. The flavours are plain but the presentation is as saccharine as possible. If you order the omelete-rice, the maids will even draw on it in ketchup.
Before you eat, the maids encourage you do ‘cute magic’ - i.e. say a few words in high-pitched Japanese, form a heart shape with your hands and wave it at the plate. This will make your meal more delicious. As you munch it down, the maids potter about and occasionally take the stage to sing karaoke. When this happens, the lights dim and you are provided with glow sticks. Then just as suddenly, it’s back to eating.
The special meal set includes a polaroid with one of the maids.
I know what you're thinking, but there were families with kids in the restaurant as well as slightly frustrated looking male teenagers, meaning the experience was simultaneously sexual and completely non-sexual at the same time.
No, I don't get it either.
Lusting after AKB48
It has been suggested that Japan fetishizes youth because it also places unreasonable demands on adults. If you had to take a train to work so busy that someone was employed at the station to push you on and squeeze the doors shut, you’d probably emerge at your destination a little perturbed too.
Heading to work, courtesy of @robaato_san.
If maids aren’t your thing but you still want lunch with your lolita complex, check out the AKB48 cafe.
AKB48 are a Japanese idol girl group named after the Akihabara area. Unlike manufactured girl groups in the West, there are about 130 members, many of whom are so young that their combined ages probably add up to roughly the same as the Spice Girls’ do now.
My favourite is the cute one with brown hair.
The concept behind the band is ‘idols you can meet’ with handshaking events with fans being as important as live concerts. The band’s look is fashioned as being ‘the third cutest girl in your class’, meaning they’re attractive, but not so attractive that you’re too shy to talk to them. That’s A+ for marketing.
Their theatre is in Akihabara but if you’re not lucky enough to get tickets in the daily lottery, you can just stop by the cafe and watch live videos on a giant screen while you sip a very sweet hot chocolate. It’s actually really quite pleasant.
Releasing some of that pent-up rage
Japan has some of the best video game arcades in the world, obviously. As well as UFO catchers full of cuddly toys, there are all the latest first-person shooters, RPGs and random games like the Taiko (traditional Japanese drum) simulator below which frankly makes Guitar Hero look like a piece of shit.
Even better are the slightly weird ones, like this House of the Dead-esque shooter, where you type the zombies’ names on a retro keyboard to shoot them.
Above: James finally got a job.
My favourite though was Cho Chabudai Gaeshi, which translates as ‘super flip the table’ and may actually be the best thing ever made.
You see the plastic table in front of the screen? To score points you slam your fists on it, then flip it over with as much force as you possibly can. Instead of levels, there are scenarios: cashier at a fast food restaurant, bride at her wedding and middle-aged man at the family dinner table. You watch as the characters on the screen obliviously infuriate you, then when the time is right, you hurl that fucking table as hard as you can and cause as much damage as possible.
When I knocked over the dinner table it sent my two children into the bookshelf, knocked my wife back into the kitchen and totally obliterated all the crockery. It was wholly satisfying.
I’ve had a pretty stressful semester with some awful students (one girl in particular) and finding this game was a Godsend. I mentioned it and the idea of table-flipping to one of the nicer students in class and their response was simply: “Ah, that is Japanese culture.”
If maids and underage idols can’t cure what ails you, this will.
Learning to love cute styles
To aid your quest for ‘kawaii’ (the quality of being cute) there are various photo booths inside the arcades called Purikura. The name is a shortened form of Purinto Kurabu, or print club. Instead of describing the result, I’ll let the picture do the talking:
Basically, you go into the booth, adopt various poses, then after the shots are taken, a simple photo-editor opens up and you tweak the photos to maximum cuteness and add poorly translated random sentences. As a plus, your eyes are automatically enlarged and your skin whitened. As someone who carries the dreaded ginger gene, pining for pale skin is not usually one of my concerns, but you can’t argue with the results. I look delightful.
I saw the photo booth below in the same arcade as the table flipping game. It was presumably trying to say something about being ‘cute’ in English but ended up with a slightly different word.
Despite what it says, that's not the aforementioned awful student in the picture.
Entering a world full of monsters
Alongside all the novelty cafes and arcades, the most common sight in Akihabara are toy stores which sell card games, collectables, general nerd paraphernalia and character models. The top floor usually stocks pornography and various masturbatory aids such as fleshlight-type devices and hilarious wobbly fake breasts.
Now there's a business opportunity.
My friend and I visited some of these shops on a purely journalistic mission to see if rumours of love pillows were true but sadly we only found more models and action figures.
If you’re wondering, a ‘dakimakura’ or ‘hug pillow’ is a large pillow often used for orthopaedic reasons or to be comforting, sort of like a cuddly toy for grown ups. Of course, some of them have pictures of anime characters, young girls or porn actresses and you can do more than hug them.
Slightly disappointed and browsing through shelves and shelves of Dungeons and Dragons bullshit instead of perusing fuck-cushions like I hoped, I unintentionally made an even more amazing discovery. In amongst the fantastic beasts was this board game:
Like Monopoly, just with more walls.
Getting attacked by the giant ass
If you want to find exciting worlds to escape into, cute things to make modern life more palatable or ways to enact your fantasies, Akihabara is a great location to find them all. For some people, it’s the high-tech weird Japan they’ve been searching for.
For me, the longer I spend in Tokyo and the more I adapt to normal life, the more I feel I understand why in a highly ordered society it’s necessary to have cracks like these to let the light shine through.
But then I see something like this DVD poster and realise I’ll never actually understand anything here.
Presumably set in 2016.
Happy New Year!
Photo credit: Me, Wikimedia Commons, Maidreamin'