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Tokyo – Akihabara (Redux) March 20, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Akihabara (Redux)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Na

I have previously written about Akihabara and focused a lot on what is available in the area.  2 years ago, I moved to Kinshicho which is just a few stations away from Akihabara.  I have had a chance to learn more and more about Akihabara as well as understand the area in a different light.  In the past 2 years since my original post about Akihabara many things have changed, yet many things have remained the same.  It is still a mecca for geeks and electronics lovers everywhere and it continues to evolve with time.

Akihabara will always be a mecca for geeks, even though the current mayor of the district is trying to push them out.  There are several new large buildings that focus more on businesses, but a lot of the side streets are still filled with great little shops to “get your geek on”.  A lot of the really old shops that added character to Akihabara have closed down and new larger versions have recently popped up.  While the character of Akihabara is modernizing, it is modernizing in a good way for tourists now.  A lot of the new buildings are occupied by various larger model and anime shops.  The older buildings were a bit of a hazard due to their age and lack of upkeep which created a dingy look.  While the gentrification of Akihabara is continuing, in my opinion, the original culture is trying to fight on.  While many of the porn shops and shady cafes are gone, many of the original electronics and shops are consolidating into larger outlets.  Some of the large buildings with dozens of micro shops are rebuilding in smaller and taller buildings.  The variety of stores appears to be improving a bit and tourist friendly big box retailers are moving in slowly.  Like the stories in many manga or anime, the geeks may have been knocked down but they still try to maintain their own culture within Akihabara.

Akihabara is quickly becoming known for AKB48.  AKB48 is a huge all girl pop idol group that was born in 2005.  The founder of AKB48 wanted to create “an idol you can meet” situation when he created AKB48.  AKB48 stands for AKihaBara 48.  Originally, he envisioned 48 girls in the group.  At times, there were less than 48 but due to the popularity of the group it now stands at over 50.  The group has become so popular that they spawned sister groups across Japan as well as one group in Indonesia and another one being developed in Taiwan.  AKB48 is also one of the most recognized and top selling groups in Japan.  The group started off very humbly and in the past 3 years have exploded beyond their imaginations.  They are seen on TV at almost all hours of the day.  The most popular girls are on primetime TV while the B and C list tend to dominate late night TV with cutesy programs.  They tend to promote the fact that they are young, and at ages ranging from 13 to 29, they play the part very well.  In the beginning, many thought of the group as a type of soft kiddie porn due to the way they dance and dress.  Today, they are now part of Japanese pop culture and integral in how Japan is viewed from outside.  It is unlikely that they will go away soon and they will continue to expand.  From what started out as a single theatre has now grown to include a new venue where you can eat at their cafe, see their museum, buy fan items, and watch past concerts in a new small theatre.

Themes are a new trend in Akihabara.  A Gundam Cafe had opened since my last post about Akihabara.  It is a very popular cafe where fanatics of Gundam can enjoy a Gundam themed coffee.  In fact, all of the food and drinks come with a Gundam theme.  The cutlery, dishes, and even tables have Gundam themes.  When entering the washroom, you will be greeted by the most famous Gundam of all.  You don’t have to wait in line to enjoy the food as you can purchase some items at the store.  The store itself is pretty small with only a few, yet exclusive, items for sale.  While the Gundam Cafe itself is pretty popular, there are other theme attractions in Akihabara.  I mentioned that maid cafes are popular, and they continue to be so.  Maid cafes come in all shapes and sizes with various costumes.  If you aren’t happy with the French maid, or the Japanese style maid, you can always go to one where the girls dress in other costumes.  They are harder to find and just as expensive as a normal maid cafe but they tend to be very popular.

An often overlooked area of Akihabara, even by me, is the Kanda Myojin.  It is a very important shrine in Tokyo.  It is one of the 10 most important shrines in Tokyo.  They were selected by a past emperor of Japan and it is considered a small pilgrimage to visit all 10.  Kanda Myojin is one of the ten but it is a little off the beaten path.  It is located roughly an equal distance from Akihabara Station and Ochanomizu Station.  It is a little easier to reach from Akihabara but you must pass through a small residential and business district.  Most of Akihabara is centred on Chuo-dori and Kanda Myojin is about 5 minutes from Chuo-dori.  It is also easy to be lost on the way to Kanda Myojin but once you are there, you are rewarded with one of the nicer gems of the city.  Kanda Myojin is actually more well-known among locals as being a popular place for weddings.  It is a little expensive but compared to Meiji Jingu, nowhere near as expensive.  There are a few various sculptures in the area and it is worth a visit if you are living in Tokyo, but in reality, if you are pressed for time, don’t bother with it.  Just enjoy yourself in Akihabara and think about doing a pilgrimage in the future.

Akihabara continues to evolve with the atmosphere has changed only a little in the past 2 years.  It will take a lot more time to know whether or not the area will completely lose the atmosphere that once inhabited the area.  It is not the same as before but it isn’t completely different either.  You can still find almost everything you can imagine and the area is upgrading the buildings slowly.  The old run down stores that looked like they would crumble in a serious earthquake are, for the most part, gone.  They have been replaced by several new buildings that have been repopulated by shops that are similar to the original shops in the area.  It definitely feels cleaner but at the same time, some of the character of the old dingy shops is gone.  In fact, some of the small shops have probably closed for good due to the economy and the changes in Akihabara.  I doubt all of them will go away but I feel that things can never return to the technological and otaku heave it once was.

The Akihabara series continues with Akihabara – For the Civilized and Akihabara – For the Eccentric.

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Tokyo – Kinshicho April 12, 2011

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Kinshicho” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Co

Kinshicho is the last major centre in Tokyo before you are in the suburbs, or heading towards Chiba.  It is located just a few minutes outside of Akihabara and one station away from Ryogoku.  The area itself is not very interesting for most travellers, but for those of you who use the Narita Express to enter or leave Tokyo, you will pass through Kinshicho.  When leaving Tokyo, just after you exit the tunnel, you will be in Kinshicho.  The area has a storied past and a growing future.  As any other part of Tokyo, Kinshicho is constantly changing and evolving.  What it will be like in 10 years is anyone’s guess, but the chances are that it will get much better.

The first thing to do in Kinshicho is to decide whether you want to go north or south.  Depending on what you want to see or do, each side will have its own purpose.  The south is considered the seedier side of Kinshicho.  In the south, you have two infamous things to do.  The first, less seedy, is the JRA (Japan Racing Association) building.  It is the easiest location to access in the east for horse race betting.  It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of men around the JRA building on a Friday evening, or even on Saturday and Sunday.  Horse race betting is still huge in Japan but not too many people talk about it.  It’s very common to see older men hanging out in front of the building just looking at the current horse races and deciding who to bet on.  I have never been inside the actual building but the betting process itself is pretty simple.  All you really have to do is go up to a computer terminal, select the horse you want to win and so on and that’s that.  Insert your money and you are done.  I’m not sure if there are English instructions as I’m not interested in the horse races but if you do walk around the outside, you can watch some of the races from a TV screen located in one of the lounges.  Note that you will find JRA buildings all over Tokyo and Japan but these are rarely where the races are held.  They are just betting offices with TVs set up for people to satisfy their gambling habits.  Racing happens near Shinagawa and out west from Tokyo.

The other seedy part to Kinshicho has to be the hostess clubs in the south.  Behind the JRA building will be several dozen clubs and bars.  Most of these are the cheaper cousins of their expensive Ginza and Kabukicho counterparts.  It’s still somewhat seedy during the day and the fact that there are several tall buildings obscuring the actual area makes it interesting.  Once you walk behind the JRA building at night, you’ll suddenly come upon several buildings with various lights flashing and men trying to push you into their clubs so that you can spend several tens of thousands of yen.  Nearby you can also find several love hotels that are more functional than fun.  Walking around in the area late at night may not be safe for everyone and it definitely isn’t as safe as Kabukicho.  There is a reason many people call Kinshicho the Kabukicho of the east and I would tend to agree for just this area alone.  The bad thing is that people tend to associate Kinshicho with these clubs and only these clubs these days.  When I talked about the storied past of Kinshicho, I was talking about these clubs in the south, but I was also referencing the fact that Kinshicho, botn north and south, was once a central area for the Yakuza, Japanese organized crime.  These days they are limited more to the southern areas.

While the south may sound like a bad area to visit, due to its reputation, the shops tend to be a lot cheaper.  You have a greater tendancy to find good cheap restaurants to eat in, cheap goods, and shopping tends to be more Japanese in flavour.  There is a small department store, small for Tokyo standards, and a small Yodobashi Camera.  Kinshicho has the usual set of small ramen and donburi shops as well as one of several Wallmart shops in Tokyo.  While they go under the name Seiyu, or as most people in Kinshicho say, Livin.  The company known as Seiyu is actually a wholely owned subsidiary of Wallmart.  It can be great as they offer the most competitive prices for their items and they also sell Wallmart goods.  It’s great to find really cheap food products when shopping there, but that isn’t always the case.  When shopping it is always true that if you visit one shop, they specialize in one type of food while another specializes in others.  It never hurts to shop around but it does take a lot more time to get things done.

The north side of Kinshicho has undergone a dramatic change over the last 5-10 years, or so I’ve been told.  In the past it was a Yakuza neighbourhood.  There would be several yakuza living in the area and the area was fairly “dangerous” to live in.  While I think it could be dangerous, as long as you keep to yourself in any such area, you should be okay.  In Japan, I don’t believe the organized crime is actually going to start shooting people randomly or have a gang war, but those were possibilities.  Today, things are very different.  The entire area has undergone some revitalization and a type of gentrification.  Many of the local businesses have put up signs saying that the Yakuza are no longer welcome in their shops and to leave the area.  Many of them seem to have relocated more towards the south and east and many of them have “left” their organizations.  In fact, as of the writing of this post, the police are cracking down on organized crime for various reasons which allow many areas to be revitalized.  The north area of Kinshicho is one of them.  One of the first major turning points in the north’s revitalization has to be the Olinas mall.  It is a larger western style shopping mall with lots of underground parking and various shops inside.  There is a theatre as well as a small food court as well.  The layout is a bit confusing to get around but it’s a nice place to do a bit of shopping, but for those looking for a Japanese style of life, this is not the place to go.  It is your typical western shopping mall teeming with teenagers.

One of the focal points of Kinshicho has to be Kinshi Park.  It’s a medium sized park for Tokyo that is currently undergoing renovations.  Renovations should be completed by the end of 2011, but this is just my own personal guess.  In the north east corner is the Sumida City Gymnasium.  It is a public community centre of sorts where you can do all kinds of sports.  You can play basketball, badminton, table tennis, go swimming, participate in aerobics, or even use a weight room.  The gym was completed in March 2010 and still looks very new.  The facilities are very cheap but you do need to share with the others who use it.  Next to the gym on the west side is a set of tennis courts.  If you have never practiced playing tennis in Tokyo, you will be in for a bit of a surprise.  They utilize a type of artificial turf and rubber pebbles to simulate grass.  Unlike typical artificial turf, this type seems to have a little flexibility and might be easier on your joints, but I haven’t personally tried it so I can’t comment too much on it.  It is still very popular and getting a chance to use it is still difficult.  In the south east corner of the park they are erecting a dual baseball field.  Basically it will be two baseball diamonds back to back that is designed for practice rather than real competition.  For real competition, I believe they will utilize just none of the diamonds at a time.  It’s an interesting design and it will be finished in early 2011.  As for the rest of the park, most of it is just open space with a bit of greenery.  I’m not sure how much will stay the same but the large open area is popular for young students to play in and for people to just relax on a nice spring afternoon.  If you need a little spiritual help, there is a small shrine located on the south west corner that provides a very unique look at Japan.

Aside from the park and Olinas, the other main anchor of the north has to be the Arcakit building and the Termina complex that surrounds the station.  The Arcakit main building has several floors of shopping including a large Daiso.  There are lots of things to see and do inside and it can be treated as its own shopping mall.  Be aware that there will be lots of families there as there is a famous baby shop where you can buy bulk items and almost anything you can imagine a child would want.  If you fancy a nice meal, I’d recommend the top floor of the building as the north facing shops have wonderful views of Tokyo Sky Tree which is nearly completed.  If the station area is not of much interest to you, you can always head just a little north into the small side streets.  This area has various little shops and restaurants of varying quality.  Some restaurants are very delicious and others are not so.  It can be hit or miss but it’s something that you have to try on your own. If you are interested in enjoying a little music, especially classical music, the Sumida Triphony Hall located in the Tobu Hotel is a very popular place.  Almost every weekend has a major concert and the halls are available for rent, at a price of course.  If that doesn’t interest you that much, they do have a shuttle bus that runs nearly daily and it can take you to Disneyland.

I think that Kinshicho itself will be undergoing a small change in the near future due to its proximity to Tokyo Sky Tree.  In order to cash in on the new attraction in the area, Kinshicho will have to do something.  While it’s difficult to cash in on it as Kinshicho is a little far from the tower itself, they will need to change a little in order to create a destination spot for domestic travellers.  I’m sure it could happen if the right people do the right things.  Removing some of the old and dirty shops is a start.  The small delicious shops will have to stay to retain the character of Kinshicho and some of the buildings will need a small renovation to make it more inviting to the casual shopper.  Like most areas, they need to find a niche that will attract people.  The north will continue to change with time as families and tourists start to take over.  Shop owners will be forced to change and the community will want to do something about it.  The south may not change much, if at all due to the character of the people and the lack of viewing locations of Tokyo Sky Tree.  Tokyo Sky Tree will be the major catalyst for the entire region, but it will still depend on the people and businesses in the area.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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