Electronic utopia

Jan 31, 2001 at 12:00 am

Even though the subway signs clearly read “Akihabara” (ah-key-ha-ba-ra), the future-shop capital of Japan is easy to drift by. Hundreds of skyscrapers block the uneducated traveler’s view, so one wrong turn is the difference between Sonic the Hedgehog or Tokyo’s lowly red-light district.

But multiple crosswalks and thousands of passing Japanese businessmen later, Akihabara begins to emerge. Once lit only by long-neck street lamps and blaring headlights, the main avenue on which Japan’s unrivaled electronic haven rests now explodes with neon blasts.

Tilt up; there are 10 stories of videogames. Glare straight ahead and try to locate Akihabara’s tail. None. Even the next block is difficult to spot through the ocean of bodies and speeding cars. Whether it is 10 a.m. on Tuesday, sunny and warm, or 8 p.m. on Saturday, cold and drizzling, the sidewalks are never clear. Only when the retail shops pull down their steel curtains do customers begin to fold back into the crowded subway system. Then, gambling addicts refuse to leave, plastered to their precious pachinko machines until dawn, attempting to guide millions of tiny marbles into a jackpot home.

Fast food brigade

Americans often joke that the McDonald’s empire is gargantuan, exaggerating, “It’s everywhere!” Yet, in Tokyo, Ronald and his McNugget friends are enthusiastically placed on nearly every city block. Three multitiered McD’s are located in Akihabara alone — an area that only spans about a half-mile. Such an overwhelming amount of Big Macs exemplifies two important facts. One: starvation is rarely an option. Two: English has had a predominant impact on Japanese custom. As much as a foreigner may attempt to practice Japanese, the locals will shamble that study with a reverse attack. Many shoppers are treated to intuitive answers to their questions — in English — offering quite an enjoyable, stress-free vacation from those garbled, drive-through speakers.

Interactive everything

Think of Akihabara as the Sharper Image, only more expansive and scaled to the towering height of Godzilla. With so many stores offering so many gadgets, it’s extremely taxing on the wallet — and horrifically harsh on the decision-making brain.

Smaller shops shower passers-by with interactive treats such as on-display videogames, while the larger stores wheel digital goodies onto the sidewalk, generally forcing shoppers to buckle at the knees, giving in to that inhibiting childhood “don’t.”

Yet, in Akihabara, merely glancing at an electronic is for wimps; touching is the only religious — and pardoned — activity throughout Tokyo’s most wired district. “Everything that plugs in or uses batteries has a home in Akihabara,” Mike Jacokes, an English teacher in Japan, explains. He usually treks into the district’s depths once a month, spending an entire day searching for the best deals and other miscellaneous bargains. Regular attendees don’t buy anything immediately; wallets are emptied during the last 15 minutes before stores close.

Gadget pursuit

And what do they buy? Almost weightless portable DVD players, paper-thin laptops, robotic puppies that sing, snarl and flip. Every store has its own section for movies, computers and silly (yet expensive) toys.

Among the finest offerings during my December journey were:

MD-LP (MiniDisc Long Play) — Possibly beginning the miniature age of the music industry, Sony patented these attractive little squares. Exactly the same as American imported MiniDiscs, the only difference between the MD and the MD-LP is 160 minutes of extra recording time, for a grand total of four hours of tunes and spoken words that can be infinitely recorded over. Surprising, even with such an excess of listening power, the digital sound quality remains.

Phantasy Star Online — Although Sega only recently launched SegaNet in the States, Japan is already playing this fully interactive role-playing game on Dreamcast, an industry first for console gameplay. It will likely be another year before PlayStation 2 releases a comparable network. So only Sega freaks can slash cretins, manipulate magical energy and gain virtual experience on Dreamcast.

WonderSwan Color — Nintendo’s Game Boy has proven its hegemony in the American hand-held gaming market. Yet, in Japan, rivals live and breathe. Take Bandai’s WonderSwan Color, for example. Its 16-bit graphics and rainbow-hued display screen provide optimal power for a very popular classic. When the limited edition Final Fantasy gaming package was released on Dec. 8 (it includes the gaming cartridge and the complete portable system), stores instantly sold out. Though WonderSwan Color will probably drown at sea before arriving on U.S. shores, the system is evidence that Nintendo doesn’t conquer all.

Endless extension cord

Akihabara, in the simplest of metaphors, is a breath of fresh, digital air. An entire weekend isn’t enough time to explore all of the district’s crevices, and an entire month could deplete even the most perpetual income. Just revisit the virtual splendor and digital aroma of Akihabara several times before leaving Tokyo. Otherwise, you may miss the gadget of the millennium.

Click here to read other stories in our special travel edition. Jon M. Gibson investigates the gaming environment and other technological fun. E-mail him at [email protected]