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Tokyo's Geek Streets

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page E01


If Japan is the holy land of consumer electronics, Akihabara is its Mecca, St. Peter's Square and Wailing Wall. Other neighborhoods in Tokyo excel in bars for foreigners, fashion boutiques or high-rise department stores; Akihabara's forte is electronic hardware and software of every kind imaginable, as well as a few of the unimaginable ones. Compared with this Geek Heaven, CompUSA looks like CompUSSR.

The amount of stuff on sale here is almost brain-melting in its diversity, and if you're a serious tweak, it's all you can do to avoid weeping for joy. Cell phones, some garbed in Hello Kitty decor, that are small enough for the dog to eat; car-navigation systems sporting garish LCD screens; polychromed tape and MiniDisc players that can double as plastic-and-silicon jewelry; paperback-size laptop personal organizers. And this is just in the first row of shops outside the train station!

Wander down some of the arcades between buildings and the back streets, and you will soon acquire a new benchmark for retail weirdness. I found one tiny emporium that seemed to deal exclusively in antique tech, stocking such things as an RCA Victor AM-only radio and a rack of the vacuum tubes that, long ago in the pre-transistor age, powered stereos and TVs. (Akihabara emerged as a technology bazaar after World War II, when a black market in radio components took root here.) Compared with that antique selection, a nearby department store's gallery of high-tech toilets--just try to figure out the icons on the control panels--looked positively normal. Farther on, walls were lined with software for just about every video game system sold since the original Atari 2600, and computer-accessories dealers stocked a menagerie of Zip disks, memory chips, processors, modems and various other computer innards. You could hop from shop to shop and easily emerge with all the parts necessary to build your own computer from scratch. The totality of this environment was almost too much; if it weren't for the PalmPilot in my pocket and the Nikon dangling from my neck, I would've felt horribly inadequate.

Plenty of these goodies never make it across the Pacific; for instance, the variety of MiniDisc hardware here dwarfs anything you'd see in even the geekiest audiophile shop in the States. With this come some impressive savings; a Sony MZ-E35 portable player sells for 34,800 yen, or about $250--compared with $400 in the Crutchfield audiophile catalogue here. Hence the appeal of this place to the technology-conscious: forbidden fruit, at a discount price.

The milling crowds on a Sunday (when Chuo-Dori, the primary thoroughfare, is closed to cars) can make it feel like some sort of religious ceremony, a mass worship of technology with salesmen as the monks and nuns. And instead of statues and stained glass, the sidewalks along Chuo-Dori are inset with small tile mosaics of electrical and electronic appliances. Late in the afternoon, a related form of technology idolatry takes place at a side street's intersection, where somebody has parked his shiny Integra Type R sports car for passersby to ogle--just as you might see on any American main drag from Santa Monica to Reston. (The bicycles littering the street, however, are single-speed, no-tech models of the kind that went out of fashion in the States decades ago.)

There are other technology shrines in Tokyo--for instance, the frighteningly stylish Sony showroom in the Ginza, several blocks south--but what makes this place ground zero is its hyperactive density, a mix of flea market, Times Square and Death Star. It's an ant farm of a place, with buildings stacked up against and on top of one another and seemingly endless billboards that close ranks to block glimpses of walls, windows and other unprofitable architectural elements. This real estate shortage means that no space is too small or inconvenient to be used for commercial purposes: I found lunch at a tiny place jammed underneath the elevated railroad tracks.

Although the place lacked a single word of English, it did offer the two necessities for linguistically handicapped dining--plastic food in the front window and real food being eaten next to me, both of which you can always point at when it's time to order. The latter also simplifies deciding what to order: Watching the gentleman on the bench next to me slurp up his soba led me to follow his example, with happy results.

(For those unwilling to put up with ordering-by-pointing, a selection of vending machines awaits. I amused myself by buying the canned beverage with the most confusing label, a vaguely peach-tasting concoction called "Bickle," at one machine next to a closet-size stall selling TV and satellite antennas.)

More than anything, this is like a cheerier, sunnier version of the technology-propeled future that we saw in "Blade Runner." Or perhaps a scene from one of cyberpunk author William Gibson's books. His 1997 novel "Idoru" describes an Akihabara department store: "A few figures stood along other aisles to either side, but he had no way of knowing whether they were salespeople or potential customers. . . . They rose to a second level, this one displaying a less consistent range of goods: wallscreens, immersion consoles, automated recliners with massage-modules bulging from their cushions like the heads of giant mechanical grubs." Although Gibson's story takes place sometime on the other side of 2000, that passage describes today perfectly well. A place like Akihabara defies science fiction: Who needs forecasts when the future is on sale with a sales-tax exemption for foreign passport holders?

Once the initial rush of awe, glee and confusion subsides, you may find yourself possessed by the urge to Buy Stuff. I did. Fortunately, the neighborhood harbors dozens, if not hundreds, of shops, ranging from mom-and-pop enterprises no bigger than a coffee shop to five-floor department stores. And the swan-diving yen makes rationalizing irrational impulse purchases easier than ever: "A year ago, this woulda cost $200! How can I not buy it now that it's only $120?!"

But it's wiser to restrain yourself and walk around instead. Unless you're looking for fringe-market oddities, most places carry the same things, just not at the same prices. Often, a store's pricing correlates with its obscurity on the street grid: Odds are the bazaar next to the train station will charge more than the stall hidden in an alley two blocks away.

As you walk and gawk, be sensitive of the difference between export and domestic models. Since Japanese plugs are identical to U.S. ones and use almost the same voltage--110 volts here, 100 there--most gadgets bought in Japan will work fine here (although some rechargeable batteries in Japanese equipment have been known to expire early). Buying the domestic model can instantly save you some real money--3,300 yen on one Sony portable CD player, $25 at current rates. Yes, the manual will be in Japanese, but how hard is it to work a CD player anyway?

At the same time, keep in mind that DVD players and video game consoles can incorporate copyright-protection technology that prevents them from playing U.S.-release software. And warranty coverage on any non-export model is unlikely to be of much help unless you're blessed with a job that provides for frequent, free travel to Tokyo--or friends with a gig like that.

Pretty much all prices here are negotiable, but only so far. Ten percent discounts are almost automatic on commodity items like tape players or low-end cameras; in many cases, the salesclerk will tap out a cheaper price on the inevitable pocket calculator (kept around the counter strictly for negotiating purposes) before you can even think to ask for a discount. Don't expect to get much from protracted wheedling, though, and cash discounts seem to be unheard of. Do, however, remember to ask that a store waive the 5 percent sales tax, which many tourist-sensitive shops can do, provided the item in question costs more than 10,000 yen (anywhere from $70 to $90 since August) and you remembered to bring your passport.

After several hours of shopping--in which time I found myself pondering such financially destructive thoughts as "The black Walkman I have at home looks boring and that green one there is only $50, might as well pick one up" and "I've been meaning to get a small point-and-shoot camera for a while, right?"--I decided to focus on my one pressing consumer-electronics need, replacing the CD player I'd managed to drop onto a Metro platform the week before. After perusing several shops' offerings and taking semi-careful notes of their prices, I wound up getting a Panasonic model for 10,000 yen, about $70 at the current exchange rate.

I'd like to say I got an outrageous bargain, but, actually, no--Circuit City charges the same price for this thing. But my purchase sports a nifty cobalt-blue hue instead of the U.S. model's aluminum-foil shade of silver. And it came with a free how-I-bought-this-thing story. I know I got a good deal.

To get to Akihabara from other areas in Tokyo, take the Sobu or Yamanote line Japan Railways trains to the Akihabara station; follow the "Electric Town" exits.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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