Once known as the consumer electronics center of Japan, today Akihabara (秋葉原) is equally as famous for its otaku (geek) culture. Maid cafes, x-rated manga booksellers, amine stores, and shops dedicated to teenage idolatry are scattered among the electronic stores. It is one of the best places in Tokyo to glimpse into another side of Japanese culture—one which has at least partly developed as a form of escapism from the rigid structure of society.
But Akihabara is not all dolls and digital. Redevelopment in recent years is slowly helping it shed its geeky image, and new complexes like mAAch ecute seem to be heralding a new era for the area. Today it is a town that seems to offer something for everyone from chic cafés to Betamax players—not to mention Kanda Myojin Shrine, one of Tokyo’s best shrines.
It is best to visit Akihabara on Sunday afternoons when the main road, Chuo Dori, is pedestrianized, allowing you to stroll down and appreciate the gigantic posters and billboards which hang from the buildings either side of the road.
History of Akihabara
In the 19th century Tokyo was a tinderbox of elongated wooden nagaya (“long house”) all closely packed together in formulaic blocks with only narrow streets separating them, and fires were by no means uncommon. In December 1869, a fire in the Akihabara area left in its ashes a strip of land, and under the orders of the Emperor, Chinka Shrine (“fire extinguishing shrine”) was built on the land enshrining three gods associated with fire, water, and earth to protect the people from another such disaster. However, the common folk mistakenly took the new shrine as a place of worship for Akiha-Gongen, a deity far more commonly known to safeguard against fire, and began calling it Akiha-sama and Akiha-san (sama and san being suffixed to names to show respect). The name was made official the following year.
Akiha Shrine was moved in 1888 to make way for Akiha-no-hara (“The Land of Akiha”) Station, and now resides a short walk northeast of Ueno Station. Over time the station name became the more easily pronounced Akihabara, which has stuck to this day.
Despite its associated as an electronics mecca, the first markets in fact the area sold vegetables and fresh produce—it was not until the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s that the focus moved to electronic components and radios as wireless communication spread. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, technicians and electronic engineers found lucrative work fixing electronic devices from the odds and ends that could be salvaged during the commodity-scare post-war years.
These repair men offered their services from open-air stalls until in 1949 they were prohibited from trading outside by the American occupiers, and so clubbed together to move their stalls indoors. Radio Kaikan, a warren of small indoor alleyways just north of the station, is the best relic from this history.
As Japan’s economy began its rapid ascent in the 1960s, Akihabara was well-placed to cater for the ever-increasing consumer demand for white goods: refrigerators and color televisions slowly began to encroach on the shelf space of the LEDs and transistors. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s electronic shops such as Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera spread their footprint nationwide, providing consumers with local access to the latest in electronic gadgets, and threatening Akihabara’s raison d’etre.
But in the 1990s its niche moved from electronic components to figurines, anime, and comic books as a section of the next generation sought escapism from the rigid salaryman lifestyle that awaited them after education, and the next two decades witnessed Akihabara become the mecca of otaku culture.