Akihabara: Metal Courage in the City of Vintage Dreams

By: Dante Scarano 

Tokyo is a magical place. With a strict tradition and a sense of ultra-modernism, there is no other place in the world quite like it. For me, it was the first foreign city that I ever experienced. I was, for lack of a better title, a “travel virgin”, waist deep in not having a clue about the world around me. In the summer of 2012, on a school trip no less, my world opened up in ways I never dreamed possible. In America, I felt secluded to a little corner of the world, in Japan I was thrown into a culture vastly different than my own. The first time I felt finally accustomed to Japan’s magnetism, was while visiting the Akihabara district in Tokyo: the holy city of all things video games and pop culture, restaurants dedicated to TV shows, and girl bands. J-POP goddesses lined the streets, and towers that seemingly shot out of the ground chocked full of rare and undiscovered video games.

The subway train came to a silent stop (Japan is amazing at soundproofing) and with a gentle push from our professors, my friends Mike, Collin and I were left outside of the station, no guidance other than a foggy idea of how to get back to the hotel. Just then an otherworldly force pulled us into the square as three of us began our first adventure on the streets of Tokyo.

Walking down the high street, mascots from nearby restaurants lured us to come inside. And with our stomachs twisted in a gnarly rage for food, we looked for a place to grab some chow. It wasn’t far of a walk before, to our surprise, a café wholly dedicated to the Japanese anime known as “Mobile Suit Gundam” appeared in the distance. My friends being the super fans that they were could not resist the temptation of “jumping onto White Base”, and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t curious to see what the hubbub was about. With the whoosh of the automatic door we entered the dimmed café. Sitting down was a difficult situation for all of us because none of us spoke Japanese. We looked helplessly at the hostess. Raising our fingers to show how many people there were, she smiled and said, “Right this way.” Just then a pain struck across my stomach and I knew that it was only a matter of time before the subway station ramen came a knockin’.

gundam-cafeQuickly, I ran up to the waitress as dumbfounded as could be, and something devoid of all civilized language came out of my mouth. A phrase picked up from a lonely planet guide. It wasn’t English and it certainly was not Japanese. Luckily, the waitress picked up on part of my
mess (and body language) and pointed me to the restroom. Upon entering the porcelain throne room, I sat down and did my business and proceeded to flush the toilet (as any respectable citizen of the world would). But as the plunger hit the mechanism to flush the toilet it sounded like a spaceship taking off …literally. I diverted my eyes upward to see a wall of bright red, blue and white LEDs, form the face of a Gundam right in front of me. Other bells and whistles seemed to chime in sync as the bathroom ritual played on, lasers and sounds of gunfire all around. I sat there with pants around my ankles in a true stupor at this amazing light display going on before me. To my astonishment this happened every time the toilet was flushed, one could sit in there the whole day and not be bored. And through it all, a deep and menacing voice announcing what I assumed was the Gundam’s incalculable power in Japanese, resounded throughout the tiny bathroom stall.

Exiting, I still wasn’t sure if it was real or I was stuck in a lucid dream back in my hotel. It wasn’t until my friend (who had snuck off earlier) wondered why I was so awestruck smiled and said, “You used the toilet, didn’t you?”

The café itself was alright, nothing too out of the ordinary. A definite tourist trap with overpriced drinks and tea cakes shaped like little characters from the show, but it was all worth it to experience the magic that happened in the bathroom. Returning out to the street corner, bellies now full, my friends and I were ready to take on the rest of Akihabara.

Exploring each crevice of this district was more than a treat. Even the alleyways, lit by old neon N64 and PlayStation signs contained various stores with every game and game system imaginable. If there’s a Heaven…I definitely think it looks a lot like the streets of Akihabara. Blissfully, we wandered down the streets, pressing our faces against every storefront to see what limited edition action figure was being sold. At one point amidst the merriment, we strolled into a store, which we thought sold Manga (Graphic Novels) though the clientele was not the bubbling young faces that were outside. This shop was filled with middle aged men, the kind of ilk that you don’t want to pass by on an unlit street at night. Their seemingly unified gaze produced an icy stare almost as though walking through the door was startling their collective hive-mind in some way. Just as fast as their heads turned to look at us, they were soon fixated back on the books they were reading once again. We shrugged, thought nothing of it and began scanning the titles ourselves. It wasn’t until my friend said, “Uh guys I think I’ll wait outside” did we know what kind of shop it was. Questioning him on his quick retreat out of the store, he showed us the “Manga”. Smutty drawings of women were plastered on my eyeballs; we were clearly not in the right store. Making haste towards the door we realized our mistake and the nature of the store we had just exited. My friend Mike stayed behind a while longer, as he was clearly not the wholesome Connecticut lad we took him for.

Back Alleys of TokyoIt was almost ingrained into our subconscious as the three of us strolled aimlessly through
main streets and back alleys. Staring blankly at all the exotic odes to nerd culture, we soon became numb to marvel at it all. It was only until we came to halt at the foot of a Blade Runner style building jutting straight out of the ground like a cosmic monolith that we awoke from our daze. A building covered in neon Kanji lighting up every inch of its run-down walls. Upon entering, we were greeted by thousands of glass cabinets filled with gold and silver plated Game-boys, almost as if it were some sort of high-end jewelry store in Manhattan. But the shop didn’t end there. A creaky elevator and an even creakier staircase led to more undiscovered treasures.

We turned into the stereotypical kids in one of those old black and white movies; like our first time experiencing FAO Shwartz or any other department store toy section. Picking up unobtainable items yelling, “Look at this!” and becoming side tracked into endlessly gawking at something else. The attendants must have thought we were nuts.

After countless stair climbing and one sketchy almost life threating elevator ride we arrived at the top of the monolithic building, the climax if you will. Not being greeted by glass cases, this floor was different than the rest… it was an arcade. Vintage game cabinets stretched in an endless row of lights and classic jingles, a primordial Dave & Busters. Sure I’d gone to arcades back home, but this was a whole different ballpark. Scanning each and every game I had to make sure that the tiny amount of Yen coins I held were spent correctly. Until I saw it, there amongst the Donkey Kongs and Mortal Kombats, a beam of light shone down on one single game.

“What was the game?” you must be screaming as you read this little piece of celebratory non-fiction!  Well… it was none other than Metal Slug 3: a game all but forgotten by time, except in my head and this sacred garden of an arcade. I knew all the ins and outs, I was totally in my element, and this game was my Death Star trench run. Making such a big scene about it, my friends gathered round and filmed me as I began playing. The coins made a metallic plink as they crossed the threshold of the coin slot, and it all kicked off. Everything led up to this moment; I could not fail. I crashed and not only that I burned too, it was out of my hands. There I sat attempting to make infinite excuses: “I didn’t understand the language”, or “my hands were too cold”. But no reason would suffice at this blunder. There I was sitting on the stool, out of coins, struck down in the midst of glory.

Tokyo Streets I know this may sound like a low point for me in my travels throughout Japan, but it is actually where I fell in love with it. I sat there in that stool and just began to laugh at myself; at what a dope I was and how serious I was taking it. This moment reflected my very real fear of traveling for the first time out of America. I was taking it so seriously, but it was going to be just fine. Thinking of all the aimless walking and the goofy situations we got ourselves into, I may not have been home, but I found a piece of it in Akihabara.

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