(Almost) Live from Hell City. Part 1.
I am 32 years old, I’ve wanted a robot since I was 6 and have dreamed of visiting Japan since the very first time I leafed through the ‘Live From Hell City‘ articles by Peter Evans in Super Play magazine some 19 years ago now. In the small hours of the morning on Sunday July 8th, 2012, nearly two decades after my first real exposure to Tokyo, at a time where I was old enough to grasp and completely understand the messages being conveyed through this and other journals of the day, I will be boarding a flight to Tokyo.
These are my ‘memoirs’ of my vacation to Japan, July 2012. I hope you enjoy this series.
The reason being is that after meticulously planning everything to the last detail, I fear I may not get to see everything I anticipate seeing. Worse still, will the whole thing be a terrific anticlimax?
The Journey Home.
3 a.m., Sunday July 8th 2012. It’s a somewhat balmy night, the alarm positioned about a micrometre away from my left ear chirps in to life, bellowing revolting, hideous noise down my ear canal, vibrating my brain and awakening me from my slumber. Just to be sure we wake up and don’t miss our early morning flight, the first sector of a gargantuan 24 hours travel, I carefully positioned 3 more alarms set at intervals of 5 minutes after each other in various locations in our bedroom.
Such was the excitement, I didn’t need the other alarms.
I’ll spare you the gory details of our lethargic trek over Europe, into the Middle East, our connection and onward journey toward the Far East. We finally arrived in Japan on the afternoon of Monday July 9th. Jet lag? What jet lag? My wife and I were both so overcome with excitement that the mere thought of slumber is pushed to the farthest recesses of our minds.
Upon exiting customs and emerging in the arrivals hall, the first thing I was greeted by was a newsagent and a skinny, tousled young guy reading a telephone directory-sized volume of Weekly Jump. To me, that was an iconic image burned in my mind from reading Live From Hell City and Anime UK magazine all those years ago.
This was it. At last, it’s real, I’m in Japan.
All the years of waiting, learning, watching and hoping were over. On the morning of Saturday July 14th, 2012 we set off from our hotel and walked the short distance to Shinjuku station (considering it’s size, a surprisingly easy railway station to navigate once you plan your route in advance) and made our way across Tokyo to Akihabara, Electric Town.
Akihabara Station, Electric Town Exit looks (and feels) a hell of a lot different in real life to the numerous Akihabara ‘tours’ and clips that flood YouTube. Upon exiting the station you are not essentially immediately underwhelmed, more you’re left to deal with an overwhelming sense of awe but an uncanny urge to describe everything as ‘looking just like that clip I saw on YouTube’. Except it doesn’t, it feels a bit more spartan (at least at 10am it does) but at the same time feels like you are walking on a film set. It’s a baffling feeling to comprehend, and one that can only really be fully understood once you make the trek there in person yourself.
Once the sensation of awe and wonderment had settled down a little, and I’d gotten my bearings, I didn’t really know where to begin first. I never even thought to consult my meticulously constructed Word document complete with store names, addresses, telephone numbers and shopping list in both Japanese and English. Actually I forgot to even bring it with me! Should I seek out a game center? Find the nearest shop? Would there be enough time? That Gundam Cafe looks empty, will we eat now and avoid the queues?
I was struggling to settle down, thankfully my wife interrupted and suggested we head across the road from the Gundam Cafe and AKB48 Cafe to a small market that had been set up for the day in the plaza opposite Akihabara train station. An excellent idea although one that uncovered no early impulse purchases. Stalls here mostly consisted of a stock clearance of Hatsune Miku and Ultraman UFO catcher crane prizes. A few loose figures, misc toys and assorted sun faded video games caught my eye but prices were steep, venturing way past the city limits of unreasonable. Not a good start shopping-wise, but an interesting curio nonetheless. Better still, browsing this small market settled me down somewhat, numbed the excitement and got me into the groove of prowling the streets of Akihabara.
First stop, Trader.
Leaving my meticulously authored shopping list and address book back at the hotel was a bad start so I had to feed off of my memory, which consisted of precisely zero addresses or any Google Map memorisation. I pulled a name at random, Trader. Bad move, there’s at least 6 different Trader stores in Akihabara, they all look virtually the same and are not really all that close to each other. Eventually, after visiting 3 other Trader stores, I made it to the store I was after, Trader 2 I believe, that deals in current generation and retro games. This was my first real taste of what was on offer in this, the oft-fabled otaku utopia.
Trader is a strange shop. Thankfully the different floors of the stores are reasonably easy to decipher (so you don’t end up on the rather eye-opening ‘adult’ floors). Trader is sometimes slated for its ambitious pricing. However while this is true in some respects, I did managed to pick up some real bargains. A few games in the bargain buckets for between ¥20 and ¥50 a piece, some loose Super Famicom games, a Satellaview game, Famicom games and so on. However my first major coup was a game I’d been excited to find in Akihabara, the mighty Kyūkyoku Tiger (aka, Twin Cobra). Delighted with my first major purchases, I left Trader safe in the knowledge I’d landed a handful of bargains, but I couldn’t help feel my time with Trader was over just yet…
A bank account, emptied in the presence of greatness.
Between visiting Trader and a few other walk-in stores on the main street, I was becoming somewhat anxious about landing the real jewel in my J-Shopping crown, an arcade PCB.
Let me make this quite clear to you now, do your research before you arrive in Akihabara. All of the PCB shops that I am aware of have an online presence and post their latest price lists on a regular basis. It’s not always completely up to date, but you’ll get the basic idea down about what stock is carried and the sometimes wildly varying prices. I managed to successfully visit Try, G-Front and MAK Japan all in the same day and came away with wildly differing impressions of all three shops.
Try is a lovely little cubby hole shop that carries a decent enough selection of titles but the low prices appeared to reflect the item condition and the selection at the time I was present appeared to focus more on MVS titles than anything else. Still, the staff were very polite and courteous and more than happy to answer any questions I had. I left empty-handed but happy to have visited.
G-Front is a different story altogether. Often the store most synonymous with Lonely Planet guides (for example) and the perceived darling of Internet travel websites, I found G-Front to be the most disappointing of the three shops I visited. Selection is superb, but prices are a lot higher than those elsewhere. However selection isn’t the problem at hand here, it’s the way the store is laid out and the customer service provided, ergo there isn’t any.
Browsing G-Front’s wares will take you all of exactly 5 seconds (forget what you’ve seen on YouTube, the layout has changed). Stock is kept behind the counter, with lower grade items stuffed within a small circle area in front of the counter. Anything with a sniff of value is kept under lock and key and asking any questions will be met with some resistance and the impression that you’ve given the staff a real chore to help you out. I was not impressed with G-Front, nor did I have the prior inclination to buy anything from there. I strongly suggest that unless you spot something you want that is miraculously listed at a sensible price, you are better off giving G-Front a wide berth. I made a point of visiting though for the curio factor, but it’s true what the real voices say, G-Front is the weakest of the PCB shops in Akihabara.
Finally I made my way to MAK Japan, intentionally left until last. Initially I had gotten lost trying to find the place as the store has moved across the road (literally) from the location many of you reading this will doubtlessly know already from YouTube et al. Keep a lookout for the small red MAK Japan sign on the side of a building across the road from it’s old location, enter the miniscule elevator and exit at what I rate as the very best PCB shop in Akihabara by a country mile.
From the moment you enter MAK Japan, you feel like you are more than welcome to be there. The guy in the shop the day I visited greeted me, smiled (which is more than what can be said for the dour scowl that greeted me at G-Front) and handed me a price list. MAK Japan is more upfront with its wares. Everything is available to browse with the exception of the really valuable stuff that is kept behind glass display cases, which is fair enough, if I were a shopkeeper I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable having a ¥170,000 full kit out in the open ready to be manhandled daily and within 30cm of the exit.
Staff at MAK Japan are happy for you to browse and ask questions, though granted their English is not the best, a few choice basic phrases will start you off which you can then follow up with a bit of grunting, pointing and waving of your hands. This ultimately got me placed in front of a shelf containing Cave and Raizing boards. This was it, I was on the verge of buying Ibara or Armed Police Batrider, two games I had the sole intention of hunting down and purchasing either of should I find them.
It was at this point that I noticed two guys standing at the counter looking down at a gutted Madcatz TE arcade stick. They appeared to be conversing with the shopkeeper and looked unable to decide on what type of joystick to fit in the stick. I decided to head over to the counter and ask in my best Japanese if anyone spoke English, at which point one of the lads turned to me and in a distinct English accent said “I do mate, whats up?”.
After getting over the initial shock, this guy turned out to be a pivot in my decision-making process. I walked him over to the games I was looking at and pointed to a big, red, star-shaped sticker hovering above the Armed Police Batrider board. Asking if he could help me translate what that writing on the sticker actually said led me to discover that the game was on sale for the long weekend (July 16th was a public holiday in Japan). To celebrate the store was offering a discount of ¥10,000 on Armed Police Batrider until Monday!
The decision was made. Ibara would have to wait.
I frog-marched the shopkeeper toward the glass cabinet, pointed to my prospective purchase and handed over a large quantity of Japanese Yen as quickly as I could. The cheerful shopkeeper initially refused to accept my money until he had demonstrated that the board was clean, legit and that it worked 110%. He did point out the artwork was copied, but realistically, for a board this rare and sought after, I wasn’t in any frame of mind to be worrying about minor details like that.
Satisfied he had demonstrated the board was in tip-top condition, he carefully wrapped my purchase, delicately packed the board into a carrier bag and handed me my first major grail purchase.
Armed Police Batrider was officially mine!
Before I left the shop I couldn’t resist a bit of small talk about what the two guys were doing with the arcade stick they had gutted open on the counter in front of me. We discussed the various merits of Sanwa vs Seimitsu, ramen noodles and proposed changes to the LBW rule in cricket before I was then properly introduced to the English-speaking guys friend. It would turn out that the gentleman in question was none other than Superplayer and all-round top gent, TZW! On reflection I regret not having brought an autograph book with me at all times now during my time in Japan. Superplayers might be nobodies to anyone else, but to the gaming world they are heroes and icons. I’m sure you would have thought the same if you were in my position!
After the briefest of chats I said my goodbyes and left MAK Japan significantly poorer, but incredibly happy at the customer service I had received, the people I had met and the cheery copy of Armed Police Batrider (and Mars Matrix for the Capcom CPS2 system) dangling from my hand in a sturdy white paper carrier bag…
To be continued.