Akihabara: Metal Courage in the City of Vintage Dreams

Dante Scarano

Dante Scarano

Dante Scarano is the Local Contributing Writer at Global Storybook (USA).
Read more about Dante here.
Dante Scarano

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Tokyo StreetsTokyo 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 country that I ever experienced.  I was, for the 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 could never dreamed possible.  In America, I felt secluded to a little corner of the world, while 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, were 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 a square, as the three of us began our first adventure on the streets of Tokyo.

While we were walking down the high streets, mascots from nearby restaurants were luring us to come in inside.  And with our empty stomachs twisted in a gnarly rage, we looked for a place to grab some chow.  It wasn’t far of a walk, when 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 the White Base”, and I’d be a liar if I said that 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 any Japanese.  We just helplessly looked 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 through my stomach and I knew that it was only a matter of time before the subway station ramen came in knockin’.

Quickly, I ran up to the waitress, as dumbfounded as I could be, while 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 the part of my mess (and the 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 dancing all around the stall.

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I sat there with my pants around my ankles in a true stupor – staring at this amazing light-display going on before me.  To my astonishment this happened every time the toilet was flushed – one could just 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’s stall.

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

Gundam Cafe

The cafe 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.

Going back to the street corner, with our 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 figures were 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 strolling 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 in the nighttime.  Their seemingly unified gaze produced an icy stare, as though us walking through the front door, was startling their collective hive-mind in some way.  Just as fast as their heads turned to look at us, they were soon turned back, fixated on the books that they were reading.

We shrugged, thought nothing of it and began scanning the titles.  It wasn’t until one of my friends said: “Uh guys I think I’ll wait outside”, did we realize what kind of a shop it was.  Questioning him on his quick retreat out of the store – he pointed at s the “Manga”.  Smutty drawings of women were plastered in front of my eyeballs; we were clearly not in the right store.  Making a haste exit towards the door, we realized our mistake and the nature of the store we had just been in.  My friend Mike stayed behind awhile longer, as he was clearly not the wholesome Connecticut lad we took him for.

Later, it was almost ingrained in our subconscious, as the three of us strolled aimlessly through the main streets and the back alleys.  Staring blankly at all the exotic odes to the nerd culture, we soon became numb to marvel at it all.  It was only until we came to a 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.

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

Tokyo Streets

After countless stair climbing and one sketchy, almost life threatening elevator ride, we arrived at the top of this monolithic building, the climax if you will.  Not being greeted with 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.  I started scanning each and every game, because I had to make sure that the tiny amount of Yen coins I held were spent correctly.  And then I saw it, there amongst the Donkey Kongs and Mortal Kombats, a beam of light shining down on one single machine.

“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 in time, except in my head – 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 a big scene about it, my friends gathered around 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 I burned too, it was out of my hands soon.  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.

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 the country.  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 all.  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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