Behind his counter, the clerk continues to sort through papers as the high-pitched squeals and moans of Japanese women in the throws of forced ecstasy reverberate through the shelves.
A salaryman in a surgical mask and glasses squeezes past me. I lean back into a bookshelf to give him space through the noodle-thin aisle.
His briefcase knocks my knee as he passes. ‘Sumimasen‘, he apologises, avoiding eye contact.
I bend down to the bottom shelf and flick through a magazine. Black and white images, forty or fifty years old, depict a women with permed hair nude in a forest.
Ah ah ahhhhh!
A tap on the shoulder. I get up, thinking I need to let someone past, but it’s my girlfriend.
‘Come and see what I found’, she teases.
Ah Ahh Ahhhh Uuuunnnnnnn!
The Akihabara area of Tokyo has become synonymous with otaku (fanatic) culture. It is a mecca for local Japanese and foreign tourists searching for anime and video game merchandise, and tech geeks looking for gear. Land that was once a city gate at the height of the samurai era has become ‘Electric Town’, a name gained due to the boom in establishments selling electronics post-war. Small stores began operating under the elevated railway of the area, and vocational students made ends meet assembling radios for their part-time jobs. By 1950, almost half of the shops in the area sold items that ran on electricity. Fast forward 70 years, and Akihabara has evolved further into bustling hub of specialist stores soaked in neon signs and serenaded by chirpy Japanese pop music. Down the back alleys, and along the main drag, shops of every size line illuminated shelves in front of their facade, highlighting the newest anime figurines, or place tables jam-packed with appliances. It was an area of Tokyo I most looked forward to experiencing.
We walked out of the “Electric Town’ exit of Akihabara Station to have our eyes immediately zapped by the neon signs of Sega and Labi. It was well into evening, and the bright signs polluted the streets with light. Large billboards featuring anime ‘pretty girls’ clung to the sides of buildings, advertising special events or the premier of new series’. Outside the stores, middle aged employees handed out fliers and called out deals and promotions to customers over the babble of the crowds. Further down the street, the touts transformed into young girls in maid costumes advertising maid and hostess cafes.
I thought Akihabara would be a good spot for souvenir shopping. It’s not just anime shops here, but the aforementioned electric shops, some which are tiny stalls, some which are multi-floor stores. One well-known spot goes by the quirky name of Super Potato (スーパーポテト) and stocks a huge range of retro games and consoles. Even walking around for a short while had my gamer brain overloaded. There were also many model shops. Hobbycrafts are big business in Japan, and past-times like model-making are popular. After dipping in and out of shops for around an hour, I’d picked up a few anime figurines, but nothing spectacular fit my pittance of a budget.
We stopped in one more place before heading back to the station, a shop named Lamtarra. With a facade bursting with otaku merch, from the outside it seemed similar to every other shop we had visited. Inside, things seemed the same too: cramped, with walls overflowing with toys, figures, and books. I spotted some Kingdom Hearts keychains that truly tempted me, until I saw the price. At the back of the room was a whole section dedicated to the 100+ member pop idol band AKB48, who were formed and are based in Akihabara (the theatre they hold daily – yes, daily – performances was a stones throw away). On the walls and stands sat CDs, clothes, and posters and postcards of the individual members, each showing a coquettish, demure expression, and a little skin.
We were on our way out when we saw the stairs and a large, red , encircled ’18’ with a line through it. Well, we had to see what this was about. As we reached the next floor, our ears were greeted with a chorus shrill screams and moans. Is that what I think it is…?
It was exactly what we thought it was. The left half of the floor was dedicated to pornographic DVDs, and on tiny TV screens clinging to the end of shelves which reached to the ceiling, a selection of titles played simultaneously and at an unsubtle volume, the noise from the multiple screens melding into a cacophony. Down the stacks, a few men were looking over the cases with a discerning eye.
Things got more erotic the higher you went, and on succeeding floors we found sex toys, S&M paraphernalia, dead-eyed sex dolls staring down at us from atop a shelf, and even underwear stapled inside see-through plastic bags with a signed sexy photo. We assumed they had been worn.
We perused with cheeky smiles on our faces, and the tittering excitement of kids who had found their way into an elderly relative’s forbidden room – not that we’re shy about this kind of thing; we just didn’t expect this to be how we ended our shopping trip. Other than us, the clientele all seemed to be middleaged, or salarymen on the way back from the office (other than a pair of European guys wearing the same smiles we did). Jen was the only woman in the shop, and a few salarymen cast curious side-glances at her as they browsed.
Since we’d stumbled upon this place, we decided we couldn’t leave without buying something. In jest, I remarked that she doesn’t own any Japanese pornstar’s underwear, and jokingly thrust one of the pants bags in her hand, which she quickly threw back on its hanger as if she’d caught a scolding hot stone, before scolding me.
We head back to the first AV floor and rifled through the gravure mags, the majority of which were sealed in plastic, for obvious reasons. However, this made choosing one a little difficult. Having to judge the photobooks entirely on the cover – something you should never do, as I’m sure you know – we ended up selecting an idol’s photobook, and a fashion mag, that weren’t as erotic as we thought (hoped) they might be.