Exploring Akihabara

This was my first day in Tokyo by myself. Ron left for work early in the morning, and after an extra sleep-in I made my way outdoors to explore the city.

It had been raining during the night, and combined with the heat made for a very humid day. I didn’t have much of a plan for the day, but I did want to get a SIM card so I could look up maps and train times, and be able to contact Ron to meet up again at the end of the day.

I spent the better part of an hour trying to find breakfast. The day before it had seemed so easy to find food, but I had just been following Ron. Left to myself, it was hard to tell which restaurants had suitable breaky food (it turns out breakfast can be anything!), and whether or not they were open. It felt like there was no-where to eat, the only exception being Maccas. I didn’t want to resort to Western takeaway, so I persevered until I found a restaurant in the Shinjuku shopping centre which had lots of photos on the menu. I think part of the reason it took me so long to find somewhere was that I was nervous about ordering and not being able to speak with the Japanese people.

Once I finally found somewhere, I ordered a bento box and glanced at the people nearby as I ate to make sure I was doing everything correctly. For the first couple of days every meal was a similar experience, until I’d managed so many conversations without actually using words that I was quite comfortable eating anywhere.

After breakfast, I looked up the train map and worked out how to get to Akihabara. Finding the platform I needed was a challenge, because Shinjuku station is massive!  Both the Metro and JR lines come together at Shinjuku, and there is a maze of corridors linking the various platforms. But it was a good time of day to travel, outside of the peak, and I managed to find my way without too much hassle.

The reason I was headed to Akihabara was that Ron had bought a SIM card there at the start of his trip. We had a quick look for one the day before, but none of the phone stores we went to were able to help – they could only offer contracts. The problem was that when I left the station I didn’t know which exit to take!

A narrow, multistorey shopping centre
A narrow, multistorey shopping centre

The area surrounding the station is packed with heaps of shops selling electronics and a lot of video game arcades. I spent some time just checking out the area, and wandered into one of the arcades. And what did I find? A game to play at the urinal! There’s a sensor in the urinal and a small screen at the top. The longer and faster you pee the stronger the wind becomes and it threatens to blow off the animated news reporter’s dress. I had my phone ready before I began, and managed to take a sneaky photo of my effort (fortunately there was no-one else in there!).

The news reporter was blown away by my pee!
The news reporter was blown away by my pee!

As with any new city, I found some every day things out on the street to be quite interesting as well. With space at a premium, car parks are small. To help maximise the space, payment for parking is controlled by retractable bumps under the cars. The bump stops the car from leaving unless payment is made, negating the need for boomgates.

Retractable speed hump to control parking
Retractable speed hump to control parking

I also saw an undercover garage with a turnstile to allow a car to drive in, then rotate on the plate to drive out without needing to reverse park. I saw quite a few of these in other places throughout the week as well.

Turnstile to assist with parking
Turnstile to assist with parking

Anyway, back to my SIM card hunt. Having done a full lap of the train station, I found the massive electronics store that I was looking for, called Yodobashi Akiba. It’s about 8 levels tall, with each floor dedicated to something different. The ground floor was phones and small electronics, and on the other levels they were selling video games, TVs, electrical appliances and toys.

The place was packed with people and shelves. It felt half market and half department store. Immediately inside the entrance, just about every phone provider in Japan had a stall so I made my way around to each of them asking for a pre-paid SIM card. For the most part they either didn’t understand what I was looking for, or just didn’t stock them. I knew the brand that Ron had, and was asking for that specifically, but still no luck. I spent half an hour trying, getting increasingly frustrated and disappointed. I head upstairs after that to explore the other floors. The range of things for sale was incredible.

Trading cards in Yodobashi Akiba
Trading cards in Yodobashi Akiba

On my way downstairs, I made one last attempt at a SIM card before leaving. I found a guy who was particularly helpful, but it turned out he didn’t have what I was after. Not satisfied with me walking away empty handed, he wrote down directions for me to find the store of the brand I was after. I must have looked confused, because he ended up taking me out the front and walked me around the corner to find the shop! I was starting to get excited thinking he actually knew what I wanted and where I could find it. Once we were at the shop, he thanked me several times before heading back to the department store. I went into the store, asked for the SIM card and got the standard response.

Throughout my whole trip, I found the Japanese people to be very patient, polite and helpful. This was a perfect example of just how helpful they are, because the man serving me didn’t feel comfortable saying ‘no’ so did his best to help me find what I was after.

Despite his efforts, I still didn’t have a SIM card. Disappointed, I decided to give up on the idea having wasted enough time trying.

I decided to explore a bit further down the road, and found another department store. The building was very tall and narrow, and there was just a single door for an entrance. Through the door was a small elevator and a flight of stairs. It turns out this is quite a standard layout for buildings in Toyko – lots of small shops stacked on top of each other, with a small entrance on the street. The building often includes restaurants as well. From the outside, however, the buildings often don’t look very welcoming and reminded me of office buildings back home. This particular shop sold everything, and even had a floor dedicated to model tanks and remote control cars! It was quite interesting to look around.

Stairs leading up to the department store
Stairs leading up to the department store

Back out on the street I came across a girl wearing a maid outfit and cat ears. She was handing out flyers for a Cosplay restaurant, where the wait staff dress and role-play as Anime characters. I took a flyer to have a look, but the concept seemed a bit creepy so I managed to avoid actually visiting one.

Girl promoting a Cosplay restaurant
Girl promoting a Cosplay restaurant

By now it was mid-afternoon and I was done exploring Akihabara. I was meeting Ron at Uniqlo in Ginza at 5pm, so I caught the train to Nihombashi which was on the way so I could visit the kite museum which I had read about in Lonely Planet.

Following the trend of the day, I had a hard time finding it. Without Google maps to guide me, I was dependent on the Lonely Planet street address and the tourist map I had taken from the hotel which didn’t have a lot of detail. It turned out I had the right building – I just had to go inside! Fortunately there was a courier nearby, and I asked for help and he showed me where to go. This is a great example of how deceptive buildings can be from the outside. It looks like there’s nothing exciting inside, but once you go in there are lots of surprises! Check out the street view picture below to see how well hidden it is. The kite museum is on the fifth floor above this restaurant, and the elevator is hiding just inside the door to the restaurant! Perhaps if I could read Japanese I would have seen a sign somewhere…

Kite museum entrance from Streetview
Kite museum entrance from Streetview

 

It was definitely worth the effort to find the museum. It was very small, but they’ve packed a lot of kites into the space! There are some signs detailing the history of kites in Japan, but the displays are fascinating enough on their own. From massive dragon kites, to tiny coin sized kites, they have the full range in the museum, and use every last space to display them! If you’re in the area, I’d recommend stopping by.

After the museum, I made my way to Ginza to check out Uniqlo. The shopping strip in Ginza is crazy and seems to stretch on forever. The Uniqlo store is massive, with a total of 8 floors. I slowly wandered through each of them, stopping on the men’s floors to look more closely. Once Ron finished work, he joined me and we spent the next hour or so buying out the men’s department. Everything was very cheap, but also good quality. I bought a couple of pairs of pants, a few collared shirts, a polo shirt, a down jacket and some shorts, all for under AU$250. Overall, a very successful evening!

Outside the Uniqlo store in Ginza
Outside the Uniqlo store in Ginza

Exhausted, we made our way back to Shinjuku for dinner.The restaurant had a machine out the front where we placed our order, then took the ticket inside to the counter to collect our food. It seemed like such a novel idea, but turned out to be pretty common. Quite an efficient way of ordering, and frees up the staff to just prepare food.

Dinner time!
Dinner time!

After hearing about my lack of success in finding a SIM card, Ron messaged his friend and made plans for me to meet up with her boyfriend the next day so we could go shopping and sightseeing together. All in all, I’d had a good day and was starting to find my feet in a new place, but compared to my trip to America it was definitely more challenging.

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