Tokyo is a pretty expensive place — it is especially bad when 1) it’s your first time visiting, and 2) you are an otaku. You are in Glorious Nippon, the Weeaboo Mecca! There is stuff that you want to buy everywhere. It’s pretty overwhelming.
On the bright side, I think few are naive enough or hopelessly optimistic enough to think that they won’t be spending crazy amounts of money on merchandise while in Japan. On the down side, even those who come prepared with money to spend and a budget to spend it on can get caught up in the insane amount of stuff they encounter while they’re there. There are a few places that almost require a visit, but there are also places that you’ll happen upon almost unexpectedly. Those will get you, those unexpected places full of impulse buys. Here are the top five money-sinks for weeaboo in Tokyo from my own personal experience:
Akihabara is the most obvious place. You go there knowing full well that it’s a huge fantard paradise. You go there expecting to see stormtroopers dancing in the streets and flash mobs breaking out in “Hare Hare Yukai” in addition to the maid cafes, manga cafes, pachinko parlors, the billion electronics stores, arcades, and seven-story buildings filled basement to roof with nothing but anime merchandise. Yes, that is buildings, plural, all seven to nine stories tall. Filled with anime merchandise. Seriously. It’s like the biggest convention dealer’s room you’ve ever seen. Multiplied by some obscene number. Sure, buildings in Tokyo all tend to be tall and narrow, so one floor might not constitute as much, but once you’re climbing the stairs in your fourth or fifth building, the magnitude of it all really starts to sink in.
The novelty of Akiba will probably lead you to choose it as one of your first stops. Unfortunately, as far as wise-spending goes, it’s probably one of the worst places on the list because most of the stores here sell new merchandise at standard retail price — some places may even inflate them knowing full well the district’s notoriety in otaku circles. Though some items will be on the shelves here faster, you might be better off buying most figs and models online, even with shipping costs. But there’s so much of it here! All in such close proximity! It’s hard to go around browsing and not see something that you want right then and there.
Some stores will have discount bins with older or merchandise from less popular series, but unless you have some really obscure tastes or some really good luck, there usually isn’t much there that’s worth it. Digging through them is kind of fun though, even if the employees will look at you funny.
I wasn’t adventurous enough to check out any of the numerous maid cafes advertised on street corners by maids with ridiculously high-pitched voices, but friends of mine who were reported that the prices at the cafes were pretty insane. ¥750 for a non-refillable glass of lemonade? Really? You’re paying for the attention of your maid, certainly, but I’d rather pay for the attention of a figurine. Maybe this says something about me.
Overall, Akihabara is fun mostly for the crazy volume of stuff you’ll see in a relatively small area. There won’t be too many rare finds here, but there will be tons of general stuff to distract you. You will see tons and tons of merchandise from series you’re only casually interested in and be tempted just because they’re there, they’re pretty, and the price doesn’t seem that bad. Being that Akiba was one of the first places I visited though, I was very conservative while there, intent on scoping out all that was available before making spending choices. Yes, there were still a couple of impulse buys along the way, but looking back, I didn’t spend that much…
Ikebukuro, or perhaps, more specifically, Otome Road, has been billed as the Akihabara for female otaku and fujoushi. This is pretty much because there are five or six major doujinshi outlets sitting together on a street, and everyone knows that fujoushi go nuts over their doujin, right? There are a handful of general anime stores in the area, the biggest of which is eight-story animate, as well as a BOOK-OFF with your standard discounted manga, and numerous arcades, but you won’t really find anything there that you won’t find in Akiba.
I don’t really consider myself a huge, huge fan of doujinshi, partially because the overtly BL majority annoys me sometimes, but mostly because I tend to be very picky when it comes to the art. However, faced with these five or six major doujin chains, each with at least two stories of bookshelves filled end to end with books, I knew I was bound to find something I liked. And unlike a lot of more general anime merchandise, it is insanely hard to find doujinshi outside of Japan — much less doujinshi by an artist you like, with a pairing you like, from a series you like — and the prices tend to be fairly high, so I definitely wanted to pick up at least one or two titles while I was there. But just one or two. Not that many. I had no intention of starting a mini-doujin collection while I was there.
The mistake was visiting Otome Road with my friend Chewi. You see, both Chewi and I have this complex where we feel better about buying things if someone with us also buys something. We tend not to spend much when we are shopping alone or when we are with people that are being careful with their money. But when we’re together, we end up enabling each other. It was pretty bad. “I don’t know if I should get this — are you getting that?” / “I guess I’ll buy this if you buy that.” / “Oh, are you still browsing? I guess I’ll see if I like anything over here then.” / “Are you checking out? I guess I’ll go ahead and get this then.” etc.
We spent an entire afternoon in Ikebukuro. Buying doujinshi. We combed through every one of those stores and did not leave a single one without buying at least one book each. It took much longer than I would have imagined because choosing what to buy is an exhaustive affair. Everything is shrink wrapped, regardless of rating, so there’s little to judge but the cover — how do you know that the art on the inside is just as good? A majority of books, especially those from older fandoms, were ¥210. Some thicker books were ¥420. These are killer prices when you consider that a lot of doujinshi will go anywhere between $10-50 online because all doujinshi is printed in very limited runs. Even the anthologies priced at ¥3200 don’t seem that outrageous when you consider that it might be impossible to find in another year. So when you’re faced with a dozen books with pretty good covers at two bucks a pop, how do you resist buying all of them? Especially when the person next to you has a stack of similar size? Money-sink!
Chewi ended up with a lot more than me, but this was mostly because she went in knowing more of what she wanted. Being a bigger doujin fan than I, she had a better idea of which artists’ work she liked and what was rare, etc. Her fandom and pairing of choice (One Piece – SanjiZoro) was also more popular than mine (Gundam SEED – Asucaga), though I did end up buying a few Code Geass – Suzalulu books because the cover art blew me away.
You won’t be spending much in Ikebukuro if you aren’t interested in doujinshi, but if you’re even marginally interested, I would recommend either 1) not bringing an enabler friend with you, 2) budgeting your time so that you don’t spend freakin’ hours camped out in front of the bookshelves trying to decide whether to buy book A or B. Honestly though, I don’t really regret any of my purchases there. For the most part, I picked good books, and the ones I didn’t end up liking that much, I managed to resell later for a small profit. :3
3. The Pokemon Center
There were actually only a few places in Tokyo I was absolutely dead set on visiting while I was there. Predictably, the Pokemon Center was one of them. The first time, I wandered around Daimon for about an hour and half trying to find the damn place before asking a traffic cop for directions only to realize that I didn’t know the words for “left” and “right” in Japanese. Thankfully, the cop, upon realizing my supreme gaijinness, ended up pointing in one direction and declaring “Straight, then lefto!” To be fair, the PokeCenter is tucked away in an office building and is a small portion of a single story, so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for at the time.
But it was certainly worth the effort finding it.
I went to the PokeCenter three times in total and spent no less than $100 USD on each trip. I spent more here than any other place in Tokyo and had to buy an extra bag to be able to bring all of it home with me. …But I’m putting it as #3 because I realize not everyone is as fanatical as I am in this regard, even if a lot of my purchases were intended for resale at PKMNCollectors upon my return. But really, if there was ever a Pokemon fan in you, if there is even a sliver of nostalgia in you, if you have ever picked up and liked a Pokemon game, you will buy something here. There is just so much to choose from.
The thing about Pokemon in Japan is that there is a universal appeal. Sure, it’s aimed primarily towards children, but huddled around the wifi point at the Center, I saw a group of salarymen picking up the promotional Pokemon they got for visiting. They all left individually, without kids in tow. Each time I went, there were just as many, if not more, adults as there were children, and as such, the merchandise available is very varied. There are adorable plushies and shelves full of stationary, and there are also cups, mugs, towels, backpacks, figurines, board games, stamps, candies, and cookies. But there are also designer clothing and purses, delicate tea sets, jewelry, and other decidedly grown-up items.
With so many Pokemon (we’re just over 500 now, if you were wondering), there are definitely a few that are being neglected as far as merchandise goes, but also with so many Pokemon, there is bound to be one you like that’s available. Additionally, the PokeCenter almost always has some sort of limited promotion going on, and items released for the event become instantly rare and expensive after the duration. While I was there in December 2009, there were lots of HeartGold/SoulSilver limited promo stuff, as well as an Eeveelution promotion. Some of the merchandise released during these promotions have already inflated 200-300% their retail price. Pokemon collecting is serious business! But even if you aren’t a collector, I’m sure you’ll find something to bring home.
2. Nakano Broadway
You know, digging through my photos, I couldn’t find any general pictures I took at Nakano Broadway — a very unassuming four-story mall directly across from Nakano Station — this means that I was too busy freaking out over how amazing the place was the entire time I was there, all three times I was there. I took this photo off Google.
Nakano does not seem to be nearly as well-known as Akihabara, or even Ikebukuro, but one stop here could save you the trip to both. Merch-wise, there is nothing that either of the aforementioned has that Nakano doesn’t. All of Akiba’s merchandise — its figurines, its models, its cosplay, whatever — all of that is here. All of Otome Road’s doujinshi — that’s here too*. And there’s more. While the first floor has a lot of more “normal” shops for clothing and stationary and electronics and whatever else normal people buy, the second, third, and parts of the fourth floor are filled with otaku-related goods. It’s true that two or three floors here can’t possibly equal the volume of stuff that’s in Akiba, even if the floors are considerably larger, but what makes Nakano better is the fact that the shops here are more like flea market or garage sale stalls rather than normal retail chains.
While newer merchandise may take longer to show up at Nakano, there is a wealth of older stuff, making it the perfect place to hunt for rarer goods. Gashapon that are no longer in circulation find their way into dozens of stores, packaged clearly so you aren’t playing chance games at the machine, hoping you get the one fig in the series that you want. A lot of older blind box figures are also available in a similar manner. Models and figurines from decade-old series are displayed in glass cases lining the hallways. The fourth floor plays host to a half dozen shops dedicated to selling old animation cels — let the treasure hunting begin! You’ll also find a lot of other random Japanese novelty goods not necessarily anime-related. There is a Japanese equivalent to Spencer’s Gifts tucked away in the corner of the second floor, I believe.
Both Mandarake and K-Books, two major doujin chains (though Mandarake also sells a bunch of other stuff), have shops in Nakano, giving you plenty of books to choose from. *Naturally, given the limited quantities of most doujin, the selection between Nakano and Ikebukuro varies greatly, but visiting one and not the other will probably save you some money you weren’t intending to spend in the first place. (As for me, I probably spent equal amounts on doujin in both locations. Unfortunately, Chewi accompanied me on one of my trips to Nakano… so yeah.)
Nakano Broadway can kind of be considered the previous three places bundled up in a nice package. You will find tons of general anime goods a la Akihabara. You will find plenty of doujinshi to save you a trip to Ikebukuro. And inevitably, you will find a ton of Pokemon merchandise in one form or another, though in this case, it may be harder to find rarer toys because a lot of the older and more widely circulated stuff isn’t worth much.
Save your money for this place. You will probably be able to find most of what you wanted elsewhere and then some.
1. Any Place With Gashapon Machines
This is the killer, right here. Gashapon are innocent-looking things: those little machines filled with little plastic balls filled with little (usually) plastic toys. They range from ¥100-¥500 a pop and the toys are almost always of exceptional quality, so they definitely feel worth it. What’s a hundred yen here and there for a cute phone charm or figure? Nothin’ at all.
But these machines are pervasive. These machines are everywhere. The above picture was taken in Akihabara, but don’t let that fool you. There were gashapon machines outside of the temple in Asakusa. There were gashapon machines all over the place in the subways. There were gashapon in the parks, at the zoo. There were gashapon in the tourist traps and the hidden side streets. It is impossible to go a day in Tokyo without encountering a gashapon machine that contains something you wouldn’t mind owning. And those ¥100-¥500 yen goes add up. Fast.
These are the purchases you don’t expect. You aren’t heading to an anime-related destination today; you’re just going to a museum. Right outside the museum? BAM. Evangelion gashapon figures. You’re going to a shrine today. Across the street from the shrine? BAM. Pokemon gashapon figures. Sitting next to that cool-looking ramen place? BAM. One Piece gashapon phone charms. This one’s only ¥200! What else are you gonna buy today? A postcard? Oh snap, you didn’t get the one you wanted. Another go’s only ¥200, where’s the harm? Oh, this one’s pretty cool, but still not the one you wanted. Gasha-pon! There goes another ¥200.
Remember my friend Chewi? We were in the subway station on our way from Mitaka to Nakano. In the station was a bunch of gashapon machines, including one that had a bunch of Hitman Reborn! figures. Chewi had already gotten a few Reborn! figs from gashapon, but this particular series of figs she had not come across before. Being the enabler that I am, I did not dissuade her from getting one. They were only ¥300 each and were larger than a lot of other gashapon figures. Her first go is lucky — it’s a character she likes. She wants to try to get a matching figure of the character she likes him paired with. Second go does not yield this character, but she doesn’t dislike what she gets. Third go also does not yield the right one, but at least it’s not a repeat…
Fourth go is a repeat of the second. Fifth go is a different character, but still not the one she wants. (Sorry, I’m not familiar with Reborn!, so I don’t know any of their names.) At this point Chewi begins to question whether she should continue. Annnnd being the enabler that I am, I don’t start fearing for her wallet until the seventh unsuccessful gashapon. I convince her to give up for the while and we head on to Nakano. At Nakano, we find a room filled with gashapon, and once again, she sees a machine with this series of figures and sinks another ¥900 trying to get this elusive character, in addition to the money she spends on other machines. Do you see the problem here? :D
Eventually, Chewi managed to find the missing figure at a store in Nakano that was selling a them secondhand. Ironically, she bought it for less than the cost of the gashapon because apparently, it was the most common figure. The one she got four repeats of, on the other hand, was one of the rarer ones. Too bad neither of us knew enough Japanese to be able to try and sell her doubles.
I didn’t end up with nearly as many gashapon as Chewi, who probably had 30-40 total. She wouldn’t let me take a picture of them though because she was ashamed. :D
Hopefully, you’ll manage a little better, but honestly, I’m not sure that Chewi has any real regrets.