Discovering Tokyo’s secrets relies on a mixture of research, recommendations, and – should you have the time – luck. What is important to note is that Tokyo simply can not be digested as one giant whole. The greater area is home to some 33 million people, with 12 million of those in the city itself. Rush hour extends to pretty much the entire train schedule. Recently, The majority of stores, restaurants and such like have succumbed to a western influence – if not in name, in philosophy. To its credit, the appearance of a ‘conbini’ (24 hour convenience store) or even a ‘nan demo’ (literal translation is ‘whatever’, in the west, maybe best interpreted a ‘knick knack’ or thrift store – one floor is food, the next costumes, the next designer jewellery) like ‘Don Quijote’ can provide the opportunity to stock up on essentials or find that souvenir you never knew someone wanted.
Both western and Japanese franchises are commonplace in Japan’s capital, and they can provide comforting or frustrating familiarity in equal measure. Themed bars and restaurants are also plentiful, having branches all along the Yamanote line. While it can be reassuring to know what you are getting (and especially how much you will be paying), there has become an increasing desire among locals and visitors to seek out privately owned establishments with a unique identity.
Wandering the maze of streets of downtown can be a very rewarding experience. Finding somewhere interesting but off the beaten track feels special. There are a number of areas and stores in Tokyo that make up a checklist for tourists to get their ‘otaku’ fix, be it figures, manga, cat cafes or something more… ‘Acquired’.
Every September, thousands of gamers and developers flock to Japan’s flagship (but certainly not only) event, the Tokyo Games Show. Despite its distance from the wrong side of the city centre approaching an hour, it draws huge crowds. Akihabara is the closest gamer hot spot, and very high on tourists must-see lists. On the Showa dori side of Akiba (for short) station, away from the immensely popular AKB48/ Gundam cafes, the strip of electronics stores and arcades is the other side of Tokyo’s gaming culture coin.
A short walk from the busy traffic, round a corner or two, you will find an innocuous but beloved bar called Game Bar A Button. Its owner cuts a slender yet trendy figure, and he is the instigator at the centre of many music events and meet-ups across Tokyo; A Button itself is host to such events from time to time. As retro cool and striking as the outside neon is, it is the bar’s unique interior decor that brings in industry types and tourists alike. A Panasonic Q – a Nintendo GameCube / DVD combo never released outside of Japan – greets you at the door, which should tell you all you need to know about this place.
A plethora of gaming memorabilia covers every surface and provides an incredible insight into not only the commercial side of gaming, but its technical heart, too. An original PS3 sits right below a PSP that is used as a jukebox, playing everything from Famicom Final Fantasy and Mega Man to Metal Gear Solid 2’s epic main theme. Squeezed in is a bulky and well-worn PC-style box boasting a logo gamers with a fondness for history will recognise: a Dreamcast development kit. Opposite the bar, there is a stack of home consoles, including one of the most sought after treasures: a boxed Nintendo 64DD.
It’s as much of a museum as it is a watering hole. Books and portable consoles are there to be enjoyed, while looking just above your head will ignite a child-like excitement as you gaze through the immense tangle of wires and peripherals, including a couple of rare crossover controllers. A handful of Nintendo amiibo sit next to a Game & Watch collection, and the congested meishi (business card) board littered with recognisable insignia highlights this place’s industry relevance, as well as its kitsch appeal.
For all its glorious paraphernalia, this is not a big place. It would not at all be out of place in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai – a kilometre square block of bars and restaurants that seldom cater for more than a dozen people. A Button has a counter for about eight chairs and a table that can seat four people – that’s your lot. Both Golden Gai and A Button’s charm are their ability to make their patrons feel like they are walking into a bubble of fond memories; it’s the garage full of stuff you had as a kid, but had to throw out. It’s reading about a game from your childhood and then being able to have a quick blast. It’s a cave of all that is treasured in the video game industry.
Like so much of Tokyo, it is best discovered by yourself, but the next best thing is introducing it to other, like-minded people, as anyone who walks in will find and gravitate towards their particular favourite thing. Get there at opening time, sit back with a pint of their great craft beer, and take it all in.