Akihabara

Hello everyone, apologies incidentally for the lack of a post on Tuesday. I’m going to try and make up for it with extra posts this weekend. Today however I’m continuing my series of articles catching up on mine and Fran’s brief exploits in Tokyo. Today’s topic, that Mecca of geekdom; Akihabara.

P.S. Mum, if you’re reading this I recommend you stop right now. No seriously, stop. Dad if you’re reading this don’t tell Mum.

Akihabara is renowned throughout Japan as being Otaku-central or nerd-city if you will. In fact it’s pretty renowned outside of Japan for the same reasons. This is the heart of anime culture. This is where the cos-players throng, where the amateur manga is drawn and published, where computer games tournaments are held. A dozen of the things that typically draw the western eye to Japan all originate in Akihabara or have their spiritual home here. Akihabara is the home from home for all Otaku.

However Otaku has a very different meaning in Japan than its equivalent English word geek does in Britain and America. Some of the meanings are shared, the fascination with pop-culture, the obsessive fandom, the interest in non-mainstream fiction and hobbies. Indeed some of the more negative meanings are shared too, the social awkwardness, poor personal hygiene, etc. But in Japan the negative meanings are far, far worse. In Japan social awkwardness is not something that’s a shame but is forgiven. It’s not a joke, it’s the ultimate in taboo’s. To choose not to partake in the dominant cultural and social norms is to declare yourself to not be Japanese. The culture here is all about harmony and group dynamics, to opt out of the group is to become the ultimate outsider. So Otaku, far from being a fairly affectionate term for someone with slightly odd interests is an insult that suggests that you are odd, cannot function in society, are a disgrace to Japan and your family, are disgusting personally and likely are a sexual pervert.

Okay that is a bit harsh but really geek is at best affectionate and at the worst a humorous term. Otaku ranges from the humorous to outright fear and hate. At a speaking contest held in my adopted home city of Kobe one group of girls did a presentation on Otaku and “mania.” Although the presentation was sympathetic to Otaku a survey of their classmates revealed that something like 80% of them “hated” Otaku.

Oh and apparently one of the girls presenting was a comic “mania”* because she owned 70 manga digests. I wonder what her friends would make of my comic collection of more than 1000 comics.

furthermore the sexual pervert thing, alas, is truer than I would like it to be. All the areas of “geek” or “Otaku” culture in Japan are linked inextricably with a sleazy pornographic culture. Den Den Town in Osaka freely mixes computer and toy shops with pornographic posters of underaged anime girls and Akihabara is home to the original maid cafes. Where sad lonely otaku pay for the privilege of having a woman dressed as an anime character flirt with him whilst he eats his food.

But, says I, is all this sex culture merely pornographic? Is there not a vibrant sexual underground in Japan? A breaking open of centuries held moral and social practices all in the service of better and more thrilling sex? Surely my girlfriend and I could explore this brave new world whilst we are in Tokyo?

No? Alright I’ll own up. The nerdy stuff was all shut so we wandered into the only place open (a 6 story sex shop) to pass the time giggling at willies.

As you can imagine, with 6 stories available there was quite a selection in there. Adult costumes, some extraordinarily hardcore pornography, marital aids of all shapes and sizes, flavours and colours and this:

This my friends is the Hello Kitty Vibrator.

Marketed officially as a neck massager the Hello Kitty Vibe has been well known as a sex toy since the early 90’s**. Sanrio gave the license to produce Hello Kitty products to Genyo who produced the first “neck massager” and began raking in money hand over fist when the thing became a bit of a cult object amongst certain sub-cultures in America and Europe. When Sanrio got wind of this they promptly yanked the thing from the market and revoked Genyo’s license (eventually, initially they had no egal standing but in the end shady business deals by Genyo gave them a pretext), citing moral outrage.

Of course as of last year Sanrio has re-released the neck massagers to the market, in a variety of colours no less. Evidently it was more greed than moral outrage that motivated Sanrio’s decision.

I knew of the Hello Kitty vibe long before I ever decided to come to Japan and I couldn’t believe I was being faced with such a legendary object. Something that seemed to so perfectly sum up the insane materialism of this country, and only for a 1000yen!

Alas I didn’t buy it, girlfriend didn’t want it and I had no use for it so we put it back and moved on.

Our next stop in Akihabara was a café called “Neko Ja La La”. This was the original “cat café.”

Now when I tell my Japanese friends that I went to a cat café in Akihabara they assume that I went to a Maid Café where the maids dress as cats. Nope, I want to a café filled with actual real life cats.

And aren’t they just adorable.

Neko Ja La La charges per the hour and also charges for drinks. Whilst there you can play with any of about 30 cats and the room is filled with cat toys, baskets and other luxuries to make the cats happy. It was all very, very twee and ridiculously cute but come on; I’m not made of stone. Wook at the kitty, wook ad duh kiddy!

The idea behind the café is to exploit the stress relieving effects of cats. Most Tokyoites live in tiny apartments where pets are banned. So places like these allow stressed urbanites the chance to play with and pet cute kittens and generally chill out. In my opinion it’s a fantastic idea although it does potentially veer into the realm of animal exploitation. However, considering the cats are basically pampered all day long I think it steers clear of it. There are numerous rules in place to protect the cats too (everything is very sanitised) so overall I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to see more cat cafés spread over Japan.

The cats seemed particularly interested in Fran’s feet. This puzzled us for quite some time until we twigged that we had spent the morning walking though a fish market and our feet probably smelled delicious to the cats. Needless to say we also found this to be sooooooooooooo cuuuude.

And on that final fishy feet fact I bid farewell.

* Yes, i know it should be “maniac” but Engrish has appalling grammar.

** Most of the information in this section comes courtesy of Hello Kitty Hell.

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