Japan 23 : Nerdvana

The next morning, I surveyed the damage. There was a large, heavy backpack, a smaller, but still heavy backpack, and four carrier bags, bulging with the finest tat Japan had to offer, and there was still a half-dozen or more people who would be expecting a souvenir back home. I was several thousand miles from my little house, and I had no teleporter. It was clear that I needed an extra suitcase.

Down at the lobby, I tried to explain my situation to the guy behind the desk, using my limited vocab and a phrase book that inexplicably omitted the translation for the word 'luggage'. To my great relief, a woman who was clearly multilingual came over to my aid and formed an intermediary. I was told enthusiastically (twice) of a huge shop a block away named 'Don Quixote' that sold just about everything on the planet. There would surely be something usable there.

The manager of the hotel explained the situation to his wife who agreed to help me find it. The kindly woman who had acted as translator bade me farewell, but not before imparting the hugely useful phrase 'doko des' ka?' which when pointing at a picture of something or a map means 'where is this?'. Something that I should have perhaps learned for myself about three weeks previous.

The wife kindly escorted me to the appropriate street crossing the busy road I entered a place that might just sell everything in the entire world. The deceptively normal-looking shop front outside was about the size of a local Argos, with two large windows and a door between, but when you went in, it was like a tardis, stretching backwards into infinity with seemingly never-ending tightly packed aisles. Everything you could possibly want, from food and drink to electronics to clothing to household stuff were squeezed in wherever they would fit, no section of floorspace wider than a pair of legs was allowed to bare the floor to anyone. On my travels round I fingered through bags of dried fish snacks, engrish caps, and more flavours of Spam than we ever get in Blighty (a letter of complaint has been written).

After an age of chopping down overgrown special offers with one of their reasonably-priced machetes, I finally happened upon my booty - a selection of wheeled suitcases with extending handles - eyeing the size of it and mentally filling it with my accumulated tat so far (which had increased to include what I had picked up on my circuit of the shop) it should just about cover my needs without accumulating an airline fee. 2990 yen (about £15) was a little pricey but I had little choice or desire to go bargain hunting anywhere else. I took my things, and dragged the case on its maiden journey back to the hotel.

I gathered everything up and packed it into the case as tidily as possible, and surveyed the result. It was about 3/4 full, so there should be a enough room available for the remaining gifts after coming back from my final shopping spree - in Akihabara.

A little history: Akihabara is the electronics capital of Japan, and a couple of stops down the Yamanote line from Shinjuku. I had made my plans around the fact that I wanted to be here last - so my day could be spent happily darting in and out of the shops, picking up bargains and eyeing the weirdest the place had to offer. As a kid, I had read in awe of the lucky few people who had travelled there in magazines such as Super Play, greeted with shop after shop of the latest electronics and games. In particular, I was interested in the Super Famicom - or Super Nintendo/SNES as it was known here; a system launched in 1990 in Japan but wouldn't see UK shores until 1992. I didn't care, because I had an imported one which ran at the proper speed and displayed the games without a blurry screen or stupid borders at the top and bottom.

Many games were released for the system, but typically Japan got them first and Europe some time later, if at all. A thriving import scene had grown up around this inconsistency, and my spending money would be enthusiastically poured into this money vacuum whenever a new game was released that Super Play (the bible of the time) had recommended. A golden age of popularity for the Nintendo systems, it spent many happy years at the forefront of gaming technology until the next generation of systems came along in 1996. It's still holds a spot in front of my telly.

The editorial staff of such magazines spent many trips going to Japan to report on the various goings on, and even employed some people who lived over there to do monthly columns. Invariably, this included the legendary Akihabara, the place that was literally humming with the transistors of a billion new gadgets and games and around every corner was a new sight and sound. For a young seedling from wet, dirty Britain, this was a magical place always well out of reach, and consequently became the place that me and my friends would always aspire to go to, if we ever had the time and money.

Well, now Akihabara was well within reach, and my mind had at several times during my journey skipped forwards to the time I would eventually dance around the shops giggling like a schoolgirl. The long-battered feelings of elation and excitement that would consume me on my fantasy quests to the east were regularly resurrected and reminded me of what being a kid was all about. I had vied many years ago that I would enter a shop, and inside that shop would be row upon row, aisle after aisle of games to look through, not at the silly prices the importers would charge, but the dirt-cheap amounts that they paid in the east. It was with some sadness that I concluded that those days would surely have passed, the shops long since clearing that sort of outmoded 'cartridge' rubbish out in favour of the latest systems. However, I vied that I would search high and low for a place that had at least a few second-hand retro games in a dusty corner, for these places definitely did exist - I had stumbled across some way back in Nagano a dozen or so days before, so I just had to find them.

190 yen for a train ride was all it took, and then I was there. The station was squeaky clean and there were signs to the main shopping district almost as soon as you got off the train. The large windows as you came down the steps to ground level teased with their views of huge video screens above shops advertising the latest games and gadgets.

So I began to look around. There were shops selling touristy things, such as plates and scrolls and posters and such, including some Ghibli merchandise that looked a little less than official. There were shops with shiny and brightly lit ice-white interiors where hyper-attentive assistants grabbed the attention of whatever customers they could find to help them purchase as much as possible. Every square inch that wasn't road or pavement was shop. The train lines criss-cross the main shopping district and even the cramped covered back alleys - under which my western frame had to stoop - were filled with sellers of transistors and circuit boards and capacitors by the thousand, supporting a thriving community of people who didn't want to go the easy route of buying a radio, but wanted to put one together themselves from scratch. My dad would have been on cloud nine.

And then there was the porn. Lots and lots and lots of porn, of every imaginable dialect. It was partly due to my inquisitive nature and partly because it was bloody everywhere that I found myself heading down such aisles, placed directly next to much more innocent stuff such as plush toys and mobile phones. There was the usual fare, and there was also a lot of deeply weird stuff: women dressing up as power rangers and subjecting their male counterpart with multiple kicks to the nads. Partners enjoying a relaxing time thrashing about in squid entrails, still others spending an entire DVD dressed up like Bo Peep and licking an oversized lollipop whilst looking needy and unprotected. After the third time of browsing an aisle of gadgets and gizmos only to find myself eyeing up a nippleball in the middle of the display, I became resigned to it all that I was not only in Otaku central, but also perv central, and I should just take a more relaxed attitude to the relaxed stance on the subject the people over there clearly take.

Although my voyage of discovery had certainly been varied and enlightening, I was still falling short when it came to my own personal aim of finding some good old fashioned retro gaming. There had been a couple of places with the odd glass cabinet sporting a dusty cartridge or two in amongst the busty animé figurines in suggestive poses, but nothing that I could yet consider a 'horde'. I had managed to buy a selection of souvenirs from some of the more reputable-looking shops, and had managed to find a couple of places that held my attention with stacks of the latest animé releases (everywhere was going crazy for Evangeleon 1.0), or obscure references to Japanese culture I had remembered from the past, such as a DVD of an old series, some super-deformed retro plush toy or hundreds of airfix-style kits for things I would never have guessed could be marketable in such a form. The only reason I didn't walk away with this Gradius kit was that it was so bulky - it would never have survived the journey back.

It was getting late, and I was a little weary. I had by now moved away from the central area and was getting increasingly far away from the station. Though I was enjoying the experience, I had come up with a blank about my most wanted items, and the feet and arms were getting sore, it was getting dark, and I was having trouble remembering which way I had come from. It was time to give up and head back.

Then, as I walked to the end of the final street I was willing to walk down, I heard over the airwaves a bleepy little tune that I had not heard for perhaps fifteen years. It was the intro theme tune to Mega Man 2 on the Famicom (NES). I spun round to see a little loudspeaker on the corner of an unassuming alleyway. The shop next to it looked like a general electronics store, so it probably wasn't anything to do with that. I headed down the alley. It was a brightly-lit tunnel with some lifts and a set of stairs AND A DIRTY GREAT SIGN WITH A FAMICOM ON IT. I had hit the jackpot. I had by pure chance found Super Potato. Retro gaming heaven.

The sign that adorned the wall - though all in Japanese - was clear. There were several floors to this building, each of them dedicated to a particular games era. Suddenly my weariness and tired legs disappeared. I was fifteen again, and I was bloody well going to get up those steps no matter what.

Neglecting the lift, which may or may not have worked, I went up the stone steps for a few floors before being greeted by a cardboard box half full of identical Super Famicom games. This was the first of the retro floors, dedicated mainly to the Super Famicom and Megadrive games, but also had a good wodge of stuff from even earlier than that. I stood at the entrance to my own personal heaven and wiped the sweat from my brow and the drool from my cheek. One guy behind the counter looked over to me in the universal 'can I help you' style - to which my childish instincts took over and I returned a look of stupefied glee, combined with a double thumbs-up.

I spent a little time looking through the barker ends of what was clearly a deep trio of aisles. There were ancient systems running conversions of games they really shouldn't be able to handle. There were piles of reconditioned Super Famicoms, a pile of unsold Donkey Kong Country 3 games, and a selection of charmingly daft little lego-style ornaments that you built up to create an old-school Mario sprite for your coffee table. After I could resist no more I headed down the central aisle. This was the sight I had thought I would never see - on the left side: a dozen rows of neatly stacked, individually shrink-wrapped Super Famicom cartridges, each with its own little label and barcode. On the right side: a half-dozen rows of perfectly preserved, mint copies of hundreds of Super Famicom games still in their boxes.

I ran a teasing finger down the length of one of the rows, remembering at once a thousand games and their box art, often beautiful or at least representitive but typically replaced with inane, clumsy westernised 'art' when released in the west. (A situation which thankfully rarely occurs these days so I'll step down from my soapbox right there..). I recalled the games that were never made available, and those that I missed because the importers got only a tiny handful and often charged silly money for. Here they were for prices as low as 50 yen - about 25p - although the more desirable items were going for a few thousand.

Resisting the temptation to gather an armful just yet, I turned around and went upstairs. The fourth floor was dedicated to the fifth generation of machines - The N64 (the successor to the Super Famicom), the Playstation, and the Saturn. I immediately headed to the N64 aisle, which had a smaller but no less impressive array of treats, a full side of naked cartridges on the left, and a smaller section on the right with a decent mix of boxed and unboxed carts. Next to the shelves was a pair of rare sights - a TV with an in-built Super Famicom inside it (released only in Japan) playing Mario Kart 64 with a strange, squashed N64 controller dangling temptingly in front of it. Underneath was a pile of reconditioned N64's going dirt cheap (about £15), each individually wrapped in a cellophane bag.

One of them wasn't there though. I am a bit of a fan of Treasure, who are known for their old-school style shooters, pinnacles of their achievements for Nintendo systems are the crazy Go Go! Troublemakers, the hard-as-nails Ikaruga, and the frantic and slick Sin and Punishment. I had all three, but had long hankered for a fourth; Bakaretsu Muteki Bangaioh, a shooter as strange as its name where you can literally fill the screen with chaos if you choose to. This shooter arrived late in the N64 era and there were scant few copies made (about 10,000 for the Japanese market only) before it was translated to the Sega Dreamcast. I had wanted to get it for a while but it was super-rare in the game shops I frequented (the one time I saw it, a second-hand one was going for £150) and now, in the place where it should be, it was missing.

Disappointed, I concentrated on the lines of cartridges, pencilling a few in my mind to have before heading upstairs once more. What I saw upstairs was the icing on the cake - the fifth floor was packed with retro arcade machines, some of which I had not seen for decades. Two particular iconic favourites, Gradius 3 and R-Type, were crammed into the corner next to a chair. A chair made entirely of Famicom games! These people knew how to be opulent!

I spent a good long time filtering out all the 100yen coins from my spare change and pumping them into the slots of several of the games, including one system which must have had a directory of a hundred or more classics all available from a giant scrolling menu. After a moment sampling the majesty of sitting on the Famicom Throne, I headed back downstairs for a buying session.

Starting with the N64 lot, I whipped out a half dozen cheap cartridges from the line-up including Sim City 2000, Bust A Move, Mario Tennis and Densha De Go! - an obscure Taito train simulator for a train driver friend of mine. I was about to pay for them when I noticed some select cartridges and boxes in a glass case on the counter - and one of them was Bangaioh! They were asking silly money for a boxed copy (£8000 yen - about 40 quid) but they also had a cart only copy, at a more reasonable 5500 yen (nearer 27 quid). Since I was definitely not going to be popping round the local Super Potato very often, I decided to stick that on the bill as well. I then headed down to the Super Famicom floor and repeated the process, getting hold of Mario's Picross, Desert Strike, some Soccer game and Parodius Super Deluxe, plus a spare controller. There was so much more that I would have loved to buy, but the journey home was long and there was already a heap of things to play with. I had a fond last look around the shop to take in as much as I could, and then headed downstairs, although not before taking one of the free games they couldn't get rid of in that box at the door.

Stepping out into the night, I felt content. I had come so close to the shop and may have missed it if it wasn't for the little blue bomber, and now I had fulfilled another of my childhood wishes. I got my bearings, and then after visiting a post office to stock up on money, left Akihabara about 7pm for Shinjuku.

I alighted back at the hotel sometime later, packed all the new things away with the existing ones in the case (it just about fit) and then headed out to the Italian again. The spaghetti bolognaise was good, and the mystery dessert, which the waiter tried to convey to me without the necessary English translation turned out to be Crème Brulee, which was also very nice.

At about 8.30 I left the restaurant and instead of heading directly back, wandered nonchalantly along the back streets of Shinjuku for a while. I watched the assorted people enjoying themselves and getting on with their lives, and it hit me that if I was in an unfamiliar place in the UK like this, I'd probably be feeling pretty wary at that moment, but there was no need. I strolled into a late night shop selling all sorts of foodstuffs, pondering whether to take a bag of dried fish treats back with me for my friends to try, but decided not to as it might not be allowed back in blighty.

The country had one final surprise in store for me as I sat in my room watching some final crazy Japanese TV. Almost asleep, I felt a sudden sense of movement - the building was swaying left and right, like I was on top of a piece of wood sat on marbles. I was several floors up, meaning the effect was especially stomach-churning. Regaining my full consciousness, I grabbed the bed frame with both hands until the shaking stopped, and then checking that I wasn't actually dreaming, looked out of the window. No alarms going off, no fires, and nobody running around in circles screaming. I rushed downstairs to the reception desk where the manager was quietly doing paperwork. Confused at his lack of panic I gasped 'there's an earthquake!' at him. 'Has there been?', was his improbable response, to which I could do little more than turn around and with slight embarrassment head back up the stairs through the still-swinging door.

A few minutes later, the news on the TV was interrupted by an item about a magnitude 5 earthquake occurring on a map of Japan 50 miles or so northwest of Shinjuku, showing a shock radius that had dropped to about 2 by the point it hit where I was. Then, they just calmly went on with their other news like it was just some other item. I guess rumbles such as these are pretty common when you live on the intersection of 3 tectonic plates.

I tried to put the experience out of my mind and get some sleep. It was 10pm, and tomorrow I would be heading home on a day that would last 33 hours.

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