Akihabara Report: Nov. 1996
by Sigi Rindler
Hi guys, today is Sat. October 5th... one day before the official Akihabara trip.
Since there was nothing special to do after lunch, I decided to waste ¥1,000 for a return ticket to Akihabara, because I hadn't been there for over a month. Besides, I am supposed to answer my guests and not to ask them things I should know...(g) Another reason was my ailing IBM PC Notebook, a 386/25MHz machine that serves as a dedicated BBS. Well, "BBS" is a bit exaggerated since it runs Telix in host mode only (plain DOS). I was looking for an inexpensive 486/25-66MHz laptop model to replace my present gadget. After having had fights with IBM Japan over the repair of a US-purchased model (during the warranty period of an "international warranty"), I have vowed that IBM products will never pass my doorstep again! I finally got what I was entitled to (not for free, however)... but begging for things I have already paid for or licking the feet of IBM gods isn't something I ever had in mind!!!
Well, one hour later I popped out of Akihabara station, received my customary packet of tissue paper plus some pamphlets for the closest litter box and headed down to T-Zone to get some ideas about what's new. Usually I always walk over to STEP first, but I'll visit them tomorrow anyway. I'm not sure whether I'll continue with STEP as starter for my Akihabara trips since I feel that the shop is becoming more and more disorganized. Nobody can give you a satisfactory answer. In fact, these people seem to know only that a computer is of square shape, connected to a monitor and a keyboard...
Recently I found a lot of oldies (new computers that had been produced 2 to 3 years ago). Compaq computers for example, but the "3-year warranty" (printed on the box) was shrunk to 1 year only... This one implies to me that STEP doesn't purchase from Compaq but from a source that sells these ancient shelf-warmers. Anyway, this outlet is for window shopping only. Buying cheap RAM (16MB for ¥9,800 seems to be the cheapest in town) is OK, but buying an entire computer system is not recommended! I know two people who can describe their nightmares... We'll see tomorrow what they have to offer.
Since Chuo Dori is open to traffic on Saturday, it takes some time to advance a couple of blocks through the masses on the sidewalk until the new T-Zone building has been reached. Usually I use the "fast back roads," but I must have forgotten this afternoon. On the other hand, I wouldn't have ended up with six packets of tissue paper, one fan, one Compaq cutter, a National ballpoint pen and a couple of fliers to enhance the environment...(g)
Finally I arrived at T-ZONE and took the escalator up to the last floor which is the "Outlet Shop." One floor below is the "Internet Cafe." For the very first time I saw not a single customer. This is indeed strange since it was on a usually busy Saturday afternoon. Never mind, T-Zone is a financially healthy company, it seems. The outlet shop had been entirely rearranged since a month ago. As a matter of fact, things are moving pretty fast on this floor since there is a glut of unsold Compaqs, IBMs, etc. When I was there, employees were busily carrying huge boxes with AST computers across the room and piling them up close to the entrance. Another guy was changing the prices on the boxes and on the accompanying fliers (DOWNWARD... of course)! Tomorrow I'll return to this outlet again with TPC members to investigate these goodies more closely.
I left T-ZONE and walked across the street to the old T-ZONE building. Outside the building was a street discount sale where I spotted three models of Casio's older digital cameras:
QV-10 ¥29,800 QV-10A ¥38,500 QV30 ¥59,800
Well, the old QV-10 was sold for the cheapest price I have seen so far, but the QV30 is totally overpriced since the QV-100 is better and costs less, too! I'll wait a bit longer since better and cheaper models are introduced every other day. There are already numerous manufacturers which produce these cameras.
A couple of steps further down toward Suehiro-cho is Sofmap. This outlet was also having a street sale. Boy, modem prices have dropped considerably! An external HUCOM-EX 28,800 Data/Fax modem can be had for ¥10,799!!! I don't know how well this one performs, however...
Since I was actually looking for an inexpensive notebook computer, I started with the former shop "Spunky (Attla)." The ownership seems to have changed again, and so has the name. I forgot to jot it down. Nobody was inside the shop, except the only salesman who was reading a manga magazine. Don't ask me what the shop sells. I saw all odds and ends which I would never have a use for...
Next stop was "Za Graceful." Their advertising is now next to zero. The box for fliers was empty, the billboard outside hard to read after being battered by the weather, and no one was handing out fliers as I was used to in the past. There was one young girl behind the counter and not much merchandise to see. Several CPUs had "ASK" price tags instead of real numbers (something I hate more than the plague)! More about this one later on... I might not be wrong to predict that this store will not be there anymore when I visit next time.
BTW, a while ago I found one full page of ads in the DOS/V Magazine. Believe it or not, the vendor was offering around 50 items (printers and monitors) and each price tag showed the kanji for "ASK (for the price)!" I'd like to know how many people have actually called them...
Just opposite on the second floor is a shop called "FLIP FLAP." They offer a mixed salad of hardware and software stuff. Have a look since I found an interesting item. It was a cooling fan for hard drives. You just stick it on the front of the hard drive. The writing on the box said that it would fit on every standard hard drive. The price was ¥3,800. I saw this gadget at A-Master also for approx. the same price.
Somewhere in this vicinity I was given a flier for an outlet called "Southwind & Hyper Factory." I can't exactly describe the location right now (the company has three shops in the area), but that's not important since this is just another "out of the box garage" shop. A little bit further up the road (30 meters maybe) is TSUKUMO 5. Beside this shop is another outlet that has JAZ drives for ¥44,800. It's the internal model. I don't know the prices, but the cheapest one I ever saw before was between ¥49,000 and ¥50,000.
My next stop was DOS/V Paradise. They have again remodelled the shop, but it's not attractive anymore. Very few computers are on display (upstairs), and most of the upper floor is used as office and stock room. Everything they sell can be had cheaper elsewhere!
Finally I arrived at the "2nd-hand street" beside the big Laox Computer shop to pick up a new flyer from "Trisal." No fliers and no Trisal anymore. I don't know whether they have gone bankrupt or have just moved. On the other hand, they would have indicated where if they had moved. This vendor was participating in the cut-throat business for the cheapest hard drives and memory chips. Their prices were identical with "Za Graceful" and "PC Bank." There were no fliers handed out by the latter outlet either. Has it also gone down the drain? I have been saying all the way that it is not sound to save ¥500 on the purchase of a hard drive that carries a meaningless one-year warranty. I bought one myself from "Za Graceful" since A-Master was out of stock and this Aum cult offspring was doing brisk business. However, this Western Digital HDD should last longer from my experience with the same type of hard disk.
Close by at the right side is a Sofmap shop which sells used NEC stuff. At the right side is another shop that sells all kinds of cheap media directly on the street. They have definitely the CHEAPEST digital camera from Casio. The model QV-10A goes for an eye-popping ¥23,800!!! T-ZONE's discount price is ¥38,500! It's really worth it to do a bit of footwork to get your stuff cheaper without the need to use Turkish bazaar methods. Just imagine what will go on in your mind or bowels when you see this goody after having purchased the T-ZONE "bargain" an hour before...(eg)
Coming back to the "ASK" price tags. While I was browsing through all these small shops I was standing behind a Japanese man who was asking the salesman about the price of a Cyrix 6x86-P120 chip. The salesman said ¥14,800. I took a note, returned after one hour, and approached the same salesman. Immediately he said ¥17,800!! When I told the guy that another customer had bought it from him for ¥3,000 just an hour ago, he suddenly needed to check with somebody, disappeared, and didn't show up again after having me wait there for about 15 minutes. Since I wasn't going to buy anyway, I left. These "ASK"-tag shops should be avoided at any cost since this is the proof for a scam that I have always suspected. It was rather common in the chip business in the past, but many shops had to do that when the Yen was losing or gaining a couple of percent every other day. However, it's fishy when 95% of all shops do display their prices. I shall go once shopping again with a tuxedo first and then with rags from the Salvation Army. After that I'll be able to advise you about the most economical shopping clothes to be used in Akihabara...(g)
I still didn't have my notebook computer, but Roland Hechtenberg (my right Akihabara hand), had told me about this "V2C Outlet." It's a parallel street to the "2nd hand street." On the right you have "New Kids," the nice CD-ROM shop that carries very good stuff (English and Japanese). A little bit further up on the left is a TSUKUMO shop; the next one is "V2C." They had exactly what I was looking for—not exactly cheap for this oldie, but cheaper than anything else in other shops, and it was available. The Compaq Contura Aero (monochrome) has an 80MB HD, a 3.5" floppy drive, 4MB RAM and is completely new. Price: ¥49,800. Since I need it as a computer for my BBS only, it's just perfect.
On the way back to the station I went up to "Laser 5" (CD-ROM shop), but this one is for fans of Linux, Unix, all the Walnut Creek stuff, a number of programming languages, and lots of games a la Wolfenschlock. Still, there were at least 10 customers in the room. I'll not report anything about this shop for another year as far as I am concerned.
Continued (one day later)...
Hi, it's me again 2 hours after hauling myself home from a tiring Akihabara trip. Well, it was not so much the trip itself. A couple of beers with my Austrian buddy might have caused the heaviness.(g)
OK, I arrived at Akihabara station at 10:30, placed myself into a monument position so that everybody who pops out of the station could see me. If everybody who had expressed intense interest in the trip would have shown up, we would have had around 20 people. However, this wasn't the case and we ended up with 10 people including myself. Our new vice president, Ken Cotton , was dearly missed! Never mind, small groups are easier to handle anyway...
Who was faithful enough to come and participate:
Bruno Hammerler (Austrian buddy of mine, living out in the sticks of Chiba), Chuck Olson (TPC member and/or bigamist(g)) accompanied by two Japanese beauties, Kumi Hyodo and Hiromi Yoshihara. Frank Stossel and his wife Yuko Okano who visited the TPC on Oct. 3rd for the first time. One guy without his better half: Mark Elliot (TPC member and Bermuda shorts fan). Who else? Oops, I'm really heading toward a disaster! How could I forget our new TPC president Pat Hughes and his female companion. The first major embarrassment happened already 15 minutes before the tour was officially kicked off. I addressed Kazumi Nakagawa as his wife which was then strongly refuted by the new prez and her. Well, I also overheard something like "not yet"... One or two more field trips would be good therapy to speed things up...(g)
For the first time I missed my strictly imposed grace time of 35 seconds after 11:00 due to all this gossiping, so we finally started at 11:08. Chuck was asking were we were heading to first. I said "STEP" and he mentioned that somebody had told him that they had gone belly-up. Naah, this can't be since the newest DOS/V Magazine has several pages of ads in it, and STEP was selling the cheapest memory chips in town (16MB for ¥9980)! I wanted to get one myself.
10 minutes later we arrived at STEP. The shutters at the IBM and the Mac outlet were down! What a surprise to me, and especially for the expectant crowd around me. Well, let's take this enterprise off the map and just forget it. I have written enough negative comments about this company and wasn't very much off the truth methinks.
Back across Manseibashi (the bridge over the Mansei River) at the side of the police station, cross at the traffic light, turn left until you hit the street that leads to the right (a Tsukumo ham radio shop is at the corner of it). There is "J-World" at the left side, a computer hardware shop that neither carries anything especially exciting nor cheap, but sometimes they display very cheap gadgets on a table outside the shop. It's just a matter of being there at the right time...
The next stop was a junk shop around the left corner. This shop can have exciting goodies for collectors also. I'm not interested in external Aiwa 300/1200bps half duplex modems for ¥1,000 (probably very much negotiable (g)), but they once had various second-hand English software. I bought all of their classical CD collection (30 brand labels for ¥3,000). Of course, the guy wanted to have ¥9,000. Another time I paid ¥1,000 for a 10cm thick packet of Japanese letters and postcards that date back from 1930 to 1870 (stamps and even photos included).
OK, they also have computers from ¥2,000 up, but they are probably good and useful for hobby electronic craftsmen only. I was pretty proud that I didn't lose a single sheep of the flock during the first 1 1/2 hours since everybody had some very distinguishing marks. Frank was half-naked (shirt off) Bruno and Pat reflected the sunshine on the tops of their heads, Chuck was always surrounded by the girls, and Mark tried several times to take the lead by knowing everything better!!! (g) No, we didn't have a fight, but Mark seems to be quite good at spotting the inexpensive goodies and in memorizing their prices. I shall check his background to determine whether we are related in some way... Anyway, I really appreciate this input by other members since many eyes will see things that I have missed many times. Besides, I come down to Akihabara once a month only.
28,800bps Fax/Modems are being sold for just under ¥10,000. Not at Laox, of course. There you can still see Shinto-christened 14,000bps Omron or Aiwa modems for more than twice this price! On the other hand you'd be the proud owner of a gadget that is 100% legal since it has the holy NTT sticker on it...
Kumi was in the market for additional memory for a Toshiba laptop purchased in the UK. No way to get the right thing, unless you can come up with the exact name of the model. And since most shops in Japan won't know the export models, you'll be told that these computers don't exist! I have gone through this once too often. The only way is calling Toshiba and pray that a kind person happens to be near the phone. This is just another good reason to buy domestically if you live and work in Japan.
Kazumi was looking for a 16MB chip. However, it had to be a 70ns chip since the motherboard of her Dell was designed to handle this particular type only. Dell was prepared to do it for 5 or 6 man yen she told me. Dell must have learned this business from HP Japan—the rip-off specialist in the printer business!
Frank, a total newcomer who had never used a computer in his entire life, needed a book on some basics before the first big purchase. He opted for PCs for Dummies. I told him to become a member of the club since this a cheaper and less painful way to become proficient.
Chuck was probably getting hungry at 12:30 since he started to talk about returning to the Akihabara Department Store where we were supposed to have lunch at 1:00 and where latecomers could catch up with us. We passed the discount store "GoodMan." There was nothing special except the classical mini CDs for just ¥100!!! Hey, these make nice gifts since they are all high quality CDs from "Deutsche Grammophon" or "London." Get your Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Johann Strauss, etc. Classical music has been my hobby for almost 40 years so you can trust me on this statement!
Just opposite is the "Radio Departo"—something similar to the maze next to the station (Razikan). Here you can find various goodies, too. There is a store at street level (right in the beginning) that sells all kinds of computer cables with various plugs and sockets. Here you can order any cable you want (your design, your desired length), return an hour later to get it and pay considerably less than you would be charged at Laox for a ready-made cable off the rack! I'm not sure whether Sunday is the shop's closing day, or whether the shop has folded down. This one would be a real loss.
Finally we reached the restaurant where we got the big table for us. The manager remembers my face very well. I don't know exactly why, but it was either because of the frequent visits with many people, or the incident where I had to fight with the dumb waitress for a beer (she had lost my ticket, but denied it for face-saving reasons). The manager had finally to give in since I'm most serious to get what I have paid for (especially for the booze). Everybody remembers how the girl at the cash register had to unroll several meters from the journal paper spool to find my order while another 10 to 15 hungry customers were put on hold.(g)
This session went smoothly without major incident. Afterward I dragged them all over to the biggest 100 Yen shop in Tokyo since I needed to stock up on a couple of things. Besides, there was this friendly girl who wanted me to try all of her German wine samples...
Some guys wanted to see T-ZONE since this shop carries US software. Mark suggested to use the back street to get there faster than using the sidewalk along Chuo Dori. It wouldn't have made much difference since the traffic on this street is halted from Sunday noon anyway. We went straight up to the Internet Cafe where a couple of customers were enjoying the World Wide Web. After that I scored 10 points when I showed Mark that this wasn't the last floor. He didn't know that the real goodies were just one flight of stairs away... (You can't imagine how good that made me feel!)(g)
No, wait a bit! We were not that fast. On the same floor is this big game center, too. It's never full and has over 20 of the newest games on display. You may play all day long one of the Doom sequels, Flight Simulator, various space war games, etc.
There is a professional flight simulator also. You know the sort of gadget that pilots use for non-airborne training purposes. Last not least, this is the best place to "dump" your kids for a couple of hours. You can be absolutely sure that they will resist any abduction attempt from this room! I have left mine alone for hours and always had problems in getting them out of there... Kumi-san was eagerly trying to compete and crash multiple times on a race track by operating steering wheel, shift lever and foot pedals... so you may try to dump your girlfriend, wife, or mother-in-law as well for a couple of hours to really enjoy your computer shopping.(g)
T-ZONE Outlet (upstairs): Yesterday I mentioned about the guys carrying huge boxes etc. Hey, if I didn't suffer of a cash shortage this month, I would indeed know what to do... On sale were AST BRAVO MS 166s including a 17" monitor:
Pentium 166MHz EDO RAM: 16MB HDD: 2GB 6x CD-ROM ATI MACH 64 3.5 and 5.25" floppy drives Soundblaster with microphone and speakers 3 years warranty (1 year on-site) PRICE: ¥238,000 (w/o monitor its ¥178,000)!!!!!
This is an irresistible offer here in Japan. Spend another ¥10-15,000, pop in another 16MB RAM and you are set for the next millennium... One more thing, I'm pretty sure that T-ZONE will be around in the next 3 years like Laox. However, warranty claims are handled by AST itself which maintains an office here anyway.
I found one eyesore in the T-ZONE Outlet, however. 2 modems (14,400bps) were displayed at ¥9,800 each. For this price I can get 28,800 models in many other places.
Kazumi got her 16MB (70ns) RAM chip there also. It was a bit expensive at ¥15,000 for this oldie, but it's still the less expensive solution. She was also asking about a color printer that comes with English language drivers. Of course, these Japanese printers are all destined for the Japanese market and come with Japanese drivers only. Mark came in very handy. He said that we should walk over to the old T-ZONE building since they were specialized in English hard/software. I knew that they had some stuff, but then I saw that there was MUCH MORE than I actually thought. Furthermore, if your Japanese isn't good enough, there is an Indian or Pakistani who will serve you well, and a foreign woman with horribly (artificial) red hair who speaks English.
Kazumi found at least 10 printers that all come with English software drivers. Spread the word... the old T-ZONE is the place for us gaijins!
The relationship between T-ZONE in the Minami Denki building and the old T-ZONE is a bit blurred to an outsider like me. The guys in the new building would never mention the old place and rather say that they don't carry this or that. Somebody mentioned that they might be entirely different enterprises and in competition with each other, which I can easily believe. This shop isn't the "Outlet" of the big shop across the street! Anyway, this is THE hardware shop that carries most things which cater to users of non-Japanese computer systems. Hint: In order not to miss anything, take the elevator to the top, then venture down floor by floor. They have a software section, too!
Out of this building and 20 meters down toward Suehiro-cho there is a Sofmap store that sells mainly floppy disks and other useful or redundant computer knickknacks. Take the elevator up to the DOS/V Paradise CD-ROM shop. They have improved in quality and carry pretty good educational software. But if you are looking for inexpensive bundled software (taken off from imported computer systems) you are out of luck. These items are now sold by new makeshift shops that might not be there anymore by the year's end.
Since it was already after 16:00 and everybody was getting tired, we parted there. Frank and Yuko had left an hour earlier. It must have been a bit overwhelming for him since he was a total beginner in this field, but so was every one of us years ago. Bruno and I headed down toward the station and stopped for a well-deserved beer. I arrived at home at 18:30 while Bruno was just in time to hand-feed his visiting tanuki family at his front door. No joke, he showed me several pictures!
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