Special Akihabara Tour
Special Akihabara tour on a bloody hot August Sunday
by Sigi Rindler
Well, knowing the hot days in Tokyo during August, I had actually no plans to move any inch away from my air conditioner at home... until TPC member, Pamela Saalbach, asked me whether I could take a couple of Webgrrrls to Akihabara, and that August 10th would be most suitable, etc.
Since I hadn't encountered any real challenge after finishing my 166th homepage until everything worked more or less, and after building my own computer from scratch, I wanted to know whether I could handle a bunch of women with plenty of "grrr" attached.
I took the job, started to search for their homepage and discovered that this is the Tokyo branch of an international women's group that use computers and the Internet. Then I found something very appealing to me, a demonstration on "Internet telephony". For those who don't know what it is: With the right software, a sound card, and a microphone, you can actually (voice) chat with someone in South Africa or in Iceland for the cost of a local call. The meeting was to be held on a Sunday in July at the premises of Global Online in Nakano.
I asked whether I could become a Webgrrrl myself. The permission was then granted without being asked any questions, and I became the only bearded species during this particular afternoon.
Well, this demonstration has actually little to do with Akihabara, but since it reminded me strongly of a couple of distinct TPC demonstrations, I want to show you that other clubs or organizations seem to suffer the same effects or shortcomings...
OK, a member of the Webgrrrls and GOL had set up the software the day before and talked to people in the USA. However, on this particular day, all I could hear was the demonstrator's voice, and maybe a faint echo that was bounced back from the room's walls.
I still don't know how it actually sounds when you use the Internet for phone conversations, but the pizza and the drinks compensated for everything.
Of course, there was a lecture on how Internet telephony works, and Roger Boisvert - the boss of Global Online - pitched in when difficult questions were asked. Some of the Webgrrrls were quite knowledgeable, and last not least, a nice group of foreigners from various countries plus a number of Japanese. I didn't notice any "grrr" at all, but I can't tell for sure since they had the pleasure to meet me only once...<g>
One month later (Sunday, August 10):
When I woke up at 05:30 for my daily "free" obligatory Internet/Telehoudai session, the temperature was already so bloody high that I was dripping with sweat. I figured that it'd be a small group (hopefully not me alone) that has any mood to be dragged through the maze of Akihabara. Since I left home too early, and the train was exceptionally fast, I arrived at 10:15.
Because I had some time for myself, I headed toward the Laox Duty Free shop (30 meters from the JR ticket vending machines at the other side). Boy, where has this rather big store with all its nicknack gone... Now it's a tiny boot that carries some cameras, watches, stuff that nobody needs nor wants, and "step counters". There was this model for ¥980 to be clipped on your belt. It will count each step you walk, and promises that you'd lose 500 cal for each 2,400 steps. Well, since losing weight has been a constant problem, I forked over the money, mounted the gadget and started walking around the block. After 100 steps I checked the value on the display: 196 steps!
Reset, and off we walk another 100 steps... Wow: already 384 steps. I dashed back to the shop and told the guy that this thing is no good. He tried himself and walked carefully 3 steps, and it showed 3 steps. Now I really wanted to know it and started to walk up and down in the small shop at least ten times while counting loudly in Japanese for every salesman who was around. When I realized a couple of people stop and watch the scene, I decided to stop the count at approx. 140. The display indicated 190 and the onlookers walked away, probably talking about the effects of the heat on human gaijin bodies. Anyway, I am very ignorant to such things when I see my money going down the drain for something that doesn't work, I don't want or need anymore...
In the end the salesman decided to give in, since I was determined to walk him around in the area. I settled for another model for ¥1,500 that wasn't that sensitive to additional heart beats at waist level.
Ooops, it was already 10:35 when I headed back to the announced meeting place. Pamela Saalbach was already stepping from one foot on the other...<g>
Shortly afterward we were joined by Shu Sei and Megumi Takahashi, both who I have already met before, and Megumi's friend Eriko Sasanuki.
Shu Sei brought two Japanese male friends with her, Akito Shigeta and Hiroki Hatanaka. When I told them that I'd make them world-famous on the Internet by publishing their names, they even spelled their names in plain English...<g>
Akito belongs to one of the rarer Japanese species since his wrist watch was over 2 hours late, a peculiarity of which he was very proud of. He didn't make any attempt to rectify this problem...
The last one was a fellow who flew in from Tanzania and whose family name was something like Naphthalin (the German equivalent for naphtha mothballs). After some short argument and sniffing each other out, I settled for Mushana Napta since he is a prospective new member of the TPC!<g>
And since women are usually always 30 seconds late, I extended the grace period for the last guest to join to 11:05!!
First we popped into the nearby New Akihabara Center (a real shack under the Sobu railway bridge that must have been new many decades ago). Anyway there is "PC Bank", a small shop that sells RAM, CPUs, HDs, and other nicknack for rock bottom prices. Take their pamphlet and study the prices. It's the closest PC shop to the station that has such low prices. Still, if you have enough time, shop further and return if nothing better comes up. Since PC Bank's prices are almost identical to that of "Za Graceful", you may buy at either shop.
The next shop we visited was 30 meters up the road toward Mansei Bridge. It's "Networld", a huge Sofmap showroom that has virtually everything for the Internet loonies... the Japanese ones I mean. If you are operating under an English environment, don't waste your time and don't look!
My impression is that everything which Sofmap sells, has a higher price tag than in most other comparable shops. If you swim in money, buy everything at this store, otherwise use the place for window shopping only. After buying somewhere else it feels so much better to know that you haven't bought the most expensive gadget in town...<g>
Once we were out of the shop, we walked up toward the Mansei crossing/police station, crossed the street at the police station, turned left and then right again. At this corner used to be one of the Tsukumo shops a couple of months ago. It's now a modern outlet for cellular phones. This isn't the only shop that has changed ownership, sells different merchandize, has moved or gone forever.
Anyway we walked down the street that ends at the big Laox Computer shop. When we hit the so called "second hand street" I noticed that the Sofmap digital camera shop had gone. I was there the week before and found it pretty messy. The picture samples for every camera on display featured mostly images that couldn't be compared to each other. Most shops don't even have picture samples! These are the shops where salespeople think that a cool printer design is equivalent to great prints!
No wonder that many shops go down the drain if this attitude prevails. They try to sell electronic gadgets like greengrocers sell their stuff. Or go to some outlets that sell digital cameras. They are on display, but none of them have batteries loaded or are connected to electric power. Who is going to spend ¥50,000 for something that gives the same impression as a brick in your hand? Never mind, try your luck somewhere else but let the salesman know how much you appreciate his shop and that you'll truly spread the word...There are already two shops where certain people disappear as soon as they spot me. I always feel good to be remembered!<eg>
Japanese hardly complain and staff members never get the message. The ordinary folks should actually be grateful since an increasing number of complaining foreigners can make a difference. Bargaining for prices (even at Yamagiwa) is now accepted I was told. Once the doors are forced open, Japanese will quickly catch up. Still, some of the "traditional" shop operators haven't passed the Neanderthal level yet.
Beside the Sofmap shop for used NEC stuff is the cheapest place to buy all kinds of media from floppy disks to CDRs, MO discs, ZIP floppies, etc. I needed 100MB ZIP floppies for ¥1,230 per unit, but they had them for Macintosh computers only.
Pamela felt suddenly very rich and offered anybody in the vicinity to choose a drink from the vending machine. I was lucky that I selected Pocari Sweat since it was warm! Warm to hot Coke is worse...
Hint: If it is very hot, and you know a supermarket in the area, buy your drink there since busy vending machines can't cool sufficiently when being refilled every 2 hours or so. Selecting hot coffee won't bother you, however.<g>
Now we walked back toward the station and stopped at "Goodman", the discount store (opposite the "Radio Departo"). Their selection is getting worse I feel, and in the maze of the Radio Departo you see more shops closed than open. Some of them might be closed on Sundays, but several have gone forever. High rents and less demand for very specialized gadgets might be the reason for this trend. It's a pity since no one wants to see another 30 Sofmap stores wherever suitable space becomes available.
Suddenly I remembered my step counter. I had already walked close to 2,000 steps since the last reset, and according to the table, I had lost close to 500 cal. The only problem was that one can of Mountain Dew and another "Light Cola" might have equalized this great weight loss. Whatever, the gadget looks cool at least...<g>
12:15 is too early for lunch, which was scheduled at the Akihabara department store so that latecomers could join us.
We went into the nearby Sofmap Chicago store. Megumi and Shu Sei played some skill game for toddlers in front of the store and were given prizes for participating. I haven't seen what it was, but the package couldn't have held more than a pen or a pack of tissue paper. I needed the US Computer Shopper. They had several from June (¥300), July (¥500), and August (¥800). It's a good deal when comparing the prices with Laox (¥1,800).
The April edition was marked ¥100. Not bad for somebody who needs addresses and phone numbers only. This thing has close to 1,000 pages!
If you need ZIP drive floppies and want to enter the book of records for having bought the most expensive ones, pay Sofmap ¥1,680! That's a whopping ¥400 more than at the place I mentioned before. You can probably get them even cheaper if you buy a box of 100 or so. The shop I'm taking about is called "MAG-LAB" (Magnetic Laboratories). It's the wholesale shop that sells to most Akihabara retailers. If you make bigger purchases for yourself or for your company, call Kuniyuki Saito at 03-3253-5811 (Fax: 03-3253-5815) and tell him that you are a TPC member. Of course, you'd better know the cheapest price elsewhere, or you'll land up paying more. It's all part of the game over there. BTW, Saito-san speaks good English.
Let's go on with the tour. We walked down on the left sidewalk toward Suehiro-cho. When we arrived at the opposite Minami-Denki T-ZONE building, I decided to visit the shop before having lunch. First we went up to the Internet coffee shop, but all of our Japanese group members rushed into the game center where everybody can lay hands on the newest game software packages. The nice thing is that it's never fully occupied. I have been there over 20 times with my kids, leave them there while walking all over town. Afterward I can pick them up at the same spot. It's a real money saver since you can also save on their lunch. They simply forget that they are hungry. On the way home you can feed them dinner and still have spare money for another step counter for national holidays and such...<g>
Since our game boys and girls got hooked, it took me a while to get their behinds moving again. One staircase higher is the T-Zone Outlet Shop. They sell new gadgets (computers, modems, printers, etc.) for rather good prices, but these are models that had already been surpassed by new ones. Don't expect a 266MHz computer, but if you want anything from a 133MHz to 200MHz system, it's a good place to search for. They still have a couple of these Panasonic laser printers (600 dpi) for less than ¥20,000.
Pamela wanted to buy an AC adapter for her digital camera from Ricoh that was around ¥60,000 several months ago. Well she bought it in the USA. When we arrived at the digital camera section, I had the pleasure to tell her that she could now buy this camera for ¥29,000 and something. Somehow I felt that she wasn't that happy about it... Maybe the reason was the fact that she had to buy an adapter which was good for 100V only. She might not be able to use it in the USA. Their cameras are neatly lined up, the staff is fairly knowledgeable, but pamphlets only would do the trick also. No sample pictures that depict a color table are available, and the only thing to guess which one might be the best is the price tag. I really wonder what these people think. Fortunately there are computer magazines that test cameras and print the color tables for comparison, but this isn't something vendors should rely on. At least T-Zone has sample prints for their color printers on display. If I owned a shop in this area, I'm sure that I could do better by showing samples and demonstrating how every gadget works. Anything sitting in the shelf is nothing more than a brick in the wall.
Suddenly I realized that it was already 13:25. We should have been at the restaurant of the Akihabara department store at 13:00 if anybody wanted to join, but when Pamela mentioned that "nobody might be waiting", I decided to dine at "Lahoru", the Indian curry shop. I thought that the Japanese guys would love to try some real stuff and forget their usual gunk from instant curry producers House or Glyco!
Going back to the station and then returning again was a bit too much in this bloody heat. Besides, latecomers would have missed the best part of the trip anyway. As a matter of fact, I find that returning to the station for lunch is wasted time. There are enough other restaurants all over. The cockroaches at the station restaurant are getting boring, so let's meet some others elsewhere...<g>
On the way to the restaurant I saw this Iomega ZIP drive for Macintosh computers at Kinki-Denki (what a name!) for ¥17,500. Actually it can be used for IBMs, NECs and Mac computers. A special cable for the Mac is included.
At Lahoru (in katakana: the city of Lahore in Pakistan) we ordered various curry dishes, but no one tried the recommended most spicy one. That's the one which makes your ears stand up 90 degrees, then start spinning. It's also the place where all my hair fell out after a spoonful of this stuff but never grew back...<g> The owner is a Japanese who takes care of the cash register, but the cooks are usually Indians or at least from this region. When I was going to pay, I received the shock of the day! Pamela had paid for my dish. Thousand thanks for this very rare occurrence. Future Akihabara tour members should mark this paragraph... After recovering from the shock in a couple of seconds, I felt compelled to invite the crowd for a drink from the vending machine. This was a less populated street, and the drinks were all cool. To Pamela's delight I found another shop where her camera was another ¥1,000 cheaper than at T-Zone, but I could have gotten my ZIP drive for ¥1,000 less also... Damned $#@%&! That's what I say after each shopping trip.
BTW, a similar but different thing happended to me in Hong Kong years ago. After searching for a long time I finally found the shop that sold my desired Pentax camera at an unbeatable price. Still, I didn't buy and wanted just look around the corner if there wasn't an even better offer. It wasn't, but then I couldn't find the cheap shop anymore! All the shops looked similar, the kanji was overwhelming, and all 100 Chinese salesman in the street looked as to me as they came from the same mother's womb... Oh well, that happens when greed or thriftiness takes over!
The first victims of the heat, tiredness, or work caused us to lose Pamela and Eriko at around 14:00. What a pity that they couldn't stay on a bit longer since I could have shown Pamela a shop that sells her camera for a price that would have made here faint... Maybe she had already visions and didn't want to face the brutal Akihabara reality.<g>
We popped into another couple of shops which aren't particularly worth mentioning, until I saw this "garage sale" a bit off the business beat. The Chinese guy was still there displaying his 4 or 5 bootleg copies with the Japanese version of MS Office Professional, and all the other MS programs, CDs with all Adobe programs on them, etc. Each CD was sold for ¥10,000. I really wonder whether the police is paid not to patrol in this area. Two policemen on white bicycles were driving along a parallel street about 15 minutes before. After all this is not English software but the newest Japanese stuff. This thing has been going on for at least 5 weeks and I can't imagine that this wasn't reported already.
I do know one guy whose job is checking for his Japanese software house what the shops sell, whether there are illegal copies on the shelf, whether bundled software is sold without the hardware, etc. He doesn't care when it comes to non-Japanese software, however. He said that all major companies have people assigned to check shops all over town on how their products are presented, what shop clerks know about the software, whether upgrade packages are sold to those who are legitimate users, or whether the shop sells to anybody who has cash... The guy poses as ordinary customer and reports everything back to his employer.
Whatever it is, the Akihabara mafia is certainly powerful enough to pull off such stunts. After all, I saw that guy making ¥100,000 in just 20 minutes a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday it was simply too hot to attract many customers, but I spent no more than 5 minutes. BTW, I got my ZIP floppies for IBM/DOS machines for ¥1,280 yen apiece in this outlet. There is no difference in price whether you buy one or the whole box.
I shall return alone to check whether other "goodies" are sold under the counter. I have a gut feeling that this is one of the outlets which can get you anything that is illegal to sell to the public. Since I had been taken to such a shop years ago, I got fascinated by all these 007 gadgets and descrambling boxes for cable TV, telephone rerouters located in one-man offices for up to 50 non-registered numbers that would make the caller think he talks to people in various locations of Japan, etc...
After that we walked slowly toward the station and said goodby to each other. It was a nice group of people, and we had a lot of fun as far as I can tell.
Before I went up to the rail tracks I was longing for a can of ginger ale from the vending machine. YECHHHH... that was the 2nd piss-warm drink on this Sunday. Why the hell can't I listen to myself? I could have walked into Akihabara's department store and bought me a real cool drink. Some guys play deaf and never listen!<g>
See you at one of my next trips...
Sigi a.k.a. Mr. Akihabara
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