Akihabara Tour -- Sunday, Oct. 12, 1997
Sunday, Oct. 12)
By Sigi Rindler
I missed the train by a fraction of a second, but somehow I still managed to be in Akihabara at 10:25 AM. For the first time in my Akihabara career I wasn't the first one! Sachiko Nagao - a frequent TPC visitor (well, twice so far) - stood suddenly beside me when I bought my return ticket at the vending machine.
Within 5 minutes, Stephen Tysver, another TPC member, arrived. Then came Jeff Bruce, an American, followed by Tokyo's #1 Japanese to English translator (during *obon* season only<eg>) Eric Bossieux and his wife Rose Vitola from Texas... I thought.
Ahem... it turned out that she wasn't his wife as I assumed but she was the woman whose sick computer was fixed by Roland Hechtenberg in less than 5 minutes during the last TPC meeting. We strongly hope to greet her as a new member of the club very soon. I told her that computer trouble will not go away, and that TPC members would get the utmost priority!
I hope that she could grasp my vicious jokes.<g>
Next was Yuri Hotta, a female computer guru, who was at our meetings before. Previous TPC hand Woody Hodgson (before downgrading to the Macintosh platform) was next, then I had the honor to greet Patrick Unterlerchner, a Todai student. He comes from Geneve, but his father is from a village no more than 15 km from my village in the most southern part of Austria. Of course he speaks perfect Austrian German... with a heavy Swiss/French flavor. He might become a TPC member after I told him about our student discounts...
Hehe, forget this scam, you Japanese language students between 30 and 55! Judo, Karate, Aikido and such won't apply either when you pass the doorman's table. German tricksters who are sent here to run a branch office of a German manufacturer won't fare much better with their stamped application from Japanese language schools. For these guys I have set a height and/or weight limit of 155cm and 50kg to be eligible for the preliminary screening procedure.
The same goes for "free" trial sessions. Here in Japan they cost 1,000 yen, no matter from which underdeveloped American or German district you guys pretend to be!
Believe me, I have heard the weirdest things from you before, and I know all dirty tricks in this trade...<eg>
Just in time to arrive was Ken Cotton, our TPC vice president and "gadget man". This time he was carrying his cellular phone only (kind of "naked" for him). Actually I thought that he was carrying his "Pilot" connected to his handy phone, checking his e-mail every 5 minutes. One pleasant feature of our VP was that he has apparently run out of his Indonesian clover cigarillos...
Some might remember our very first Akihabara trip where Ken disappeared many times and how I was always able to go after the fragrant - or if you prefer - the big stink to find him.
Finally I had the honor to welcome Naomi Sugimoto, a lecturer at Ferris University (Faculty of Letters). She was the only "Webgrrl" from Pamela Saalbach's group. Since her spoken English was so excellent, I really thought that she was an American. If someone pronounces her Japanese name the American way (N„„omi), you can easily get thrown off the track. And before we set off to the first shops, Nick Val‚ry, Editor of the Far East Economist, joined us together with Mike Krycshak.
Ooops, it's already 11:08... lets go!
First we headed down to the New Akihabara Center close to the Washington hotel. There is "PC Bank", run by former Aum gods, but now it's strictly business. They have rock bottom prices for CPUs, memory, hard drives, etc.
If you need something quickly and don't want to go to "Za Graceful" - the other Aum outlet - buy at PC Bank since the prices of these two shops differ hardly. Sometimes it's only a single yen (yes, they show prices like Yen 12,781, while the other shop wants 12,780 yen). However, don't buy any connector cables at this shop since they can be had 50% cheaper in various other places. The adjacent shop at the end sells a variety of step-up/step-down transformers that you can't even find at Laox, Yamagiwa, and other electronic parts shops. If you need one, have a look there first. And since there is hardly anybody to find his way to this hidden shop, you are more likely to succeed bargaining. Have a look if you ever get lost in this building.
The second shop (50m toward the Mansei police station) is this huge Sofmap store which is dedicated to anything which is needed for the Internet. Well, they have numerous motherboards, video and other cards, cases, ISDN routers, software, etc.
If you want a computer built to your specifications, the shop will do it for you (if you buy all the parts there). I wouldn't waste my money there since everything costs more than at comparable shops. Sofmap has moved up into the category of Laox and Yamagiwa. And I don't mean that salespeople are outrageously knowledgeable and helpful... but the price is right (for them).
Nobody left a single yen at the shop, so we went up to the corner at the Mansei Bridge. Two guys showed keen interest in the stun guns and other spy equipment that are legally sold but are illegal to use. Maybe you may zap your wife within your four walls, but be aware that she'll try to discharge herself as soon as her memory comes back...<g>
Well, around 50,000 yen for the top model (200,000 volt) was too much for the bargain hunters. We crossed the street leading to the police station, crossed again and went to J-World. Sachiko was looking for a notebook computer to connect to the Internet. The Akia machine is nice, but the price is not. Sharp Mebius computers are now sold "by the weight" it seems. Sharp has introduced their Mebius models with an especially wide screen (kind of cinemascope effect), but shops must be overstocked with their "old" models. There is no better LCD display than Sharp's! And since Sharp is the major supplier of LCD screens, Akia has probably the same display anyway.
Ken seems to know every gaijin in town... The only English speaking salesman at this shop is from Bangladesh. Maybe they hired him since we went there so often. Once I bought a mousepad with built-in calculator for 100 yen!
After conducting my first head count, I noticed that Patrick was missing. He was still in the shop having a chat with a salesman. This was just the first "people collection job" caused by this Swiss fellow, and more of them will follow...
Next was a junk shop that sells older video cameras from 2,000 yen up. Well, this dirty shack was no more when we arrived. The new shop sold second hand computers and monitors (mainly NEC and Epson). The prices are for suckers only. Some of their monitors cost almost as much as brand-new ones. Besides, shops that don't run their equipment for demo purposes are out for me!
Therefore out of the shop... and into the next side street (passing along a tiny Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine).
I was already dreaming of renting this place, crowning myself the head priest, then start a "computer christening service" (IBM, Mac, NEC... no discrimination) for a small fee. Services for dead computers and peripherals, rice cookers, broken aircons, etc. are also feasible...<g>
Well, we'd better get serious again. Now we enter the so called "second hand shop street" from the Laox Livina side.
This is the shop where I bought my computer chair (made in Osaka) for close to 80,000 yen. Some months later I saw the same model for 35,000 at a local home center. The Livina shop has a variety of German chairs, too... but the one for 380,000 yen looked a bit too progressive for me.<g>
On the left of this street you can see a very new and modern building with the Toshiba showroom (stuffed with many models of the cockpit-like Toshiba Brezza). Toshiba holds software/hardware courses on various subjects also. This one looks pretty professional.
After that you see all these small electronic nicknack shops where you can get anything you'll never need nor know what it is... and neither know how to use the stuff. I often wish I had studied electronics to find the real bargains. My 15 year old son's friend goes there and buys tons of junk with his limited pocket money... then he builds his own workable robots, repairs color TVs, radios, and makes rather innovative electronic gadgets. My electronic trash is a true treasure for him.
In the meantime it was close to 13:00. After Rose's stomach made either audible sounds or she mentioned something about lunch or being hungry, I decided to walk to one of the restaurants that were located in the area behind the huge black Mitsubishi bank building.
First I wanted to bring them to this Indian curry shop where you can see the steam coming out of peoples ears (if they order what I always recommend<g>), but since all restaurants seemed to be pretty full, we settled for a typical Japanese eatery. The shop just happened to have space for all of us. I think that by this time we have lost our first fellow, Nick Val‚ry.
Some days later we heard that he was sneaking into some shop "without authorization" while my empty stomach had priority over the routinely performed head count. Well, Nick may join us again next time if he likes.
In the restaurant we had to split up in four people each. What do computer nerds talk between chewing octopus and gulping down their miso soup? Well, about anything that isn't so serious and high-tech I guess. It has to go with the food...
Our table was shared by Erik, Naomi, Woody, and me. I just remember telling about a very nifty picture viewer that I downloaded the day before, and that it can virtually read all popular formats. I mentioned the progam's scaling and morphing function, the great colors of various Picassos and Van Goghs, while Erik was talking about his censored collection. But only after he realized Naomi's eyes getting stuck at twice their original size, he quickly added that Woody gave them to him.
Arrrg... I forgot to ask Woody for a copy for myself to get some better idea about GIF and JPG versus classical paintings and real skin colors...<g> After all I determined to write a report on this subject in the newsletter.
Half an hour later we were ready to investigate new back alleys and shops. No more than 100 meters further around the corner there was this garage shop. The Chinese guy was still there, displaying the entire Microsoft Office 97 suite (Jap. Professional version) and the entire Adobe stuff, etc. for 10,000 yen per CD. The black and white copy of the jacket doesn't look professional, but buyers wouldn't bother anyway. I guess that the software works since this guy has been there for almost five (5!!) months without being bothered. He sells his bootleg copies most openly, something I have never seen anywhere else (except in Hong Kong in the 1980s).
I saw another 3 of these "outlets" at street corners. All these guys had on their tables were paper copies with software descriptions. You needed to order your CD(s) and return 10 minutes later. I haven't actually seen anything changing hands, but I'd bet that somebody unknown to eventual observers can be dispatched to the next coffee shop or hotel room also. I saw them using their cellular phones several times. These guys (this time Japanese) are very cautious since one can never know who is watching the scene...
One of our guys, who asked to be unnamed (I'll let you know next time), said that selling bootleg copies is very bad! But he subsequently added that there is one thing that is much worse: namely that these guys don't sell any English software!
In this open garage shop I often buy ZIP floppies. Most other stuff is the usual Japanese porno. Upstairs is another outlet for small gadgets, not well organized. Don't be surprised when you spot battery driven sex toys among cables, speakers and other computer related hardware. I think I can distinguish between computer joysticks and them... unless these were kinky PC joysticks.<g>
There is supposed to be a catalog mail order shop in one of the upper floors, but this one might have been closed on Sundays since the door was locked.
The staircases are a true treasure trove for safety inspectors! Every step is occupied by more then 50% with one or more boxes of merchandise. You need to tip-toe on the very narrow inside steps. Twice I had to back up before I managed to reach the 2nd floor.
If there is a major earthquake or a fire while you are in, you'll be history! A huge percentage of Akihabara's stores violate a couple of safety regulations. You don't have to look far to see emergency exits either locked or hidden by boxes stacked up to the ceiling. The only elevator (4 people max.) takes ages to crawl from floor to floor and so on... It's incomprehensible why nothing has been done for so many years. The next disaster is virtually pre-programmed due to human neglect.
Akihabara's police could be assigned to spot these violations instead of bicycling through the streets with blinkers. Something terrible needs to happen here before the authorities start acting.
Next stop was "Za Graceful" since we skipped Overtop and Two Top. These shops are too crowded on weekends. Just getting to the top floor might take 15 minutes and longer. The elevator is as slow as you can imagine, accommodates no more than 6 people or so, and the staircases are so narrow that one has to come down first before the other one manages to go up.
Once I bought a couple of things and had to wait over 20 minutes to get finally rid of my money. Still, this shop is one of the best deals when buying everything for new computer system for self-assembly. Two Top is known to take defective parts back and replace them. I guess it doesn't even matter if you buy at different Two Top branches in Akihabara. They will send you the stuff by mail also if you order over the phone and pay for the merchandize plus postage upon reception (chakubarai). This is the soundest way since spending 1,000 yen (in my case) for the train, spending at least 3.5 hours to be back again, is a waste of time and energy. In the worst case you might find out that the desired item is nowhere in stock.
Sachiko must have had to much booze or miso soup at the restaurant and started to squeeze me about my expertise on toilets in the area. Hmmm, this is something I'll need to investigate on a private trip to this region. When my offer to look for am empty drink bottle was turned down, I had to do some serious thinking. Yuri and Naomi must be involved in union work since they showed strong solidarity to suddenly join her. In the meantime I figured that T-Zone in the Minami Denki building must have some toilets. So they went off while we decided to wait for their return. Men are less complicated in such circumstances, but eventually they returned together before the first raindrops were felt.
Around this time, Erik, Rose, and Woody had to say good bye since they are of the busy breed with numerous appointments like the American president. Rose didn't get her desired memory upgrade for her machine (Toshiba or IBM, I forgot).
This is still a real problem since every laptop/notebook manufacturer sells its own proprietary memory chips... which cost much more than the standardized memory chips for PCs. I hope that one day an independent chip manufacturer provides Toshiba and Co. with some competition so that this price gouging comes to an end.
OK, the rest of us arrived well-guided at "Za Graceful" thanks to various pamphlets that were more or less forced upon us when strolling down this street. Every 10m somebody is waiting to get rid of his fliers indiscriminately.
The narrow two-flight staircase can also cause plenty of problems when a big gaijin comes down. Ten ascending slim Japanese will have to throw the backup gear in at once...<g>
A couple of months ago there was actually a 150kg gaijin who was familiar with this problem. He shouted in English and Japanese that he was coming now (to the shop), and nobody should dare to enter the staircase at the other side. Believe me, it did work since I happened to walk some meters behind him. Numerous eyes were starring at him and me. There was an eerie silence for a short time, but such things can't upset me anymore after so many years.
Anyway, there wasn't much interesting to see in the small shop during this Sunday, but their memory chips and CPUs are still sold at rock bottom prices. The rent in this small shack might be relatively cheap and the previous Aum people might still work for a token only. Therefore the shop can sustain such cut-throat prices and still keep going. I'd really like to know where some shops get their supplies from. I wouldn't buy real crucial hardware stuff like motherboards since the prices are so narrow compared to other big outlets. I can only repeat what I have said a hundred times before... A 1 to 3 year warranty is only good, if the shop is still around by the expiry date.
Watch out when you see cheap Compaq machines in so called outlet shops. The 3 year warranty (written in English on the outer surface of the cardboard boxes) is probably cut down to 1 year. Some of the salesmen avoid discussions on this issue, or they won't tell you about it before the deal is under the hat. Their merchandise has probably changed hands several times, and I'm not entirely sure how the original warranty is affected by that. And some models have even much lower warranty periods... especially the ones that might have gone through some illegal acts or channels. Don't forget that every major hardware manufacturer has a list of numbers of products that were reported stolen, lost, or whatever. These outlets will therefore take care of repairs themselves. After that they won't know you anymore. My small Compaq (486/25 Contura Aero) was bought in such a shop. It has a one year warranty... BUT I was told to bring it to this shop if repairs are needed within one year. I don't want to know the history of this goody, which warranty period has already expired. Well, if it runs for a year, it'll probably run for some more years to come. All the salesmen that were there a year ago have vanished by now...
Now we crossed the Chuo Dori which is closed to car traffic on Sunday afternoons (a part of it at least). There was one of these Two Top outlets that sold Sharp Mebius machines for greatly reduced prices. This trend only started after Sharp had introduced their new wide screen displays. There was a 133MHz model with 11,5" TFT display, 16MB RAM, 1.6MB hard drive, 12x CD-ROM for 219,000 yen. Although 133MHz is no thrill anymore, it's a very attractive price for a good machine like this one. All kinds of MS software is loaded, and everything needed for the Internet is in it, too. I forgot, the built-in modem runs at 28,000Kbps.
I hope that Sachiko hasn't waited for too long since the number of models at this price might be limited. Sorry, I hardly mentioned Stephen who was constantly helping out with this and that. He hasn't been a club member for a very long time, but he does know plenty about hardware and software. I wish we had more people like him.
I'm not entirely sure whether Ken and his friend Mike (or was that Jeff?) left us before we went to T-Zone (not the Mac outlet but for the PC stuff in the Minami Denki building). If my wife provided me with as much pocket money as Ken can spent, I'd have bought a mini-recorder long ago. Sorry for missing out on such important events...<g>
But as long as my Alzheimer's stays more or less dormant, I am able to remember with a couple of black holes in between.
T-Zone: We walked in through the huge magazine section with a number of US publications like the Computer Shopper, PC Magazine, etc. Stephen mentioned that Tower Records in Shibuya is much cheaper since they import themselves. If somebody wants an older Computer Shopper, however, it's worth the 100 yen! It was the May 1997 edition... Of course, most magazines are new, but it's nice to get some older ones at such greatly reduced prices. Laox seems to have very expensive (new) computer magazines only. One more word on this subject: Pop into the Sofmap Chicago store close to the station when you need a computer shopper. If it isn't sold out, you can have it for around 700 to 800 yen as I remember. That's almost 50% cheaper than at Laox.
We took the escalator and went straight up to the 7th floor where the Internet coffee shop and the game dungeon is located. The place was well visited, and a part of the show room was actually remodelled since I was there last month. Sachiko must have suffered too much "dehydration" during her previous T-Zone visit an hour before, because she was craving a drink at the Internet coffee shop. I was strolling through the show room with Stephen. The remaining fellows and fellas were somewhere else in the building and promised to meet us at the top floor. After Sachiko had finished, we went up to the so called Outlet Shop. Every time I visit, the arrangement has changed. They still carry older computer models in unopened original boxes with greatly marked-down prices.
Hint: Go there, dot the prices down, then check elsewhere. Some models are rock bottom, but others can be had for several 10,000 yen less at other shops. When the old T-Zone building still carried IBM stuff (now it's strictly Macintosh), some identical models at the outlet shop were marked 30,000 yen higher than the ones in the old building.
Spend one more hour before you fork over your money. If you are not of the caliber of Bill Gates and Co., you'll certainly get the urge to bite in your own behind after seeing something so much cheaper just 10 minutes after the great purchase... It happens to me during every Akihabara visit with small stuff. Still, buying a couple of cables for 2,000 yen and seeing the same for half the price just 30 minutes later hurts this pocket money receiver more than you can imagine!
It wasn't very thrilling what this outlet shop had to offer on this particular day, but drop in whenever you visit Akihabara. The goodies are usually displayed when you don't need them or when you are short of pocket money!
Somebody started to yawn... the sign that tiredness or boredom has finally arrived... so we decided to conclude our trip. Sachiko, who looked really tired, had suddenly the wish to see the laptops at T-Zone. Steve was so kind to accompany her since I had to find myself a ZIP drive to substitute it for the one that had kicked the bucket a couple of days before. I can't remember the shop, but it was an Iomega drive made by Fujifilm. The salesman said that it might not work with US operation systems. Anyway, DOS/V stuff always works with US hardware when using the appropriate driver (which I had). My previous ZIP drive was made by Epson. I didn't find the one which Ken Cotton saw for 14,800 yen despite running three times around the blocks. Finally I settled for 16,400 yen since my feet began to hurt. See what I mean? My "loss" was again 1,600 yen compared to the virtual thing that I couldn't find. This money would have bought me many tickets on the Yamanote line to do endless sightseeing for days...
After that I went straight to the station and took the train home. Somebody had called after I left on home on Sunday morning. "Loola" (katakana writing by my wife) wanted to talk to me... I strongly suspect that it was my "groupie" Laura from Texas.<g> She said that she would be a bit late and wanted to catch me at noon (probably at lunch at Akihabara department store). This custom has changed a while ago. Another problem was that Laura arrived only after my announcement at the last TPC meeting. Maybe she'll join punctually next time, or I might have to dedicate myself for a kind of "private lesson" tour.
One thing is sure, the head count will be less complicated and I can guarantee that neither she nor I will get lost!
See you next time,
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