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Akihabara Sampling Trip (Sunday, December 7):

by Sigi Rindler

Well, since there is an "official" Akihabara field trip coming up in exactly one week, I needed to prepare myself with the new situation after being out of touch for more than a month. I'm pretty sure that there are a number of guys in the TPC who deserve the "Mr. Akihabara" title much more than I do.

On the other hand, most of them seem to run around with blinders since they'd still call me for this or that...<g>

When I emerged from the Mansei exit at Akihabara's station, I counted at least 20 NEC promotion girls in blue coats lined up one after each after. There were very few options to avoid being overly stuffed with pamphlets for their new "IBM compatible" NX series since there was one girl every 2 meters. And if you happen to manage to slip through the first row, there was still another one to overcome.

Gee... what are they so excited about the NEC series anyway? TPC member Yasu Kudo has told me all about these NEC NX "semi-IBM compatibles". Their prices are all a bit higher than comparable machines, so I assume that some incompatibility comes with a price, too.<g>

There are apparently a couple of games that would run without sound, the Bios seems to be patched since a couple of Japanese characters will flash by, etc. I haven't tried nor seen these NEC computers work, so I have to relay on hearsay. My own son tells me that all major Japanese computer magazines have extensively written about these problems. He should know best since I am spending a fortune to finance all these publications...

Back to the NEC girls. Since I a had a running nose and needed to stock up on paper tissues, I was running slalom through them until I reached the one that had the useful stuff. I asked her for another pack and received 3. This stint yielded 3 plastic bags with pamphlets, plus flyers without the bags.

The next thing I did was heading straight down to the New Akihabara Center where ABC Bank is located. On the way I was looking for a waste paper basket to get rid of the unwanted NEC pamphlets... not before separating the plastic bags which make good gomi bags at home. Call me thrifty, I don't mind!

Outside the hamburger shop was a bin for cans. I didn't even clearly attempt to stuff the flyers through the tiny hole, when a guy from the restaurant was getting upset about my plans. Since he wasn't in any debating mood, I carried on down to the first computer shop (ABC Bank). First of all I took one of their flyers and left graciously my stack of flyers on top. Sorry, if one of you guys wanted to buy NEC stuff at this shop after I have left and they didn't have any...<g>

Anyway here are some prices:

CD-ROM 24x (Toshiba): 9,700 16x (Mitsui): 8,700 32x (TEAC): 12,500 Sound card 16 p&p: 2,980

It's a good advice to pop into this shop since there are always some items that you won't get anywhere else cheaper on this day. Outside the shop is plenty of junk (old and new) displayed. There was a Dynamo/Solar radio (AM/FM) for 2,800. In the daytime it feeds from the solar cells, while there is a crank on its side to generate electricity during the night. About 30 turns should provide you with 30 minutes of music. It's the ideal gadget for the jungle trekker and environment-friendly, too! The amazing thing is its price since comparable radios cost over $100 (Sony has one announced for over 8,000).

After that I decided to walk down past the Washington hotel and visit Robin at the corner on the other side of the street. Outside are the tables with junk and price tags on it that makes you ask where they got the nerve to charge for things that you can find in the garbage containers of other shops nearby. Mountains of used IDE hard drives (80MB) for Toshiba laptops in 2 big boxes without the protective plastic covers. They are only 500 each without the right to return them if they don't work. Since it looked like as they were dumped into the box like potatoes, you might well end up with well-working paperweights...

They also had 3.5" floppy drives for the same amount. These aren't that sensitive, but I'd rather spend 2,900 to get a new drive elsewhere. Inside the shop is a variety of things that can be had cheaper at other outlets. Robin was a good and cheap source years ago, but nowadays they are not worth to visit anymore, unless you are in the vicinity. Sony CDR 74 discs were 2,300 for a box of 10 (too much for a discount shop like Robin). Anyway, there was a gaijin who felt that these CDRs were offered at rock bottom price and bought 4 boxes of them. I'll have to mention the guy later on again when he realized that he could have saved 2,000 on the entire deal, and that he didn't have to carry the heavy stuff all day through Akihabara...

From there I went back to the station. About 100 meters from Robin I spotted a small shop (3 steps up) which is called "Musen Co., Ltd.". This shop displays a number of very small color TV sets with an outrageously beautiful screen (crisp and sharp with colors I haven't seen anywhere else). Mini tape recorders, optical gadgets, etc. If you want to know more about the stuff, look around for the owner... a middle-aged Japanese guy with a ponytail. Ozaki-san speaks good English since he deals with shops in L.A. as he explained. He now knows about the TPC since I presented him with our newsletter. Close by is a Laox shop (several floors) that is dedicated to musical instruments.

I went up to the guitar department. Wow, there are virtually hundreds in all conservative and punk shapes with prices ranging from as low as 30,000 to over 400,000 for a plain-looking hillbilly instrument. There is the electric cello and the silent violin. The latter one has headphones and might be the ideal thing for Japanese virtuosi living in rabbit hutches with nervous neighbors. These things are mostly made by Yamaha. So, if you ever consider buying an instrument (wind, string, keys, whatever) visit them and check the prices. BTW, the floor level contains plenty of gadgets that allow you to become your own Mozart or Beethoven on the computer...

Then I touched inadvertently the button on my talking wrist watch which announced that it was 12:30, and hunger set in almost instantly.

Three minutes later I was back under the Sobu railway bridge. There are several restaurants of which I know one very well. It's the steak house where the steak comes in cubes and must be eaten with chopsticks. Soup and salad is free and can be had as self service. It's a good and fast eatery, and you'll never go hungry for around 800 yen. 20 minutes later I was out again and headed up to the Mansei police station.

Those who went with me on previous Akihabara trips might remember the building opposite the police station (where the rotten record shop was and where they sold a variety of stun guns). Well, they are no more, at least for the time being. The entire building is wrapped up (not by the nutty artist Christo) and it seems that the building is being repaired or partly demolished. We'll soon know more. Don't be surprised when yet another Sofmap shop pops up in this place.

The next stop was J-World where no-name CDRs cost 198. Those made by Philips were 218. Knowing that J-World is not the cheapest shop, I'd advise to check further. However, ZIP 100MB floppies were cheap at 1,180, but you needed to buy a box of 10. I also noticed that the shop was displaying Notebook adapter cards for the Iomega Jaz drive. They went for 9,800. Since I don't have a Jaz drive, I don't know whether the price is right.

I went back out to the main street and turned right (street that leads to Laser 5, the CD-ROM shop which most people don't know because of its faraway location). If you visit Laser 5, be aware that this shop opens at 12:00 noon. Just before the big intersection was a makeshift shop that sold snowboards, ski boots, climbing shoes, and other skiing gear. The boots which usually cost 20,000 to 30,000 in sporting goods outlets were 3,000 to 4,000 only! Unfortunately they were made for the average Japanese (max. size was 28).

Then I saw a sign that said "Ike Shop". TPC vice president and Palmtop nerd, Ken Cotton, had mentioned this shop several times before. It's in the 5th floor and Wow... this shop really carries everything which goes with the palmtop. There is plenty of software like a special Internet browser for this gadget. It's a bit regrettable that only 14,400 baud modems from Zoom are available for the Palmtop. Maybe other vendors will sell faster modems.

Now I went straight down to the secondhand shop street just before the huge Laox Computer Kan. Beside of Trisal is the "6A-Recycle" shop. They sell the UNIDEN set for PerfecTV for 27,800. I can't remember whether this was for the tuner only, but "set" implies the tuner and the CS antenna are meant. I receive "Skyport" and was therefore not interested in paying over 50,000 for just another tuner. If the prices drop further, I might be interested myself...

Opposite the road was this open air media outlet. PDs went for 8,750 (pack of 5). One guy was selling a chip from Taiwan that you need to exchange against the existing chip in your Sony Playstation. Once you have done that, copied Sony playstation games will run on the machine. The price is 3,800. I have somewhere a description from a hacker newsgroup where it is shown how to do it without this chip, but it sounds a bit complicated. Still one needs the CD Recorder, and most importantly... friends that buy all these expensive software so that you can get them for free and start working.<g> BTW, these blank CDRs are not rewritable! If you buy a CDR Writer, don't get misled by the cheap prices (from 35,000 up). The models which can handle rewritable discs will cost a bit more, and the rewritable media not 200 but 2,000 a piece!

Real Tamagochis from Bandai are no thrill anymore and can be had for as low as 1,680. This business has now come to a complete standstill here in Japan. One greedy outlet was selling them for 15,000 a couple of months back, now they have plenty of these eggs for 4,800. Wait until the shop goes belly up, then buy them for 200 at Akihabara's discount shops.

In one of the backyard shops I found various software for Korean, Chinese, Arabic, etc. They also had the newest copies of a magazine for translators called "Multilingual". These are not available anywhere else in Japan and so excellent that I subscribed to the Canadian company right away. The magazine explains how to set up Japanese/Chinese/etc. systems on your English OS, many things about multilingual use of the Internet, and has many ads of software companies that are specialized in foreign languages. The magazine is hardly known outside the USA and Canada...

Suddenly I got the idea to investigate a bit further beyond Suehiro-cho by crossing the wide street at the corner of Sanwa bank at the Chuo Dori. Opposite the street is the Gateway showroom in the black glass building. I went there on my way back and must say that the initial attraction has faded. There is no staff who explains anything or plays around on computers to attract customers. Some computers are running in demo mode, others are switched off and remind of tombstones in the landscape. That's bad management I'd say! Gateway USA should have that rectified by making some personnel adjustments...Upstairs are a number of chairs and a movie screen that usually shows Gateway promotions. It was off, and I discovered that it was a very lonely place with me as the only visitor. Taking the opportunity, I sat down and ate a sandwich without being disturbed once during these 15 minutes of rest.

Back to the other side of the road (approx. opposite from Gateway). Turn left and see the hidden shutter of Shecom, the Tokyo outlet of the Kobe-based hardware/software vendor. Since I have only Sundays to visit Akihabara, I never saw more than the dark-green closed shutter. Beside of this shop is another secondhand computer shop called "Million". There is some philosophy behind it, which I'll tell you in my report on next weeks's Akihabara trip. They have a lot of older versions of Japanese software (including WordStar!) for prices that will almost get you new software somewhere else. Anyway, more about this shop next week... Across this street is another computer outlet shop, but its closed on Sundays also.

Another 50 meters further down the Chuo Dori down toward Okachimachi is a roofed but open shop with suits, coats, jackets, etc. (all off the rack). Not exactly my size except for some jackets perhaps, but a dark suit for 10,000 will do for the occasional funeral. The missing necktie can be had for 500 at a dedicated necktie discount shop 20 meters from the Gateway showroom.

Finally I was getting tired and headed back to the station at the left side of the Chuo Dori. Beside Suehirocho's subway station is the Yamazaki discount shop. Lux soap for 50 each is a real steal. With 10 bars my entire family can survive longer than you think, because my boys haven't discovered the actual use of soap and water yet...<g>

Close to the Citibank was a table with a guy handing out fliers. It offered computer repairs, and such. While I was reading the flier, a barker approached me and told me about the "great" shop. It was "Built-up" (another weird name) which has apparently moved to a bigger place somewhere in the back of the block. He took me to the place on the 8th floor. Gee, half of the shelves were empty and the only computer was a secondhand 486. Beside of it a box with cheap trackballs, some Japanese software packages, and on the floor a couple of boxes with aluminum pots and Teflon frying pans. No colorful Turkish wall carpets from China... so I was out in less than 1 minute and left the 2 remaining salesmen behind. Don't expect this shop there in a month from now and don't frame your one year warranty card if you happen to have bought anything from them!

The next stop was at LAN WAN. That's the shop where our vice president does some moonlighting (ISDN setup). They were selling Kodak CDRs for 184. One guy among the onlookers was kind of familiar to me. He was carrying 2 bags from Robin that contained 40 no-name CDRs for 230 each. The guy was starring at the cheaper brand name goodies with his mouth wide open. There was another gaijin who mentioned to me that he saw the discs for 167... The guy with the open mouth has heard that also and walked away!<g>

Since the sidewalk at the Chuo Dori was so congested, I took the parallel street along the huge parking lot. Outside an amusement center was a street stall that sold the Kodak CDRs for 177. What a pity that the guy with all the discs didn't take the same route...

Finally I spotted the T-ZONE outlet shop under the Yamanote line (behind the playing ground at the backside of the station). This was the first time that I went there since I simply didn't know that the outlet shop had moved. Maybe the one in the Minami T-ZONE building is still there. I can't say for sure since I didn't return since my Akihabara field trip in October. The new shop is rather huge and carries everything from older computers in original packages, to used notebooks, to ham radio equipment. One thing that looked interesting was a stack of Brother laser printers. The Japanese model was certainly for Mac computers. If it can be used for nowadays models, 9800 for this sturdy thing (same size as the HP LaserJet 4) is a steal!

The problem in this shop is getting the right information. I asked two employees who were unpacking merchandise nearby. They had absolutely no idea since their job was handling boxes, and they were part time employees. I wonder if they knew what line of business this shop is in! If this printer (at least 5 years old with a resolution of probably 300dpi only) works with IBM compatibles also, then I'm pretty sure that there is no driver for Windows95... Maybe it functions in DOS only and newer word processing software has no drivers either. You'd need to read the entire Japanese manual to find out about it. There is always a catch with these very inexpensive offers, otherwise it wouldn't be that cheap. Still, getting a printer including one toner cartridge for a price that can't buy a single toner cartridge for an HP LaserJet is sensational. I'll bet that all the boxes (I saw about 20) will be gone in no time. I have seen dealers buying up the entire lot of cheap gadgets before.

Back to the station...

I wanted to get a fruit juice at the Akihabara department store, but it was so crowded since everybody wanted to waste his bonus for this or that. Now I don't need to visit the 100 store upstairs either since there are two in Kijijochi that carry even more things than the one in Akihabara. It took me at least 10 minutes from the wicket to the platform of the Yamanote line and I was glad to have my ticket already. There were very long lines of people in front of the ticket vending machines outside the station building.

OK, I'm tired of Akihabara and typing...<g>

See you next week with the "real thing", your Mr. Akihabara

Official Akihabara trip Sunday, December 14:

I arrived at Akihabara station 5 minutes late and was worry that a couple of people were already frantically looking out for me. After all, I was sure that there would be at least 9 people who promised to be there. In any case, I had 20 copies of my Akihabara map and some other flyers in my bag.

The female NEC armada was still forcing their stuff upon everybody who had to approach the Chuo Dori. My nose wasn't running anymore, and I had brought everything I needed from my home. Until 10:45 it was me who was frantically looking out for people I know...The first one was Yasuaki (Yasu) Kudo, a TPC member who promised to come. At 11:00 we were still holding dialogs. Under these particular circumstances I extended my half a minute grace-waiting time to over 10 minutes. Was I lucky to receive my second and last fan just before I was going to disappear in the crowd. It was Barry Harries who arrived heavily sweating on a racing bicycle. After locking his transportation tool on a drain pipe close to the Kiosk, we finally set off. It turned out that Barry was once a member of the TPC who also held a post among the executives.

This time we changed our route and went straight to the T-ZONE outlet shop since Barry wanted an English keyboard for his company computer. As I already figured, the Brother laser printers had all gone. There wasn't much interesting in the shop on this particular day. The English keyboards were cheap, but he didn't like them. We left the shop and walked along the parking lot to the Minami T-ZONE building. There we popped into the DOS/V Paradise junk shop where cheap memory chips and secondhand CPUs are sold.

Note that you need to compare prices if you don't want to end up paying more than for new chips. Get a flier from "PC Bank" or "The Graceful" and check yourself! The crowd on Chuo Dori's sidewalk was growing, so we walked further down behind the building toward the TwoTop professional shop and Proside at the other side of the road. I saw about 20 to 30 people gathering around a big van in front of TwoTop. A crowd of people in one spot is always very interesting since something unusual must be going on. So we went there. My own "crowd control" and head count was pretty easy on this Sunday since there was no need to use higher mathematics. Everybody can count from one to three.<g>

Two guys from TwoTop were auctioning various items for a fraction of their real cost. I wasn't so much into routers and motherboards, but there was a Kodak digital camera with LCD display for 10,000! Nothing special among today's models, but this model is still sold for over 40,000 everywhere else. These items are new and unopened. I took the risk and paid the 10,000 although the vendors didn't give any receipts. Anyway, I was lucky. The camera works. Whether I can view the pictures on-line is yet another story (haven't tried it yet). Woody Hodgson, a previous TPC member, met us when I bought the camera. He must have told a couple of guys about this rare incident since I have received a couple of e-mail messages and calls from people who wanted to know where and when these auctions are being held... Beats me, this is the first official auction I have ever seen in Akihabara.

The other "auctions" are when the Yakuza is selling goods that have fallen of a truck before, or when they help bankrupt companies getting rid of the merchandise before the marshal puts a sticker on the goodies. These sales are never announced, are never held in front of any store, and are wrapped up within 30 minutes with the car's engine running. I am sure that some insiders know all locations and the time table, but I have yet to be that lucky...<g> Otherwise it's just a coincidence to be there at the right time.

Most of these goods are sold to dealers who operate smaller outlet shops. You actually never know whether the goods you buy in good faith are stolen, illegally sold, or whatever. After all these years I tend to see it as "the other face of Akihabara". This thing has been going on for decades and will thrive as long as Akihabara exists. While the low-level Yakuza tries to establish itself on sidewalks and back alleys selling bootleg software or hot hardware from trucks with running engines, there are increasingly new faces that sell secondhand computers and other gadgets outside of established stores. These people pay the shop something like 10,000/day and get an extension power cord to connect the computers to the mains. I have seen people buying notebooks for 20,000 to 30,000 yen. Not bad for the vendors if you consider that they buy them by the weight from scrap dealers or find them before the garbage collectors pick them up. BTW, I know a guy whose job is garbage collector for the city. He visits every flea market on weekends and makes more money with his hobby than one can dream of!

OK, let's leave the auction since I have already bagged what I wanted. This morning (over 2 weeks later) I received e-mail from Woody Hodgson who went to the USA over the holidays. He told me that he bought the same camera from the guys and is very happy with its performance and quality.

We walked down toward the Gateway showroom and visited the previously mentioned "Million" shop again. Well, the reason to visit this shop was that they were selling splitter cables for HDs, FDs, etc. to connect to the computer's power supply. They cost only 100 each since they have been salvaged from old computers. There is no place elsewhere that sells them that cheap. Who cares whether a cable had been used before or not...

After that we checked various used motherboards, video cards, LAN cards, etc. Yasu must have gotten the kick out of it since he studies programming and knows well about computers. There were video cards for 486 systems for a mere 65,000 yen, 486/25MHz CPUs for about 2,000 yen, monitors with blurred images for prices that would have enabled you to get a new model elsewhere and still have money left for a meal, a drink, and the ticket back home. Furthermore I wonder who would ever be willing to buy ancient and expensive software. Ichitaro version 3 or 4 is in the shelf while version 8 is out by now.

Since it was already close to 1:00 pm, we decided to dine at the curry shop "Lahoru". The curry is distinctly different from the usual instant "House" or "Glyco" brand curry that the Japanese like so much... It's served from regular (pretty hot) to medium and hot. For the latter choice I'd recommend this course for people without hair. Otherwise you might lose it at once, or your "Art Nature" or "Adolance" will lift off!! I tried the hot dish over a year ago. Afterward my entire mouth was burning like hell and I couldn't have told you the difference in taste between horse sh** and chocolate... At least one of the cooks is from India or Pakistan. It's a good deal and probably the best curry shop in the area. There is another one close by and called "Bengal" if I am not mistaken. Not bad either, but too much adapted to the Japanese palate.

After lunch we visited a couple of shops including the bootleg software guys who still do brisk business. You won't see any of the bootleg CDs since they are ordered over cellular phones and then "delivered" wherever vendor and customer agree upon. IBM stuff goes for 10,000 per CD-ROM while Macintosh stuff costs 15,000... I didn't ask for the reason, but I wasn't looking for Japanese software anyway.

Finally we arrived at the junk shop street behind the Laox Computer Kan. There wasn't anything special compared to the week before, except that the number of people walking through has increased a lot. I wanted to show the guys the ski boots for 3,000, but the shop wasn't there anymore. I don't mean that the shutter was down, no... the whole structure had gone! That's typical for Akihabara. Don't go there for half a year, and you might think that you have left the train at the wrong station!<g>

When we passed a coffee shop, I decided to invite my faithful followers for coffee and fruit cake. Actually, we had chocolate milk and cake. Don't expect me doing that with 30 people running around. Weird things like these occur when less than 3 people participate, or when I happen to forget coming while 30 people are waiting for me at 11:00 in the cold...<eg>

Well, since the participation was very close to a one-man solo performance, I'll probably not having any Akihabara trips until April or May next year. I'm just volunteering for the TPC and I decided to do it in December after being asked by several people who wanted to go. I'm not complaining about this particular trip since I had my day indeed and the two guys had their fun also. Well, we'll see what the new year brings, how much our membership is going to grow, etc.

The remaining part of our tour led us to a small computer outlet about 50 meters from the ticket vending machines outside the station. Its name is "Novum". Since the shop is in station vicinity, don't expect super discount prices, although I have bought some cheap goodies there in the past. Last not least, Barry found his desired keyboard... and he can't say anymore that I wasn't able to lead him to a shop that sells US keyboards! But Yasu had still something in mind since he wanted to "look around" a bit more when I headed back to the train at 16:30.

Man, this time it took me over 13 minutes to move mm by mm through the wicket and up the staircase to the platform of the train.

After all this a good and a bad thing happened to me. The good one was that I got a seat at Tokyo station on the Chuo line to Musashi Sakai; the bad thing was that the conductor woke me up in Toda (truly not the first time). That's the end of the rail track far out in the boonies. Going back to my home took me an additional hour and a half! I always happen to fall asleep when sitting on the part of that bench where the main heater is located.

See you again next year in April, May, or Octember... It really depends on you!

Another idea is selling tickets for 1,000 in advance. Everybody who shows up in time can change them back to money, and I won't say anything if more than half of the crowd stays in bed longer.<g>

Your Mr. Akihabara

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

January, 1998

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

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