Fresh from a whirlwind trip to Japan, Dan Taipua pens this primer on what to take and where to go for old school console booty and ephemera. This is part one of a two part series about retro video game tourism in Japan.
Each year more and more kiwis are making Japanese cities their metropolitan destination of choice, looking for an experience both novel and nostalgic, a kind of time travel between ancient temples and the robot-assisted noodle bars. Within that group, gaming tourists are looking for a middle-ground: searching out shrines to past technologies at special-interest shops that preserve, display and sell treasured retro video games. It’s a niche interest for sure, but one that’s expanding at speed.
When I visited Tokyo in 2010, I spent weeks in advance researching retro game minutiae on Flickr, Tumblr and online forums, printing out maps and subway guides at a time before reliable smartphones. When I returned in 2016, sites like Kotaku and The Guardian each had their own “Top 10 Must-See Gaming Destinations” lists available to all-comers. As useful as these up-to-date listicles might be, none of them really describe the experience of being on the street with cash in your pocket, an aluminium can of hot coffee in hand, and the unique anxiety of having paid about two grand on flights to hunt down old electronic toys.
In honour of the real-life struggles gaming tourists face, The Spinoff presents its strategy guide for first-time travelers to Tokyo and Osaka.
A Cultural History of Retro Gaming
To understand Japanese retro gaming culture, you need to zoom out a bit and look at the wider culture of Japan. Firstly, the Japanese people have a reverence for physical-copy media that has almost evaporated from Western society. While you’d struggle these days to find a CD shop or serious bookstore in a NZ shopping centre, Japan still has hugely successful chain-stores dealing in books, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Audio CDs, a bounty of vinyl-only record stores and cafés/libraries to read/watch/listen to them in; all seemingly unaffected by download and streaming culture. They’re simply everywhere, and despite living in tiny apartments or small suburban houses the Japanese people believe in holding onto and preserving their cultural products en masse. Secondly, the Japanese have a deep commitment to recycling products and have a massive secondhand economy, founded on the principle of mottainai (“waste not, want not”) and resulting in large corporate retail stores that sell used goods at extremely reasonable prices.
Taking into account the above, and including the fact that video games are a multi-trillion yen industry for the nation, Japan offers consumers high-quality gaming products preserved in excellent condition with widespread availability. While specialist stores that you might see in travel stories or on gaming sites offer the cream of this crop, gaming tourists should also keep an eye out for seemingly less likely places that carry a large stock of recycled media. Every Japanese city will have a Book-Off, Hard-Off or Hobby-Off (and often many in one town), so stop into one when you’re out for lunch.
Japanese Retail Culture
Japanese retail culture is pretty unique, and comes with its own set of protocols and practices. Whether you head to a niche outlet or a main street recycle store, you can expect the following from your gaming retail visit.
Despite crowded store conditions, games are presented immaculately, split by system and timeline and sometimes divided between shop floors.Games and consoles are generally wrapped in plastic covers (even if they’re still boxed) which can prevent you from inspecting condition but don’t worry – stores test and clean all used goods before putting them up for sale, and if they’re are issues with aesthetic condition they’ll be priced on a sliding scale. It bears repeating that games are always in playable condition: specialist stores and big chains all have an area out the back where they service goods before sale, and on one visit I spent about three-minutes too long watching staff air dust and degrease Nintendo carts. One quirk of Japanese retail is that every floor of a shop has its own checkout and you have to pay there before before moving to the next, and if you lapse on this you’ll have someone very, very politely yell at you in a sing-song voice. Many retail assistants will speak a moderate amount of English, but it’s not really part of their job, so make an effort not to depend on advice or specific details.
Hitting The Streets
Before you head out you need to do a little planning, here’s a list of basics you’ll definitely need:
1. Get connected. As well as your phone and a portable charger, you’ll need a ‘pocket wi-fi’ which is a portable modem. Pocket wi-fi can be rented from the airport or your hotel, and almost every Airbnb will offer one free with your stay. Free wi-fi is widely available in Japan, but hard to navigate without being fluent.
2. Be street ready. Sneakers, backpack, extra plastic bags. I can’t understate the amount of wandering you’ll end up doing. You’ll need a backpack for bigger purchases and extra plastic bags to protect your pricier finds from Japanese rain.
3. Stack of money. You need to carry plenty of cash since eftpos isn’t really a thing and foreign credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere. Don’t worry about the small fortune in your wallet – you’re in one of the safest countries on earth.
4. Know what you want. Keep a mental list of must-have purchases and look for them first in each store. This frees up your time to browse for nice-to-haves and surprises. Don’t be afraid to spend for the things you want – if you pass it up now it will be gone when you get back three years later.
5. Exceed your baggage. Plenty of airlines will let you check an extra bag for about NZ$100. Dump all your clothes in a cheap bag and save your suitcase for crispy-edged boxed games and consoles.
If you’ve read about Akihabara online and plan to visit for retro games and only retro games, you’ll need to adjust your expectations slightly. While it’s true that Akihabara has the highest concentration of classic console games on the planet, most of the town consists of home appliance retail, bookstores, cellphone service outlets, model shops and TV & movie merchandise. The town’s rising profile has also changed its character in recent years, leaning towards large corporate retailers and squeezing out independents; it’s all getting a bit slick. That said, there’s still more to see than a tiny mind can comprehend – so here’s some tips on how to avoid sensory overload and panic.
Getting to Akihabara is super-easy: it’s situated on the JR Yamanote Line which is the important route in Tokyo, and trains leave to and from every three minutes. There’s absolutely no way you can mess it up. When you leave Akihabara station, just head towards the main street (you can’t miss it) and you’re dead in the middle of town. The interesting parts of town extend about two blocks ahead of the station and three blocks to the north, which doesn’t sound that busy until you see how densely populated it is. If you have a list of stores to visit, add three extra hours on top of that time so you can have a good wander. Avoid the arcades unless you have a specific one in mind – they burn up time and there’ll be more in the rest of your trip.
Market conditions in Akihabara were pretty good as of April 2016, with most retro-only stores still dominated by NES and SNES merchandise and PS2 titles on an upswing. Prices are no longer cheap – but they are very reasonable. You won’t find mother-lode deals and the prospect of importing for re-sell won’t be on the cards for most collectors, but you can still pick up something like a boxed copy of Super Mario Kart for NZ$60 in perfect condition. The best store to visit is still Super Potato.
When you leave Akihabara station, cross the main road and walk to the Club Sega arcade, turn left then take the first right and look up – you’ve just found the best game store in the world. Super Potato covers the 3rd, 4th and 5th Floor of its building and is stuffed with almost everything you’re looking for. In order of abundance, the stock covers NES, SNES, SMD, PS2, PSX, DC, Saturn, PC Engine and Turbo Grafix. As well as serving up games and consoles, Super Potato carries a full range of peripherals – imagine your excitement as your international airfares let you buy a NZ$14 RF adaptor, it’s a spiritual marvel.
On my recent trip I only picked up a handful of SNES games because, to be honest, you actually can find boxed games on ebay for decent prices and with the outlay of an overseas vacation. What you’ll never be able to find on ebay, and only be able to find in Super Potato, is the ephemera of gaming culture: display posters, promotional booklets, manufacturer’s catalogs, they all live in the corners of this store. In the end I picked up five Capcom promotional magazines for the Street Fighter series, each filled with concept art and weird in-jokes about development. I can’t actually read full Japanese text, but I feel more whole as a person knowing I own them.
If Akihabara is the corporate rock star of the gaming tourism world, the Denden Town is the “I like their earlier stuff, before they went mainstream” equivalent. The gaming area of Nihonbashi is smaller and less dense than its Tokyo cousin, but the hit-rate for rare finds is about equal, and it still has an underdog spirit about it.
Getting to Denden Town is a bit tricky, you need to make your way to Ebisucho Station via the subway, then take Exit 1-B, turn right and keep walking for a bit. Eventually you’ll stumble on the first gaming store and everything for the next two block is electronics, recycled media, hobby and toy stores, nerd stuff. Again, if you have a list of must-hit spots, add an extra three hours for general browsing as there’s plenty to see. Checkout the secondhand media stores along the strip as each will have a section of old games and hardware, the easiest landmark to look for is any signage that had ‘DVD’ written in English (just a note: a lot of these places also carry pornography and you can’t immediately tell once you enter).
My favourite store in Osaka is the first one you’ll come across after leaving the subway, Game Tanteidan: Retro TV Game Revival.
I’d never been to Osaka before my latest trip and hadn’t done any research in advance. Not a recipe for success in anyone’s books, but your books can also get stuffed because it actually worked out really well. Game Tanteidan is a small retro-focused game store with some heart to it: it’s well-organised but a bit chaotic, like any real collector’s collection. The staff are aiming for a wider feel of nostalgia too, with an ancient arcade machine out front, multiple hand-written signs, and an endless soundtrack of 8-bit music piping through their floor speakers.
Tanteidan had a range and pricing structure almost completely aside from Tokyo stores, carrying pockets of original VGM CDs, custom carts and small runs of deadstock items for Gameboy. In the end I walked out with a boxed Super Game Boy Adapter, a Game Boy Camera, and a boxed and graded copy of Dr. Mario, all about 30% cheaper than I could find elsewhere.
When I left the checkout at Game Tanteidan, the assistant slipped two flyers into my bag: a hand-drawn comic on how to clean your carts (alcohol and a cotton swab) and a map to a nearby video game-themed bar serving drinks and playing chip music. That’s the kind of service you can’t find that on ebay, or anywhere else on the planet.
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