What to do in the city with too much to do? Looking into tourist interests in Tokyo is like a gelato shop with too many flavours; shrines, gardens, monuments and museums of every flavour seem to pop up on every other street corner, but today we’re on the hunt for an attraction that doesn’t stand still. There’s no real definition for Akihabara that fits into a few words, it’s a place that is all on its own, it’s Japan and there’s no other Akihabara anywhere else in the world. So instead of trying to encase a word around Akihabara when Akihabara’s identity is purely individual, come for a walk with us into Shinjuku station and board the train to Akihabara. Expectations have abandoned this foray for a lack of alternatives to compare this place to, all we know is that Akihabara is the scene for Tokyo’s otaku crowd, which essentially means geek culture. So come nerd out with us, next station Akihabara; mind the gap.
Beyond the overweight foreigners that need to see a little more sunlight instead of their online gaming addiction, the first thing we see is AKB48 theatre and cafe: lets acquaint ourselves with the world of AKB48 shall we. AKB48 originated as an accessible pop girl group with no less than 60 rotating members leaving fans to vote for who appears on stage. What started as a novelty exercise is now a fully blown pop phenomenon with tickets to the theatre won by lottery and nearly impossible to get. We pass the theatre with a giggle and find ourselves among a world championship yoyo exhibition of sorts, yes we’re back in 1980, there’s a band playing and everything. nine girls dressed as awkwardly sexual cartoon characters rock out to choreographed moves to a rabid crowd. There surely really is nothing else like this in the world.
This is cheesy saccharine pop at it’s worst, or best, I can’t tell; all we can do is stare, the US army in Iraq had no idea what shock and awe really means. Another traveller leaves the crowd of inappropriately enthusiastic forty something men who know all the words and pump their glow-sticks in the air with the fervour of a high school groupie equally stunned, he can only shake his head. Yes, we are to believe this is the one and only AKB48, there can be no mistake. Apparently there’s plenty of girl fans their own age but it’s in this crowd that an odd quirk of Japanese culture presents itself here like nowhere else; plainly put, outrageous kooky sexuality. There’s some criticism of AKB48 for sexualising girls as young as 13 and watching the fervour in the crowd for what can be nothing but naughty schoolgirls anything but pure, the criticism seems more than just a little justified.
In an overall conservative culture we walk from a hotbed of a concert that seems to double as a gathering for the local sex offenders watch-list shocked and in awe; I think. Herein lies just a slice of what makes Akihabara so unique and special: wildly permissible sex gets a green light and for the many guys, and some girls, the kinkier the better makes no dent on their otherwise sacred social personas. It seems a perfect conservative reputation is absolutely necessary to succeed in education or professional life but in certain realms like anime books and concerts like AKB48, no reputation is tarnished.And sex does rule the world we find ourselves in, there’s a seven floor sex department store that’s boldly on the tourist map and lets just say that if someone has ever had a kink for it, it’s available at M’s; enough said. Billboards and indeed entire buildings are loaded with images that are nothing short of animated fantasies but old ladies and kids alike mingle with the AKB48 fan base like it’s nothing new, no sexual boundaries exist within these very defined forums. There’s none of the famed school-girl underwear vending machines anymore, vacuum sealed for freshness, but in the streets of Akihabara it would feel like nothing out of the ordinary at all. Take a sexually confined culture, give them a door to walk through and watch the stampede.
Sex is everywhere and nowhere here, in truth it’s all anime and manga books, the animated world that is distinctly Japanese. Wild sexuality crosses paths with ninjas, fighting robots, samurai demons and everything in between drawn in a distinct style that is nothing short of captivating art. Stunning imagery feeds a style and lifestyle that goes far beyond just sexuality and it’s this world of stunning imagery that captivated me as a kid. Ok the sexual bit wasn’t missed either but it’s a whole culture and in this format sexy sits alongside stylish, cool, whimsical, violent and emotionally complex narratives. To our eyes, otaku is defined my anime, or maybe it’s the other way around and sex is astutely just a part of life and given just the amount of focus it has for most people that we pretend not to notice.
From a world where imagination not only becomes real but has a postcode, return with us to the real world from restaurants and theatres dedicated to animated characters and their queues that run down the streets. The cafe with staff dressed as French maids who treat you like master or lady is no more, nor are the businessmen and women carrying shopping bags of comics, sex toys and popular fashion all together as casually as fruit goes with vegetables. Yes a world of unlimited imagination that bursts out in all directions, not afraid to be different is behind us now as the train doors close to take us back to the very definable world of Shinjuku. The party area; it seems so boringly simplistic.
Over a stunning bowl of ramen in nearby Harijuku we take stock of a real world that seems so simple now, so describable. They say that naked is porn and nude is art; the first view that caught our eye was sex but there’s no argument that otaku culture is art, stunning cultural art. The art exists beyond the page, the poster, the TV screen; the otaku art lives in the enthusiasts that define it. Art imitates life in the imagery we saw all around us and life returns the favour in the people that walk the Akihabara streets. Still Akihabara evades an easy definition; it’s where imagination leaps from dream into reality and dances with art to make a reality far beyond what the imagination that created it ever dreamed of. Art all of a sudden seems so linear.