Your Akihabara friend
Akihabara is Tokyo's famous electronics district, and one of the first places I went when I got to Tokyo. I actually went there three times during my stay, looking at computers, light fixutres, phones, and video cameras. Amazingly, on this trip I got out of Akihabara scot free -- I didn't buy anything there at all! (well, besides a Hello Kitty mouse to give to my friend Sonoko).   This little guy can be found in the sidewalks on the main drag of Akihabara. It says "Good day. Welcome to Akihabara."
Tezuka World entree

Other things in Akihabara:

One of the coolest things I found in Akihabara this trip was the Osamu Tezuka World temporary store.

As opposed to the last time I was in Japan (about seven years ago), I found two things were very different this trip in Akihabara:

  • Seven years ago, Akihabara had many, many toys -- er, I mean, electronic devices -- that were unavailable in the U.S. I found that isn't nearly so true anymore. Apart from miniDisc players, which are just more popular in Japan than in the U.S., the difference has shrunk tremendously. There were a few things that I hadn't seen in U.S. stores, but not many -- it seemed like the gap between introduciton in Japan and introduction in the U.S. was usually only a few weeks, or even simulataneous.
  • Seven years ago, Akihabara was *much* more expensive than the U.S. for anything that was available in both countries. Now, that's also not so true. Things were about the same as the U.S. given the exchange rate -- maybe +/- 5%. Of course, a big part of that has been the computer price wars that finally reached Japan, courtesy of Compaq, a few years ago. But it's now true of most consumer electronics I saw as well -- it's just not a tremendously expensive place to buy stuff anymore.


One thing that hasn't changed is the throngs of Japanese otaku (best translated as 'fanboy') who flock to Akihabara for important events -- such is this video game release. There were people 3-4 thick around the table buying copies of a new game -- this is pretty normal there. Interestingly, in the American fan community 'otaku' is taken as a positive thing... Otakus thronging
PHS phones The most popular form of wireless phone in Japan right now is PHS (some variation of the acronym for Personal Messaging System) or its NTT competitor, DoCoMo (Do Communications on the Mobile network, as bilboards all over Tokyo proclaim in English). Everyone in Tokyo seems to have a PHS phone, and they're incredibly small -- click on this photo to see an enlarged version of this display of PHS phones. They're also incredibly cheap -- some of the phones here are as cheap as ¥1000 with service -- and service is only $10-$15 per months even with heavy usage, according to Scott. No wonder everyone has a PHS phone!

The difference between PHS and cellular (regular cellular phones are also available in Japan) is that PHS phones can reach no more than 2 km to the nearest base station, and, they can't switch from base station to base station while moving the way cellular phones can. That's a big part of why they're cheap and small, since neither the phones nor the base stations have to support the intelligence for call migration, but it's also why they're a pain when you're moving -- it doesn't take long for the subway to move more than 2 km from where your call started. It's also why we won't see them anytime soon in America -- driving along in your car, you can move 2 km from the base station really fast.

Here's a fine bit of only-in-Japanness for you. This is the control panel for a toilet -- you may have heard that Japanese toilets are fancy electronic devices -- well, they are, and they need fancy electronic control panels to match. The best part (click for enlargement) is the butt icon in the tan circle. Not to be missed though, is the icon for 'bidet' in the pink circle. Icon designers worldwide take note! Toilet Control Panel
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  © 1998 Leo Hourvitz