Interlude: Day 3 of my June Trip to Japan

After going to the Prince and Skyline Museum and geeking out on cars during day 2 of my trip to Japan, I decided day 3 would be spent indulging in another of my favorite hobbies - I'd go full geek and do a deep dive of the anime and video game mecca of Akihabara.

In case you haven't read my previous posts on my first trip to Japan in 2017, Akihabara is an area of Tokyo centered around the Akihabara transit station that's become world famous as the epicenter for modern Japanese pop culture - i.e. mainly anime, manga, and video games but also pop idols, cosplay, maid cafes, airsoft, plastic models, etcetera etcetera. Basically if it's anything geeky and Japanese you'll find it in Akihabara - known as Akiba for short.

If you're thinking this is a car blog and Akiba has nothing to do with cars, actually there are a couple of good reasons for a gearhead to be interested in the area. First, it's actually a great place to go car-spotting. Many car geeks in Japan are also just plain geeks so they like to hang out in Akihabara. It's not uncommon to see modded cars and exotics prowling the streets in and around the area. Second, if you like collecting model cars you'll adore Akiba since there are plenty of stores ready to empty your wallet with shelf after shelf of die-cast cars, R/C cars, toy cars, and plastic model cars.

Although I'd been there several times before on my previous trip in 2017 Akihabara is such a huge place that you can only scratch the surface even after several hours there. I vowed to spend most of day 3 in Akiba but since the shops didn't open until 10 am I woke up early and visited Tokyo Skytree first.

Tokyo Skytree is a gigantic broadcast tower erected in 2011. It reaches 2,080 feet or 634 meters into the sky and is second only to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (that crazy building that an equally crazy Tom Cruise jumped out of in Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol) as the world's tallest structure. Tokyo Tower - Japan's clone of Paris' Eiffel Tower - used to function as Tokyo's main broadcast tower but as the city grew further and buildings became taller it just wasn't cutting it anymore since it was "only" about half as tall as the Skytree.

Getting to Tokyo Skytree was easy thanks to Tokyo's awesome transit network. A couple of quick train rides then a subway ride whisked me from my hotel in Shinagawa to Oshiage station near the Skytree complex in only about 40 minutes.

I made sure to get there early so I wouldn't be rushing too much before heading off to Akihabara. The tower itself opens at 8 am and I arrived just before so I wandered around for a bit taking pictures as I went.

Just in front of the Skytree complex was this bus terminal that had these funky little creations that looked like the transit equivalent of an English bulldog - ungainly looking but adorable in its own way.

Speaking of adorable buses, if you're at all into anime and were spared the misfortune of being born with a cynical heart carved from pure, darkest brimstone then you'll probably recognize the lovable Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. 

And if you haven't heard of the masterpiece that is My Neighbor Totoro or the rest of the amazing movies created by Japan's Studio Ghibli then you owe it to yourself to check them out. Ghibli is held in the highest regard by some of Hollywood's top executives and directors and to date they're the only Japanese anime studio to score an Oscar win (with six total nominations in the Best Animated Movie category). 

Ghibli and its most famous director Hayao Miyazaki are basically national treasures of Japan so it's no surprise that their merchandise is as desirable there as Disney stuff is in the States. The Tokyo Skytree complex has a sizable mall at its base and one of the stores there is an official Studio Ghibli outlet where that big Catbus display was on show. It was still closed when I first passed by but after checking out Skytree I stopped in to pick up some souvenirs for myself and gifts for friends back home.

The entrance to Tokyo Skytree itself is just past a big square. I pre-purchased my tickets to avail of an online discount so I just had to show my printed voucher to the ticket desk and then was ushered to the super-fast elevators. 

Tokyo Skytree actually has two observation decks. The first larger one is at 350 meters or 1150 ft in height. Aside from the spectacular views that deck houses a cafe and several displays showing how Tokyo looked in older times.

This display in particular was very cool. It features a reproduction of a painted screen created in 1809 depicting the old city of Edo which would later be renamed as Tokyo in 1898. Mount Fuji can be seen in the background and amazingly the depiction mimics the view that can be seen from Tokyo Skytree at that area of the observation deck, giving you an idea of what Tokyo would have looked like back then - assuming you had magical flying powers that is. Then again, according to what I've learned from anime magical powers were pretty common in old Japan.

Modern day Tokyo of course looks very different from 19th century Edo. Amazing how getting trampled by a ginormous radioactive lizard every few years can transform a place!

Basic admission for the Tokyo Skytree gets you entrance into the main observation deck but there's a second area higher up at 450 meters or 1480 feet that you can pay an extra fee for. The higher observation deck is called the Tembo Galleria and it usually hosts a special exhibition that changes out periodically. The display showcases different Japanese pop culture franchises and includes a merchandise shop that sells limited-run items only available during the Skytree exhibit period. Oftentimes Tembo will be exhibiting an anime franchise but during my visit it happened to be showcasing Sanrio's favorite mascot, Hello Kitty. Did you know her name was inspired by a Chinese porn star? Neither did I, cause I made that fact up entirely. Imma spread it all over the internets anyway.

I wasn't about to miss out on the awesome view from higher up so I bravely faced the  impending barrage of cuteness and boarded the elevator to the Tembo deck, which happened to have this cool window on top so you can see the elevator shaft as you ascend.

When I stepped out of the elevator a wave of sheer adorbs bashed into me:

I quickly headed for the observation windows to distract myself with more great views of Tokyo before I became overcome with the desire to tie a pretty pink ribbon in my hair and sew some frills on my clothes.

The Tembo Galleria itself circles around past the shop, until eventually you hit the return elevator to take you back down to the main observation deck.

Back on the main deck you'll find an escalator that takes you down to the second level where they have a souvenir shop. If you take the elevator back down you'll find a much bigger souvenir shop before entering the mall but you want to carefully check the items in the tower's shop before heading down because some of them are exclusive to the latter. Oh, and you can't head back up once you take the elevator down since your ticket is only for one entrance only. Sorry, no take backs guys.

The tower shop also sells postcards that you can mail to friends and family via these nifty mailboxes:

The views here on the lowest observation area are still spectacular and there are some nice comfy benches if you want to chillax for a bit.

One thing you don't want to miss out on before hitting the return elevator is the glass floor area where you can take a peek down if you think you're hard enough. I got a look, snapped some pics, and then left before I showed any traces of my inner wuss to the other tourists that were there.

After taking the elevator back down to ground level I still had a bit of time so I wandered the mall for a bit before catching the subway to my main destination of the day, Akihabara.

As I mentioned, I'd been to Akiba several times before in 2017 and had actually paid a brief visit on my first evening on this trip but the place has hundreds of stores, dozens of building, and uncountable nooks and crannies to explore so for this trip I decided to meet a local guide. I found one through a really helpful site called Viator. Her name was Gamme and we met up just in front of the Gundam cafe near the train station.

Nowadays, Akiba is all about pop culture but decades ago it was already famous but for a different reason. Because Akihabara station was a major freight hub the area came to be known for the various stores that sprung up, and from the 1930s until about the 80s it was known as "Electric Town" for all the electronics and appliance stores that clustered there. Japan of course was THE global epicenter of electronic devices in the 80s and early 90s, back in the heyday of Sony, Toshiba, Aiwa, and other big brands, but as foreign competitors like Samsung and Apple began eating their lunch and the focus shifted to computers and mobile devices Akiba transitioned to the pop culture mecca it is today.

Akiba still has plenty of electronics stores but it's no longer dominated by them like in times before. Aside from the big chain stores that sell mass-market devices like laptops, phones, and cameras Akihabara also used to have a thriving scene of smaller shops that catered to electronic hobbyists - the kind of guys who take a random assortment of resistors, LEDs, and PCBs, and assemble them into a robot vacuum cleaner, nixie tube clock, or a sexy robot maid. 

Gamme would be showing me parts of Akiba that had vestiges of that older era and surprisingly some of it was inside one of the landmarks of Akihabara's current pop culture age - the Radio Kaikan building just across from the train station's Electric Town entrance.

The "Yellow Building" - as Gamme refers to it for the benefit of new Akiba visitors to make it easier for them to find their way - is almost entirely full of anime and video game stores but after wandering through several of them and making our way up a few floors we found this exception:

This was one example of the type of old electronics stores that used to be the main draw of Akihabara but it wasn't the only one I'd see. After leaving Radio Kaikan and checking out a couple more of the nearby buildings we wandered our way down Chuo Dori, Akiba's main street, then entered the labyrinth of a nondescript-looking building.

Inside its narrow corridors it was just one electronics store after another catering to everything a hobbyist might need. One of them seemed to be entirely dedicated to a huge selection of multimeters - now that's hardcore!

After moseying around for a bit we made our way back into the sunshine and the scrum of people on Chuo Dori. Most foreigners visiting Akiba will inevitably stay on Chuo Dori since it's the easiest way to keep your bearings and there's plenty of stuff already to see just on that street. Gamme made it a point however to take me down Akiba's side streets where she showed me that there's even more to see beyond the already dizzying selection of shops on the main thoroughfare.

Beyond Chuo Dori are just countless buildings filled to the brim on every floor with various shops, cafes, restaurants, and whatnot.

This one caught my eye because it was a racing simulator shop and Gamme asked if I wanted to check it out. We still had plenty to see though so I politely declined.

Besides, I prefer real cars to virtual ones if I have the choice and like I mentioned at the start of this post Akiba has its fair share of those to see.

This slick Lotus Exige with a massive wing and diffuser plus a classy set of Volk GT-Cs certainly stood out among the more normal cars lined up on the street.

I barely had time to catch this Evo as we waited for the light to let us cross an intersection. Sadly I totally missed a white R34 GT-R that blasted past as we were walking along. As we were crossing an intersection a Lamborghini Aventador also made an entrance.

Pretty soon though all the walking had made us hungry so we decided it was time to partake of another famous Akiba staple - the maid cafe. Maiddreamin is the biggest chain in Japan with branches as ubiquitous in Akiba as Starbucks is in the States. Gamme picked out a branch she knew well and I soon tucked in to a hamburger steak but not before completing the obligatory "magic" ritual with one of the maids to make it more delicious. No, there was no sexual innuendo in that last sentence. Shame on you.

After we watched a dance number and got some souvenir photos it was time to wrap up the tour. Gamme and I went back to Chuo Dori and chatted a bit more and then she had to head  off for another engagement. I went back to wandering about, scoring a few more knickknacks plus a couple of model cars along the way.

Night had fallen by the time I decided I'd done more than enough exploring. My poor feet were sorer than Sebastian Vettel on the podium of the Mexican Grand Prix with all the walking over the past couple of days. I could have just gone back to the hotel, gotten some food, and crashed but I figured this would be the perfect chance to try out a uniquely Japanese experience I'd been wanting to sample for a long time.

After stopping by the hotel to pick up a change of clothes I took the Yamanote Line over to Shinjuku, best known for being Tokyo's local government center and also home to its premier red light district - hey, you gotta cut loose after a hard day of governor-ing and city councilor-ing, right?

My goal wasn't to hit up the bars though, it was to find a bathhouse called Thermae-Yu. You might be wondering why in the hell I went out of my way just to take a bath - especially when my hotel room had a (tiny) bathtub. Well, Thermae-Yu is an onsen or Japanese hot springs bath. They have multiple baths to try out including a couple of outdoor ones but all were universally wonderful for relaxing my body and washing away the fatigue and soreness that had built up. 

A word of warning though if you ever want to try an onsen -  there's a certain etiquette you have to follow. Most notably you need to get in the bath totally nekkid - no swimsuits, shorts, or undies allowed so you better not be bashful about letting it all hang loose in front of strangers. And tattoos are frowned upon. In fact most onsen (and the simpler public bath houses called sento for that matter) don't really welcome ignorant foreigners. Thermae-Yu is foreigner-friendly though so if you want to sample the glorious onsen experience without leaving Tokyo, I highly recommend the place.

Another reason to recommend them are the additional amenities. It was tough tearing myself away from the bath but I had to grab dinner and at Thermae-Yu that's easy since they have two awesome restaurants in the basement. In addition, after a hearty meal you can opt to take a nap in their relaxation room or maybe work off the calories with some ping-pong in the game room. If you fancy a massage you can head up to the spa. The entrance fee basically allows you to stay inside the facility as long as you want until midnight, after that you can opt to pay a smaller extra charge to stay overnight. There is a one hour gap in the morning when they kick everybody's asses out so I wouldn't get any ideas about trying to live there. I was planning on sleeping in my hotel to be ready to head out for the last day's planned excursion so I went back for one last soak then headed out to catch the train back to Shinagawa.

That brought a busy day 3 of my trip to an end. Not much in the way of car-related stuff but my last day before heading off to the Philippines would be chock full of that. I'd be heading back to Nissan's hometown of Yokohama to visit the Nissan Guest Hall as well as revisit Nismo Omori Factory. Please check back for my post on that little foray and thanks for reading!