It's like clockwork. Every month, a handful of emails hit my inbox from readers with a singular purpose: What should I do on my trip to Japan?
There are endless things to do in Japan that run the gamut of traditional to modern to fascinating to banal. What unites these emailers is that A). They're gamers B). They've never been to Japan before. C). They're not sure what they want to do, but they want to do something connected to gaming.
Instead of writing up various emails like I do every month, here is a list — a short list at that. And some old Japan hands might consider it an incomplete list. That's fine. This is just a start. If there's more to be added, add 'em. (Do keep in mind that this is for visitors, not residents.)
Regardless, here they are: spots in Japan that visitors should definitely check out in no particular order.
Visiting Tokyo? Make a beeline for Akihabara. The neighbourhood is traditionally viewed as Japan's electronics, gaming and otaku hub. In the years following the mainstream popularity of Train Man as well as its gentrification and added express train, Akihabara Electric Town hardly feels like anyone's best kept secret.
Still, it does have stand out shops like Tokiwamusen and Messe Sanoh,
Tokyo does offer otaku alternatives — namely Nakano Broadway and Otome Road in Ikebukuro. Nakano Broadway is heavy on the figures, retro toys and manga/anime goods, but still definitely worth checking out — especially game shop Galaxy. Otome Road is geared towards female otaku, called "fujyoshi."
Osaka's version of Akihabara, Den-Den Town, lacks the gloss of today's Akihabara, which might be for the better. You're less bound to see young couples on dates like in Akiba and more likely to see guys in flannel shirts carrying shopping bags of who-knows-what.
• How to get there: Akihabara is easily accessed by the JR Yamanote Line.
Nintendo's Rural Culture Retreat:
In early 2006, the Nintendo-funded-musuem Shigureden (Autumn Shower Palace) opened in Kyoto Prefecture. Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi shelled out for the museum, which is not a museum about the video game maker, but centered largely on the "Hyakunin Isshu", a poetry card game with 100 poems.
To play, cards are spread out on the floor and players search for specific poem cards and snatch them up before their opponents. For the Japanese, being able to memorize all the poems means one has a good sense of beauty. At the museum, the cards will be displayed on the floor, and apparently, the game can be played with a customised DS.
The museum also offers visitors other card games via experimental interactive tech. There's a beautiful rock garden as well.
• How to get there: Detailed instructions are provided here in English. It can be easily accessed from Kyoto or Osaka.
When visiting big cities in Japan, chances are you'll be on foot. If it's the dead of summer, the country gets hot. Why not, slip inside an internet cafe, check your email, read some Kotaku and drink as much free fizzy Fanta as you can guzzle?
Besides magazines and manga, many cafes have game consoles included in booths available for rent. The Manboo chain has showers, making it an ideal place to spend the night if you miss the last subway train or are travelling on a budget. (There are even nail salons at Manboo!) Plus, if you are feeling hungry, most cafes offer meals you can order and eat as you surf the net, watch DVDs or play PS2.
How to get there: There are locations nationwide. Here is a listing of Manboo cafes (in Japanese).
Compared to the U.S. or Europe, Japan is truly arcade heaven. Big cities boast great game centres, usually within walking distance from major train stations. If you are only able to visit one arcade in Japan, visit Taito Hey Akihabara.
Hey Akihabara is the game centre that leaps out of the mouths of arcade developers like Cave and SNK talk about where they want to test their big titles. The arcade is gaming's equivalent of Mann's Chinese Theater.
Sure, there might be more obscure arcades and maybe even "better" ones, but if one really loves game centres, it's impossible to dismiss this arcade — especially if you love shooting games. Hey has to be one of the best arcades to play shooters.
Taito Hey Akihabara is one of many arcades featured in Arcade Mania, the book on Japanese game centres I wrote. Besides Hey, there are a seemingly endless plethora of great game arcades in Japan.
• How to get there: Taito Hey is located in Akihabara. A map can be found here.
The House Mario Built
To call Nintendo simply "a Japanese company" is a mistake. Nintendo is a Kyoto company through and through, carrying tradition as proudly as the prefecture it calls home. Yes, Nintendo started out making Japanese playing cards and continues to do so — not for profit, but out of heritage.
A visit to Nintendo's Kyoto headquarters is a visit to the outside of a building. For some, it's a pilgrimage. There is no museum open to the public and nothing much more to see than a giant white building and the opportunity to wonder what the heck they are working on inside.
A peak in the reception area reveals white marble floors and paintings of flowers. It could be the office of an insurance or a tire company if you didn't know better. Nearby, there's the company's R&D building, which was HQ until 2000
There's also the company's original headquarters, which also is not open to the public per se. Kotaku reader Daniel snuck in the backdoor so we don't have to.
• How to get there: Here are instructions in English — sorry the pictures are borked.
When gamers go to Akihabara, they tend to make a beeline for Super Potato, merchant of fine, used retro items. However, Super Potato is a chain of game stores — a chain that didn't even start in Tokyo, but in Kansai.
There are locations across Japan, and while the Akihabara store is considered by some to be the crown jewel, don't fret if you can't make the trip. There are more Super Potato stores in Osaka.
How to get there: Here is a list of store locations (in Japanese).
Game Store Warehouse
Words do not do this store justice. This massive game store is located in the southeast of Tokyo off the Togane or Keiyo train lines. It a massive wall-to-wall gaming wonderland that boasts retro hardware and software and current gen as well. While this isn't exactly the best place to get bargain basement deals, the store's massive and might be worth a Saturday afternoon of browsing.
• How to get there: Somewhat vague instructions how to find the store are found right here.
Drinking 8 Bits At A Time
The 8bit Cafe in Tokyo's Shinjuku is not the country's sole gaming cafe, and it's also not your typical Shinjuku bar. As otaku site Otaku2 points out, a note outside reads, "We refuse drunks and people who get drunk and violent." Next to that? An enshrined Famicom and a manga about being a bum in Tokyo drawn by a customer.
Instead, the place is a mess of arcade stools, manga, figures and ambient game sounds. Playing with some of the cafe's hundreds of retro Famicom games is not prohibited, but taking pics inside is.
Food is light and drinks are game themed.
How to get there: While the site is in Japanese, a map with some English can be found here.
Sony's Ritzy Showroom:
Tokyo's Ginza is often compared to Beverly Hills — even as other Tokyo neighborhoods have become even more swish. Stuck smack in the middle is Sony's Ginza showroom. Floors of Sony merchandise, the building was constructed in the mid-1960s and inspired by New York's Guggenheim Museum. There are often promotions and campaigns going on in the first floor. Sometimes they are game related, sometimes not. Sometimes there are upcoming products on display as well as Sony's current lineup.
• How to get there: Detailed instructions are here in English.