A tourist’s brief impressions of Japan’s three largest anime hubs: Akihabara, Dendenmachi, and Nakano Broadway

Akihabara, before the crowds

Something very, very short again this week because I am exhausted after my vacation and gave up trying to write with a smartphone keyboard on the long, standing-room-only train rides home. I’m also a bit sore from so much touristic walking and don’t feel like writing a proper introduction so here’s a topic sentence: I’ll briefly compare my shopping experiences in Japan’s three largest anime merchandise hubs: Akihabara, Dendenmachi, and Nakano Broadway.

Akihabara is a tremendous sensory overload crammed into just a few dense blocks. It’s an incredible sight. But once your eyes adjust to the bright lights and the giddy high of “oh my god, this is it, and it’s so hilariously stupid” wears down, Akihabara begins to feel awfully claustrophobic.

With large crowds pulsing against each other in opposite directions, the narrow aisles and staircases of the overstuffed shops become hot, colorful tunnels that don’t permit a moment of calm collection. My peripheral vision peeled away and I lost all perspective of the place beyond whatever merchandise appeared right in front of me.

Even back outside on the cool sidewalks, the multistory anime banners lose their novelty and start to look like the plain advertisements that they are. And it’s so loud… the traffic roars down the main drag, the multilingual crowds babble away, and the maid cafe girls hawk their neko imouto falsettos while anime OPs and J-pop idol hits meld into an unrecognizable whirl.

Akihabara is a tourist trap and the shops charge accordingly, especially the ones closest to the station. It makes for a great experience, but not one I’m very excited to repeat (however though, I have repeated the experience five times now, so maybe I’m a hypocrite).

Akihabara also has an uneasy share of plain creepy stuff. Who thought this was a good PR move?

I much preferred Osaka’s Dendenmachi, a “mini Akihabara” in Japan’s second largest metro area (if Akihabara is the Mecca, is this the Medina?). Unlike Akihabara’s avalanche of undifferentiated stuff, most of the stores have wide, well-organized aisles. I was especially struck by the diversity of the area. When I visited on New Years Eve, I found real families from toddlers up to old obaa-chan doing their holiday shopping and, unlike the male-dominated Akihabara, Dendenmachi had a rough gender parity. Without so many maid cafes and sex shops, the visit felt so much more wholesome, driven less by impulsive commercialism than by an honest interest in the products on offer.

Osaka’s Dendenmachi, with mercifully small crowds

For similar reasons, I’m fond of Nakano Broadway, just thirteen stops down Tokyo’s Chuo train line from Akihabara itself. Like Dendenmachi, it’s spacious and uncrowded. Though in lower quantity, the hobby stores there have all the same junk as Akihabara: books, comics, digital media, games, cards, toys, dolls, models, posters, antique action figures, as well as general midscale shopping mall fare. Oh, and it has real restaurants, not 4000 yen for twenty minutes maid cafes. I could actually have a good lunch!

Nakano Broadway before opening hour

Best of all, along with Dendenmachi, Nakano Broadway has noticeably lower prices than Akihabara. Without the heavy influx of cash-laden tourists driving up prices, I sometimes found figures for half as much as in Akihabara’s large department stores. If Osaka isn’t on your itinerary, take a couple hours for a tourist’s stroll through Akihabara but then pop on over for Nakano Broadway for any real shopping (or just buy online…).

My best anime-related stop during my trip though? A lonely, single-floor anime merchandise store at the end of Kyoto’s Nishiki Market shopping street. It had a limited inventory but rock bottom prices and practically no competing customers. I made my most precious purchase there: a 10 yen button featuring Yuu from Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou (Girl’s Last Tour). 10 yen! That’s like 9 cents! I would have paid 10 dollars for the damn thing!

A shoutout to Kyoto’s Sakurasaku anime shop!

So, if you’re ever traveling through Japan, keep an eye out for the local stuff. The big names are great, but you’ll never know what you’ll find tucked away somewhere off the tourist’s trail.

My face after finding this button in a bargain bin

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