Geek’s guide to Tokyo: Where Otaku culture thrives

Tokyo (CNN) — Otaku, which implies “your own home” in Japanese, was a term used to (snidely) describe individuals with obsessive hobbies. To wit: An otaku was seen as a shut-in.

While originally used to negatively characterize individuals with interests in anime and manga comics, the label, first coined by essayist Akio Nakamori within the Nineteen Eighties, has grown to incorporate a wide range of fandoms and isn’t any longer used with disdain.

There is a warm community for cos-players, online gamers, railfans (otaku preoccupied with trains), music lovers and countless other subcultures. A growing number of individuals in Japan now self-identify as otaku — and it is a judgment-free zone.

Nowhere is the thriving otaku culture more on display than the futuristic Japanese capital of Tokyo, where several whole neighborhoods are inclined to a various range of desires and obsessions.

Geeks, rejoice!

Ikebekuro is the Tokyo ward that is home to Sunshine City, a constructing complex with a 60-story skyscraper at its center and countless attractions.

Joshua Mellin

Getting there: Fly Kawaii with Hello Kitty

Start your geek adventure directly from the boarding gate by flying with Japan’s loveliest icon, Hello Kitty, on EVA’s themed airplanes featuring a fleet of Sanrio character designs.

The sunshine-hearted livery provides a relaxing distraction for the long-haul journey. With welcome videos starring the entire family of Sanrio characters and in-flight food shaped as various characters, the planes’s novelties even include Hello Kitty animated safety instructions and barf bags.

Departing from Los Angeles and Chicago, the present connecting flight to Tokyo (Narita) sports a design featuring foodie-favorite Gudetama (the lazy, depressed egg) who’s content to shoulder the stress of flying.

Hello Kitty fans will want to start their trip with an international Hello Kitty flight. Currently, this is possible through Los Angeles or Chicago.

Hello Kitty fans will want to start out their trip with a global Hello Kitty flight. Currently, this is feasible through Los Angeles or Chicago.

Joshua Mellin

But Hello Kitty fans won’t be deprived once they reach their destination as Tokyo offers seemingly no end of opportunities to absorb the Hello Kitty culture. Keio Plaza Hotel’s Princess Kitty and Kitty Town rooms don’t just include bedding and wallpaper but countless Hello Kitty details from wake-up calls from Kitty White, to “Do Not Disturb” signs and Hello Kitty room service.

Shinjuku: City of the beast

As you descend the technicolor stairwell into Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant, it’s like moving into an alternate realty. Here’s the way it all comes together.

Shinjuku is certainly one of the 23 special wards in Tokyo, essentially a borough. Bolstered by its central location, it’s perhaps essentially the most outstanding of all of Tokyo’s distinct neighborhoods and really, very busy.

The overall geeky vibe on this area is underscored by Godzilla Road’s neon major street — a grand shrine to the rubber-suited golden age of Japan’s best Kaiju. Nearly 40 feet tall and modeled on 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra, Hotel Gracery’s life-size Godzilla head roars and spits mock fire (a convincingly lit mist) hourly from noon to eight p.m. every day.

An accompanying light show also includes other nearby buildings appearing to crack and burn. Accessible for a close-up view via the eighth-floor lobby, the “Godzilla Hotel” even has themed rooms with windows which might be at eye level with the enormous, menacing lizard.
Shinjuku's Godzilla Road is an impressive neon street in the center of it all. The street is literally a shrine to the rubber-suited golden age of Japan's greatest Kaiju or strange creature.

Shinjuku’s Godzilla Road is a formidable neon street in the middle of all of it. The road is literally a shrine to the rubber-suited golden age of Japan’s best Kaiju or strange creature.

Joshua Mellin

Easily one of the vital bizarre attractions in Tokyo, you’ll leave eternally wondering what you’ve got just witnessed.

The third-floor bar proudly offers Western drinks and refreshments (order the French toast and hash browns) while a band dressed as robots plays wedding-band-like renditions of songs equivalent to ABBA’s “Mamma Mia,” “Ave Maria,” and various anime themes — and that is just the pre-show reception.

The major event, positioned within the basement, delivers completely as advertised with a dizzying array of sword-wielding robots, mecha-dinosaurs, dancers and explosive pyrotechnics because the ticket says: “Dancing!! Kicking up the joy!! Wildly swinging around!!”

To disclose more would spoil the experience.

Akihabara electric town: Tokyo’s geek mecca

Positioned in Tokyo’s wild Akihabara area, Super Potato is full of retro video games and equipment. Video by Black Buddha

Sometimes called “The Town of Otaku,” Akihabara, certainly one of Tokyo’s most vibrant neighborhoods, is the middle of anime and video game culture in Tokyo. Its brightly-colored arcade buildings resemble cartridges themselves, brimming with an abundance of games boasting the latest technologies.

All inside a couple of blocks are 4 multi-leveled SEGA-branded arcades, labeled simply SEGA Akihabara 1-4.

A high concentration of manga, model and trading card shops could be found surrounding the arcades. Legendary video game store Super Potato boasts nearly any game ever produced and is noted for a museum-like collection of obscure retro games.

Also popular on this district are themed restaurants, notably anime-inspired maid cafes and a spread of cat, owl and hedgehog cafes.

Akihabara is Tokyo's center of anime and video game culture. It's often the first stop for vistors to Japan looking for cool, geeky stuff.

Akihabara is Tokyo’s center of anime and video game culture. It’s often the primary stop for vistors to Japan in search of cool, geeky stuff.

Joshua Mellin

Lining Akihabara’s side streets are a myriad of electronics stores offering all manner of specialised gadgets and parts starting from one-man stalls to sleek major retailers.

Sofmap operates six stores within the micro-neighborhood alone, each specializing in a selected department. Radio Kaikan, whose vivid yellow neon sign is iconic to the district, is home to 30 independent stores, notable for his or her toys and collectibles.

A couple of blocks from the flashy Electric Town is the nearly 1,300-year-old Kanda Myojin Shinto Shrine. Popular with the warrior class of the Edo Period, it has grow to be a spot where local gamers go to bless their systems against fault.

It’s quite a bit to absorb and deserves a minimum of a half day of exploring.

Odaiba: Man-made island starring Gundam

For any fan of the anime series “Gundam,” a visit to the man-made island of Odaiba grants an easy reward as a functioning life-size Unicorn Gundam Statue greets visitors at Diver City Tokyo Plaza. At over 60 feet tall, the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam is sort of the peak of the shopping mall it keeps watch over.

4 times a day the imposing, full scale model demonstrates a swift transformation from unicorn mode to destroy mode. Lasting just a couple of short minutes, shows happen several times throughout the day.
Fans of the anime series Gundam will absolutely want to take a trip to the man-made island of Odaiba, where a functioning life-size Unicorn Gundam Statue greets visitors.

Fans of the anime series Gundam will absolutely need to make a journey to the man-made island of Odaiba, where a functioning life-size Unicorn Gundam Statue greets visitors.

Joshua Mellin

Positioned inside Diver City is The Gundam Base Tokyo, a library-like fan store showcasing examples of each Gundam kit ever produced, in addition to a quiet work area for purchasers to construct their very own models with skilled kit-builders to seek the advice of with.

Ikebekuro’s Sunshine City: Subculture central

More relaxed than Shinjuku and Akihabara’s busy entertainment areas, the up-and-coming Ikebekuro disctrict is especially welcoming to area of interest subcultures.

Anchored by Sunshine City, a constructing complex with a 60-story skyscraper at its center, Ikebekuro is a great stop after you’ve got explored the multi-level stores lining Akihabara’s streets.

The Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo is located in Ikebekuro, an up-and-coming Tokyo district home to myriad niche subcultures.

The Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo is positioned in Ikebekuro, an up-and-coming Tokyo district home to myriad area of interest subcultures.

Joshua Mellin

Sunshine City doesn’t just sound like a location from Pokemon, it is also home to Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo, the last word store for fans of the Nintendo video game.

Here’s where to search out obscure Pokemon editions together with large figures of fan favorites Mewtwo, Charizard and, in fact, Pikachu.

But you do not have to be a Pokemon fan to understand Sunshine City. Here is where passionate fandoms of all anime cartoons flock for organized fan gatherings and meet ups. It’s where to go for pin-trading and trading-card bartering.

But failing interest in all of that, there’s a robust cos-play scene within the district’s Naka-ikebukuro Park. Watch (or take part) as people don elaborate costumes and play their favorite characters.

Tokyo Dome: Japan’s national pastime

Baseball’s roots in Japan stretch back to the 1870s, and the country proudly proclaims it as a national pastime. (It’s fitting that Tokyo will host the return of baseball to the Olympics in 2020.)

Few sporting events are more exciting than a Japanese baseball game and few fans as passionate because the ones at The Tokyo Dome, home to The Yomiuri Giants, “The Latest York Yankees of Japan.”

A visit to The Tokyo Dome, home to The Yomiuri Giants,

A visit to The Tokyo Dome, home to The Yomiuri Giants, “The Latest York Yankees of Japan” is a must for baseball lovers and geeks alike.

Joshua Mellin

Together with distinct food offerings equivalent to Takoyaki (little fried balls of dough full of Octopus) and pork katsu sandos, a game at Tokyo Dome features a boisterous cheering section within the bleachers, equipped with thundersticks (the inflatable noise makers) and gigantic team flags.

With a compact pep band leading organized cheers and songs, the banging drums and daunting chants make for a competitive atmosphere to the ultimate out.

Fan of the sport or not: You can be entertained.

Harajuku: Fashionistas dress the part

CNN Travel takes a mini-trip around Harajuku, Tokyo’s most fashion-forward neighborhood

This internationally-known fashion district in Tokyo is known for the defiantly daring and colourful style named after the neighborhood, its streets acting as fashion runways for outrageous outfits.

While it’s hard to withstand the vortex of Takeshita Street, the shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian shopping strip positioned directly off the Harajuku train station, with its enticing larger-than-your-head rainbow cotton candy and dizzying array of name shops, intrepid shoppers can be rewarded by stepping outside its cramped and hectic quarters.

Adjoining Cat Street assumes a more relaxed avenue to walk and shop, with resale stores focused on higher-end brands. Close by, Harajuku Chicago boasts a wide range of vintage clothing to peruse including baseball-team Happi coats and traditional kimonos.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku's mirrored entranceway makes for a multi-dimensional photo shoot location to show off your trendy threads.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku’s mirrored entranceway makes for a multi-dimensional photo shoot location to point out off your trendy threads.

Joshua Mellin

One of the distinctive boutiques within the district is Sukajyan Dept. A tiny souvenir jacket store on Omotesando Avenue, it’s full of the impressive collection of designer Ken Kakinuma (Conan O’Brien and Kanye West are proud owners).

Popularized by returning World War II servicemen as souvenirs, the outerwear became popular amongst Japanese youth and is now decidedly a well-liked symbol of the country’s fashion ethos.

Once you’ve got coordinated the proper outfit, Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku’s mirrored entranceway makes for a multi-dimensional photo shoot location to point out off your trendy threads.

Beyond the district: Mascot-spotting

Mascots are so common in Tokyo that at times they appear to mix into the group unnoticed. It isn’t just districts or sports teams — it seems every event, brand or obscure municipal office has its own mascot. It’s common to see Kumamon the bear giving an informal pep discuss with the Japanese women’s handball team or drumming cat Nyango Star rocking out in a Harajuku department store.

Mascots, they’re similar to us!

They’re chronicled on twitter by @mondo_mascots, an account run by British-born, Tokyo-based Chris Carlier. Carlier figures the recognition of mascots are “an extension of Japan’s love of novelty and ‘kawaii’ things.”

These fun-loving, cute characters have grown out of a convention to honor righteous symbols of Japanese culture. Shibuya, for instance, the district home to the famous Shibuya Crosswalk, celebrates Hachikō, the ever-loyal Japanese Akita dog, as a logo within the neighborhood, even designing their local buses in his likeness.

Carlier says he’s most enthusiastic about Chiitan: “the accident-prone otter, who posts slapstick videos online every single day.”

“I’m also very keen on my local mascot, Sanchawan, a dog with a tea bowl for a head,” says Carlier, underscoring the sort of absurdity that is all but a requirement for an efficient mascot — and perhaps, even, for a whole lot of the geeky stuff proudly on display throughout Tokyo.

CNN Travel Contributor Joshua Mellin is a author and photographer based in Chicago. While traveling in Japan he subsists totally on Family Mart katsu sandos and Ichiran Ramen. He has survived countless Kaiju attacks on Godzilla road in Tokyo to deliver this dorky dispatch.

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