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A Gaijin in the Akihabara? 24

cayle clark asks: "In April I will be on a tour that spends 5 days in Tokyo, and on one of these days I hope to break away from the planned cultural events for a visit to the Akihabara, the world-famous electronics market district, partly just to gawk, partly in hope of finding a deal on a really whizzy mini-notebook or handheld pc. But... can a gaijin ? who doesn't speak or read Japanese get around in this place? Would anyone who's been there comment on prices, selection, or experience with the many duty-free shops?"
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A Gaijin in the Akihabara?

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  • by ghostis ( 165022 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @03:03PM (#2625882) Homepage
    My strategy was to spend the first day picking out stuff. Then next day my experienced Japanese friend graciously went around and haggled for what I wanted while wandered around being a tourist. My reasoning was that given the flexiblity of prices in Akihabra a native speaker with clear understanding of Japanese tones of voice and facial expressions could get better deals. All in all it worked pretty well!

    • 4? What 4? ;-) Just had to do it...
    • Akihabara..
      Easy.. no Japanese needed (usually).

      Places to hit:
      Used PC street..
      -this place is great.. find
      P450s PCs with video cards, HDs and 100mbps
      network cards in perfect shape for $100USD,
      Laptops for $200, monitors for $40, flat panels
      for $200.
      -To get there: (sorry, Tokyo has no addresses
      street names like we are used to)..
      -Find the main street (its wide, 5 lanes across)
      that goes through akihabara. Then Find La-ox
      'COmputer Kan' (there are lots of La-ox
      electronic stores in Akihabara, go to the
      'computer kan'... its big.. very big, 7 floors.
      It is on a side street off the main street
      -Then from the entrance of Computer Kan (Laox),
      you will see a narrow street going outwards..
      -On weekends, lots of tables will be set up
      there, and the regular shops will have all their
      stuff set up outside sidewalk sale.. It is the
      best street in Akihabara with the best deals,
      dont miss it. It will pay for your trip to Japan.

      Other good places..

      Any of the Laox's (note the one with Foreign PCs
      (ie. English) is usually a ripoff). For PC cards,
      etc.. reasonable deals. All in Japanese though.

      Misc electronics.. the old building next to the
      Beckers fast food (by JR (Japan Rail) Akihabara
      station).. many narrow aisles.. a true fire
      trap, but lots and lots of cool electronics.

      You can spend a day in AKihabara..
      -pricing.. usually listed.. not much negotiating.
      -Sometimes they dont let you open the packages,
      before you buy, should be OK though.

      Bring lots of money.
  • Hello (Score:5, Informative)

    by r.suzuka ( 538257 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @03:07PM (#2625918) Homepage
    I am currently a student in Tokyo and I may be able to assist you.

    I am afraid I cannot recommend specific shops since school duties have prevented me from frequenting "Electrical Town" perhaps as much as I would like. However I do not think that you will have any difficulties either navigating the district or the individual shops.

    All shops will have prices clearly posted so if you are familiar with a certain piece of electronic equipment, you will be able to identify it as well as the price. If you wish, you can attempt to bargain with the vendors; it would no doubt help to have a Japanese speaking freind or colleague with you, but many vendors will speak enough English to permit basic bargaining.

    May I refer you to the following link: http://www.akiba.or.jp/index_e.html [akiba.or.jp]. This is an official page with much information in English about Akihabara.

    Good luck, and I hope you enjoy your visit to Tokyo.

    R. Suzuka
  • by gnovos ( 447128 ) <gnovos.chipped@net> on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @03:23PM (#2626029) Homepage Journal
    I used to live in Osaka for a few years, and they have a similar area in Nipponbashi, and I had no trouble finding my way around and buying what I needed, and I don't speak Japanese very well at all. As long as you can make intelligent gestures and understand, say, japanese numbers for prices, then you'll be fine. Suprising to me, many of the things I bought had a set of English instructions and the buttons were often written in English, so it was pretty easy to use. One interesteding thing to note, most Japanese computers will have nearly double the memory and HD space than you are used to (supposedly becuase the 2-byte characters require more space to do the same thing that "our" 1-byte characters), so it will look very expensive... But if you look close at the specs, some of it is actually VERY reasonable.
  • When I was in Japan a few years ago I found that carrying a small notepad (you know, one of those paper things with the wire spiral. It's about the size of a Palm III) with me was useful. Having a bit of paper to use for scratching out numbers and diagrams makes it possible to haggle over prices and things like that without the need to do very much talking.
    • I had a friend who visited Thailand about 18 months ago. Apparently they use electronic calculators over there to haggle. The seller puts in the price he wants into the calculator, the (potential) buyer looks at it, presses clear and puts in the price he wants to pay. The seller will look aghast as if he's being robbed and probably put in a number slightly lower than his initial 'bid' and so things progress until either the buyer walks away or a deal is struck.
    • I suggest the paperpalm

      http://www.brighthand.com/palmhandhelds/reviews/ de vices/paperpalm.html

      to avoid culture shock in using a piece of paper.
  • by patbernier ( 9544 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @05:49PM (#2627135) Homepage

    Lucky you! Akihabara is heaven on earth for true geeks! You shouldn't have any problems shopping over there, the prices are well indicated (but sometimes you can try to get better bargain... politely ask "what is the discount price"). But learning just a bit of Japanese can make quite a difference -- e.g. how to formally introduce yourself, and politely ask if they speak English....

    But even if you don't want to learn any Japanese per se, I would recommend learning a bit of "katakana".

    In Japanese, three sets of symbols/alphabets are used. "Kanjis" are the most complicated, with each symbol representing one or more meanings and having one or more possible pronunciations. The two others, "hiragana" and "katakana" (collectively known as "kana"), are more simple, and represent sounds/syllabs.

    Katakana is almost always used to write foreign words, most of them English. This means that if you can read katakana characters, chances are that you will be able to guess the meaning. This is especially true for technical material.

    The first time I went to Japan, I spent about twenty hours studying katakana before going, and didn't regret it. Not only did it help me in my Anime and computer shopping, but also in understanding a lot of restaurant menus -- especially fast food ^_^ I think it's definitely worth it.

    For a quick learning experience, I recommend Anne Matsumoto Stewart's "All About Katakana", ISBN 4770016964. It's quite cheap, and fun to boot :) Your favorite online bookstore should be able to ship it within a day or so, it's usually in stock.

    Now for the _real_ fun, also learn "hiragana" and practice by reading the name of the train stations ;->

    • I am presently visiting my company's office in Japan - my 5th visit.

      I second the comment by patbernier about learning Katakana and highly recommend Hiragana as well. It will make your trip very interesting as every sign you see will stimulate you mentally as you try to read and understand. Also knowing Katakana will be valuable for your shopping expedition.

      I wrote a "flash-card" type of drill to help me learn Katakana and Hiragana. It is a "100% pure Java Applet" and available for use by anybody for free. The URL of the homepage is http://www.ChipChat.com/NihonGo/ [chipchat.com]

      The more you prepare and learn the more fun and exciting your trip will be!

  • by nellardo ( 68657 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @07:14PM (#2627570) Homepage Journal
    Well, when I used to work for this "modest" media and electronics company [sony.com], I got to go to Tokyo quite a bit - I was corporate. I got along fine in Akihabara. I speak no Japanese. Okay, a little - I can call Tokyo, identify myself, and ask to speak to someone. Usually, I manage to get the accent decent enough that the respondent starts explaining (I presume) why this person can't come to the phone. That's when I say "Nihon go ga wakari masen" - I don't speak Japanese.

    The prices seemed reaosnable, though not spectacular - from other comments, I gather you're expected to bargain. Being a foolish gaijin, I didn't realize this. As I was mostly interested in buying things that weren't sold in the States anyway, this doesn't bother me too much. I may have paid more than a native for the metallic orange camouflage MD Walkman, but it was still less than the equivalent functionality model in the States (even at the employee store). So I got a completely wack-looking MD player. Groovy, Bay-bee!

    I didn't have too much problem asking after products. The staff will usually show you the register numbers when you look at them blankly after they've stated the total in Japanese. Just stick to the "protocol" of placing your money or credit card on the little tray they'll hand you with a printed receipt. They'll pick up the tray, make change or run the charge, and place the results back on the tray in front of you.

    Oh, and one helpful bit of vocabulary: "Sumimasen...." usually said with a long drawn out final syllable - Sumimaseeen - and remember all the vowels are "short" and "pure" - not the dipthongs of English (One woman I was with had a strong Southern accent - she couldn't get passer-bys to understand that "Carry-Oh-Key" was "karaoke"). I'm given to understand that it translates literally as something along the lines of "I'm so very sorry to interrupt you in the midst of your important work, but....." Works wonders - staff on the other side of the shop will rush over. Even in the restaurants of "Little Tokyo" here in the East Village in New York.

    Oh, and take a card from your hotel - it will have a map on the back showing where it is. Taxi drivers will need that. If you're staying with friends, ask them what train station is closest (this will also be on the hotel card map). If you can, memorize the kanji for that train station. Then you can get home, even on the subway, which doesn't have Roman lettering (but the JR train does, so it's not so difficult).

  • Not too hard at all: (Score:3, Informative)

    by wirefarm ( 18470 ) <`jim' `at' `mmdc.net'> on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @08:22PM (#2627847) Homepage
    Repeat after me:

    You get the picture... Try not to over-translate things - For instance, one time I was looking for Memory (RAM) and translated it to omoide. Once the clerk figured out what I was trying to say, it had him laughing so hard that he had to get someone else to help me.
    Akihabara is one of the easiest places to get around for a foreign geek in Tokyo - so many more of the words are 'translated' like my examples above. If you are looking for a complete system, stick to the big stores like T-Zone or Laox or any place that has a big english sign that says 'Duty-Free'. Those places have english-speaking sales staff and know all of the customs info. Bring your passport if you buy anything expensive, as you'll need it to avoid paying tax.
    You mention nifty handhelds and mini-notebooks - I too have drooled over the selection here, but there are 2 main problems with those: Japanese Keyboards and Japanese OS. It's really a drag, but on small devices, it's almost impossible to change those two things.
    You should see good selections of other things such as digital cameras, MiniDisc players and the like. (Get a minidisc player here - they're cheap, dozens of models and easy to figure out; you'll not regret it. Just make sure the batteries and chargers are compatable.)
    Japan uses different power than the US and Europe. For PCs and Laptops, it's never a problem, but for other things, it might be. (Learn what your standard is at home and learn how to read the charger/device you are buying.)
    Saturdays, the prices are a bit lower, I've heard, but not noticed. New items tend to be price-fixed at all of the stores, but that just means you don't have to shop all of the stores. Credit cards are usually OK, but bring some cash.
    For parts and upgrades, check out DIY (do it yourself) Street. It has a great bazaar feel and some of the best selections of oddball gizmos.
    I really don't think much haggling goes on - not just here, but anywhere in Tokyo. Japanese people generally do not haggle, with the exception of Osaka - I hear it is traditionally much more common there.
    All-in-all, for most mainstream stuff, you'll do just as well at the big electronics shops all over Tokyo, but you miss the experience of Akihabara. Where it really shines is for the ability to track down literally *any* small part, connector or special cable. We don't have or need Radio Shack here. It's geek heaven.
    Also remember that 90% of the shops close at 8:00pm - some are open til 9:00, but get there well before - Stores typically start playing "Auld Lang Syne" when they want to start closing.
    There are also dozens of porn shops, but don't bother - Japanese porn is some of the worst in the world, since by law, they must place a spot of 'mosaic' over the naughty bits.
    If you're going on a Saturday or Sunday, drop me a line - I may join you and show you around.
    Jim in Tokyo
  • by misterplow ( 135845 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2001 @08:54PM (#2627976)
    Hey there - I live in Tokyo not far (about 25 min.) from Akihabara, and I visit it frequently and drool over all the toys (yes I speak/read Japanese).

    While I don't claim to know everything, my observation has been that the duty-free type stores cater to people who just don't know any better, and therefore are not the best priced.

    If you are really interested in buying something, I would suggest going with someone who can bargain in Japanese (email me if you want). But for just looking around and taking in the wonderful atmosphere, wandering around by yourself is probably just fine.

    Especially cool is the covered area just outside the station into which is crammed about 50-60 electronics parts stores. When he was vacationing here many years ago, my Dad got a real kick out of seeing all those stores which barely had enough room (literally) for the storekeeper to fit inside.

    Still to this day, I CANNOT find (in the states) cassette players which are as small as the ones that are commonly sold here. That might be something nice to pick up.

    One more thing -- if you DO buy something like a radio or TV, a lot of products will say something akin to "for use only in Japan", etc. You can pretty much ignore that. Common electric current is 110v in Japan (instead of US 120v), but I have had no problem using both countries' appliances in both places. The TV and radio bands overlap a bit but are not exactly the same, so a TV bought here, for example, could practically be used with only the V1, V2, SV inputs. Radio is the same deal. Their raidios' FM band starts lower (76.xx) and goes only to 90 something (roughly)

    Ganbatte kudasai!
    [good luck]

    • Ah, Japan standard is 100VAC, not ~120VAC like in the states.

      If you look at the chargers, most will say "100-240VAC input" because China uses 240VAC, and it's easier just to build a good rectifier that simply deals with it.

      But your American things like tooth brushes, shavers, and others that use cheap hard-wired transformers will work, they just take much longer to do the charging because of the loss of ~20VAC.

      The rest I agree with.


  • I was there last week. It's very simply, you learn the name of the product you're buying (learning katakana can be helpful here but usually not necessary), Then you walk up to a counter or member of the sales staff and say (product name ) o kudasai. Then you flash your card and you're done. you don't have to figure out what they're saying unless they don't like your credit card. They already know you're a gaijin and couldn't care less. The largest store is LLaox. your best chance for english speaking assistance is there. Look for a giant red sign saying The Computer (llaox has multiple stores in the area) for image of LLaox. You may hear the area called by it's shortened nickname "Akiba".
  • Akihabara is an amazing place on the surface. But behind the neon glitze in the back streets and lanes are the cool stores (like the S/H MAC store filled to the ceiling). I agree with the other guy - I was just like his dad, facinated by all the little stalls that might have been selling anything else market-like but electronics was a real surprise. I think you could kill 2 days there, it's tiring..... But it was not really cheap (1.5 yrs ago)- mail order in the US was often cheaper. The only stores that do Duty Free are the glitzy ones and they are probably also the most expensive. Since I was there the Japanese economy has tanked somewhat so you'll probably get a nice exchange rate. (BTW Microsoft S/W is a bargain in Australia because they haven't increased their prices as our currency dived).
  • No you can't learn the language well enough to function in Japan, unless you are already at that point (in which case why as this question). You should spend as much time as you can learning their language anway. Check out the tapes from the library, and listen to them. Buy books, and read them - do the exercises. You need to learn as much as you can. Eventially you will need to face someone who doesn't speak good english. If you show an ability to understand only the very simplest language spken very slow, most people can slow down enough that you can understand them.

    There is also the culture to learn. In fact your reasons for learning the language isn't so much to be able to communicate with people as to not make a mistake with this culture. (In Spain you have to ask for the check after the meal, while in the US they bring it. In China a tip is considered an insult, while in America it is expected. In germany you find an empty seat and sit at a strangers table. I don't know what Japan does different, you need to learn as much as you can. I may have even gotten something of the above wrong)

  • Bring your passport or you won't always get duty free.
    Make sure there is a sign saying it is a duty free shop (or just ask).
    Your cultural tour will probably stop by there as part of the tour. So you should try to get a hold of the tour schedule.
    The American movies in the movie theaters are in English with Japanese subtitles.
    Everybody speaks english. Some better than others.
    Don't be afraid to stop in the little homey establishment as well as the fast food noodle, curry, and sushi shops. The food in Japan is a little expensive but not something you want to miss. Avoid buying your meals at 7-11 or Lawson or McDonalds. You can bump into holes in the wall with better food.
    Don't worry about buying a fair cheaper than you need on the trains they just make you pay the difference when you get off. Don't lose your ticket though as they make you pay the highest price for the line (as if you can from the furthest destination). It always cheaper to get the day pass if you will be traveling around a lot. Just remember that you have to plan out which lines you will be using as they have different tickets. Get a map as soon as you can some maps are better than others. So grab one anytime you see them.
    Don't spend too much time or money in the arcades and avoid going into the gambling parlors (Those are the places with the funny looking pinball machines).
    Stop by the cheapest hotel in Japan, The New Koyo, if you want the expat's guide to Japan from the horses mouth. Just make sure you stay up late, hang out in the lounge and ask lots of questions. They have cheap broadband internet access at an hourly rate and provide both a computer or an ethernet cable.
  • Dont expect any bargaining to go on, especially on any new items, and especially at the old stores. Most likely they will look at you funny and decide they dont have a serious customer on their hands. Well, not all of them. hehe. There are numerous second-hand stores for hardware and software, and you can probably do some finagling. And you can find absolutely anything there, but it would take a lot of time. Best to have an idea of what you want to find and aclimatize to know what places are most likely to have it. For lunch, try "kichin jiro" which is across the street from the big Laox Computer building. Cross the zebra and make a left and a quick right and it's just on the right. They have breaded pork, chicken, croquette, fish, etc. plus miso soup rice and sauce. It's a good amount for the price(roughly $6). Also, I like Mister Donuts for a quick stop, especially on a cold day like you might be going on!:) And I dont mean to nitpick, but it's not "the Akihabara" nor "the Ginza", just like it's not "the Los Angeles" or "the Hollywood". (hey, just trying to keep you from sticking out any further than you have to, like a sore thumb!;P) And stay away from broadcats products. I dont know specifically about TVs, but radios will do nothing for you. I think only Europe shares a similar FM band. (take it from a guy who brought back a car stero/MD player to America and ended up listening to nothing but AM news channels and MDs.;P) But VCRs are no problem. Nor are CD and tape players. Anyways, have fun! :)

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