A short thirty-minute journey on the Ginza line towards Asakusa, takes me to a night-scape with more vibrancy and culture than I have ever seen in England. Akihabara, the mecca of anime, may seem like another normal, bustling, Japanese street but don’t let it fool you. These people are not your everyday workers but fans of Japan’s biggest sub-culture. The buildings are not offices but rather towering, light-speckled shops. They are twenty to thirty storeys high and overflow with peculiar merchandise.
Tourists flock here and locals too. They swarm around store entrances and zip between one another with fists filled with bag handles and loose change. On the street, there are a few girls handing out leaflets and holding signs, dressed in maid outfits and cat costumes. They approach men with starry eyes and grinning faces. One, with small, black cat ears and a tail, wears a puffed-out period style dress and knee-high socks. Her shoes are childish and polished and, at the edge of her sleeves and skirt, there are bows, ribbons and frills. She meows sweetly at potential customers as she hands them a sheet of paper and directs them to a nearby building.
Despite her sign, forbidding pictures, I sneakily take a photograph before hurrying off to one of the many stores. Inside, the lights gleam a fluorescent white and more bodies welcome me, pressed against one another in small rooms crowded with goods. A few teenagers walk past, their arms filled with comic-book volumes and a couple of men, a bit older than myself, huddle around phone charms and key-rings, discussing which one to buy their girlfriends – I assume.
Each floor holds a different form of merchandise with manga on the bottom floor and an array of Lolita fashion on the top. Here, you will find petticoats, floral dresses and oversized clip-on bows. There is everything you could imagine with stickers and stationery, wigs and dolls, and this
shop that I have found myself in, reveals itself to be an Aladdin’s cave of a subculture both admired, fetishised and shunned.
I recognise some of the characters and quickly fill my palms with t-shirts, key-rings and a 1/6 scale figurine of Konata from Lucky Star. I find her on the top shelf, just out of my reach, with her pouting face protected behind sheets of plastic. I reach and stretch and finally she falls. I catch the box and turn it over to reveal the schoolgirl, dressed in a white and pink outfit, with her hand on her hip and the other pointing into the air. Like an eager toddler, I present her to the cashier. Proudly, I press a clump of crushed up notes and coins into the elderly man’s hand.
In another shop, with fewer people, I find myself enviously staring at skirts and shirts, stroking fabrics and picking at layers. There are sailor and high school outfits, pristine and pressed, as well as Lolita sets I have once seen on the internet and fallen in love with. The detail and novelty had swooned me and I envied the girls who dressed like dolls in them with pretty bows and childish toys. I wanted to be as cute as them, like real life anime characters, and I wondered if us girls strive to become children again - adorable and naïve. Do we want to be looked after like babies and go back to a time where we had no adult responsibilities? Or do we strive for perfection and become dolls? Do we secretly want to be put back into our boxes, protected by plastic, where men can only gaze at and love from a distance, not grope with fumbling fingers?
I drag myself away as, even if I could afford the tens of thousands of yen price tags, those perfect dresses cannot be so easily transferred into my own culture. In Japan, girls who dress in such wears are deified. From ages seven to sixteen, girls wear cutesy fashion and dance and sing in pastels and sparkles. They are called ‘idols’ and are adored by girls and boys and men and women. Japanese girls strive to meet the pure beauty standards yet, when you travel west, more mature and salacious styles receive the same regard instead. You would not find a lack of skin with dark make-up, fishnets and cleavage popular in the land of the rising sun. Such adornments of sexuality are dismissed and virginity is worshipped instead.
I continue to wander around and pass maid and butler cafes where patrons not only eat animal shaped pastries and desserts, but swoon over attractive members of staff also. Large advertisements tell you where to go, down or up stairs, to meet a maître d’ who takes a sizeable entry fee. The females are, of course, adorable in both image and personality.
‘ Yokoso goshijinsama,’ they sweetly chime to you in pinafores and stockings.
The men, more revered and charming, nod in suits and bow to female customers.
They serve you thoroughly and kindly and the food is decorated with the utmost care. You can order a strawberry cheesecake for one-thousand yen, around six pounds, which has layers of soft yellow sponge, fresh cut strawberries, oozing whipped cream and a decorative signature, made with sauce, on the side. This varies from restaurant to restaurant with some establishments writing the customer’s name, a little message or a drawing of a cat. There is entertainment to watch too, dancing and singing mainly, with some places offering karaoke. Customers leave hours later, drunk on excitement and liquor.
After I sample this lifestyle, I stand in the centre of the colourful chaos, between shops and novelty cafes, with my hands filled with bags and my stomach with sweets. The flashing lights and adverts cluster overhead into a cloud of orange and blue lights that intoxicate me further. Drunken on the unique flare of ‘Nippon’, I feel that perhaps I am dreaming. Or, have I just fallen too far into the rabbit hole?
I find myself addicted to this world, so new and strange, and all the colour and adventure it promises. The dresses, cartoons and people are all moreish, delectable treats of an ephemeral culture I will never be able to take home in my suitcase.