Ak­i­habara

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Emily Priest

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.

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