Akihabara: Tokyo's Electric Town

Even though the majority of consumer technology is Made in China these days, Japan remains the spiritual home of everything high-tech. Home of the ASIMO robot, 300km/h Shinkansen "bullet" trains and hydrogen fuel cell cars, the Land of the Rising Sun has given birth to household names such as Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp, Nintendo, Sega, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and many more.

Tokyo Neon Nightscape

No visit to Tokyo would be complete without a pilgrimage to the neon-lit streets of Akihabara, also known locally as Electric Town.

Akihabara is the specialised district dedicated to the shopping habits of "otaku", the Japanese word for geek.

Anime, manga, video games and every consumer electronics device you can imagine (and a few you can't) all feature in what could best be described as London's Tottenham Court Road after one too many Super Mario red mushrooms.

Even the staff handing out promotional leaflets get into the spirit of things. Known as Akihabara Maids, they dress up in slightly suggestive school girl and French maid costumes of the ilk that dominate the Anime DVD scene. Far from pornographic, they are just a bit of fun, though they are understandably camera-shy when a Western tourist holds a camera to his eye.

The district features its own Tourist Information office and is neatly divided into zones according to your area of interest. Mine is very firmly in the electronics and video game arenas so off I trotted to see what I could find.

Undoubtedly the highlight was the eight-storey flagship store of Yodobashi Akiba. Having built its reputation since 1975 as Yodobashi Cameras, the company opened its megastore in Akihabara in 2005 and dwarfs other stores in the area never mind what we enjoy at home in Britain.

Yodobashi Akiba store front

This mecca to consumer electronics spans a cool 250,000 square feet across. Where a PC World or Currys superstore might be divided into different zones by product, Yodobashi Akiba has entire floors; seven dedicated to shopping, its own food court on the 8th Floor while the top floor is reserved for that other Japanese obsession: golf. This isn't just limited to retail either - they've only gone and built a fully automatic indoor driving range!

iPhone map

Starting on the ground floor and the displays are largely mobile phones, with the iPhone 5 doing a roaring trade. There are sales reps from NTT Docomo and other carriers right there in-store, vying for customers' attention.

iPhone 5 cases

Despite launching just a few weeks before our visit, there was no shortage of iPhone 5 cases on display.

One trend rarely witnessed on the London Underground is accessorising your mobile phone by plugging a small figurine into your headphone socket. Often sold as "iPhone dust plug", they range from your favourite cutesy cartoon character to imitation precious stones for that extra bling feeling.

iPhone Dust Cap Bling

When quizzed on this trend and whether Japanese used their phones to listen to music, one local very matter-of-factly replied "Bluetooth headphones" and in a stroke I felt terribly 20th Century.

iPhone lockers

Very firmly a 21st Century feature was this bank of tiny lockers. Can you guess what they are yet? For a few yen in small change you can charge your iPhone / iPod while you shop!

Heading for the escalator, the First Floor of "PC peripherals / Software / Books" received no more than a cursory glance as I headed directly for the heart of the store. Given its heritage in camera equipment, the Photography department on Floor 2 is a photo-geek's paradise.

Most striking was the very open nature of the store and its staff. Every manufacturer is represented, from Canon and Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm, to Pentax and Ricoh. Virtually every model was on display and customers were encouraged to get hands on and try the cameras themselves, whether Compact, CSC or dSLR.

Canon 1D X

Taking this approach to the extreme, at the Canon counter there was a £5,300 Canon 1D-X sat tethered for anyone to play with. At regular intervals punters would wander up and experience not just the 2.3kg heft of this full-frame body with 24-70L f/2.8 lens, but the insanity of 12 frames per second in burst mode; a full 50 per cent more than the 8fps of my Canon 7D. The Japanese are traditionally reserved so any delight was kept inside but personally, I was giggling like a school-girl when every few minutes the background hum of the store was punctuated by the machine-gun-like sound of the Canon letting loose.

Canon Telephoto Primes

Need a cannon for your Canon? I hope you have deep pockets - you're looking at over £15,000 worth of lenses. Almost casually lined up are the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS, the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II and the EF 200mm F2L IS.

Canon Lens Range

If you can't spare five grand to drop on some new glass what looked like the entire Canon range was available for your consideration instead.

Nikon Yodobashi Akiba

Of course, Nikon was well represented too. With so much choice available, which model was best can be a bit of a head-scratcher.

Sigma Yodobashi Akiba

Also available on demand was a full range of cameras and lenses from Sigma...

Tamron Yodobashi Akiba

... as well as third-party rivals Tamron, with compatible glass for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony.

Yodobashi Test Diorama

To help customers judge the performance of different cameras, not only was there an army of knowledgeable staff but also a neat test diorama. With a variety of models and figurines to focus on, this provided a practical way of demonstrating different aspects of each camera.

Dehumidifer

Moving past the dozens of tripods and several aisles of bags and accessories I stumbled onto a curious collection of glass boxes that resembled mini fridges for one's wine collection. It turns out I wasn't far wrong. Summers in Japan are hot and oppressively humid, exceeding 35C and 85 per cent humidity. In those conditions both condensation and fungus growth are the enemy of your expensive lens collection.

The solution is one of these: a temperature controlled dehumidifying cabinet. With prices ranging from £200 for the smallest model and rising to around £500 for a double-wide, 237L model, it is arguably a small price to pay for the safe-keeping of your gear.

Having exhausted the endless possibilities of the Camera Department, the fun didn't stop there. Think white goods and home appliances are boring? Not in Japan they aren't.

Panasonic Smart App launch

Panasonic recently launched a range of devices controllable from an Android smartphone via its Smart App. These include air conditioners, refrigerators and washer-dryers, with the latter allowing you set any number of programme options before beaming the settings wirelessly via NFC to start the wash.

Panasonic Smart App Washer

Forgot your phone? Don't worry – this bad boy has a 5in TFT touchscreen. On a washing machine! Far from being the domain of some über-geek's techno-lair, the Panasonic NA-VX8200L/R is advertised on underground trains via integrated video displays. Boris Johnson eat your heart out!

Panasonic Toshiba Toilet Seat

Does that call of nature in the middle of the night come with the unpleasant shock of a cold toilet seat? Fear not – on display were half a dozen multi-function thrones including heated seat, his & hers bidet function, in-built drying function and "deoderisation feature". Not the first products that spring to mind when I think of brands like Panasonic and Toshiba, and not cheap at around £250. Having said that, the one-touch power lid for hands-free opening and closing available on some models is pretty darn cool.

Changing floors again brought me to the TV and Home Cinema department. This was usefully arranged by size, as indicated by huge banners hanging from the ceiling. 26 to 32in didn't get a sniff as we skipped past 42 to 46in and made a beeline for 50in and above.

Sharp 80 inch TV

The biggest model on display was a whopping 80in, the Sharp AQUOS LC-80GL7. It offers double the screen area of a 55in TV and is the equivalent of a video wall of four 40in displays. A bargain at three quarters of a million yen (actually about £6,000).

Sharp Viewing Distance

Plenty of Brits would question the need for such a large display, and one certainly wonders how to shoehorn one into a diminutive Tokyo apartment. No problem, according to the marketing material.

Dad sits on the sofa (2.5m) with the picture filling his vision. The kids enjoy the view from further back as they complete their homework at the dining table while Mum keeps an eye on the action over the counter from the kitchen.

Sadly this model is only 1080p and it showed. With a dot pitch of a massive 0.92 and just 27.54 pixels per inch (PPI) I was unimpressed with the image quality despite loving the extra real estate. Thankfully the 4K standard has been ratified and now known as Ultra High Definition, these 8.3MP beasts are slowly finding their way to market. The LG 84LM960V is 84in offering four times the resolution of 1080p and almost half the dot pitch of the Sharp. Premiumly priced at £15,000 you can check it out in person at the Gadget Show Live @Christmas event in London 30 November to 02 December.

Notably absent so far has been Samsung. Perhaps with such a glut of home-grown talent there is no need for Made in Korea but it was surprising to see the familiar blue logo missing from almost every department I visited.

Up another floor and we enter Video Game heaven.This floor featured all the latest from home-town heroes Sony and Nintendo, with Microsoft still working hard to push Xbox 360 despite being outsold by the PlayStation 3 by four to one.

Nintendo Wii U Japan

I saw promo posters for the Nintendo Wii U but it doesn't launch domestically until 08 December, eight days after the UK and a full three weeks after the North American launch on 18 November.

There were also large collections of models and figurines from cult robot-based animation series like Gundam (not to be confused with Korean pop hit Gangnam Style). To the casual (Western) observer it might still be 1980-something with huge displays of collectable robots like Volton, Transformers and many others.

In these modern times of global Internet and ecommerce it is increasingly rare to find a gadget you can only get in Japan. I have fond memories from the 1980s of my father returning from a overseas business trip with the latest Nintendo Game & Watch handheld game or whacky gizmo the likes of which simply weren't available in the local Toys 'R' Us.

Ignoring the different adoption rates of technology like WiMax (available in Tokyo but still rare in Britain) it is unlikely you can return from a trip like this and impress your friends with an AIBO robot dog or sushi-themed USB stick. That doesn't make a visit to Akihabara redundant; far from it. Nobody can be told what a heated toilet seat is like to sit on. They must feel it for themselves.