Nipponbashi: Osaka Japan
I was planning on staying in Osaka for a few days, so as an anime fan I figured maybe I could find some anime shops. In fact there is a whole district which is comparable to Akihabara in Tokyo. Great! Then I tried to find information about the area and... well I didn't find much. I spent a lot of time exploring Nipponbashi, and thought this would be helpful for others who are going to Osaka. I'm not going to compare Nipponbashi with Akihabara: they both have their merits. I still believe Akihabara is the anime capital of the world, and there is nothing quite like walking down a street where the buildings are plastered with anime characters. Still on a per city basis I like Osaka more than Tokyo, and I think Nipponbashi is an Osaka kind of place. You can supposedly even haggle over prices there (pretty much the only place in Japan that's okay), although I was just happy to buy anything at any price. Osaka also has a lot of great ramen shops and of course epic okonomiyaki.
Nipponbashi has a PR problem, but this is kind of a Japanese problem in general. Japan is insular, and outsiders can be a bit mysterious to them. When tourists arrive, sometimes the Japanese aren't sure why they're interested in things, and are unsure how to handle them. The only reason anyone outside Japan knows about Akihabara is due to its fame spreading by word of mouth. It's not due to concious effort of the Japanese wanting you there. That might be changing though. Pop culture is starting to appear a resilient export in a world where Korea and China batter traditional Japanese industry cornerstones.
Nipponbashi has additional problems. Tokyo is considered a destination in Japan, while Osaka is rarely mentioned. The Nipponbashi district seems to be aware of this, but is unsure on how to market itself. Which isn't surprising considering it lacks the outward glitz of Akihabara. Nipponbashi does have a tourist information center, which includes tourist brochures in English/Korean, and Chinese. The fact that they have translated brochures shows they're making the effort, and that Osaka really does want you there.
The Osaka Subway
I wouldn't say the Osaka subway is confusing as some claim, however Japanese subways are complex for a few reasons and it takes time to make sense of them. You'll almost certainly want a pass allowing unlimited use of the subway system. The Kansai thru pass is one option if you're traveling around the region (Kyoto/Nara,etc). Osaka itself offers an unlimited tourist pass (subway/train/bus) that's pretty cost effective. I believe you can also get a full day (non discount) ticket from the subway itself. There are subway stations at the north and south end of Nipponbashi with very useful services which are BEHIND the ticket gates (which is why you want a pass). They have toilets, which are tougher to find than you might expect. They also have lockers, which are very convenient if you buy a lot of stuff and don't want to carry it around.
The Osaka subway is a very fast way to get around, but there is another key factor to consider - the exit. My first reaction getting off the subway was "Yay, I took the subway! Lets Osaka Go!", however the exit point can save a lot of time by walking underground instead of crossing street intersections and so forth. On the southern end of Nipponbashi is the Ebisucho station with exits 2 & 5. On the northern end is the Nipponbashi station - I only remember exit 5 there. Some subway lines have "women only" cars from 5am to 9am. These are clearly marked on the ground, but if you're really paranoid about this just make sure you're standing behind an Asian man before you get on. The reason these exist have nothing to do with foreigners, so it's not the end of the world if you accidentally get on one during the wrong time. You may also notice embedded yellow brick paths with dots/lines in walkways. These are for blind people and not of much use to you, however they DO indicate the path goes somewhere useful. If you don't see yellow bricks going there (while underground), it's probably not going somewhere of interest to you.
History and Info
The Nipponbashi district gets its name from the Nipponbashi bridge, although the area itself doesn't extend north far enough to actually reach the bridge it's named after. Early in its history it was known for used books. After WWII, it became known for electrical equipment and earned the nickname Den Den Town. The "word" for electric (電) is pronounced "den" (written in hiragana), so this roughly means "electric town". The area shifted to electronics towards the end of the 20th century. For a time the area thrived this way, but with the economic crash came tough times for Den Den Town. The Japanese obsession with high priced goods came to an end, and low margin products became the mainstay. New jobs fail to offer the security or pay enjoyed by previous generations, so people simply have less to spend. Through all this otaku continue to spend a lot of money on their hobbies. Similar to Akihabara, as traditional electronic shops closed, hobby stores took their place. Although pop culture offers something electronic shops never really could: a draw for tourists.
I noticed people in anime / hobby shops, and the lack of them in the electronics / utility stores. The old Den Den Town is losing ground, but there's still plenty at the core. As a focus point for technology oriented goods in western Japan, Nipponbashi will continue to have a high concentration of interesting shops - what kind of shops will exist there in the years to come is hard to say. (As even anime is losing popularity).
The official Nipponbashi / Den Den Town mascot. "Plugs into cultures and people, connecting those from around the world" according to brochures (whatever that means). Usually when you see the area referred to as "Den Den Town", Dennosuke is the avatar used as he's associated with the electronics heritage of the area. Note the lack of grounding prong - Japan doesn't have them. The U.S. runs 120V AC at 60hz. North Japan (including Tokyo) runs 100V at 60Hz, while southern Japan (including Osaka/Kyoto) runs 100V at 50Hz. You may want keep this in mind with electronics purchased or used there. If you look at device specs, they almost always fall within these ranges and work fine.
With the rise of anime related stuff, the area founded a group to promote hobby goods businesses. In 2009 the "Nipponbashi Project" was born with an anime mascot named Neon. She is designed by artist Noizi Ito, best known for illustrating Melancholy of Haruhi Shizumia. Neon is fairly popular, and you can find many of her goods on sale at the Nipponbashi Info Center.
Neon also has her own anime called "Neon the Animation". One short is released per year to promote the Nipponbashi district. It's produced by the local Osaka Animation College. Neon's voice actress is Yuki Matsuoka
The other mascot for the Nipponbashi project; she's Neon's mischievous younger sister. She's cute from outward appearances and sometimes uses that to her advantage, but easily gets loud and angry. Oddly enough, neither she nor Neon have an Osaka accent. She is voiced by Nozomi Sasaki.
Earth Soldier Zeros
Reading the translation for Zeros, I'm still not entirely sure how his story goes. He seems to be battling against environmental destruction and crime. Also promotes "environmental disruption zero" to children. I'd guess he'd most often often appear on public warnings.
I have to admit that out of all the towers I've seen, Tsutenkaku tower is my favorite because it just looks so bad ass. The fact that it can transform into a giant robot is a big factor why Godzilla doesn't mess with Osaka. The tower itself is just south of Nipponbashi - worth checking out if you have time.
Nipponbashi Attack Plan
How you approach Nipponbashi depends on what you want and how much time you have. I usually started south, where the Nipponbashi Information Center can be found. It offers tourist guides in English/Korean and Chinese. This should give you an up to date look at the area, and you can buy Neon-chan goods there too. I found the English map informative, and it details the main street pretty well, but looking at the Japanese map gave me more details. The core of Nipponbashi is more hatchet shaped than a simple street. (Main points highlighted in red).
This is the Japanese map (V14), which shows quite a few more stores than I found in the English version. The Japanese generally don't bother with street names, but the main one is called Sakaisuji Avenue. Stick to this street if pressed for time, and I'd stick to the west side of the street if you're REALLY pressed for time. On Sakaisuji Ave, just north of what's shown is the Nipponbashi subway stop, and just south is the Ebisucho stop. Circled is the Nipponbashi Information Center. You'll also notice the smaller road highlighted to the west. This is nicknamed "Ota road" (short for otaku) which is very much worth checking out (and happens to be where Nipponbashi hides its maids from casual view). Not everything on this map is hobby related (a lot isn't actually) but you can see that there is a TON of stuff to look into.
I was a little dismayed at Nipponbashi when I first arrived. Where were the buildings covered by anime murals? Where were the maids standing on street corners handing out brochures? It seemed like a letdown compared to Akihabara. It's true that Nipponbashi doesn't have that outward flare of Akihabara, and for that reason I think Akihabara will continue to be more popular among American anime fans, but when you dig down a little more, Nipponbashi is a lot of fun for an anime fan, or just a geek in general. Nipponbashi retains a lot of electrical appliance stores with goods like electrical wiring, high end stereo equipment, camera shops, and very good deals on power tools. It also offers lots of other hobby shops which are a lot of fun to look through. One shop I looked through had TONS of model trains, highly detailed with amazing likeness to real Japanese trains. Another favorite was the figurine center. The second floor had anime figurines, then 3F mecha figurines, 4F model tanks and so forth... up to Eight Floors! Nipponbashi is really a fun place for otaku of all kinds, not just anime.
Speaking of floors, stores aren't limited to the first floor. Out of the 20 or so anime goods I picked up in Osaka, only one (from the Nipponbashi Info Center which only has one floor) came from the first floor. Everything else came from basement or second floors up. If you aren't taking stairs, you aren't even scratching the surface of Nipponbashi. And I've seen precisely this complaint from people who hardly went into stores because they "didn't see anything". Often I found the first floor a little disconnected from whatever was on the second. Usually electronic goods were towards the bottom, and anime stuff were floors 2 and up. Some stores get more adult the higher you go, but some were just adult all together. You start to understand just how popular H games / visual novels actually are once you start to dig through these stores. Anyway point being, if you want to see what stores have to offer, you have to actually go inside them.
If you can buy stuff online, I'd recommend buying it online. Oddball hard to get stuff should be your priority. New releases are so expensive, shipping is a relatively minor cost. A (2013) example "So I Can't Play H?" is $65 per 2 episode volume (x6 volumes = ~$400). On the other hand I found used anime DVDs I wanted for $7. There are many bargains in Nipponbashi, (because Osakans love bargains) but you'll have to dig for them, and they may not be what you specifically want. Also, obscure stuff is obscure. Nipponbashi has a lot of anime stuff, but it doesn't have everything ever made. Probably the easiest thing to score are art books and the like. Flight baggage has a weight limit, although they never check the weight of your carry on bag if you're okay with lugging that onto a flight. 100lb backpack? Are you a real otaku or what? =P
No one is going to hand you anime either. It will take work to find. Tokyo is somewhat international, and Kyoto is a tourist spot, but Osaka is a very Japanese city with little English help. I wish I had some good advice as to how they organize stores, but I couldn't find much of a method to the madness. Sometimes they were categorized, but often they were by (hiragana) letters. KNOW THE JAPANESE TITLE for things you want. Know how to say it, and write/print off the title in Kanji, and memorize the Kanji. The most important to know for storefronts are アニメ (anime) and 漫画 (manga). If you see アニメ 2F, you know anime goods are on the second floor and so on. You generally don't have to know Japanese to buy things provided you give them the "I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about" gaijin smile, but any Japanese you know can vastly smooth over transactions.
Japan is heavily cash based, and you're better off using cash instead of credit. It makes life a lot easier. Getting cash is tricky since Japanese ATMs are hard to find, and often won't take your card when you do find them. The exception are 7 bank ATMs which take most cards. They are sometimes found on their own, but almost always found in 7-Eleven stores. There are 7-Elevens all over, and one in the middle of Nipponbashi. Keep a fair amount of cash on hand, many places won't take cards.
When I first arrived, I wondered if Nipponbashi even had a maid café, which is odd since Osaka has many. As in Akihabara, they aren't easy to find. They don't have to be. Cute girls are dressed as maids: people WILL find them. I only saw one first floor shop, the rest are in obscure locations; often relying on literature or more commonly a girl dressed as a maid handing out brochures for advertising. These girls aren't on the main street, but are instead usually found on the secondary street (Ota road). I haven't been to a maid café in Osaka, but I noticed that Mel Café is heavily pushed in marketing. Café Andante seems to be a café which concentrates on a refined atmosphere more so than pop culture moe, and may be better suited if you're bringing your girlfriend (I can't find much info on that, so I'm assuming). MaidoIce has multi language menus including English.
A maid café experience varies a lot as a foreigner. How a café deals with you is a matter of dedication. A maid may simply blow you off because she has no idea how to handle you, or conversely she may decide to give it a go and do her best to have fun with you despite the language barrier. Unfortunately this depends on not only the café, but the maid you end up with - making it much a matter of luck. If you're determined to have a maid café experience, don't get discouraged from one bad one. At the same time have realistic expectations on what you'll get there.
You can get a current listing of such cafés from the Nipponbashi Info Center. Personally I'd stick to maid cafés listed in the English pombashi map. If they didn't want to deal with foreigners at all, they wouldn't be listed there (I'm assuming).
As a warning, Osaka (and Akihabara) supposedly have a few high pressure maid cafés which can charge large bills. These aren't so much maid cafés as a variation on bars which make money by girls talking to patrons and getting them to buy drinks. Because these cafés mainly profit by "talk time" it's unlikely they'll want a foreigner (among other reasons). Some also have a door charge which I'm pretty sure regular maid cafés do not. You must order something at any maid café, and it's expectedly pricy but don't let them railroad you. I think it's unlikely you'll encounter these, but perhaps it's better to be wary if a maid on the street seems unusually pushy trying to get you into a café.
The big Nipponbashi event is known as Street Festa. I wish I knew more about it, but apparently it was held 2 days after I left Osaka @_@; For Street Festa, Sakaisuji Ave. is closed off and cosplayers pour in. Up to 200,000 people are said to show up for the event. If you're into cosplay, stores in Nipponbashi make it worth the visit, but you may want to adjust your schedule to include Street Festa.
Other Things Near Nipponbashi
Past the south end of Nipponbashi there is Tsutenkaku Tower, which is pretty cool for a big tower. South and to the east is Shitenno-ji, the oldest a Buddhist temple in Japan (although rebuilt multiple times). Not the most spectacular, but quite nice. It has a nice cafeteria overlooking a pond which is a relaxing place for coffee.
To the north is the rest of the Minami area with a lot of stuff to check out. Even if you don't shop, it's worth looking at the shops. There's the trendy Sennichimae Doguyasuji shopping arcade, the Namba underground shopping arcade (strait off the subway exit) and the Tenjinbashi Suji arcade which stretches for 2.6 kilometers! There are also side streets with specialties in things like cookware. That aside, Minami also offers quite a bit of nightlife activities once the sun goes down. It also has some of the more well known Osaka features like the giant crab and the Glico running man billboard. If you want "big city" type activities, Osaka has a lot to offer in this district alone.
Best of all - awesome ramen shops can be found here. Not to mention restaurants with delicious okonomiyaki - which Osaka and Hiroshima are well known for.
At first I wasn't quite sure I'd get much of anything. It takes a while before your eyes don't glaze over at the sight of many isles of DVD titles in Japanese.
The Retro gaming scene in Osaka is seriously awesome. I was standing looking around in a store (Tanteidan) when I realized... they were game cartridges for Nintendo 64! A competing shop near by is the more well known Super Potato. TONS of games from systems long since passed. I got on the 2nd floor and was greeted by isles of Famicom (NES) games. Walking around I saw Segata Sanshiro (best video marketing campaign ever) posters taped to the floor. Heck Yeah!! And then I spotted the Sega Saturn Nadisco game "Blank of 3 years". This is a game fills gaps between the TV series and the movie. Yeah I can't play it, but as a Nadisco fan owning it for $15 is pretty awesome.
Did I say you can't play those games? Actually that's not entirely true. Farther north there is a bar called Game Bar Continue with many retro systems you can play, and you can bring your own games. Buy awesome old school games, take a break and get serviced by maids on your way to the bar, then get drunk while playing them. Seriously, human civilization can only go down from this point.
I got some DVD series not released in the US (and cheap!). I was attempting to buy Combustible Campus Guardress on DVD, but as far as I know, it's was never released that way - I mainly wanted to confirm that (it's true :-/ ) That was my biggest failure. Art books started to weigh me down and I realized getting them (and manga volumes I had my eye on) home might be a problem. I found these adorable posters featuring girls dressed up in train employee uniforms - each features a different region/train. Too cute! I just had to buy one. I picked up a lot of quirky weird stuff like that. My main triumph was obtaining the visual novel Tsukihime. I scoured many stores with no luck. Which is weird because it's well known. As the break out game for Type Moon, I'm not sure a whole lot of these were pressed, and it's a 12+ year old game that was never re-released (although they're talking about it now). I hadn't considered that. As I was about to give up, I noticed two copies in a glass case while walking out of a store.
If you're feeling tired and want to sit for a while, try the Taito Game Station. They have an arcade with lots of cool games to play. I'm sure everyone will be happy to know I represented America well with an incredibly humiliating defeat in King of Fighters XIII. In my defense I haven't played any KOF game in 5 years, and I just picked random characters that looked interesting with no idea how to play them.
- Nipponbashi Project - You can download the latest (and previous) Japanese maps of the Nipponbashi area.
- Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau - transportation guides, maps, and ticket information.