A Quick and Dirty Old Otaku Guide to Shopping in Tokyo

I just got back from a trip to Japan, and I bought way too much crap. You can see for yourself in this tweet:

After tweeting, a few people asked me about recommendations on where to shop in Tokyo. I’m hesitant to try and build out a detailed guide to shopping in Tokyo, partly because there’s so much to cover and partly because I don’t live there, so keeping it updated would be impossible. Shops change and disappear, and those sort of guides rarely stay relevant for long. Instead, I decided to focus on a few key areas and a few strategies that worked for me.

Consider Buying Stuff Online

This is a weird way way to start out, but seriously, consider it. Lugging around a suitcase full of books can really suck and with more and more Japanese retailers selling overseas (plus a weaker yen), it’s not a bad time to buy online. I wrote a short guide about this as well, which you can read here.

At the very least, do your research and see what you want and how much it sells for. That’ll let you factor in whether or not it’s worth buying stuff in person. Mandarake doesn’t list their entire inventory online, so knowing what I was looking for and what they offered online before I started poking around in their stores let me make better-educated purchases. If you’re dealing with limited luggage space, why waste that space on stuff you could purchase from home? Save that room for the rare shit.


Visit Nakano Broadway First

Nakano Broadway is a big mess of shops spread out across four floors. The layout is confusing and you’ll find yourself going in circles or getting lost, but it’s worth it to spend some serious time here. It’s also one of my favorite places in Tokyo, so much so that I wrote about its history and weirdness for Otaku USA Magazine a few years back.

The undisputed king of Broadway is Mandarake, which has 26 shops in the complex. As a result, each storefront is specialized for a specific niche or audience, which is as handy as it is confusing. It’s easy to miss a store, or not look in every corner of a store, and miss something interesting. Organization within these Mandarake stores can be haphazard at best, so you’ll be rewarded if you spend some time really poking through every shelf. To make things a little easier, Mandarake has a guide to all of their stores with a short description available on their site

I usually start at Mandarake Mania-kan on the 4th floor and work my way down. Across the hall from Mania-Kan is great vintage poster shop that has a lot of old chirashi (mini posters) in binders for about about 50 yen a piece. Look for アニメ on the spines. The rest of the shop tends to be really cluttered and almost impossible to browse, though last time I was there it looked like they’d tidied things up a bit.

Be sure and take advantage of Mandarake’s tax free service, where they hold onto your purchases until you’re done. You’ll need to show them a passport, though.

If you only have one day to spend shopping in Tokyo, do it at Nakano Broadway. Don’t be afraid to blindly go through each and every book shelf. Pay close attention to the showcase displays in the front of each Mandarake. Start from the top floor and work your way down.

Akihabara Isn’t What it Used to Be

But, it’s still worth a visit. The “Cool Japan” bluster and Akihabara’s rise to one of Tokyo’s premier tourist destinations (because who the fuck goes to Ginza anymore?) has resulted in a lot of money being pumped into the area, and as a result, a lot of smaller stores are disappearing. It’s not all doom and gloom, just be prepared to explore and climb up a lot of stairs. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t visit on a weekend.

Mandarake Complex in Akihabara is my least favorite Mandarake in Tokyo. It’s super cramped and trying to browse while dodging other shoppers and curious tourists can quickly become an exercise in futility. Be sure and check out the showcase displays (actually, that applies for all Mandarake locations) and if you’re looking for vintage toys and couldn’t find what you wanted at Broadway, you’ll want to head up to the 7th floor.

I spent a lot of time trying to find old doujin in Akihabara, largely with no luck. Maybe that’s my fault for having my eyes on old Masamune Shirow material and stuff nobody cares about anymore. If you’re interested in doing the same – hopefully with better results – I’d start at Nagomi, which is on a side street and up a few flights of stairs (detailed directions can be found here). Unlike most stores in Akihabara, which have packed shelves and organization that can confuse the hell out of non-Japanese speakers, Nagomi’s store uses computer kiosks to search their inventory. Once you’ve figured out what you want, show your list to an employee and they’ll grab it for you from the back. It’s the same search system that’s on their website, so I’d recommend searching for stuff ahead of time.

Surugaya is an online retailer for old books and games, and they’ve got a couple of storefronts in Akihabara. If you’re looking for old books or doujin, the one you want is right around the corner from the JR station’s Electric Town exit (directions here). The shelves are cluttered and the first floor looks like a trainwreck, but it’s worth digging through.

If you’re into tabletop games, you’ll want to visit the Yellow Submarine store dedicated to RPGs and boardgames (directions and info here). Even if you’re not looking to buy, it’s a fun place to browse through books like Shadowrun in Japanese or all the Japanese-only RPGs you never knew existed.

Don’t go on a weekend. Be ready to wander into a lot of stores filled with porn. Don’t go on a weekend. Remember to look up. Don’t go on a weekend.

Don’t Forget Shibuya

While it’s not the otaku draw that it used to be a couple of decades ago, Shibuya still gets a mention because it’s got a big Mandarake. In the same building is Recofan, a music shop that used to have a decent selection of anime soundtracks on CD and vinyl, although admittedly I didn’t check it out this trip. Right across the street is a multi-story Book-Off that can be a good place to find some interesting stuff. Only about a block away is Village Vanguard, where you’re more likely to find new products based on old licenses than any sort of actual vintage stuff, but it’s still worth a visit.


Keep Your Eyes Open Everywhere

Tokyo has a lot of used bookstores, so as you’re wandering around doing normal tourist things, don’t be afraid to peek in and browse. Book-Off is a major chain that’s pretty much everywhere and primarily stocks newer books and magazines, but can turn up some older gems once in a while.

Jimbocho has an entire area dedicated to used bookstores that’s worth browsing even if prices can vary widely from being a great deal to an incredible rip-off. I missed it in my last trip to the area, but @Swamp recommended Kudan for vintage stuff.

Before You Leave

It sounds cheesy, but preparing before you even head to Japan can really help. Learn the names of series and artists you’re interested in and know how they’re written in Japanese. Brush up on your hiragana and katakana, particularly hiragana, so you can navigate your way through sections organized by title.

Don’t be afraid to ask shop employees for help, if they have a particular item, or if you can take a look at something behind glass. Those are great phrases to practice before you go, too.

If you’ve got the time, check out prices on Mandarake and Yahoo Auctions. That way you’ll know what to pay if you find what you’re looking for, and you’ll know what’s available back at home to order so you can prioritize your purchases.

Have a Good Trip!

Hopefully this guide is helpful next time you’re in Tokyo. If you’ve got any suggestions, ideas, or feedback, let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to k.r. for suggesting a few of these places to me while I was there!