Nerdy Adventures | Otaku Hidden Gems in Japan

Throngs of people explore the nerdy Akihabara area of Tokyo

What’s up my nerds and nerdettes?

Did you know that the word “otaku” actually originally referred only to people who were just really into electronic gadgets? Only thereafter did it started to be applied to things like hardcore fans of anime, manga, cosplay, video games, idols, trains, and even certain genres of music. Since then, there’s been a negative stereotype that otaku are unfashionable, middle-aged men who lack appropriate social skills. While there is some truth behind this stereotype, the label actually encompasses a much broader spectrum.

Unfortunately though, participating in this subculture isn’t as easy as it used to be for foreign travelers. As Akihabara, the Mecca for all things nerd in Japan, has transformed more and more into a tourist hub, many otaku have fled to alternative areas. As such, in the spirit of getting off the beaten path and all that, what follows is a primer on some of these hidden havens of geek culture in Japan.

Nerding Out to Some Manga

A library of manga is on display in Japan

Manga is incredibly popular in Japan and most readers would not even be considered “otaku.” In fact, internet cafes in Japan are typically called manga kissa because they stock a huge selection of manga to peruse freely. If you’d like to browse through manga for hours on end and enjoy a huge selection, check into a manga cafe where you will be assigned your own private cubicle and receive free soft drinks.

Alternatively if you choose to purchase your own manga, any major book store will have a decent selection. Happen to be traveling on a really tight budget? Don’t worry! Just know that used book stores such as BookOff sell manga at incredible bargain rates. If you are looking to stock up, this is a great way to save a couple extra yen during your visit.

Of course the “El Dorado” for manga fans can be found at a store called Mandarake. Manga, art books, vintage comics, posters, toys, and much more are housed within this shop. Mandarake also has a large selection of Doujinshi (self-published manga and novels). Some of these publications are original works while others use existing popular characters in new scenarios. Mandarake has a location in Shibuya as well as a massive eight-story complex in Akihabara.

Getting Geeky with Doujinshi

Nerdy doujinshi is on display in Japan

As alluded to above, doujinshi has a massive following in Japan. In fact, the sheer breadth of content available can be dizzyingly overwhelming at times. What’s more, doujinshi is also a field notable for its very high rate of female participation. In fact, it could be argued that the field was pioneered and driven primarily by female artists. #GirlPower and all that.

One would expect that doujinshi would run afoul of copyright laws. Doujinshi artists rarely contact publishers for permission to use their copyrighted characters. Nevertheless, doujinshi keeps interest in the manga market fresh and active while also fostering loyalty. Therefore, large publishers rarely pursue lawsuits against the creators because of the financial benefits. As long as it is recognizably a fan work, it is usually safe to self-publish. That said, doujinshi usually bear an official license mark to avoid legal hassles.

Doujinshi tends to have incredibly high quality artwork. Many aspiring artists circulate doujinshi hoping to be noticed by large publishers. Indeed, big-name manga and anime studios often do pick up outstanding doujinshi artists to work for them. Some well known manga artists and animators originally started as doujinshi creators before getting their lucky breaks.

Doujinshi is much more popular in Japan than in the West for a number of reasons. Of course, chief among these, is the fact that doujinshi are usually published only in Japanese. Their distribution is also extremely limited. Finally, there are relatively few high-quality Western equivalents; besides, many Westerners perceive doujinshi in the same light as typical “fanfic.” A popular example of an original Western doujinshi would be the long-running web-comic Mega Tokyo (which now has a print version available).

If you are interested in reading doujinshi or experiencing the doujinshi scene, there are a number of easy-to-access options. The aforementioned Mandarake in Shibuya makes for a good start. Both Melonbooks and Toranoana in Akihabara are other great options. These stores primarily sell fan-made manga, magazines, and games. Meiji University actually has a doujinshi library at its Surugadai campus. And finally, the biggest and best option, Comiket which is highlighted below.

Come Join Us at Comiket

Tokyo Comiket at Tokyo Big Site in Odaiba

The famous Comiket convention is a semi-annual doujinshi event held at Tokyo Big Sight. It is essentially a market for doujinshi artists to sell and trade their works. This is by far the best place to get a good deal on doujinshi. Nearly all works sold here are considered rare and some are resold online afterwards at eye-watering markups. The August and December editions attract more than half a million attendees. There is also a section of Comiket dedicated to cosplay.

Are You Addicted to Anime?

A poster featuring iconic protagonist from the Shonen Jump manga

Like manga, anime is ubiquitous here in Japan. As such, simply being a fan of an anime does not make one an otaku. Instead, the label is typically reserved only for hardcore fans or fans of obscure genres and series. After all, were this not the case, the whole bloody country might as well be considered otaku! Therefore, it is entirely acceptable for normally socialized adults to watch anime (and watch they do).

Anyway, Animate is perhaps the most comprehensive one-stop shop for anime, manga, and related goods. Animate has dozens of shops all over the country, with the Ikebukuro location being one of the most popular. On the other hand, fans of popular anime and manga such as Dragonball, Naruto, and One Piece should head to the JUMP Shop. This chain also has locations all over Japan. The Tokyo Sky Tree store offers easy access for travelers. Some previously mentioned stores such as Mandarake are also a solid choice for anime fans.

A family sits outside of Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum

If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli, a visit to the Ghibli Museum (pictured above) is an absolute must. The museum is small and very popular with excellent crowd control. This sadly means that tickets must be purchased well in advance (Note: I’m talking up to a year in advance here folks). There is also a small theater in the museum which usually showcases a rare or unreleased Ghibli short animation.

As anime fans from around the world gather at conventions, it should be no surprise that Tokyo is home to several notable events. Out of all of the offerings in Japan, Anime Japan is perhaps the most noteworthy convention. The 2018 edition runs from March 22 through 25 at Tokyo Big Site. There is also a night-time after party on March 24 at nearby Toyosu Pit.

Buying advance tickets can ensure faster entry. Unlike many major overseas conventions however, it is actually possible to get tickets at the door and the admission fee is relatively inexpensive. Regular advanced tickets go for 1,800 yen while door entry costs 2,200 yen.

Collect All the Toys & Goods

A statue in Japan of Saber from Fate / Stay Night

Akihabara aside, one of the best places to shop for toys, figurines, and other goods would be Nakano Broadway. Chock full of an array of small shop, you are bound to find something that caters towards more obscure tastes here. Be careful with your timing though as most stores are closed on Wednesday. Nakano Broadway is easily accessible by foot from JR Nakano Station.

Aside from previously mentioned shops, there are a few others to check-out for specific items. Alternatively, if you have a specific item in mind, you may want to cross-reference the price on Amazon Japan. Domestic shipping is usually speedy and you can even arrange to have your items sent as cash-on-delivery in most cases.

Fans of Pokemon should make their way to one of the Pokémon Centers. Tokyo has 3 locations, and others are scattered across the country. The Mega Tokyo Pokemon Center in Ikebukuro is the biggest in the country and houses the best selection of items. Expect to find everything from plushies and toys to Japanese-style stationary and snacks printed with Pokemon characters.

One of the smaller Pokemon Centers is located on Tokyo Character Street just below Tokyo Station. This collection of shops is an underground arcade that is focused exclusively on merchandise for popular anime, manga, and a few Western cartoon characters. As if this weren’t enough reason to warrant a visit, it’s also located right next to the delicious Tokyo Ramen Street! Talk about killing two birds with one stone!

Visit Japan’s Themed Cafes

A poster for the Pokemon Cafe in Japan

Temporary “pop-up” cafes have proven to be hugely popular in Japan. Sadly, they are short-lived and are usually a one-off thing. Pokemon fans in particular have reason to rejoice though. The Pokemon Cafe is coming back as a permanent installment! The new cafe is located in Nihonbashi Takashimaya and officially opened on March 14. Reservations are required for entry. Luckily, Ninendosoup published a detailed walkthrough on how to make reservations for English speakers.

Capcom also opened a permanent cafe in Saitama a few years ago featuring a rotating theme based on their franchises. They kicked off the opening with a Monster Hunter theme and are currently in the midst of a classic Megaman theme highlighting food and goods designed around protagonists. The current theme runs until March 28, after which it will be swapped out for another yet-to-be-announced Capcom franchise. The downside is that it is located in Koshigaya’s AEON Laketown which is quite a far distance from central Tokyo.

Get You Game On!

Gamers around the world rejoice! The year 2018 marks a significant turning point for video gaming. Many popular series hit milestone anniversaries during the past year and hence are hosting a swath of events for the franchises. Furthermore, many older series are getting rebooted or re-released making 2018 an all-around solid year for gamers.

Final Fantasy recently marked its 30th anniversary with an exhibition in Roppongi which has sadly wrapped by the time this article was published. Though the event is a thing of the past, you can still get your hands on a physical Blu-ray copy of the recently-released Final Fantasy 30th Anniversary Soundtrack. This two-disc set will not be available internationally until sometime in May so if you’re itching to get it sooner you can get pick up a copy in Japan.

Two other franchises that recently hit the big 3–0 are Street Fighter and Megaman (known as Rockman in Japan and other parts of Asia). These two also have some events lined up for 2018. Fans of Megaman can check out “Rockman Unite” at Tokyo’s retro theme park, Hanayashiki, located in Asakusa. Previously unreleased concept art and merchandise are the main attractions and there’s also an interactive scavenger hunt game that will require downloading a mobile app. This event runs through March 21.

As if these weren’t already enough to be feeling hyped, you should also expect to see all sorts of other events pop up throughout 2018. The 30th anniversary year is being used to hype up a large number of re-releases in the franchise as well as a new title coming later in 2018.

A poster for Universal Studios Japan featuirng video game and anime characters

Over in Osaka, Universal Studios Japan (USJ) is having the mother of all collaboration events this year. Universal Cool Japan 2018 is hosting attractions for Final Fantasy, Monster Hunter, Sailor Moon, and Detective Conan. It seems like someone finally did something cool with the “Cool Japan” concept. Whodathunkit!

First up, know that while Monster Hunter is finally starting to gain traction internationally, the franchise has long had a strong fan base in Japan. What makes the USJ Monster Hunter attraction special though is that it gives participants a code to unlock some exclusive armor and weapons in game. Also, you will have a chance to hold and use some of the in-game weapons and you can even have a photo taken of you and your friends in action.

Final Fantasy fans get a XR Ride which is basically a high-speed roller coaster that requires the use of VR goggles for the full panoramic visual effect. On the other hand, Sailor Moon’s allure is a cinematic 4-D theater, complete with an immersive transformation sequence. Lastly, Detective Conan gets a total of three attractions: an escape challenge game, a “Mystery Hunt” for kids and parents, and a “Mystery Restaurant.” The restaurant is a dining experience with a twist: a mystery unfolds as you enjoy your meal. It’s up to you to help crack the case!

All of USJ’s “Cool Japan” events will run through June 24 with the exception of the “Mystery Restaurant” (which has a more limited schedule). Check USJ’s official homepage for more details.

The loading screen for Japan’s iconic Street Fighter II game

Street Fighter is also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and the game is doing it with a very unique tie-up. Saga Prefecture announced that it will use the series’s character Sagat as its official mascot to promote tourism to the region. As part of this collaboration, visitors to Saga prefecture can now find unique Street Fighter goods not available anywhere else. This includes Ryu and Ken versions of sake, E. Honda rice, Chun Li and Dhalsim teas, Blanka ice cream, Zangief snacks, and much, much more. But let’s face it, you’ll be the coolest Street Fighter fan on the block if you have bottles of Ryu and Ken sake.

As if this list weren’t already exhaustive enough, Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) hit its 20th anniversary mark in 2017 and that celebration continues into 2018. Tokyo JOYPOLIS hosts Mansion of Evil, a walk-through experience based on Resident Evil 7. Additionally, they have a number of JOYPOLIS x Resident Evil 20th Anniversary collaboration goods for sale.

Cute little Kirby also turned 25 recently. Sadly, the Kirby Cafe pop-up cafes show no signs of re-emerging though. New merchandise has arrived for the 25th anniversary however. Grab some exclusive Kirby key holders at Lawson convenience stores or at Dippin Dots ice cream shops. Or, you can re-create a miniature Kirby cafe in your own home with new mini-figures from Re-Ment. One of the great things about the new Kirby merchandise is that it’s affordably priced and widely available.

Finally, game anniversaries aside, Japan is definitely the place to be if you would like to check out amazing arcades. As noted above, JOYPOLIS is like a combination arcade and theme park. For the most unique arcade experience in Japan though, check out my in-depth article on Kawasaki Warehouse. This madhouse is modeled after the legendary Kowloon Walled City and is a site to beyond even if you aren’t into gaming.

Game & Anime Music

A banner for an anime music related festival in Japan

Tokyo is the place to be if you want to catch performances of your favorite video game and anime music. A number of “BEMANI” (Beat Mania) / Konami game music producers remain hugely popular in both Japan and abroad and perform frequently at club events in Tokyo.

Fans of BEMANI and related music should be sure not to miss EDP ULTRA SUPER Fes ’18 on March 31 at Studio Coast, Tokyo. This massive event hosts a line-up of star music producers known for their work in popular rhythm games. The all-star line-up includes internationally renowned artists such as kors k, Y & co., Ryu☆, Mayumi Morinaga, Kradness, DJ Shimamura, Nhato, BEMANI Sound Team and more.

Lastly we have Re: Animation which is festival showcasing producers and DJs in the anime, game, and general otaku scene. The event is free as it is a crowd-funded production. A cosplay showcase is also on hand and attendance in cosplay is also allowed. The 2018 edition of Re: Animation will be held on July 14 and 15 in Katsuragawa.

Why Not Just Cosplay?

Of course, no article on the otaku scene would be complete without mention of cosplay. I have touched on some details regarding costumed fun and the rules surrounding it in my article on Halloween in Japan. One of the main points to remember is that you cannot show up to conventions already in cosplay; you must use the on-site changing rooms. Weapons and other large props are often not allowed.

As for resources, one of the most popular shops for D.I.Y. cosplayers is Okadaya in Shinjuku. It is actually two stores adjacent to each other. One side is dedicated entirely to fabrics while the other side sells all the details ranging from wigs, stage makeup, and colored contacts to trimmings and details, prosthetic wings, and wildly-colored hair dye.

The aforementioned Animate Sunshine in Ikebukuro, Mandarake and Nakano Broadway are also excellent places to buy cosplay resources and especially so if you are looking for character-specific items.

Some Nerdy Conclusions

Some nerds in Japan walk with a made in Tokyo’s Akihabara district

This list is only scratching the surface when it comes to ways to geek-out in an uniquely Japan style. Take this as a starting point rather than as a Bible. There are innumerable opportunities for unique experiences within this vast subculture. My best advice is to simply get out there and explore these options yourself but be sure to do a lot of research first. As always, Google is your friend here.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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