Anyone who has ever told you that everyone in Japan speaks English is lying. Sure, all Japanese people study English at school, but it's taught in a way that can never practically facilitate actual communication and most people treat it in much the same way Irish students treat the Irish language; do just enough to get good grades then run as far away from it as you possibly can for the rest of your life.
That said, now and again staff members in cafés or shops, particularly in the tourist areas, will clock my pasty white face and address me in English and usually it's pretty good English. I'm never sure whether it's done out of desire or duty, and so I'm never entirely sure how to react to it. Some Japanese people are nervous using English, others are eager to practice and you can make someone's day a littler better by just allowing them use whatever language they want. Just be aware that it's usually not English.
One thing that virtually all the English speakers I've come across have asked me is why I came to Japan. It's not a question I expected to be asked, and anyone who knows me knows the answer already, so it's not something I've thought about in the recent past. There's no way around it, and I haven't wasted time looking for one. Anytime I've been asked the question I've been totally straight; I came to Japan because I am a massive nerd.
Being a massive nerd, Akihabara - nerdvana, the geek capital of the world - has been on my list of places to see before I die or grow up since I was 13. On my first real day off, the day before my first real day of work, I took myself to see it with my own eyes.
I practically danced out of the train station, through the electric town exit onto the streets of Akihabara and was met with a scene straight out of my wildest weeaboo fantasies. There it was. Exactly as I'd thought it'd be. Exactly as I'd hoped it'd be. Exactly as it was in Oreimo when Kirino did her panoramic celebratory shot thing and I felt just as excited as she was to be in the middle of it all. Mere steps from the station I came across my first fanboy store, floor upon floor of anime merchandise from shows that I adored, acknowledged and knew nothing about at all. I don't think I stopped smiling the entire time, which was probably really weird for everyone else when I stumbled into the adult section of the 5th floor.
Akihabara is fucking full of anime stores, but it's also full of arcades, most of which double as claw machine parlours where you can try to win, you guessed it, anime merch (although some had gadgets and cash). Most of the machines will have stuff that's currently popular, and apparently there is some genuine skill involved and a lot of money to be saved if you can get good at it. There's also a pachinko parlour, because those smoky, noisy cathedrals of misery are fucking everywhere.
I mentioned there that claw machine prodigies can save money and some of you are probably wondering what I mean. Any anime fan is at least aware of the phenomenon of the anime figurine. Japan's animation industry runs on an economy of resin and owning your favourite characters in physical form is part of the fun of being a fan. These figurines are usually incredibly intricate and some can go on to be rare which adds potential economic value to collecting them, if the simple artistic - or obsessive - value isn't enough for you. There are stores selling these figurines all over Japan, but Akihabara has the highest concentration of them in the entire universe and that has a pretty interesting effect on one's shopping experience.
If you're going to shop for figurines, or anything nerdy, in Akihabara, my advice is to shop around. Prices vary wildly between shops and there doesn't seem to be any real pattern or predictability to it. One Cardcaptor Sakura figurine (which I assume had just come out) was all over every claw machine and highlighted in every store and never at the same price. One store had it at 9,000 yen, another at 2,000 and several others hovered somewhere in between. Shop around. Don't get excited just because the first store you walked into had that Beach Queen Kyoko Sakura you'd been looking for.
Video Games get a fair shake in Akihabara too, with multiple game stores all piling floor upon floor of genres and platforms on top of each other. Turns out the PSP is still super popular in Japan. Strange, huh? But if games are your thing, Super Potato is your thing and chances are you probably know that already. Super Potato is famous for being one of the best, if not the best vintage game shop in the world and holy shit did it live up to its name. 3 floors spanning almost 40 years of video game history, all available to buy and play, topped off with an old school arcade on the top floor, complete with a change machine and sweet shop so you can actually feel like you're 12 years old again. It's beautiful.
Games, Anime and Manga aren't the only thing Akihabara is famous for though. A slightly lesser known but equally intoxicating industry lies at the heart of this geeky gomorrah; the maid café.
For those of you who don't know, Japan basically adopted the french maid as their official national fetish sometime in the 1990s and in typical Japanese fashion, the first thing they did was strip it of all its sexual appeal and turn it into something else. Maid Café's are designed to be as fluffy and adorable as possible. The waitresses all dress in elaborate maid uniforms and behave like they're all living in some sort of chirpy candy floss singularity. Naturally I had to see it for myself, so myself and my companion ventured in.
This involved taking a flyer from one of the many, many, many maids littering the streets shouting adorable nonsense trying to lure people, mostly tourists, into their café's. **sidenote: there are people handing out flyers everywhere in Akihabara, it's best not to take them. Taking a flyer equates to agreeing to do whatever service the person is promoting and refusing posthumously can result in some unpleasantness**What awaited us inside was no less bizarre, a pastel pink room full of low tables, frills, purple walls and a bar full of hard, hard liquor. It was immediately enthralling and offensive; like if someone opened a cocktail bar in a nursery.
The meal was full of crazy little rituals "to make the food more delicious", like casting a "magic spell" on an electric candle and making heart shaped hand gestures to fire "delicious" beams at the dumplings. It was mad and it would probably be very easy to feel totally creeped out by the whole thing. The two Australian guys hiding behind and clutching for dear life their oversized beers like the last bastions of their masculinity certainly didn't look charmed. My take on it was a little more charitable. I played along. These girls, these maids, knew this was strange. They knew, just as well as I did, that this was not even on the spectrum of normalcy for dining experiences and being non-compliant to their harmless requests would be akin to going to Disneyland to tell Mickey Mouse to fuck off. You'd just end up looking like a dick. The girls were fun, the place was weird and the food was ok. That was about it.
Like everywhere else in this country, Akihabara is a different place by night. Tokyo is like some kind of strange electric forest; by day it's unique and interesting and sprawling but the streets light up at night like they're trying to imitate the day, to make the day last longer, presumably so everyone can work longer, so it makes it worth while to stick around to see the other side of wherever you happen to be that day. At night Akiba lives up to its monicker of the "electric town" in every way possible. It looked electric. It felt electric. And for a few moments, as I stared into it, I did too.
I've been waiting to see Akihabara since I was 13 years old and it's still only sinking in now that I'm not in Dublin anymore and this place is 40 minutes away on a train. After 13 years of imagining and dreaming and wondering and sighing, Akihabara could easily have been a let down. Instead, it blew me away. Twice.