Japan had been one of the forerunners of electronics in the world. Japan used to boast the latest and greatest technologies available to the mass market. Going to Akihabara made sure you had some of the coolest toys in the world if you were a techno geek. Japan is still one of the leaders in terms of getting some of the latest technologies and it is still a unique area where you can find products that aren’t found outside of Japan. Many of the Japanese manufacturers continue to produce items that are suited for the Japanese market only and that will still continue. The electronics shops in Japan are something to marvel at and if you enjoy technology it is a place where you can easily get lost for hours on end, especially if it is your first time in Japan. Looking through the bright lights and the loud speakers is a bit of a sensory overload but it is something everyone should try when they visit Japan.
Most foreigners think that to find electronics in Japan you must go to Akihabara. This is a misnomer. In reality, you can go to most major centres around Japan and find the latest in electronics. Akihabara is a great place to see some of the things you will never find elsewhere but they are not always the latest in trends. They tend to be more experimental or just simply hard to find products. Akihabara is laden with small shops that are slowly but assuredly moving to the internet. I have visited small hole in the wall shops where you can purchase items relatively cheaply but the store itself is nothing more than a warehouse like storefront where one person is at the desk and you just tell them what you want. They get it for you, you pay, and that’s it. It is really simple but has very little in the way of user experience. The average tourist will not want to visit these shops but for those living in Tokyo, there is some validity to visiting these shops. In Akihabara, there are also some shops that are dedicated to small tools and this is where a true builder will find heaven. The side street shops in Akihabara and a few of the shops on the main strip specialize in parts. You can find everything you need to build your own computer or electronic gadget from just a pile of these parts. You can find parts such as switches, lights, wires, and so on. Unless you are a real electronics builder with know-how of how to solder items together, these shops may not be your cup of tea. For most people the huge electronics shops are where you want to be.
In Tokyo, there are two major electronics shops that are of note, Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera. They are not the largest shops in Japan, nor are they in the top 3, but they are very big in Tokyo. Both shops are very similar and most electronics shops in Japan follow the same model. For their large super stores, they tend to occupy a large store that is close to a major station. Each floor is dedicated to various types of electronics. Typically the main floor is dedicated to mobile phones and sometimes personal computers. As you go up into the store, you will find mobile audio products such as Walkmans and iPods and then near the top you have your traditional electric appliances such as dishwashers and fridges will be found. Above that are the travel essentials such as power adapters and converters to light bulbs, basically the low profit and small everyday items that people don’t normally care about. It is very easy to get lost within a shop and it is also very easy to go insane. In both Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera, they have their own theme song. In fact, Yodobashi Camera has a theme song for each shop they have. It is all sung to the same tune and it takes the same amount of time to play each song but the lyrics are specific to each shop. When visiting the various big box electronics shops, you will slowly, or quickly, go insane as you hear the music over and over and over and over and over again. This may not be a bad thing as you do get the opportunity to experience something that is quite different.
The largest electronics retailer in Japan is Yamada Denki. For most foreign people, we refer to it as Labi as that is the most common name we see on their super stores. They do have Yamada Denki written all over the shop but because “Labi” is so prominent on their logo, it is hard to call it Yamada Denki at first. Yamada Denki is a good shop to visit but the layout of each store is a somewhat overly spacious compared to the others. There is usually more space above each aisle for you to see and you can see each end of the aisle. There is less clutter compared to other shops as they tend to have less advertising hanging from every point of the ceiling. The next largest company is Edion. This is more of a holding company for several brands of electronics shops. For me, the most popular brand is DeoDeo which is pretty big in Hiroshima. They also own the Midori (Kansai) and the Ishimaru (Tokyo) brand. While they are the second largest company in Japan, their presence in Tokyo is pretty small and because they lack a unified brand name, I would say that they also suffer from brand unity. In third place is K’s Denki. They are much bigger in the Tohoku, Nagoya, and Kansai region compared to Tokyo. You can see their advertisements but it is rare to see a K’s Denki within Tokyo. They have a small presence in the suburbs but unfortunately I don’t know too much about them. Rounding out the top 5 are Yodobashi Camera in 4th and Bic Camera in 5th. While these two electronics shops are down in 4th and 5th, they have a large presence in Tokyo which makes them more popular overall.
When visiting a big box electronics store, there are several things you really need to be prepared for. The first is the sensory overload. The entire shop is brightly lit and your ears can start ringing after spending a lot of time inside the shop. Some of the shop staff will be on megaphones screaming about the latest deals and time sales happening in the store. Yodobashi Camera is pretty famous for this and they have random time sales within their shops selling whatever it is they have at a heavily discounted price. The second thing to prepare for is time and energy. If you are curious as to what you can find and just want to see everything, you will need a lot of time and energy to get through it. Going in the morning when they open till the early afternoon is the best thing to do. On the weekends, and week nights as well, it can be very busy and difficult to get around the shops. Lastly, don’t expect to find the cheapest and greatest things in the world. A lot of the time the electronics are made specifically for the Japanese market. Finding a keyboard that has the British layout is nearly impossible. American keyboards are difficult but not impossible. Cameras tend to have Japanese only, but many do have options for English as well these days. The staff may not be able to help you as much as you want due to the language barrier but going to the big shops in Shinjuku or Akihabara will help assure you that the staff will be able to speak more English than going to a shop in the suburbs. Enjoy the bright lights and the craziness and the electronics shops will be a great joy.
Electronics Shops Information:
Yamada Denki (Shop List – Japanese): http://www.yamada-denki.jp/store/index.html
Edion (Group Info – Japanese): http://www.edion.co.jp/index01.html
K’s Denki: http://www.ksdenki.com/
Yodobashi Camera (Japanese Site): http://www.yodobashi.com/
Yodobashi Camera (Global Site): http://www.yodobashi.com/html/globaltop.html
Bic Camera: http://www.biccamera.com/
Electronics Shops Ranking: http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/business/T120511005866.htm