If you want to observe a truly amazing concentration of Tokyo's male population, go to Akihabara on the weekend. Even during the daytime, the frenetic, high-pitched energy of its various game centres can still be felt (to say nothing for its nighttime transformation). That being said, most of its cluttered, vibrant stocks of gaming and anime merchandise remains safely confined in the orderly towers that line its main roads - just waiting for you to wander in and take a closer look.
If you're fortunate enough to have friends or relatives who are anime fans, Akiba is the place to go to alleviate your souvenir-purchasing-for-other-people anxiety (just me?). My thirteen-year-old anime fangirl self would have gone wild if she had been allowed to freely roam these stores, even if she wouldn't have been able to read most of it. And then you come across merchandise of the more hentai persuasion chilling beside your normal figurines and things get a tad awkward. Tokyo.
プリクラ (Purikura), short for 'Print Club', are photo machines where you can take and decorate photos, then print them out as stickers. They can be found mostly in game centers in Japan and also happen to be my childhood. In Japan, some places provide free costumes for you to dress up in, which is definitely the best way to take purikura. After all, what's the point if you can't be dorky about it? You will need to know some Japanese to navigate the interface - or just take a logical guess and hope for the best. Think fast! The creepy eye enlargements are automatic.
I'm going to let you in on a little golden purikura spot we stumbled upon 100% by chance last year that I've finally bothered to precisely locate. On the 3rd floor of LAOX Home Electronics store, located on Zojo-ji road, you will find a single purikura machine and a whole rack of clothing, along with a small changing room.
It's a well-kept secret so you basically have all the time in the world to dress up and take your photos and then edit them (there is usually a timer but it freezes if no one else uses the machine for a long time). We promptly took three rounds of photos (how can you resist when they're only 400Y as opposed to $18+ in Sydney's Capitol Square??) and it was amazing. They also added some new costumes!
The 'bridge' labelled on this map can be seen in my above photo with the Drug Store sign. You want to find the JR Akihabara station's West (I think?) exit. If you walk out and see the SEGA building, you're in the right place. Turn right and keep going until you hit the main road. Here's a precise Google Street View of the LAOX store. Enjoy!
Another uniquely Japanese experience is ガチャポン (Gachapon) or 'capsule toys'. They're one of my favourite souvenirs to bring from Japan because they make great novelty items and Japan excels at making intricate miniature trinkets (usually phone charms to hang off your keitai because smart phones...are not really a thing in Japan yet).
You can find gachapon machines in many nooks and crannies throughout Tokyo but it's rare to have a concentrated collection of them in one place - so you can imagine my excitement when I heard about Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan, a store that stocks 'over 530 gachapon machines'.
Despite probably being one of the oldest, largest gachapon alleys in Tokyo, it wasn't nearly as large as I pictured - just one floor and its orange gachapon machines didn't bother hiding their age, even though the content was fairly new. Being located in Akiba, lots of the merchandise was anime related, which is unfortunate if you're not a fan of those particular series. Gachapon tends to change with the seasons or by month so we may have just stumbled upon a slow period. Quick list of other gachapon areas I've found:
Yodobashi Camera 8th Floor | Akihabara There are a lot more educational gachapon machines here (think miniature models of sea creatures, as well as dogs in coffee cups and skeletons). It's not as anime-heavy.
Inside some floors of LABI Akihabara (opposite the West Exit of JR Akihabara station) The 4th or 5th floors have a few rows of gachapon machines that are varied
Venus Fort Kiddy Land | OdaibaThe purikura machines at this specific branch tend to stock rarer merchandise that I haven't seen anywhere else (and is generally very cute - think sleeping cats and fat hamster figurines). Not sure if they're at the cutting edge of new releases or retaining 'retired' stock but it's worth a visit if you're in the area
Outside Village Vanguards | Shibuya & Shimokitazawa True to its demographic, Village Vanguard gachapon machines tend to stock super weird and quirky gachapon. Think bears dressed as fish and Gudetama merch.
We shared the obligatory Gindaco takoyaki set (still better than any museum!) as a snack while sitting along the street by leaning against a railing (the closest approximation to 'public seating areas in Tokyo).
On weekends in Akiba, after around 12PM, they close off the main road so it becomes a pedestrian crossing where cosplayers can run free (though we really only saw that one guy in the bright costume above, casually strolling along the streets. Typical of Japan - no one batted an eye at him).
There's also a weekend market set up along one of the shopping malls where vendors sell everything from handmade jewellery to a whole bunch of anime goods and soft toys.
If you're going to tour Akiba, I definitely recommend weekends. If you're an Asian guy who wants to hide from bad guys in a stereotypical movie chase scene by blending in with the crowd, you should also go to Akiba on weekends.
Just don't try and find an AMUSE Baby Alpacasso being sold - though that's a story for another time.