Akihabara: Tokyo's mad world of gaming, manga and maids

It's a crazy sub-culture that has become mainstream; where 'Witch Coke', maids, Geek culture and video games mix with men in business suits. Welcome to the wild - yet strangely mild - side of Tokyo.

"No!" cries Izumi, her eyes wide with alarm. "It's dangerous!" I quickly put the drink down and she shows me the spell required to break the curse. I follow her lead, making a W-shape with my fingers, waving them over the glass and repeating the magic chant. Now I can drink my glass of Witch Coke.

Welcome to Akihabara, centre of Tokyo's otaku (geek) culture, a bewildering maze of video game arcades, manga stores and maid cafes.

On paper, maid cafes sound seedy and awkward. Men pay to chat with and be served drinks by young girls dressed as maids or schoolgirls.

In reality, the experience is neither. Izumi, my 217-year-old maid (she earnestly explains she's a ghost who was born on the planet Spada Ark), is delightful and is probably using this job at Queens Court to pay her way through university.

Izumi's English is limited so we're communicating through Tyler, my guide from InsideJapan. The company launched this tour earlier in the year to give people an insight into Tokyo's fascinating gaming subculture.

I've opted for Queens Court's ¥2000 Fairy Set package ($24.50), which includes unlimited Witch Cokes and a souvenir photo. For an extra ¥600, Izumi will play 10 minutes of the classic Nintendo racing game Mario Kart with me.

She hands me a controller and we choose our characters: a green dinosaur for me, a blonde princess for her. As we take our positions on the start line, she turns with narrowed eyes and says: "Prepare to lose."

And lose I do. Three times in a row. I finish 12th, 10th and 12th (out of, you guessed it, 12). She comes second, second and first.

Before leaving, we pose for a Polaroid photo, which she carefully decorates with a felt-tipped pen and presents to me with a polite bow. It's now midday and the place is almost full. There are six guys at the bar, ranging in age from early-20s to mid-40s. All of them are greeted by name when they arrive and one middle-aged man in a suit is proudly showing his maid the toy gun he's just bought. "Is it for your son?" she asks. "No," he replies indignantly. "It's for me."

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Our next port of call is an Akihabara icon. Super Potato draws gamers from all over the world thanks to its unrivalled selection of rare retro video games.

We enter through an unassuming doorway and squeeze into a lift reeking of noodles and stale sweat. "The smell of gamers," remarks Tyler.

There's a floor of vintage arcade games plus two more selling discontinued consoles and cartridges. Some of the prices are eye-watering. There's a cycling game for Nintendo's 1983 Famicom system for ¥49,800 and the CD soundtrack to an old Godzilla video game for ¥21,800. If only I'd kept my old Commodore 64.

By now I'm itching to play something so we head to Hirose Entertainment Yard, a multi-storey arcade often used by professional gamers. It's quiet when we visit but Tyler points out the TV screens either side of popular games that allow gaming groupies to see all the action.

I start off with a classic from my youth: Street Fighter, a bargain at ¥10 a game. Next up is a shooting game with a disturbingly sticky plastic pistol, then an immersive first-person warfare game so disorienting I have to abandon it after three minutes because I start feeling sick.

Youngsters flock to these arcades to try out the newest releases and Tyler shows me the latest instalment of the Final Fantasy series, which comes with a hefty instruction booklet and a socket to plug in your own headphones. Some games, such as World Club Champion Football, require gamers to buy cards representing individual players, the cost of which can quickly escalate as they search for an elusive Messi or Ronaldo.

Each floor is a sensory assault, a relentless cacophony of alarms, klaxons and explosions. Upstairs we find three teenagers playing a driving game, dutifully cheered on by their girlfriends, and a businessman in a suit dispensing aliens with an Uzi.

Not all the games are violent. There's a parenting-themed educational game where you raise a child with a virtual partner. Do a bad job and the child ends up wearing glasses.

Blinking, we emerge into the street to find a gaggle of maids in frilly short skirts spruiking their respective cafes. Teenagers clutching manga comics shuffle past in giggling groups while others line up to buy energy drinks from video game-themed vending machines.

It all feels like a fantasy world, a bizarre self-contained microcosm. Except it isn't. Video game revenue far exceeds that from movies and music and increasingly video game characters are encroaching into mainstream culture. Last year, Nintendo created pop-up cafes inside three Tokyo Tower Records stores to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Brothers. The cafes sold limited edition merchandise and Mario Brothers-themed drinks and food. The video game giant is also partnering with Universal Studios to bring its franchises and characters to Universal's theme parks.

On our way home, Tyler points out a Louis Vuitton store emblazoned with a two-storey poster of a beautiful red-haired girl in a shimmering metallic dress. Her arms are crossed defiantly and dangling seductively from her hand is a Louis Vuitton handbag. Who did the luxury fashion house choose to model its latest range of designer bags? Lightning, a character from the video game series Final Fantasy.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Gotokyo.org

GETTING THERE

ANA flies direct from Sydney to Tokyo's Haneda airport using the latest Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner. See ana.co.jp.

STAYING THERE

With spectacular views over Tokyo Bay, the sleek five-star Conrad Tokyo is walking distance from Ginza shopping district. See conradhotels3.hilton.com.

TOURING THERE

InsideJapan can create a tailor-made Japanese itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and a day in Tokyo with one of its gaming experts. Phone 02 8011 3229; see insidejapantours.com.

Rob McFarland was a guest of InsideJapan and the International Luxury Travel Market.

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto: Where to go next in Japan

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