Feb 132013

A visit to Akihabara, Tokyo Japan

This is a report on a brief visit to the Akihabara district of Tokyo, Japan. I visited Japan in April last year and spent a month travelling around the country. Though I stayed a week in Tokyo I was only able to spend a couple of days in Akihabara, but this was enough to get a measure of Japanese tastes in audio equipment.

First of all, most audio enthusiasts will know of Akihabara as some sort of Mecca, but the Japanese themselves call the district ‘Electric City’. And indeed this is a much more accurate description, as the place is full of outlets selling just about everything to do with computers, mobile phones, ‘white goods’, televisions, as well as audio gear. In fact my first impression on visiting the area was one of frustration, as it was very difficult to actually find any stores selling quality audio gear. It was easy enough to find computer outlets and mobile phone outlets, even outlets catering to ‘adult’ entertainment – but high quality audio gear? No.

After about half an hour of wandering around, I realised my mistake. Japan is a country with a high population density, so in the cities they build upwards. It is no good expecting to find the audio stores to be necessarily at street level, one has to look upwards and spot signage for the likes of Sony, Technics, Pioneer etc. It will mean these outlets are on, say, the fifth or seventh floor of a building which may have conventional white goods on the ground floor.

So having learnt my mistake, here are my impressions. When you leave the subway station at Akihabara (and here I must say the Japanese public transport system is an absolute dream for foreigners to use, one which puts ours to shame), you cross the road and are confronted with a rabbit warren of small undercover stalls selling just about everything for the electronic hobbyist. Those interested in DIY audio are well catered for, with many stalls specialising in particular components. There are stalls selling transformers:





as well as metalworking tools:

and small components such as ICs, resistors and capacitors. Some stalls even sell amplifier kits.

Having worked my way through this constructor’s rabbit warren, it was time to look at some of the audio outlets (now that I knew where to find them). Whilst there are some audio salons where equipment can be demonstrated, many outlets simply sold gear ‘off the shelf’ with no provision for demonstration. Even so visiting these outlets was instructive as one was able to get a feel of what brands are popular in Japan – and it is not only Japanese brands. Many foreign brands are well thought of, for example Tannoy speakers

and Mark Levinson electronics.

JBL and Altec Lansing speakers and McIntosh electronics are also well regarded, as are the more up-market Japanese brands such as Accuphase.

(For some reason the Japanese shop owners don’t like you taking photographs. Maybe it is fear of completion, but this proscription seemed to apply to all shops, especially high quality department stores. As such, these photographs were taken covertly.)

Another British speaker manufacturer the Japanese like is B&W, especially their smaller models. It must be remembered a lot of Japanese live in small apartments, so don’t always have the room for large speaker systems.

The small room size applies to the demonstration rooms of some of the audio ‘salons’. There can be up to fifteen pairs of speakers on display as well as up to half a dozen large amplifiers all crammed into a room about the same size as a typical UK living room. How one is to fully assess the products is a bit of a mystery, especially as there are racks of exotic looking interconnects, mains cables and plugs and sockets, all jostling for space. And the Japanese do love specialist mains cables; some I saw were up to an inch in diameter, almost as large as the American style mains plugs they use!

Some audio salons were a little less cluttered but all exuded a sort of calm authority, one that assumes the visitor has some sort of idea of what he wants. At no time did a salesman approach me. All were playing music, using a mixture of CDs and records as a source. One particular outlet impressed me: not only was there an EMT 930 turntable awaiting dispatch (the Japanese are almost fanatical admirers of these decks), but they were playing a Nina Simone record (on a deck I could not identify) through Audio Note valve amplification into speakers I could not identify, but they could have well been a pair of medium sized Magnaplanars. When I mentioned that I was an EMT user to the sales assistant, he was not particularly impressed, but neither did he regard me as a time waster. I was left to enjoy the record he was playing; one of many ‘50s American jazz records on Verve and Blue Note available for audition.

The Japanese are also keen on vintage UK products: Quad II amplifiers, Garrard 301 and 401 turntables as well as SME 3009 and 3012 tonearms. I saw several examples of Garrard decks in various conditions for sale – and the prices being asked were not cheap.

When it comes to pickup cartridges, the Japanese tend to excel and I saw Denon, Ortofon SPU, Grado and Shure M95 cartridges for sale. Many of the stores will sell items free of tax to foreign visitors – one has to keep a tight hold on one’s credit card!
Unfortunately I didn’t see any Koetsu, otherwise I would have bought one ‘tax free’.

I have already mentioned the small size of the demonstration rooms and of the difficulty of properly assessing the equipment, and I have to say that nothing I heard was in any way superior to what can be readily heard in the UK and in Europe. But then again nothing offended my ears either.

If there was a ‘common denominator’ to the preferred items of audio gear, base on what I saw and heard, I would say the Japanese audio enthusiast does tend to favour horn-loaded loudspeakers, valve amplification, moving coil cartridges and idler driven turntables. This would perhaps suggest the Japanese place great importance on leading edge information and on pitch accuracy. Despite a growing appreciation of Western style music, both classical, jazz and rock, traditional Japanese music involves plucked string instruments (shamisen and koto), bamboo flutes (for example the shinobue) and percussion (such as wooden clappers: hyōshigi). With these instruments, the start of the notes and their subsequent decay is important. That was my impression gained through witnessing the miyako-san Spring dances, which were performed to Japanese traditional music. (Miyako are apprentice geisha.)

I also visited a few stores selling professional music equipment, not so much to look at the electric guitars and keyboards, but to see the amplification, graphic equalisation and processing units, such as:

On the question of prices, where it was possible to compare such on new equipment, it would seem that the Japanese pay as much as we do for their quality audio. The same would appear to follow for quality photographic equipment. (The Leica M9 digital camera was for sale for ¥800,000 or £6,400)

Finally, I paid a visit to Tower Records in Akihabara, as well as to another branch in the Shinjuku district. Both of these stores were on several floors, depending on the music genre. As would be expected of a major retail outlet in a country’s capital city, these stores had a phenomenal range of stock. For example: all of the Furtwängler mono recordings of the Beethoven symphonies were available off the rack. The same was true of some of the more obscure jazz recordings. The Japanese like to be offered several different versions of ostensibly the same recording. It was a bit like being a kid in a sweet shop – I made up for what I hadn’t spent on a Koetsu cartridge on CDs, especially the Japanese ‘obi band’ pressings. One odd thing I did notice was that despite everything being filed in alphabetical order, for some strange reason Frank Zappa was filed under ‘F’.


Barry Hunt

© Text Copyright and all photos 2013 Barry Hunt.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission, failure to do so may result in legal proceedings.

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