Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2009

Photo by Sarah Noorbakhsh

Photo by Sarah Noorbakhsh

Famous for its shopping, nightclubs and youth culture, Shibuya has spawned its own adjective—Shibuya-kei—to describe its vibrant and idiosyncratic scene. Akihabara, which draws its own “Akiba-kei” otaku crowd, is often seen as a very different sort of place. But there is a proud fanboy tradition in Shibuya, as demonstrated by the quixotic 2007 mayoral run of TV personality Takuhachiro, who was among the first otaku tarento in the ’90s and who to this day describes himself as Shibuya-kei otaku.

“I will increase the maid cafes in the area and establish a Shibuya-kei otaku posher than Akiba,” said Takuhachiro during a campaign speech, flanked by three gyaru dressed as maids.

Some commentators go even further, speculating that gyaru and otaku are more similar than they might seem. Shinji Miyadai, professor of sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, compares the extroverted gals and their friend networks with introverted otaku and their digital networks. Both subcultures are engrossed in media and material acquisition, and even though they have gone their separate ways recently, it wasn’t too long ago that they coexisted in the same neighborhood.

“The 1990s marked a boom in action figures and American comics (amecomi) centered in Shibuya,” says Kaichiro Morikawa, an otaku researcher at Meiji University’s Department of International Japanese Studies. “When [figure shop] Kaiyodo moved its showroom from Shibuya to Akihabara in 1997, the character of both neighborhoods changed.”

The remnants of Shibuya’s otaku era still linger, as can be seen in the massive Mandarake store with its cave-like entrance on Inokashira Dori. Two floors belowground is a treasure trove of used figures, manga, CDs, cosplay outfits and more. Other well-respected figure and hobby stores in the area include Project 1/6 and Bingo, which mixes chic secondhand clothing and models, figures and toys in a way that is perhaps only possible in the melting pot Shibuya has become.

Just up the road is Cospa, a store specializing in professionally produced cosplay- and anime-related clothing. (A cosplay-only outlet, Cospatio, can be found near Dogenzaka’s love hotel district.) Similarly, Animate is a department store for anime-related goods with two locations tucked away to the west of the station, an area that few would expect to attract Akiba-kei clientele.

There is also a side of Shibuya that appeals to gamers young and old. The slightly worn but nonetheless well appointed Shibuya Gigo is a Sega arcade on turbo mode. Across the three floors of attractions, there is surely something to please all. More sophisticated types will want to check out the swinging lounge up on the fourth floor. Or head to Shibuya Kaikan Monaco, a retro arcade where hardcore gamers chain smoke and sweat the day away practicing their skills on cabinets that may well have been here since the ’80s.

On the entertainment/dining front, Shibuya boasts the first and likely only gaijin butler café, featuring real live white guys in ponytails and tuxedos. It is worth the embarrassment of admission just to take in this bizarre atmosphere, attributable to the international population and latent geek gene in Shibuya.

Otaku aren’t known as club goers, but they have their own dance events in Shibuya. The music of choice is called dempa (radio wave), which is even faster and more high-pitched than the infamous para para. Other events feature remixes of anisongs (anime themes), and guests are invited to come in cosplay.

Although Shibuya is now better known for brash young gals in modified school uniforms than maid costumes, the neighborhood retains the spirit of its ’90s otaku heyday. Brian Ashcraft, who is currently writing a book on the cultural power of Japan’s schoolgirls, comments, “As Japan continues to age, urban youth pockets like Shibuya, among others, become even more fascinating.”

Mandarake B2, 31-2 Udagawacho.
Tel: 03-3477-0777.

Project 1/6 37-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku.
Tel: 03-3467-7676.

Bingo , B1 32-13 Udagawacho.
Tel: 03-5428-4812.

Cospa 4-8 Udagawacho,
Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5428-3482.

Cospatio 2F, 5-3 Maruyama-cho.
Tel: 03-3770-3383.

Animate 24-4 Sakuragaoka-cho.
Tel: 03-5458-2454.

Shibuya Gigo
2-6-16 Dogenzaka. Tel: 03-5458-2201.

Shibuya Kaikan Monaco 23-10 Udagawacho. Tel: 03-3461-9171.

Butlers Cafe 5F, 11-6 Udagawacho. Tel: 03-3780-6883.