Inside Super Potato, Part 1: Down Tokyo’s deepest rabbit hole
The sign stands chest-high with a cartoon potato punching the air. It says “Get your wonder soft world.”
Maybe that’s what I’m told to do. Or maybe that’s what I’m told will happen. Is it a friendly command, or a promise? Either way, it doesn’t matter and I don’t really care. There’s a galaxy of meaning in that phrase. The rest of the sign is in Japanese and thus indecipherable to me, and the kanji looks cool but it barely registers. I’ve battled broken syntax and false translations by the hour on this trip, but at this point there’s nothing holding me back.
It’s a mild autumn day in the Akihabara district in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, Japan, and I’m standing outside of a store called Super Potato. It’s found down a sleepy alley close to Akihabara station. It’s a modest shop compared to the flashier multi-level complexes in the more prominent parts of the district. Where I am, however, these are the buildings Akihabara has either left behind or hasn’t razed yet – which is fitting since the contents of this building are devoted to a bygone era.
Armed with what I assume to be a pharmaceutically made energy drink that tasted like a bottled orange grove (that may or may have been giving me hives and made me feel oh so Hell-Yeah), I try to process everything leading up to this place.
The rainy nights and neon, the liquor, the moments of solitude and chaos inside what is not a city, but a city full of cities. They had all brought me here. It’s important to note that Super Potato was the last stop on my little geek pilgrimage, in a district that’s a must for people looking to jump down the otaku rabbit hole.
Before Super Potato, I spent the day in Akihabara, walking through its streets and complexes. I saw model kits that required a surgeon’s patience stacked sky-high and arranged by their respective anime franchises. I browsed rows of manga that I couldn’t understand but wanted to dearly. In one complex I had, with roadrunner-like speed, swiftly navigated my way out of an entire floor dedicated to hentai that I unknowingly took an escalator into like a naive pilgrim (I can’t remember which store it was, but be wary of Level 4 as a general rule).
I was introduced to popular, modern anime characters that acted as a clear indication I hadn’t seriously cared about anime for over a decade (Cowboy Bebop, anyone?). My kawaii tolerance, something that should be the providence of young girls, was also at an all time high, as I was assaulted with so many cute items it started to boil over into a type of cultural conditioning. It started with Totoro-shaped cream puffs and morphed into a mild obsession with a weird little lazy egg that I couldn’t seem to control, and didn’t want to.
By the time I found myself at Super Potato, I was trying to process the mental strobe flashes of demons, heroes, heroines, and snippets of J-Pop songs floating through the air. I had taken it all in, treating everything with the same level of importance. So many creations, ideas, and hints at subgenres that illuminated the Japanese mindset in a way that you just can’t find by seeing the edges of it from a distance. The endless possibilities of the worlds that people wish to spend their time in while they occupy the smallest spaces of a cramped mega-city.
I was grateful for the rush. The weird energy drink also seemed to help. My atoms vibrated thanks to this mysterious concoction that I was careful not to spill. It could potentially kill a small animal instantly. I don’t need that guilt.
Akihabara is a place with an interesting history and some unfortunate ghosts.
During the U.S. occupation after the Second World War, Akihabara was a den for black market radio parts and other electronic goods. In the 60s and 70s it was a bargain hunter’s paradise for underground goods. In the years to come, that made it the perfect place for manga, anime, and video games to flourish. Until somewhat recently, otaku culture was experienced mostly in isolation and with a hint of secretiveness. Now it had an epicenter to develop and thrive, even while being openly discouraged – or at least pointedly ignored – by mainstream Japanese society.
It was also the site of a tragic massacre in 2008 when a man named Tomohiro Kato intentionally drove a truck into a crowd of people that ended up killing three and injuring two. He then managed to attack and stab twelve others, killing four people and injuring eight others. The incident went on to make international news, and became known in Japan as the “Akihabara Massacre.”
Knowing this ahead of time brings an unfortunate sense of dread to what is supposed to be a type of geek wonderland, but these are things that most unsuspecting tourists on nerd pilgrimages would never know if they were to walk through its streets and view its stores from afar. Instead, they would simply see the bizarre iconography of a culture at war with itself, while possibly wondering how they wound up in a maid café.
The common narrative is that Akihabara is also the place to go for the obscure and rare products of the silicon variety. That’s true, but I gather its treasures may have been more exciting to a Westerner back when the tech world was more fragmented, things like cell phones were a luxury and, Japan was so far ahead of the rest of the world we all thought we would be working in places with names like Nakatomi Plaza forever.
I’ve never been a DIY guy when it comes to computers and I didn’t need a laptop, cellphone, or camera. For better or worse, Apple had homogenized my modern existence a decade ago, and the best consumer technology is found in the U.S. in gleaming stores made of glass rather than a weird street in the heart of Tokyo.
Now, well into what is supposed to be adulthood I was lucky enough to find myself in the long-mythologized tech and otaku haven, and it felt like I had come twenty years too late. There were narrow alleys where vendors sold peripherals for televisions, PCs, and radios that seemed like something out of a William Gibson novel, but much like the manga and anime complexes, these were places for people who knew exactly what they wanted. Me? I was just an ordinary tourist wearing a Yakult Swallows baseball cap as my own little way to show my appreciation for the city.
So with the freedom to carve my own path, I wound up at Super Potato after having run the otaku gauntlet. The building is older, the elevator seemed precarious. Everything inside its doors looks sepia-toned. I walk in, already relieved at the lo-fi vibe. The store has five levels, three of which are for customers. If I’ve learned anything from the other complexes here it’s that the best thing to do is to start at the top and work your way down level by level. So I take the elevator to Level 5 unaware that I’m about to step into a time machine, taking me to the arcade of my junior high dreams.
The Super Potato Saga continues…
Inside Super Potato Part 2: Old consoles never die, they become collectibles
Inside Super Potato Part 3: Through the retro looking glass