Thinking Tech

What a strong yen did to Akihibara

What a strong yen did to Akihibara

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Losing the danger and dirt, along with the American geek tourists seeking exotic stuff at super-low prices, is not all a bad thing. Japanese moms can send their teenage sons to Akihibara on the subway knowing they are safe.

The Akihibara area of Tokyo has long been Japan's Geek Kingdom.

In the era of a strong yen, Japanese hobbyists can still find bargains galore, along with tiny shops catering to the most obscure tools and parts.

On my first trip to Japan, 20 years ago, this was the first place I wanted to go. I could get 130 yen for my dollar, the prices were a steal.

At 95 yen to the dollar those days are gone. You're better off at Fry's.

In fact if you're in the giant Yodobashi-Akira you are already there. The store has a half-dozen floors segmented by product type, employees in color-coded vests on every aisle, a full color brochure describing the latest bargains, and food up top.

What you won't find is Linux, or anything really challenging. Yodabashi-Akiba sells the same Windows desktops, notebooks and netbooks as every other store around, just with a cleaner atmosphere.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. American retailing is the gold standard when it comes to selection, convenience and profitability. It's just that I saw the same stuff there as I did last week in Taiwan and, thanks to a yen selling at 95 to the dollar, it cost more.

To the left is a price sheet I saw displayed on a store competing with Yodabashi-Akira. A 1.5 terabyte drive for the equivalent of about $130, or 64 Gigabytes of chip memory for about $160, that's pretty amazing.

But this is no longer where an American should go for the best price. And when it comes to basic selection, you are just as well staying at home, because it's all one world market now.

Losing the danger and dirt, along with the American geek tourists seeking exotic stuff at super-low prices, is not all a bad thing. Japanese moms can send their teenage sons to Akihibara on the subway knowing they are safe.

But the romance is definitely gone. With some exceptions.

There are places where you can find a little taste of the old Akihibara, of course, tiny aisles filled with shops not much bigger than the men manning their counters.

To the right, on the second floor of a small Akihibara building, are by my count five such shops. The mingled fumes of dust, sweat, and solder here have not been changed in 40 years.

They transported me for just a moment to my adolescence, working at my father's TV repair place on Long Island, They were worth the trip.

But notice something else about these aisles. They're empty. And those which were not empty had just a few middle-aged and old men, men even older than me, guarding the past, days when a resistor, a voltmeter, a soldering gun, and some metal were all that stood between you and electronic nirvana.

If you're under 35 I don't expect you to understand and there is no need for you to. You have the products these older men made possible. Enjoy them. Let them come to you.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure