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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Cosplaygrounds in Akihabara, and the Animism of Roleplay

I have got to come right out and admit this: I am no Cosplay fanatic, and find the whole phenomenon just a little bit twisted, a little bit strange. Then again, I am not really one to get into the spirit at fancy dress parties, I am the guy who spoils it by coming clad in regular clothes. I have no interest in roleplaying games, and uniforms rarely feature in my sexual fantasies. That said, I do enjoy peoplewatching and documenting subcultures, and for six years I lived up the road from Akihabara, which is pretty much the Mecca of the Cosplay universe (as well as the Gomorrah and the Babylon, depending on how you look at it). The following post records some discoveries I made in those six years with regards to Cosplay and all the Cosplay venues and shops and institutions in the Akihabara Electric Town. For those who don't know, Cosplay (コスプレ) means "Costume Play", and basically involves dressing up as characters from your favorite anime movie, manga cartoon, video game, or the lead singer of your favorite band, etc. That treasure trove of wisdom, Wikipedia, claims that "in Japan, cosplay as a hobby is usually an end unto itself." I would add that in Japan all hobbies are ends unto themselves, for they are in fact Zen practices designed to initiate satori or selfrealization, but that is another issue! Let's stick to the topic at hand, shall we? Wikipedia continues: "Likeminded people gather to see other costumes, show off their own elaborate handmade creations, take lots of pictures, and possibly participate in best costume contests." I don't go in for it myself, but I do like peoplewatching, and subculturespotting, so I am often at the sidelines of these events, taking notes and snapping photos. When friends come from overseas to visit me, they always want to see some Cosplay. I escort them to Tokyo's Harajuku, which every Sunday is rammed with Cosplay enthusiasts. Some of the get-ups there have to be seen to be believed, they are so detailed, so elaborate, and so deviant!

Along with Harajuku, Akihabara is a popular Cosplay haunt, especially on weekends. The Electric Town is blessed with a large number of dedicated fancy dress cafes, department stores and galleries. The waitresses at such cafes are dressed as video game and anime characters, or maids. In any almost any big Akihabara department store you will find a Cosplay floor which will put your hometown's fancy dress shop to shame. Along with costumes, dolls are perennially popular with shoppers. Last year, at the height of my Akihabara research project, I discovered a creche of almost lifesized dolls inside the Laox Asobit C department store, all of them sporting fully movable limbs, and staring out impassively at the crowds, like deities at a temple. One of them was a maid (of course), another a high school girl with innocent eyes and a raunchily high-cut dress. Some of the others were anime characters or tennis players, or maybe a blend of both. They weren't particularly cheap, the average doll costing around ¥600,000 (US$6000, give or take.) I started thinking: what kind of guy would buy a US$6000 doll? Since that time it dawned on me: the Japanese love affair with dolls/costumes/roleplay is more than just a consumerist fad, or a bit of fun -- there is something mystical in it, something which emanates from the heart of Japanese spirituality. Spend a bit of time in Japan and you will realize that dolls of all kinds (and I'd include robots in this) enjoy an honorable status. In my opinion, this veneration of the doll, and the incredible attention to detail which goes into making them, is in fact a religious expression. It is an animist thing, a Shinto thing. It is no exaggeration to say that many Japanese believe there is a god in everything -- trees, rocks, rivers... why not dolls as well? Dolls are alive, and they have a roughly human form, so it is no wonder that they are given so much respect, and so much devotion. Like dolls, costumes are also alive, imbued with lifeforce, and offer those who put them on an almost magical power... the ability to become another person, to channel fictional characters, to converse with the spirits just like a Mongolian Shaman in a trance. When a Shaman goes into a trance, the ego disappears, and emptiness clears the mind. The devotee finds that his or her essential emptiness is mirrored in the essential emptiness of the Universe, and attains Enlightenment. That is my theory at least!

Maniac High outside the Ishimaru Department store in Akihabara Anyway, enough ranting... I promised myself that I wouldn't rant! Last month I found myself back in Akihabara with my man Dennis the Menace (aka Maniac High), kind of getting carried along in his wake. Dennis (pictured, on the left) was there for a TV job, a program about foreigners enjoying themselves in the Electric Town. Since I happened to be there, the camera crew hauled me in front of the camera and bombarded me with questions. "What are the things you like about Japan and Japanese culture?" they asked me. I burst out automatically: "Cosplay!" It garnered the laugh I anticipated, and I got a few seconds of fame on TV... a few seconds of fun, but nowhere long enough time to discuss my more esoteric ideas on the matter. Anyway, would Japanese viewers really want to listen to some random foreigner espousing his bizarre theory on the Shinto/Buddhist origins of Cosplay, and/or the animist worship of dolls? I doubt it. Gaijin are supposed to be genki and rambunctious, but not too deep. Better to dumb it down, I thought to myself, and not confuse anyone, otherwise I might offend someone! The film crew finished their "interview" with me, then they escorted Dennis to a premise upstairs to have his ears cleaned by a pair of young maids. He was dressed for the part, in a Fire Department shirt, and a police cap, and unlike me he was on his way to being paid. I scurried on through the cold drizzle and rain to Shinjuku, where I pretended to be Mickey Mouse on the telephone for a few hours, to earn my daily bread. Japan is a strange country, that is for sure... everyone is playing a role, and nobody is quite the person you expect to them to be! That's what makes it so fascinating.

Here follows some Cosplay shops, venues, cafes and attractions in Akihabara and other parts of Tokyo like Shibuya, which I have noticed on previous jaunts around town. It's not an exhaustive list by any means, and I may add to it as time goes by:

Cosmate: 千代田区外神田1-8-3 野水ビル5.
5th Floor Nomizu Building, 1-8-3 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3526 5043. Web: Map:
If high school girls in panties and leotards do it for you, then this is your place! If you are thinking of starting your own maid cafe and need uniforms for your staff, have a look at Cosmate's range. As far as I know, there are three outlets in Tokyo -- the address and phone number listed above belongs to the head store, in Soto Kanda. From the rather gruff reception which awaited me when I tried to enter one of the shops last year, they don't care too much for tourists walking in off the street just to check out the merchandise. This place is for serious fetishists only... whether young females or dirty old men, I am not quite sure!
That said, you don't even have to visit the store to buy that leotard or maid outfit -- you can order straight off their website! Which might be just as well, for schoolgirls (or dirty old men) too embarrassed to lug those stretch enamel sailor leotards up to the counter! I am not sure if they deliver overseas, but you could always try your luck, ne!

Cospa Shop Akihabara: 千代田区外神田3-15-5ジーストア・アキバ2F.
Off Chou Dori (Akihabara's main street), 2nd Floor Jiisutoa Akiba Building, near Akihabara Station, 3-15-5 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3770 3383. Web:
This is actually a funky little shop, funky in the way that only Japanese junk and collectible shops can be -- full of quirky and cute little products. This is on the second floor of the Jiisutoa Building, which also hosts the legendary Cure Maid Cafe (see a review of that place further below.) Basically the whole building seems to be given over to models of some kind, maids, or maid costumes. On this floor are the maid costumes. The last time I was there, a couple of Japanese girls were appraising the maid and high school costumes, swooning and exclaiming: "Kawaii!" ("So cute!") There were a range of Samurai style swords at the back of the store, mugs and T-shirts printed with weird anime scenes and slogans -- one of the shirts showed two maids at work, one with distinctive anime blue hair, and the title: "Here are our maids. They are only 13-years-old." Bizarre. Might make a cool sarcastic gift for the folks back home though...
Last April, on a walk through Akihabara, I was handed a document called Cospa Catalog for Girls... if anyone wants to buy it, send me 50 cents by PayPal and its yours! The catalog listed some charming items such as a traditional style Japanese folding fan emblazoned with manga -- a cool fashion item indeed for humid summers in Berlin or New York, and selling for ¥1800. There were also "book covers" and mugs based on the Kyo kara Maoh series (¥1000 and ¥800 Yen respectively), high school uniforms with an anime twist, book markers, neckties, uniforms based on those worn in Gakuen Heaven: Boy's Love Hyper, and plenty of other stuff. Hit the official Cospa website link above to see the latest goods on sale!
As well as Akihabara, there are other Cospa stores around Japan... they even have one inside Narita Airport! Over at Shibuya there is a branch in the Hagihara Building (5-3 Maruyamamachi, Shibuya Ward. Phone: (03) 3770-3383.) Shibuya is of course the coolest part of Tokyo when it comes to extreme fashion. If you come here for a browse and it is a weekend (especially Sunday), make sure you head up to Yoyogi Park at Harajuku to see all the Cosplay chicks, hanging out on the walkway near the dancing Rockabillies.

Cosplay Academy Cave: 台東区池之端1-1-2.
Basement floor Usudamu Kouji building, 1-1-2 Ikenohata, Taito Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3834 5018. Web:
When I used to go to Akihabara every day last year researching shops and venues for Vertical Streamline Implosion Crowded World Vagabondic, I managed to collect a lot of souvenirs from pretty girls in high school uniforms. They are everywhere in Akihabara of course, handing out flyers and packets of tissues and other goodies, and posing for/with you in photographs if you ask them nicely enough. Anyway, this packet of tissues I was bequeathed was adorned with two anime schoolgirls complete with big blue eyes and purple hair, and was advertising this new open! establishment called Cosplay Academy CAVE. I never actually made it there, but if the address is anything to go by, the CAVE must be down in Ueno near the pond.

Cure Maid Cafe: 千代田区外神田3-15-5ジーストア・アキバ6F.
Off Chou Dori, 6th Floor Jiisutoa Akiba Building, near Akihabara Station, 3-15-5 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 32583161. Web:
Waitresses at this maid cafe go by the names Pudding or Chocolate. As with other cafes, the establishment runs a website where customers and waitresses can chat. According to the manager: "We get nearly 1,000 page visitors a day, which is unbelievable for a restaurant."
Unlike some other cafes, the maids here are elegant rather than sexy... some would even say dour. Sometimes they get up and perform classical music. Items on the menu include pasta for ¥800, sandwiches for ¥500, and beer at ¥500 per glass. You can also buy sets of cards featuring what else but lots of manga style portraits of maids, and there are some pretty expensive but highly detailed maid dolls on sale for like ¥8000 Yen.

Jupiter Akiba Clothes Shop: 千代田区外神田3-14-6 恵光ビル6階.
6th Floor Ekou Building, 3-16-6 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3252 2918. Web:
When you see a place in Akihabara which advertises itself as a "clothes shop" you better sit up and take note -- it probably ain't just an ordinary clothes shop. Nothing in Akihabara is ordinary, mundane, or purely utilitarian. While Jupiter Akihaba, situated on the sixth floor of a tower overlooking Chuo Dori, proclaims itself to be a clothes store, it is really a Cosplay joint. A Cosplay heaven, if you will. There is a weird range of costumes and uniforms here. Mannequins of SS officers in full death regalia stand alongside flight attendants and maids and high school girls. Nice touch that...

Laox Asobit C: 千代田区外神田1-15-18.
1-15-18 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 5298 3581. Web:
Laox is a Japanese chain with numerous stores in the Akihabara precinct. This particular store is devoted to the universe of Japanese anime and manga. The "C" in the name means "character", and "Asobit" is a play on words combining the Japanese for play (asobi) and the bit from bits and bytes fame. In the basement you will find the adult publications such as comics, novels (literary and adult-themed novels as well as books based on games), magazines and gachapon. This is truly adults' only territory -- people under 18 will not be allowed down the stairs or out of the lift. Things are a bit more familyminded on the first floor, which is dedicated to trading figures, miniatures, collectible sets, fancy characters and character-based publications and DVDs. The second floor is filled with new character figurines, Gundam plastic models, paints, and related publications and DVDs. The third floor is called the "Anime Character Floor" and features the likes of Microman, Pokemon, Transformers, Zoids, and American toys. There are also goodies for the girls. On the fourth floor, meanwhile, you will find special effects and heroes like Masked Rider, Godzilla, Ultraman and their ilk filling the shelves.
The highlight of the building, in my opinion, is the fifth floor. This is where (as I described in lurid detail somewhere above) I stumbled upon a row of lifesized anime dolls and maids with US$6000 price tags. The floor also includes blister figures and smaller dolls, as well as plenty of costumes.
2013 UPDATE: I have heard it said that Laox is trying to penetrate the Cosplay and Akiba scene in China, which I would like to explore at some point in the future, seeing as though I will be moving there next year! Stay tuned for my reports... they will be coming!

M's Shop: 千代田区外神田1-15-13太平堂ビルB1-6F.
Seven floors of fun inside the Pacific Hall Building, 1-15-13 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3252 6166. Web:
This prominent building, easily visible from the Yamanote line south of Akihabara Station, is a huge sex goods emporium. I am not game enough to take photos inside but it is pretty interesting, and confirms my suspicions regarding the kinky side of Japan!
Cheap Bastard pointed out on his guide (mostly dedicated to porn): "This is a four-floor store that sells all sorts of pornographic shit. Funny, I didn't see any hentai manga, although they did have hentai anime. Anyhow, this used to be where a video store called Rocket Soft once lived, although that's not why I've included it in this guide. No, I've included it because of the surreal experience I had there. The store opened recently (recently meaning way back in May, damn I've been lazy about updating this section), and being a Curious Bastard I decided to see what was what. It was after working hours, so I found myself in a store full of young and middle-aged businessmen poring over, well, porn. This whole scene of salarymen earnestly scrutinizing various dildos, whips, riding crops, panties, and other accessories quite frankly scared the beejezus out of me. Having visited each floor briefly, I quickly departed this palatial proprietor of pr0n."
It should be noted that it is not only men who get into the costumes and sex aids at M's Shop. The adult convenience store manages to sell a lot of sexy costumes to girls. "When a girl tries one on, often she asks us to take a photo of her," a store PR guy said. "There are too many customers like that, and our walls are plastered with their photos."
Another unique shop in Akihabara is the so-called video box that features gorgeous rooms and a big collection of animation and adult video tapes. "Even diehard fans will never get bored," said a salesperson for one such place, Hanataro.

Do you want to learn more about Cosplay? Angel Cosplay is a good place for girls interested in dressing up. The Good Angel herself, has this to say about Cosplay beginners: "It's really hard to put yourself out there to cosplay for the first time. Find a character that's a lot like yourself and try to get some of your friends to cosplay with you. Cosplaying in groups helps if you're nervous about cosplaying. Just go out and have a good time! There will always be people out there who say mean things but do not ever let them get you down. Be happy and have a great time! ^_^."
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