If you regularly read a site like HG101, then you will probably be interesting in shopping for video games in Japan. They hold unquestionably the best game stores in the planet, sometimes with a number concentrated in the same area, and visiting them is an unforgettable experience. I've been to Japan twice - once in 2007, and more recently in 2011, and this guide chronicles my experiences in the stores I've visited. Keep in mind that I'm not exactly an expert, being a tourist rather than a local, but this should be a good primer for game shopping. Keep in mind that this is largely focused on retro stuff (pre-current gen), as well as soundtrack CDs, though many of the places listed here also stock used HD and portable software as well.
Also take note that some of the best places to scrounge for stuff are the so-called "junk" sections. "Junk" doesn't actually mean that it's trash in the literal sense, but rather that they're aren't the best condition - usually loose carts - and haven't been tested. (Usually the clerks will remind you of this.) However, given that this is the same way practically all cartridges are treated at game stores in the US - even the ones that cater to collectors, somehow! - most Westerners will probably not have a problem with this, especially since the games are very cheap, usually less than 300 yen, and usually much less. For some reason, I ran into copies of Phantasy Star: End of the Millenium several times for less than 100 yen, which is saddening, given that it's one of the best 16-bit RPGs out there.
It's interesting to see how popular various stuff is on the retro scene - for example, Famicom stuff still seems to be in, but no one much cares about Super Famicom a whole lot...which is pretty much the opposite here in America, where SNES stuff is some of the priciest. However, the general apathy towards Mega Drive/Genesis and Nintendo 64 seems to be global.
As some random travel tips, remember that many ATMs will not work with non-Japanese bank cards. However, post office ATMs will work, as well ATMs in 7-11, which are practically on every block. Your local bank will usually assess a transaction fee (mine was $6) but the exchange rate is generally a bit better than if you'd exchanged currency from your bank in your home country. (At least, mine was.) People will continue to say that Japan is a cash society and many places will not accept credit cards, but this is really not the case anymore, as practically any store that isn't a tiny hole in the wall will accept plastic. Take note that your credit card company will also usually attach an international transaction fee (typically 3%), although again, the exchange rate probably won't be too bad. Keep an eye out for banks that do not have a international transaction fee, like Capital One - I got one of their cards specifically for this vacation.) However, also alert your banks you are going overseas, or they may freeze your account for suspicious activities.
For years, I've read that Akihabara (shortened to "Akiba") has been going downhill. I don't know what that's in comparison to or what it means, precisely - I think it has something to do with the influx of anime/manga culture, meaning lots of maid cafes, lots of porn (which has probably always been there) and stuff like that. Still, it's by far the best concentration of gaming stores in Tokyo, so it is still unquestionably worth visiting.
Akihabara is very easy to get to - it's one of the stops on the Yamanote line, a loop which visits most of the major areas of downtown Tokyo. If you flew in from Narita and took the Keisei Skyliner into the city to Ueno, it's a mere two stops down. Most of the interesting stores are to the northwest of the station, either along Chuo-dori or in the small grid of side-streets to the west of Chuo-dori. The spot highlighted on the map is Super Potato, which is one of the most popular.
Whenever anyone posts in a forum about shopping for video games in Japan, inevitably half of the responses point to the world famous Super Potato. This is both right and wrong - for decor and experience, it's one of the best, but if you actually want to buy something, you might want to look elsewhere, because stuff here is on the pricey side. Keep in mind that it's "pricey" only compared to everything else in the area - chances are whatever you'll be looking for whill be cheaper here than on eBay, internet import stores, or the few Japanese retro game stores (like Japan Game Stock) that bother to ship outside the country.
Granted, if you're looking for something rare, it's going to be expensive anywhere, but general in-demandish loose Famicom carts run from 1200 - 2000 yen, when you could potentially find them for 800 - 1200 if you look elsewhere. Similarly, boxed games are generally 500-1000 yen more expensive than other places. It's not a ridiculous markup, though, and if you have limited time and can only go to one place, this is the place to go, because chances are they'll have it. I think this place has the best stock of systems, too, if you're in the market for a Famicom Disk System (or Twin Famicom) like I was. One of my quests this trip was to find a copy of the excellent Gimmick! for the Famicom. What I didn't realize is that it's extremely pricey - when I eventually stumbled across a few copies, they were boxed and were over 10000 yen...which is still cheaper than the copies I've seen on eBay, which run about $250, or about twice the price.) I gave up and just bought one of the Sunsoft compilations on the J-PSN that featured the game, since it was 600 yen. (Remember to buy a Japanese PSN card, which you can find at any 7-11 - you'll need them to buy stuff, and most importers attach a heavy markup, beyond the already awful exchange rate.)
The store inhabits the third, fourth and fifth floors of the building. It's not too hard to find - just follow the Famicom music that it pumps into the streets. The third floor has mostly 8 and 16-bit stuff (along with Dreamcast and Saturn) and a small junk section by the register (where they had dozens of sealed copies of Shen Mue for 500 yen each), while the fourth floor is MSX, soundtrack CDs, PlayStation, strategy guides and various other stuff. The fifth floor is an awesome retro arcade with a Solid Snake statue. There was a throne made of Famicom cartridges but appeared to be under construction.
There's a lot of character to this place - the stairways leading up has the mascot stuck in various retro games, like the Game Over screen from Shadowgate.
Here all of these Wind Waker Link plushies are kept in a cage. "Break out Link!", the sign (sort of) says. There's also a small sign of Link saying "Save me!".
I found this Alex Kidd board game in the "junk" section on the fourth floor, without a price tag. When I asked the clerk, he didn't know, but couldn't sell it to me. I returned a week later and hoped that someone had priced it, but it was still sitting there, taunting me. If I weren't afraid of getting deported I probably would've stolen it. (Also it probably wouldn't have fit in my suitcase anyway.)
There's more than a dozen of these stores located in Akihabara. They generally seem to focus on figures and other toys, but one of the locations, a few blocks north of the train station, is one that focused on retro games, mostly on the second floor.
I'm hesitant to recommend this place. Back in 2007 (which is when the above picture is from), this place had great stock and decent prices, but in 2011, the stuck had been cut back to about 1/3 of the floor, along with a small section of music CDs. The rest was all anime and idol garbage. Assuming they don't get rid of it totally, though, it's still got some decent stuff.
This computer store chain has more than a few stores in Akihabara, and I can never keep track of which ones I've visited. I remember in 2007 I found one with a decent retro selection, but I couldn't replicate that success, finding only "junk" corners. (Which at least served me with a 100 yen copy of Night Trap for the Mega CD and a 30 yen copy of D's Diner for the 3DO.) However, for current-gen games, they seem to offer some of the better prices. I managed to snag the Metal Gear 20th anniversary collection (which includes every canon game up to and including Portable Ops) for 4800 yen or so, so that's pretty awesome.
Another prolific store, also good for current gen games. One of them along Chuo-dori has a decent retro selection too, and probably the best "junk" corner of any of them. I only stumbled on it as I was leaving so I didn't get a full chance to look around much, but they also had a lot of systems, and any place that can offer me a 50 yen copy of Square's Tom Sawyer is OK by me. Alas all of their games are keepered, which, while understandable given theft, sort of hinders the shopping experience.
This store is slightly off the beaten path, relegated to one of the larger side streets on the north side of Akihabara along Chuo-dori. It's next door to G-Front, a spot for buying arcade boards. (You can't really browse around that store though - there's only a small walking area with some display stuff and a bins of Neo Geo MVS carts - otherwise you need to know what you want beforehand to get the clerk to get it for you.) Anyway, Friends is totally devoted to retro games, unlike Trader, Liberty or Book Off. It doesn't quite have the personality of Super Potato either - the second floor was staffed with a somewhat out of place older woman, while the third floor had two guys who were caught in the Sisyphean task of testing their huge stock of games. (One of them was wearing a Pink Godzilla shirt, making me think they're associated with the Seatlle-based retro game chain which recently had to change its name to Pink Gorilla due to copyright concerns.)
ANYWAY. This place is quiet and rarely trafficked, but is generally pretty great. Prices are cheaper than Super Potato and the stock, while not quite as large, is comparable. I think it had the best stock of loose FDS titles too. The second floor has 8 and 16-bit titles, while the third floor has Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, strategy guides, and soundtrack CDs. The above picture is part of the Mega Drive/MSX selection, one of the only areas I could snag a picture of without getting yelled at.
As a side note, around the corner is the cat cafe Neko Jalala. Cats are adorable (I have four of them) and the idea seems enticing, but people tend to forget that most cats are actually anti-social jerks who'd rather sleep than play, and indeed, around 4 PM practically all of its denizens were napping, except for the one who desperately wanted to break into the kitchen. Still, I'll take their authentic indifference over the insincere pandering of the maid cafes a few blocks down. (Also, the way some of the advertisements for those things look, and how pushy those maids on the street can get, I'm always afraid of getting roped into a brothel.)
I'm sticking this in the Akihabara section, but really, you can find Book Offs practically anywhere (as well as its off-shoots: Hard Off, Mode Off, etc.) The Akiba one is located in an out of the way section by the train station, almost beneath the train tracks. (There should be signs in the station that vaguely point to where it is.) Book Off stocks pretty much anything used, including books, manga, DVDs and so forth, which also includes video games. Also worth checking out is the one in Shibuya, which is quite large - it's not directly by Scramble Crossing but if you walk down some of the streets you'll stumble on it eventually.
Their retro selection varies from store to store - it's a bit larger in Akiba - and while you might find something decent (like a complete copy of Ladystalker for the SFC for 105 yen), and the current gen stock isn't too bad, the real reason to go here are the PSOne and PS2 games. Many random PSOne titles are only 105 yen - most of the more popular ones are 500 yen. Rarer ones demand more, although they are not exorbitant - Dracula X: Gekka no Yasokyoku was about 1500, Sexy Parodius was around 2500, and Moon: Remix Adventure was about 4500. Same goes with the PS2 stock - there's a lot of cool, interesting stuff to be had for 500 yen, making it easy to take a chance on any random game that might catch your eye.
This is technically a manga/anime goods store. It doesn't stock regular games or CDs, but it does have lots of doujin games and stuff. However, the scene has largely been taken over by Touhou and Touhou spinoffs, so don't expect to find much here anymore, unfortunately. In 2007 I found a bunch of EasyGameStation stuff (including Gunners Heart, Chantelise, and Duo Princess), along with some doujin CDs for Final Fantasy XII and Cave. This time I just got those two Touhouvania games because there wasn't much else. The store in Ikebukuro was better for this kind of stuff, because they still had copies of the excellent shooter Crimson Clover, although it's still mostly all Touhou all the time.
Not really a lot of retro stuff here, but it's worth mentioning regardless. The first floor is small, stocking more recent titles, along with areas devoted to various goods (artbooks, soundtracks) to Nippon Ichi and Cave. These guys also ran a store devoted to doujin goods, but it was shuttered up when I was there - I don't know if it was temporary or permanent, but there's also a small selection of doujin stuff in the main store, more palatable than Toranoana.
Most interesting in the second floor, which is focused on Western stuff. Strangely this place was better stocked with PC software than any store currently in the US (though not Europe). I saw a copy of Deus Ex with a little tag on it proclaiming how awesome it was, and it warmed my heart. My favorite thing I found here was a series of books focusing on Japanese adventure games and RPGs from the 80s. They were brand new, even though the books themselves must've been published over twenty years ago - maybe they were reprints? Who knows, but they were less than 1000 yen apiece, so despite the weight they added to my luggage, I bought all five. I look the visuals of adventure games from this era - Japanese or otherwise - and provided a good start for future HG101 articles. Most of them were walkthrough-style guidebooks, but there are tons of pictures, and even some sheet music for a few songs.
Keep in mind that there is way more in Akihabara to see than just this - these are only the places that stood out the most. I remember a place called Media Land, closer to the train station on Chuo-dori, with a small retro selection on the second floor, although nothing much. There was also a street level store with a long hallway filled with retro stuff, and a Famicom out front, with lots of common, junk titles bundled together for about 500 yen. However, outside of that, most of the games inside were on the pricey side. At any rate, just keep an eye out for the words "retro" (レトロ) and "used" (中古), and adventure around a little bit, and you're likely to find something interesting.
Now we will leave Akihabara for...
A bit off the Yamanote Line, you can easily reach this place from either Shinjuku or Akihabara via the Chuo-Sobu line. (You can take the Rapid service from Shinjuku too, since it stops there.) You can follow Chris Kohler's guide over at Wired (though it's so old that the pictures are broken), but this is very easy to get to - when you exit the train station you'll see the Nakano Sun Arcade right in front of you (pictured). Follow this all of the way through and you'll reach tbe Nakano Broadway Mall. There are a few floors, and many of them have stores overrun by Mandarake.
Mandarake is a chain that deals in used goods generally aimed at the otaku audiences. This includes manga, doujinshi, figures, toys, CDs, and pretty much anything aimed at a collector, niche audience, thereby seperating it from the broader reaches of Trader, Liberty or Book Off. They have an online store and do ship overseas, although the selection pales (PALES) in comparison to what they have in their stores.
The video game store here is Mandarake Galaxy. It's smaller than the places in Akihabara, but they still manage to have a great stock, and the prices are decent too. A boxed copy of Gradius 2 for the MSX? Less than 3000 yen (though the box wasn't in the best condition.) I think the most amount of money I spent at a single store, I spent here. Their selection of rare and pricey games is also comparable to Super Potato, if you feel like dropping lots of cash on something particularly noteworthy. All of their stuff keepered, though.
There are a couple of other Mandarake stores in Tokyo, although the game selection varies greatly. There is one in Akiba, though I didn't visit it because back in 2007 it only sold doujinshi. However, in 2008 they opened a much larger complex, though any posts I've read about it talk mostly about the anime and manga content, rather than the games. The one in Shibuya (pictured above) is definitely worth visiting, since it's something like two stories underground and feels like a massive basement worth of awesome goodies. (The walk down the steps is interesting - it has strobe lights, thumping music, and disembodied mannuiquin torsos...it's more like entering a club.) However, the game selection is slim pickings. I did stumble upon a Famicom 3D system for about 800 yen, though, and the music CD selection, providing you can find them, is pretty alright.
Mandarake also has a used CD shop in the Broadway Mall, which is worth visiting, but my favorite store here is Recomints. It's smaller, but the prices are cheaper. I found a copy of the Suikoden OST for about 1100 yen, Mario and Zelda Big Band for 1600 yen, the Thunder Cross OST for like 800 yen, and random other stuff for decent prices too.
Okay, I actually didn't visit this place. I found out above it from this Retronauts video, who found out about it from an episode of Game Center CX. Further googling also found a post on the Digital Press forums with tons of pictures. I didn't visit it because it's sort of out of the way - something like an hour and a train few stops away from the closest store to the Yamanote Loop (there are something like six stores or so), and the general impression I got from both those Digital Press posts and Retronauts is that it's very big, but disorganized, overpriced, and generally not worth visiting unless you really have lots of time to sort through stuff. It's the sort of place I'd probably love to live by and visit on a weekly basis to go treasure hunting, but when there's a bazillion other things to do in Tokyo (beyond all of the other game shopping you'll probably be doing), and both Akihabara and Nakano are already extremely well stocked, there didn't seem to be a reason to venture out there. At any rate, since I didn't go there I don't actually know how to get to any of them, although it appears that the Urayasu location is one of the closest to get to.
These are the places I know of in the Tokyo area, so now for Kansai. Also check out this video from Retronauts for a video tour of Super Potato and Mandarake Galaxy.
You go to Kyoto for the Japanese culture, and not really for the game shopping. The downtown area is nice, though it pales in comparison to Osaka or anywhere in Tokyo. You should be visiting the shrines here instead, but if you're in the mood for shopping, most of the shops seem to be concentrated on a section of Teramachi Street, which runs off the downtown area, and isn't far from the Kawaramachi train station. There's a Toranoana here, along with another huge bookstore stock with enormous amounts of porn. (This will be a recurring theme in your quest for video game hunting.) A bit further down there are some computer shops, and a place called A-Too, which sticks the "Famicom" in its name.
The first floor is current gen stuff and seems to be a bit on the pricier side. The second store is retro stuff, though not a whole lot of it, along with music CDs and, like many of these stores, lots of doujinshi. I would largely say this place is relatively unremarkable, but they did have a whole chunk of cheap FDS games in the junk bin, so I can't begrudge them much. (I bought all of the noteworthy ones though, so don't expect a repeat.) There is a Book Off in town too, which is right outside the Sanjo station.
I was sort of disappointed with the game shopping in Osaka, although that was mostly because I was lead to believe that things here were cheaper than Tokyo. They aren't. Still, the whole area by Dotomburi River is incredible, and the city is still definitely worth visiting, so if you're in the area it's worth checking out. The Osaka station is about a 30 minute train ride from Kyoto, although it'll take a bit longer to get anywhere interesting.
Most of the video game stores are located in Den Den Town along Sakaisuji Street, which is part of Nipponbashi. While Akihabara is very easy to access, Den Den Town is not, and requires either a few subways changes or a lot of walking. Check out this guide for more details, but the gist is you'll need to get to Shin Osaka (where the Shinkansen stops), take the Midosuji line to Namba, take the Sennichimae Line to Nipponbashi, then take the Sakaisuji line to the Ebisucho station. Take exit 1A out and Super Potato is on the right, just outside the door.
Super Potato 7
Smaller than the one in Tokyo, the second floor is devoted to retro stuff. This actually might be more expensive than the one in Tokyo, in fact! I found it rather disorganized, too, though overwhelming in that classy kind of way. I didn't see much in the way of game CDs and there's no arcade either. I only bought a cheap copy of the Sunsoft GB game Trip World here.
A few stores down from Super Potato is this store, which offers two floors of retro shopping. Cheaper than Super Potato, larger, and probably better overall, though still not really better than any of the places in Tokyo.
There's a Softmap along this street, along with an A-Too, apparently, like in Kyoto, though I didn't visit it.
The map points to a spot called Sun Bowl, because that's the only spot I could make Google Maps find, but this is the block you want to be going to, because it's right next to...
Closer to the more interesting parts of Osaka, in Amerika-mura, about a 5-10 minute walk from either the Namba or Shinsaibashi station, is another huge Mandarake store. Other than Galaxy in Nakano, this was the best Mandarake store I found for video games - they had tons of stuff, and this seemed cheaper too. A loose copy of Akumajou Dracula for the MSX2 for 1500 yen? Sure, why not! (I still don't own an MSX2 yet...I found a junk one at the Super Potato in Akiba for 3500 yen, but it was missing connections. The A/V cables are standard, but the AC adapter was not, and finding them separate appeared to be impossible, so I didn't bother.)
Unfortunately Mandarake tends to close early, at about 8 PM. Coincidentally, a block or two down the road is Space Station Osaka, a cool retro video game bar, opens at 8 PM, allowing you to make a smooth transition from game buying to game playing/booze drinking. I'll be writing more about this in a later entry.
If you're visiting a totally foreign place, you might as try to eat something cool rather than McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken, right? Here are some good spots to check out.
Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
A huge chain, these places are pretty much everywhere, though the best one I went to was in Shibuya. My favorite thing is the ability to set the spice level - Japanese curry by itself can be sort of bland, but kicked up a few notches, it's excellent. Also note that Japanese soy sauce (technically called "shoyu", but most places just label it "sauce") is sweeter than what we typically get in the US, making it a nice accompaniment.
In New York City there's also a Go Go Curry - probably the best place to get Japanese curry that I know of in the US. There's one of these in Akihabara, at least, but I like CoCo better - the curry is a bit thinner, and again, the spice level.
Filled with single stalls, the ramen in this place is excellent. After buying tickets of all of stuff you want in addition to the standard noodle set, you sit down and are given a card to fill out to determine how you want your noodles cooked, how much fat content in the broth, how much of the restaurant's patented spice you want (hint: a lot), how much garlic and green onions, and so forth. After filling this out, you get a nice steaming bowl of noodles. If you leave some broth and paid for extra noodles, you can summon one of the workers to refill your bowl. Other than the extremely flavorful broth, the best thing about these is that they don't clutter the soup with bean sprouts, which every other bowl of ramen I had in Tokyo was subjected to.
There are a bunch of these around, with two that I know of - one on the outside side of the Ueno train station, just a quick walk north of the Keisei Ueno station (you could technically visit here if you walked off the plane from Narita, although it's not very large, so don't expect to find a place for your luggage) and one that's slightly harder to find in Shibuya, less than a five minute walk from the Hachiko exit. (It's in the basement of a larger building, so you'll need to recognize the logo to find it.) There is also one of these opening up in Brooklyn, NY in the near future. Hooray!
Densetsu no Sutadonya
Its name is short for "Stamina Bowl", and I stumbled upon this randomly in Kyoto. Sort of like the gyudon (beef bowl) or butadown (pork bowl) you can get at any random Yoshinoya, Sutadon is a bowl of rice topped with slithers of pork. However, this pork is apparently the Italian pork used to make prosciutto, cooked in tremendous amounts of garlic and topped with green onions. It is DELICIOUS, though the second bowl admittedly gave me a stomach ache. There are apparently lots of locations in Tokyo, though I'm not sure where they are. You can read more about it here.
Other fun things to do in Japan:
-Mistakenly stumble into the girls-only area of the purikura (picture) booths in an arcade and get kicked out
-Be a girl, visit Harajuku, and confound the clothing store shopkeepers with your distinctly non-Japanese dimensions.
-Accidentally buy dickgirl porn
-Head to Otome Road (across from one of the exits of Sunshine City) and marvel at the shoujo slash pairings for all kinds of properties. I bought one for The A-Team!
-Take pictures of silly advertisements, like the Torys whiskey mascot. It's nice that he's found a girlfriend and appears to be happy, in spite of his obvious physical deformities.
-Be baffled at how the Japan classify and organize their games. They tend to stick them in genres, then by Japanese alphabetical order...but only sometimes, because they also organize by publisher (or vague publisher affiliation) and they tend to be weird. Like, most people would assume you'd stick Final Fantasy Tactics under RPG, but those types of games are actually Simulations...and they may just stuck in the Square-Enix section anyway. Answering the long standing internet debate of whether Mass Effect 2 is still an RPG, Yobodashi Camera sticks the game under the "action" category. Japan has spoken!