2k540: There's more to Akihabara than nerds and maids

2k540: There's more to Akihabara than nerds and maids

Named for a geeky railway term, 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan puts a futuristic spin on craftsmanship
Colorful and lovable toy aliens at Studio Uamou.

After about an hour in Akihabara, it always hits me. My senses get saturated with the saucer-eyed anime girls, maid café touts and plastic figurines, and it’s time to split. Tokyo’s electronics shopping district is always fascinating but the AKB48 overload can pull you down like a Vegas hangover.

It was a welcome surprise, then, to find a retail experience that’s worlds away from Akiba, yet just off its northern fringe.

After dropping in at my favorite robot shop Technologia, past the UDX Building, I stumbled upon a gem of a mall tucked under the JR train tracks.

Urban renewal

2k540Akihabara, but not as we know it, at the entrance to 2k540.

Opened about a year ago, 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan is positively futuristic compared to the dowdy surrounds of Ueno 5-chome. I entered a long tunnel of thick white columns sprouting from fresh asphalt, with small white shops stretching into the distance.

Run by JR East Urban Development, 2k540 is railway talk for 2.54 km, the distance to Tokyo Station; Aki-Oka refers to its position between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations.

While the Yamanote and Keihin Tohoku trains zip along overhead, Aki-Oka is as quiet as an art gallery.

That’s where the “Artisan” comes in. As I walked through the tunnel, I came upon an exhibition of unglazed ceramics, shoppers trying their hand at making accessories with beads and an eclectic collection of artisanal shops.

Toys for all ages

2k540You'll have someone's eye out -- wooden guns from Nocra.

Recently opened Nocra, a Hokkaido woodcraft specialist, has a line of realistic wooden guns including Walther P38 pistols that fire elastic bands instead of bullets.

From Fukui Prefecture, Hacoa works IT wonders in wood, from full computer keyboards to gorgeously lacquered USB keys. Its iPhone 4 cases, available in maple, walnut and rosewood, can be customized with laser-cut names and designs.

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In fact, many of Aki-Oka’s stores feature bespoke or DIY creations. If you’re tired of genetic, throwaway umbrellas, Tokyo Noble lets shoppers create their own funky brolly to cherish, with 77 colors to choose from.

Soshin Kaleidoscopes can show you how to make your own simple mangekyo with a small bottle of crystals, or you can pick up one of their fine designer walnut ‘scopes for ¥12,600.

From leather goods to jewelry and hat shops, Aki-Oka emphasizes monozukuri, the art of making things -- a proud tradition that defined the Shitamachi part of Tokyo for centuries.

2k540Mini-kaleidoscope at Soshin Kaleidoscopes.

Takumi no Hako sells hand-forged tweezers that can grasp the thinnest of hairs for a whopping ¥16,800, as well as deluxe nail clippers from Niigata Prefecture’s Suwada Blacksmith Works that are designed to last decades.

Utsuwaya Tuku, meanwhile, features the elegant ceramics of Hidenori Teshima and Hideki Miyamoto, two potters who use refined colors and bold glazes.    

Wandering around Aki-Oka is the best way to enjoy it. There are about 40 shops in all, as well as event spaces where exhibitions and workshops are held, such as a recent demo of how to make Edo kiriko glassware.

End of the line

2k540Curry and toys for grownups at Toique.

When it was teatime, I checked out two offbeat eateries in the arcade. One is Toique, a café with a collection of unique wooden puzzles and other toys for adults. Unfortunately, children are allowed in only on designated days.

Nearby is Boo, serving mini pizzas, hayashi rice other light meals and connected to Studio Uamou. A nod to Akihabara, both are full of Uamou figurines, a cute, alien cartoon character designed by Ayako Takagi. As mass-produced dolls go, it’s hard not to love.

In fact, the mouthless Uamou is all over the arcade and seems to be its unofficial mascot. Fortunately, though, Aki-Oka is devoted not to fantastic plastic, but creative craftsmanship. Amen to that.

Getting there: 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan can be reached from JR Akihabara or Okachimachi stations, as well as from Suehirocho on the Ginza subway line.

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Author and journalist Tim Hornyak has been covering Japanese culture and technology for over a decade, and has traveled throughout the archipelago.

Read more about Tim Hornyak