Maid cafes, anime and figurines have become some of the trademarks of Tokyo's Akihabara district in recent years, attracting young couples and families to the area's glittering neon-lined streets.
But as its nickname, "Electric Town," suggests, for as long as people can remember, the majority of visitors who frequent the area have been male electronics and gadget enthusiasts.
The whole area around JR Akihabara Station was turned into a burned-out wasteland during World War II. But street stalls dealing in electron tubes and other radio parts illegally brought in by U.S. military personnel sprung up in the area after the war, supposedly resulting in the early development of the Akihabara we know today.
Much of the area has changed, but the Tokyo Radio Department Store still retains a charm reminiscent of days gone by.
The building is a couple of minutes' walk from the Electric Town Ticket Gate of JR Akihabara Station. Fondly referred to by frequent visitors as "To-Raji," the building is packed with shops specializing in electrical parts for personal computers and audio appliances.
To-Raji originally started out in a two-story wooden building in 1950 before it was replaced by a six-story steel-framed structure with one basement level in 1973.
"Up until the 1980s, the whole building was often jam-packed with shoppers," recalled Tatsuto Okuzawa, 57, a 12th-generation owner of the operating company of the To-Raji building.
Possibly due to a long-lasting economic slump, however, the number of business operators who purchase parts in large quantities is on the decrease. The number of shops in the building is down by about a third from 15 years ago to its current 42.
"I definitely miss (the old days), but the shops still look the same as they used to," Okuzawa said. "Would you like to take a look around?"
Filled with kiosk-like small shops, the aisles of the department store are just wide enough to let people squeeze by one another. The whole place offers a charm reminiscent of old streets with rows of booths.
The Okuzawa store, which is operated by the president himself, specializes in metal plates used for the outer covering of electronic devices.
"We can punch holes to mount a switch or put on a scale," he points out. "We can customize it any way you want."
The Jimbo Shokai store is a very basic parts shop in the mall, dealing in delicate components such as electrical connectors.
Displayed in one section of shelves is a glass electron tube labeled as a "To-Raji Original."
"It's a do-it-yourself kit jointly developed by each of the shops here," said Okuzawa. "Even first-timers can easily assemble it."
Many varieties of condensers used for the circuits of audio appliances fill the shelves at the Sakuraya Denki-ten shop. Each of them appears to be the same at first glance, but their sizes are subtly different from one another.
"This one will boost deep bass, and that one will increase high-pitched sounds," explained Shigeru Yamada, a 40-year-old store manager. "Condensers have their own characteristics. I'd be happy to meet any of your preferences, so please consult me."
Okuzawa gives us a quick tour around the store with a smile on his face before imparting the following advice.
"When you come here as a customer, try to haggle over prices," he said. "Some shops will be happy to oblige."
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