If you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the utopia that is retro game shopping in Japan. Aisles filled with rarities in mint condition at rock bottom prices. I’m not here to fully pop that bubble, but maybe let a little bit of air out. The state of retro games in Japan has changed considerably since I first started visiting in the late 90s, but there are still opportunities to find some deals and have fun along the way.
What follows are some tips that I’ve gathered that should make your trip more productive and allow for more time to seek out all the amazing experiences that Japan has to offer outside of a game shop.
Have a wish list
Whether it’s your first time in a Japanese game store or you’re a seasoned veteran, walking into a Japanese game shop can be an overwhelming experience especially if they have a large inventory. Having a list of games that you’re looking for helps focus your attention and allows you to do your pricing homework ahead of time. Before your trip, look up how much something would cost in your home country (via stores, auction sites, etc). It can also help to have the game name written down in Japanese along with a picture of the cover art, both to aid you in your search and to show the clerk if you have to ask for help.
Know what you’re buying
Shops in Japan are well known for describing the condition of each item. Some stores, namely Mandarake and Friends, assign a grade to different components (box, cartridge/disc, manual, extras) from A’ (A+) to C. In other cases there are stickers on the box indicating major or minor damage to a part or if something is missing. Thanks to Super Potato in Osaka, here’s a handy guide to some of their most frequently used descriptions:
In the past the grades often seemed pretty harsh: something labeled “major damage” was to my eyes nearly imperceptible. But now, as inventory has dwindled, the grades appear to have gotten more accurate. More in Osaka than Tokyo, stores like A-Too and Ojamakan open up the boxes and allow you to inspect everything prior to purchase.
Prices are not what they used to be
Given the high demand from foreign and domestic buyers (particularly after the release of the Retro Freak in Japan) prices have gone up significantly on a lot of systems. If you’re hunting for Famicom, Super Famicom, PC Engine, or Saturn games it’s going to be more difficult to find a great deal, especially if you’re looking for something rare and in the box. Here’s where your wish list comes in handy, comparing prices to what you might find on eBay.
There are definitely opportunities if you’re just looking for loose cartridges or, for now, Playstation 1 & 2 games. This is not to say great prices are impossible, it’s just less likely in the more popular areas like Akihabara or Den Den Town and stores like Super Potato.
Credit card acceptance has gone up over the past few years, but there are still a lot of shops that are cash only, particularly in the outskirts. If you need to withdraw money I’ve had good luck at the ATMs located in post offices. Not only are they easy to search for on Google Maps, but they’re also the most accepting of foreign debit cards. Note that you’ll also be paying for the privilege: withdrawal fees can be quite steep depending on your bank.
Location, location, location
The number of places carrying retro games in Japan has gone down over the years. Listing off shops is a subject for another post, but in general you’ll find better prices (but far fewer games) outside of the two major shopping areas of Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Osaka. I’ve found that there is generally more inventory in Osaka, but the prices are very similar between cities nowadays.
Outside of the specialty stores, the most common source of retro games will be the Book Off and Hard Off chains sprinkled liberally throughout the country. They mainly deal in books, movies, and music, but there are sections dedicated to games as well. Anything pre-PS1 will be in a section labeled “Old Soft”.
Learn basic Japanese
Not only is it common courtesy, it can also be a necessity if you’re outside of the major shopping areas. There are a lot of Japanese tutorials available on the internet like this one which also provides audio clips. Practice. Trust me, it’ll help and make life a lot easier. When checking out there’s almost always a calculator nearby where they can type out the amount owed.
Google Translate is your friend
Haven’t used Google Translate? It’s an incredible app but does require an internet connection. It allows you to take a photo of a sign and with a swipe of your finger it can provide a rough translation. It’s not as good with handwritten text and sometimes the translation is horribly broken, but it’s better than nothing and usually gives you an idea of what the sign/game/sticker might say.
Use rental lockers
If you’ve done a lot of shopping and find yourself carrying a bunch of bags, I’d encourage you to use the rental lockers that are often clustered near metro stations. For a few hundred yen you can store your bags and retrieve them when you’re ready to head home. Most stores have very narrow aisles and the less you’re carrying the better.
Remember, you have to get it home
Back in the old days I used to pack a bag inside of my bag and then return with one full of games. There probably aren’t enough deals to make that worthwhile now, but nevertheless you should keep in mind how you’re going to get everything home. Boxes are easily crushed in luggage and CD cases in bulk start to get really heavy.
If you’re buying boxed games, try to remove the carts and fold the boxes flat. Boxed Super Famicom games have a plastic tray inside that are easily stacked if you have more than one. Boxed systems may be larger than they appear.
Finally, don’t forget about potential import duties (tax) for your home country when going through customs.
Don’t just shop!
Japan is an fascinating country with centuries of history and endless amazing things to do outside of shopping (temples, museums, parks, and most importantly food). Spending hours inside a game shop if you haven’t seen some of the rest seems like a terrible waste. Enjoy the shopping experience but hopefully it’s not the only thing you do.