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The Times Shopper

Bargaining for Gadgets in Tokyo's 'Electric City'

October 20, 1985|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York free-lance writer.

Travelers with a passion for gadgetry will probably think of Akihabara as an outpost of paradise. This is Tokyo's "Electric City," where the streets are lined with about 600 stores, shops and stalls featuring every imaginable type of electric gadget and appliance.

Akihabara has more circuitry per square inch than anyplace else in the world. More important: It has the world's greatest discount prices.

Akihabara was a shrine in olden days but has had electronics stores since the 1920s. The district's ambiance is that of an electric circus. There are crowds of buyers and sellers. Hawkers compete with loudspeakers to attract customers. Bright banners and flashing neon signs vie for attention. Some stores parade robots outside their doors.

Americans Like Systems

Through those doors you'll find a mind-boggling array of electronic paraphernalia. Merchants say that the biggest sellers with American customers are audio and video systems and personal computers. But you can find calculators, TVs of all shapes and sizes, solar-powered pocket radios, electronic musical instruments, electronically heated clothing, lamps of all sorts, washing machines, electric egg boilers with settings for soft, medium and hard.

Then there are sesame seed grinders, nine-language pocket translators, pasta makers, Watchman and Walkman units, letter openers, radish graters, pocket-size shavers, talking alarm clocks.

You can get heated toilet seats, robots, pocket games that double as alarm clocks and calculators, and desk-top vacuum cleaners. The list could go on, and on, and on.

Akihabara is a prime test market for many Japanese electronics manufacturers, so you'll find not only the oddest items but the latest designs, innovations and experimental modifications on TVs, VCRs, stereo components, video and movie cameras. Keep your eyes and ears open, especially for some remote-controlled audio and video systems new in Japan and not yet available in the United States.

Look for Duty Free

With such an abundance of stores, items and come-ons, Akihabara can seem a bit confusing. But it needn't be. Here are some basic tips: Look for stores with "Duty Free" departments that specialize in items for export. In these you'll find goods that are compatible with electric current and cycles at home. Many manufacturers use these outlets to sell goods manufactured for foreign contractors who have defaulted on their deals. Prices can be ridiculously cheap. And they're prepared to ship.

If you buy in shops or departments that cater to the Japanese market, be sure that the goods you buy will work on the standard American current of 115-120 volts, and on 60 cycles. Many items can be adjusted from 50 cycles (used in Tokyo) to 60 cycles (used in Osaka) on the spot. But make sure to have this done, or the appliance is likely to burn out.

Also make sure that TVs and radios are set to receive frequencies broadcast in the United States; they're different from Japanese broadcast frequencies.

Choose stores with English-speaking salesclerks, or have a Japanese friend act as interpreter. And always make sure you get instructions and a warranty in English. Comparison shop in several stores before you buy; prices and merchandise vary widely.

Browsers Are Welcome

Do wander into any store to explore. Browsers are almost as welcome as buyers.

Laox (1-2-9 Sotokanda, phone 253-7111) is a huge shop with Duty Free departments on the 6th and 7th floors. There's an emphasis on auto products, and a huge sound demo room where 30 people can have juice or coffee and listen to the latest laser stereo systems, cassette and reel-to-reel recorders.

Laox also specializes in electronic musical instruments, including Cassio and Yamaha portable organs (briefcase size) with 10-12 pitch switching, and Cassio's latest keyboard with piano, guitar, flute, violin and fantasy modes and 10 programmed rhythms (it also doubles as a calculator with all functions). Laox carries Hitachi, Toshiba, Sansui, Sony, JVC, Sanyo, Pioneer and National Panasonic.

Yamigawa (3-13-10 Sotokanda, phone 253-4311) is the biggest outlet, with seven sister stores in Akihabara, each specializing in another type of goods: computers, watches (great buys on Citizens), cameras (especially Canons), and audio and video (Hitachi, Sony, Sansui, Pioneer, Sanyo, JVC, Toshiba).

Light Up Your Day

The real treat is the lighting store that displays about 6,000 lamps ranging from crystal chandeliers (imported from the United States and Europe) to the ultimate in desktop illumination, pole lamps and theatrical lighting. It also features designer items, including kinetic sculptor Takamichi Itoh's mobile fixtures and other moving vessels in which colored oil and water are illuminated as they flow into glowing fluid shapes.

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