The Glory of Hard-Off

I’ll get the obvious joke out of the way now.

In Japan, software is just called “soft” and hardware” is just called “hard.” The suffix “off” is often used to signify sales. There’s an entire chain of stores that make use of that grammatical choice. They have bookstores called “Book Off” that are quite common in and around Tokyo. Their stores that sell figures and models is called “Hobby Off.” They even have a used housewares store that is named “Off House,” I’m not sure for the reasoning behind the flipped words there.

But yes, they do have a hardware store, and it is called “Hard Off.” I understand that’s funny and I will not besmirch you for laughing. Shit, I’ve lived here three and a half years and I still giggle sometimes when I say to myself, “wow, that Hard-Off is huge.”

By the way, they have a liquor outlet store called “Liquor Off” and I think that shit is even funnier, but I digress.

Hard-Offs are amazing stores full of wonders and I highly recommend that anyone who has even the slightest interest in gaming, technology, or A/V equipment make an effort to seek one out. There are a couple in the city itself. There’s long been one in Akihabara, and one recently opened in the hipster haven of Shimokitazawa. Both are good, but if you really want to see the good shit, you have to take a trip outside of the city. That’s where the really huge Hard-Offs are.

Yeah, I know.

These stores are great for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, they are a goldmine when it comes to retro gaming. Every Hard-Off I’ve ever been to has been absolutely stacked with games for the Famicom and Super Famicom. You’ll also typically find a decent amount of games for other big systems, such as the Dreamcast and Saturn, and the multitude of Game Boy systems out there. Once in a while I’ll stumble across a Hard-Off with a handful of games for more out-there system, such as the Neo Geo, PC Engine or even the Sega Mark III, but don’t go to any expecting to unearth such treasures on a the regular.

Of course, being a hardware store, Hard-Offs often are jam-packed with vintage game consoles. Just like the software, you’ll always find the more common consoles at every Hard-Off location, and occasionally luck into rarer systems or strange variants.

Hard-Off prices their stuff to move, so you’ll usually find stuff at much cheaper prices than you would at the Super Potato or Trader down in Akihabara. But don’t expect to fleece them out of something gold. They’re not idiots, the good shit and the rare shit are still behind glass and priced accordingly, although still cheaper than it would be in the city.

But as fun as it is to browse Hard-Offs for their games and game consoles, what I really enjoy about them is their used A/V section. You’ll never know what kind of wonders lie to be found back there. Laserdisc players, VCRs, Minidisc machine,  tape decks and more. I’ve even seen dedicated DAT decks and VCD players there. If it’s a piece of obsolete technology, they got it. Since moving to Japan I’ve bought a VCR/DVD combo (with a built in hard drive for dubbing!) and a fantastic high-quality tape deck, both at Hard-Off.

I haven’t bought a turntable at Hard-Off, but that speaks more to the quality of my turntable (a custom-modded Technics SL-1210) than to the quality of record players you’ll find at any given Hard-Off. Truth be told, most Hard-Offs have absolutely stunning turntables, refurbished and ready to move. Stacks and stacks of them even, most of amazing quality and audiophile-friendly.

Be sure to browse the “Junk” section as well. This is where, not surprisingly, the junk hardware is. This is mostly for the high-end geek, the repairman looking for parts. But even if you won’t be able to use anything you find in the junk section, it’s still worth a peek. I’ve seen VCRs with built-in projectors, absolutely bonkers MiniDisc players and really out-there turntables collecting dust in the junk section.

For me, visiting a Hard-Off is more like visiting a museum than anything else. Sure I might walk out of there with a game or a record (their record sections are usually kind of crap, to be honest) but that’s only part of why I like going. I really enjoy just seeing the strange and nearly-forgotten technological wonders from bygone eras. A wall of VCRs isn’t just a discount rack, its a monument to analog. A row of bulky LaserDisc players that all weigh a metric ton; a wonderful testament to what was once as high-tech as you could possibly imagine.

I’ve been to probably over a dozen Hard-Offs in the past year, and after a while they all blend together so it’s hard for me to recommend just one. If you go to Google maps and search for “Hard-Off” almost all of them pop up immediately, so that can be a good start. You might be tempted to head off to the biggest one you can find, but maybe hesitate if it’s really out of the way for you. When it comes to Hard-Offs, size doesn’t always matter (tee hee), many of the huge Hard-Offs are also Off Houses, so a lot of that floorspace might be dedicated to furniture and housewares. Another thing to keep in mind is that many of them are not close to stations, you might be in for a bit of walk or a bus ride. That’s not always a bad thing though! A nice 20 minute stroll from the station to the Hard-Off is usually quite relaxing for me, and it gives me the chance to explore suburban Tokyo, which is often filled with crazy houses and fun little oddities you’d never expect to find.

I would’ve never discovered Car Witch if I hadn’t taken that long walk.

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