Happiness Is a Warm Arcade

Japan is still well known for its video game and arcade culture, but neither are really what they used to be. I think its public knowledge that Japan’s importance in console gaming has long since diminished. Sure, its made a bit of a comeback as of late, but the majority of the classic Japanese game developers, Capcom, Konami, Sega, and so on, are all just fractions of what they used to be. And they’re the lucky ones, a hell of a lot more are defunct completely, or exist only as a holding house to license out old IP.

Sadly, arcade culture in Japan has diminished recently as well. It feels that not a year goes by where you hear of some classic or legendary game center in the greater Tokyo area shutting down. And the ones that remain have been forced to shift their focus away from classic arcade style games and more to redemption machines (crane games) or insanely complex rhythm games. And while I find both to be fun in their own ways, they’re very much not for everyone.

Sure, Akihabara has lots of arcade still, with some great ones that even focus on retro machines. And that’s awesome. If you’re a tourist then I totally recommend you check them out. But, the longer one spends in Akihabara, the sadder it feels. The pervy underbelly becomes more apparent. You start to notice the games less, and the disgusting old men lusting after women in schoolgirls more. Not to mention storefront after storefront catering to the most base-level otaku with anime porn featuring obviously underage girls. It’s an icky place.

Seeking an alternative to the perv-domain of Akiba, the boyfriend and I headed out to Odaiba last week, in search of a different variety of massive arcade. We escaped lustful sadness of Akihabara’s otaku culture and had some fun along the way, but also found ourselves face-to-face with a sadness of another kind.

Odaiba is a man-made island that functions basically as a tourist trap. Yes, there are businesses and even some homes there, but it’s mostly full of shopping centers, museums, and other things to wring the wallets of tourists dry. If you’re staying in the city proper, it’s a relatively easy trip, you can take a train directly there from Shinjuku Station and it only takes about half an hour. But, my boyfriend and I were feeling a bit adventurous, and decided to trek across the Rainbow Bridge in order to get there.

The Rainbow Bridge is a massive train/car/pedestrian bridge that goes from the Shibaura Pier to Odaiba. It’s not exactly a quiet walk, you’re sharing it with cars and trucks after all, but it is a scenic one, and allows for some spectacular views.

It’s also trapped in the past. The Rainbow Bridge was built in 1993, and I don’t think that it’s been updated or renovated since. The pictures in the entry hall that show off the amazing views of the bridge are woefully outdated. They were obviously taken not soon after the bridge had been completed. Additionally, the area around the bridge has fallen into disrepair. Weeds overtake the walkways and trash litters the street. Thankfully, we saw some construction when we were there, so hopefully they’re working on fixing it up.

Beautiful from afar but bruised and beaten when observed in detail, the paradox of the Rainbow Bridge in some ways mirrors the current state of Tokyo. The city has never fully recovered from the economic crash that followed the boom economy of the 80s. And while it may look like a bustling economic powerhouse from afar, its pretty easy to find cracks like this, cracks that seem to be increasing on the regular. Maybe the cracks are all getting fixed like the Rainbow Bridge is now, but a lot of them feel forgotten, with government officials either lacking the funds or the desire to clean them up.

Odaiba itself has fared a bit better. Although it too shows its age, it comes across as more of a charming retro/vintage aesthetic that anything else. Most of the malls in Odaiba were finished in the mid-to-late 90s, and they sure as hell look like it. The whole island screams “1997.” But, unlike a lot of the other Tokyo relics of bygone eras, a lot of care has been made to make sure Odaiba still looks good. The buildings look old, but they look old with a fresh coat of paint. And the malls, while not exactly thrilling, are always full of a variety of shops to entice tourists. It may have lost its sheen over the years, but tourists still flock there, and its a thriving, bustling place on the weekend.

But the boyfriend and I weren’t really interested in shopping, we were there for the games. First up we went to a retro-themed arcade located in the Decks shopping plaza. And when I mean “retro-themed,” I really mean it. This place goes for it. Not only do they have some amazingly well-maintained arcade games from the 90s and 80s, they also have stuff that goes back even further, mechanical games that look like they date to 60s or earlier. And they all work remarkably well. They got a game where you can feed a pig. It’s pretty cool.

The entire aesthetic of the place is wonderful as well. Its all an homage to Japan’s glory days of the 80s, the boom economy that so many Japanese people have an overwhelming nostalgia for. I really can’t blame them either. I have nostalgia for it and I wasn’t even there. Everything, everyone just looks so damn happy. I know, of course, that rose-colored glasses are in full-effect and that there were plenty of problems at that time as well. But it’s hard to argue that things weren’t just a little bit better then when you’re confronted like a place like this. It certainly made my boyfriend’s eyes light up, reminding him of his high school years. It’s the kind of place that one could easily get lost in, a cute little corner that’s just so lovely and fun that leaving it makes you just a little sad.

That whole mall has a retro style that’s worth exploring if you’re up for it. But like I said, my boyfriend and I were on a mission to play some video games. We could’ve gone to Joypolis, the Sega-branded arcade/theme park next to the retro arcade, but we decided against it. I’d been there once before and was very much not impressed. While I’m all for some kitsch and outdated fun, I don’t want to be overcharged for it. And the 4,000 yen entry fee is just too much for an arcade that is still largely boring light gun games in desperate need of an update. Sure, there are some more “ride” type games there, and they’re fine in a way, but it’s not just for me.

We took a quick walk over to DiverCity (get it!?), mostly for a brief stroll through the massive Round One game center. Round One is a chain of super-commercial game centers that focus mostly on bowling and crane games (or UFO catchers as they’re known here) but I wanted to see how the more traditional arcade section was doing there.

Turns out, not that well. While crane games had always dominated the floorspace of Round One, it seems that they’d grown in numbers since my last visit there, literally dominating the area for as far as the eye could see. There were still a decent number of arcade games, but mostly newer stuff, some light gun games and a few rhythm ones as well. And the place is just so damn loud. The blaring music from the games is like a cacophony of madness. I can only bare it for so long.

We did see the new Gundam though. So that was cool.

But this was all just preamble to what I considered the main attraction, the wonderful, the amazing, the spectacular Tokyo Leisureland! I had the pleasure of stumbling upon this megapolis of an arcade late last year, and had been meaning to come back ever since.

I found it by accident, I didn’t even know it existed. The boyfriend and I wanted to go on the ferris wheel, and after departing that we noticed the entrance to Leisureland right beside it. Inside, I discovered a wonderland. It was the arcade of my childhood dreams. All kinds of games, you name them, for as far as the eye could see. They had crane games that were weird and fun (and seemed a little more fair than your average variety), a decent selection of retro games including a full-sized OutRun 2 cabinet, and all kinds of amazing Japan-only oddities and rarities that I had never seen before. It was the best, some of the most fun I’ve had in Japan since arriving here nearly four years prior. Such a happy place full of happy people having fun.

And it was the specifically the reason we made the trip out to Odaiba. I’ll be honest with you, it’s been a rough few months. I feel like I keep writing that on all my blog posts over and over again. Forgive my redundancy, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The state of the world just makes me feel…disconnected…I guess is the way to put it. Detached. Not even depressed, not really I guess. I don’t know. It’s that feeling I’ve been trying to describe for the better part of a year and failing to do so.

Anyways, I know that going to an arcade, no matter how amazing and awesome, wouldn’t solve that problem. It wouldn’t make me feel any better in the long run. But a distraction is still a distraction, and that was all I was looking for. Something to take mind off of all the madness that seemingly grows in strength everyday (Did I mention that the same morning North Korea launched another missile over Japan?). I just wanted chill out, relax, and play some fucking OutRun.

But yeah, it turned out that Leisureland closed two months ago. We were greeted with an unceremonious closing sign and nothing more.

I know this is not an event that should really bother me. But for some reason it did. It really shook me up. Like my boyfriend getting nostalgic at the retro arcade, like all the Japanese people who yearn for a return to the bustling 80s, I think I was just so eager to escape, just for a little while, that when I found out that I couldn’t, at least not right then, it just fucked me up for a bit. Yes, there are other arcades in Tokyo and of course there are other means to distract oneself. But for that day I built up this one place as a respite from reality. And instead all I got was a cold reminder of it. Quite honestly, it bothered me a lot more than it probably should’ve, and I’m still trying to figure out why.

I started out that day hoping to have some mindless fun. Along the way, I inadvertently discovered, via signs of neglect and stress, that Tokyo is still trying to recover from hard times. Hard times that never seem to be ending.

I guess I discovered the same thing about myself too.

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