I visited Japan back in 2010 with my wife and two daughters, one of them was spending her junior year of college in Tokyo as an exchange student studying Japanese language. It’s really a HUGE benefit to have an interpreter handy!
Someone suggested Tokyo’s Akihabara district and I definitely agree. Leonardo is a few blocks away (east?) from the Akihabara train station and around the corner off the main drag. Mostly older “collector” models, but a treasure trove for non-Japan citizen modelers. The basement has an incredible massive collection of Japanese model and military magazines, most of which I had never heard of with a terrific stock of Koku-Fan Famous Aircraft of the World titles. As we were walking through Akihabara, there was a “street sale” going on in the large plaza of an office building where people were selling all kinds of “garage sale” items. My daughters yelled “Look Dad! there’s a guy selling models!”. Sure enough, there was a guy offering about 500 bagged kits neatly arranged in boxes for easy browsing. I picked up some 1/72 Hasegawa planes for about $2 each, some of which I’d never seen before and some that I couldn’t afford to pay $60 for in the US. There are other shops in Akihabara and the Yellow Submarine store is someplace I saw the sign for but didn’t have time to visit.
One of the hallmarks of Japan is that there are vending machines everywhere for everything. We were visiting Tokyo’s Ueno park area walking down an alley/street (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference in Japan) and my kids yelled “Look Dad! There’s a model vending machine!” I ran over to it and realized that it was actully two large side-by-side beverage vending machines, but the graphics covering the machine was an ad for Tamiya models. That got me thinking that there had to be a hobby shop very close. Just around the corner I found the entrance to Yamashiroya, a very large toy store which had a very good model selection on an upper floor.
A couple of blocks away from Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing in front of the Shibuya train station (the big intersection with all of the neon-LED lights you see on TV and in movies) is Tokyu Hands. This is Japan’s equivalent of Hobby Lobby and Michaels and of course, it’s huge. On an upper floor is the model department with a medium sized model selection, which is massive compared to US stores. There are also other Tokyu Hands stores scattered around.
In Tokyo, we stayed at the Grand Palace Hotel a few blocks away from the Emperor’s Palace. I was up early due to jet lag on our first day in Japan and went out to scout the area with my interpreter daughter. I walked by the high-rise office building next to the hotel and glanced at the business names on the front of the building. I did a double-take and couldn’t believe it! I was standing in front of Model Art magazine! I immediately went inside and went up to their office which was closed – I forgot it was Sunday and we were due leave the next day. But we would return to the same hotel the next week so I would try to visit again then. The next week, the office was open and I and my daughter were greeted by the receptionist who didn’t speak English, my daughter explained that I was from the US and was a modeler who just wanted the experience of being in the Model Art office. After serving us tea, she went and got the editor, who also didn’t speak any English, but he was very gracious and excited that I had visited. He showed me a few stories he was working on for the next issue. The Model Art office was about twice the size of a 7-11 store (7-11 is everywhere in Tokyo, but no Big Bites or Big Gulps) and I couldn’t believe it when he told me that this was it, they do everything except print in this office. I just couldn’t believe that in a city the size of Tokyo, I ended up staying at the hotel next to the Model Art office – I was apparently born to be a modeler.
Some thoughts on Tokyo hobby shops:
1) Japan is land-limited so most retail shops are in multistory high-rise buildings. Look for hobby shops not only at ground level, but look up at the signs on the upper floors of buildings.
2) When asking for the location of hobby shops mention “mokei” (moe-kay-ee) along with the names “Tamiya” and “Hasegawa”. Most people will then know what you are looking for.
3) Look for the Tamiya blue and red star logo on buildings and in store windows – that’s the easiest way to find hobby shops.
4) The cost of Japanese manufactured kits is CHEAP compared to their US pricing. About 1/4 the price or less than the US price and my benchmark was Pit-Road/Skywave ship models. US kits are EXPENSIVE! $45 for the 1/48 Monogram F4U Corsair (yes, the old one from the ‘60s).
5) Many department stores and toy stores sell models.
6) Newsstands and bookstores sell great model/aircraft/military/ship magazines. I picked up two incredibly good magazines about the battleship Yamato and Myoko class cruisers for about $12 each at a train station newsstand.
7) Incredibly, almost all model kits are not shrinkwraped or sealed. I don't know if this means you can open them to inspect them though.
So that’s my advice for model shopping in Tokyo – Enjoy!!!