wah’s post on Japan’s anime hotspots last month gave a great guide to the world’s otaku paradise, but for those of us whose frequent flyer miles don’t quite reach the Land of the Rising Sun*, or for those who, like me, speak broken Mandarin but dead Japanese, there’s another island nation that’s the next best thing: Taiwan!
*Yes, I am fully aware that Japan is closer to the United States than Taiwan.
As a former Japanese colony, Taiwan still retains some relics of Japanese influence, which may explain Taiwan’s relatively warmer reception (in comparison to some of its other East Asian neighbors) towards the Japanese Wave of popular culture. Taiwanese youth constitute a major international consumer of Japanese youth and urban culture, from food to entertainment to fashion– and of course, anime; many locals proudly count themselves among the obsessed with their Japanese otaku counterparts, and they’ve shaped their world accordingly.
Interestingly to note, Taiwan’s urban scene is to the point that many of Taipei’s must-see spots for young people are referred to as the “Taiwanese version” of Japanese landmarks, making it a bit easier for otaku to understand. Here, I’ll cover some of these spots specifically as otaku havens.
Taipei City Mall 台北地下街: Taipei’s Nakano Broadway
Like the real Nakano Broadway, Taipei City Mall, known in Chinese as the Taipei Underground Street, disguises its otakuness well– starting from the basement of the Taipei Main Station MRT stop, the first third of the mall looks like a normal (albeit wonderfully low-priced) row of clothing and trinket shops, but starting from the local Mag Freak store for Japanese magazines and manga, the middle and most populous stretch of the strip is all otaku, all the time. Its range of offerings is staggering– games, anime, manga, trinkets, blindboxes, model kits, figures, artbooks, dakimakura,
porn… the pathway is lined with gachapon machines, and hoardes of people block the route playing their PSPs or watching others play demo games outside the game shops (Interestingly, I saw one of these shops playing an episode of Red VS Blue, in English, on their display TV). Pretty much every kind of specialty shop (games shops, merchandise shops, etc) has 4-5 clones with varying prices somewhere along the way, so it’s a good idea to look in every shop before buying anything (generally, the shops closest to Taipei Main Station have the higher prices).
The best thing to look out for are shops that sell used goods– or rather, other people’s used goods; a seller can rent a locked display case and price their gachapon, figures, and trinkets for customers to purchase. Most of these goods are in excellent condition and extremely discounted, and some items are pretty recent too, but if you don’t mind being a touch dated, you’ll save big. I bought a ton of gachapon this way– a bit pricier than getting them from a machine, but cheaper than all the failed attempts to get just what you want– and a Gakuran Haruhi figure, normally priced around $60USD at online retailers before shipping, for just 1000NT– about $30USD. This is the place to splurge because as empty as your wallet may be by the end, your arms will be full; to this day, I still regret not buying a Hatsune Miku figure I had my eye on (only 700NT/$21USD! not sure which figure it was, but since it wasn’t a Figma, it must have retailed for at least $40). The used goods shops have a slight chance of bootlegs, but it’s not nearly as sketchy as buying off the street at some nightmarket. And of course, when you’re done, the last third of the strip, dedicated to food stalls and restaurants, includes both a maid and a trap-butler cafe.
Ximending 西門町: Taipei’s Shibuya/Harajuku
Any scholar of the Japanese municipality system will notice that Ximending has a Japanese-style placename (Japanese Seimon-cho), which is fitting for its youth-oriented Japaneseness. This is quite possibly the trendiest place on the island; teenagers off from classes sport the latest Japanese and Korean fashions, with the occasional Goth Loli schoolgirls dragging along their spiky-haired boyfriends. Moreover, among the loads of cute fashionable shops are brilliant lights and billboard-sized TV screens reminiscent of Shibuya 109. Prices here are not meant to be cheap– a far cry from Taipei City Mall’s 100NT/$3 shirts– but if you’re in the market for otaku goods, Ximending’s anime shops, scattered here and there all across the district, are definitely worth a stop, focusing more on manga and accessories like mugs, posters, clearfiles, jewelry, and other trinkets from the latest and greatest anime, rather than than figures and games. The goods here are a bit more reflective of what’s currently hot in Japan, and they lean just a touch more fujoshi than the moetastic Taipei City Mall. Shops like Animate, a staple of otaku shopping in Japan, sell tons of manga that are sold out in the huge Taiwanese bookstores (for example, I looked in at least 10 different stores for the then-newly-released first volume of Axis Powers Hetalia, only to find a 2 foot high stack of them at Ximending’s KT Books). Additionally, the fashion-charged atmosphere of Ximending gives the shops here a greater cosplay orient, with locations selling goth loli fashions and maid outfits; even one of the uniform shops, which sells blazers and skirts for Taiwanese high schools, takes special order for cosplay outfits, like the replica of Japan’s costume from Axis Powers Hetalia I found on their wall. You can also find some doujinshi here, both by Japanese and local artists, at prices only slightly higher than what you’ll find at a comic market. Of course, no otaku hotspot is complete without a maid cafe– and Ximending has two, one of which is excellent.
Guang Hua Market 光華商場: Taipei’s Akihabara
The electronics market, now housed in the six-story Guang Hua Digital Plaza complex, is known more for gadgets and technology than anime and manga, which is why it actually doesn’t take the top of this report. Of course, geeks and gamers aren’t far removed from anime fans, so if you’re looking for video games, stores upon stores will supply you with shelves upon shelves of imported Japanese games which, because of closer shipping distances and heightened supply and demand, will be cheaper than markup and shipping from Japan to the States. PC games and Chinese-language MMORPGs are also huge in Taiwan, which has a prevalent net cafe culture. Unfortunately, if you’re looking to get a great discount on a laptop, console or handphone, Guang Hua actually might not be the best place–while the prices here are cheaper than in other locations around town, electronics are generally about as expensive if not more so than they are in America. What are cheap and prevalent here are things like hard-to-find accessories and converters as well as more… dubious items like R4 NDS carts, which are currently outlawed in Japan.
Finally, there are a few miscellaneous locations that are great for otaku:
-Eslite Bookstores. The larger branches of this chain of bookstores have huge manga sections– they’re all in Chinese, but the size puts the average Borders’ manga section to shame. The best part is that manga is dead cheap in Taiwan– about 90NT/<$3 a book, and completely legal. This is even cheaper than Japanese manga, so if you don't care about not understanding it that much, manga here is great.
-Sogo Tianmu. Sogo is a Japanese department store with many locations in Taipei, but one of interest is the one in Tianmu district (near my grandma’s apartment, incidentally), which has a huuuuuge Japanese-only bookstore– you’ll see the couple dozen autograph boards from Japanese mangaka in a display case in the front. If you thought Eslite’s manga section was big, this one’s is HUGE; I think I counted maybe 40 oversized shelves? It also has possibly the biggest selection around of anime artbooks; not bad for a store that isn’t strictly targeted towards otaku!
-Comic Markets: OK, this isn’t really a hotspot, but there are quite a few comic markets (sort of like our anime conventions, though more like the Japanese Comicket-style events), and since Taiwan is pretty small, many of them are accessible in just the city of Taipei. A few, such as Fancy Frontier, which I attended, are held in Taipei National University. The artists are nearly as good as Japanese doujinshika, and the prices put American Artists’ Alley folks to shame. I might be doing a report just on this event (and will definitely do one on the maid cafes), so look out for it!