For Tokyoites, the shopping hub of Shibuya – home to faithful dog Hachiko and the world's busiest pedestrian crossing – is where you go for the trendiest clothes, curated by aloof young fashionistas with impeccably manicured fingers on the city's throbbing pulse. 

Shibuya’s favourite department store

Parco department store interiors, Shibuya, Japan Credit Andrew Goldie

Parco department store interiors, Shibuya, Japan Credit Andrew Goldie

My first clue that there's a nerdy heart beating strong beneath those fashion-forward frocks – beside the tourists whizzing past on go-karts in superhero garb – is the reopening of department store Parco last November.

Since 1973, the brand has defined Shibuya style with an envelope-pushing melange of entertainment, art, and fashion, and its new incarnation has an entire floor dedicated to the holy otaku trinity: gaming, anime and character goods.

Much like its English counterpart 'nerd', the word 'otaku' has been reclaimed from pejorative roots by the popularity of those soft-power exports, but it was still surprising to find an otaku mecca taking up some of the most expensive real estate in one of Tokyo's most fashionable districts.

Spotting Parco’s Nintendo store

Lines of shoppers were waiting hours just to step foot in the Nintendo shop. Uniformed school girls were massed in giggling bunches outside the Pokémon megastore to snap a selfie with a life-size Mewtwo in an incubation tank. Grandpas and toddlers both were making grabby hands at roly-poly stuffies of Mega Man at Capcom's store.

Was this new or had these beautiful nerds been in Shibuya all along?

Shibuya’s secondhand anime empire, Mandarake

Mandrake Shibuya, Japan Seattle Credit Andrew Goldie

Warren-like interiors hide endless goodies at Mandarake, Shibuya: Credit Andrew Goldie

I started my investigation at Mandarake, a secondhand store for anime, manga, toys, cosplay, and assorted subculture merch. The entrance is hard to miss. Bronze steampunk pipes twist around a giant clock with a shattered face, the hands pointing not to hours but to years past.

I've been walking past it for years assuming it was a disco, but this time I descended the grey stairs, strobing lights illuminating posters for cosplayer meet-and-greets and collectibles with eye-watering prices (60,000 yen, $780, for a worn rubber kaiju monster?!).

The other shoppers this afternoon are mostly students, plus a handful of besuited businessmen and one sharply dressed middle-aged woman meandering through towers of Bandai Mecha toys, ancient Shōnen Jump magazines, and autographed photos from teen idols. The narrow aisles, chartreuse floor lighting and cabinets of creepy articulated dolls make me feel slightly claustrophobic, but it also feels like I might stumble on buried treasure at any moment.

On the endless shelves of manga, it's easy to spot stereotype-confirming examples with hard-bitten male heroes, busty ladies, and techno-futuristic sci-fi, but there's also a lot of diversity.

A large section is given over to yaoi or boys' love (BL), homoerotic romances that are paradoxically popular with women. I eye Bitter Porn Chocolatier, in which a spy steals award-winning dessert recipes using his wiles. Then there’s books that are all innocent cuteness, like Shirokuma Cafe, in which anthropomorphic animals eat cake and make bad puns. There is literally something for everyone.

Inside Shibuya’s Maidreamin

My next stop is another classic otaku haunt: the maid cafe.

Maidreamin is one of Asia’s largest chains of maid cafes, where the adorable maids have distinct characters, wear frilly pinafores, and perform chirpy dance numbers.

I'm welcomed by a petite maid who introduces herself as Usagi-chan (Miss Rabbit) and announces the arrival of “Princess Jessica” to the room. With wide, earnest eyes, she explains the system (500 yen an hour in addition to a food or drink order) before hopping off to fetch me a pair of fuzzy rabbit ears.

A friendly member of staff at Maidreamin, Shibuya, Japan Credit Andrew Goldie

A friendly member of staff at Maidreamin, Shibuya, Japan: Credit Maidreamin

The interior is a pastel 8-bit fantasy, with old-school emoji all over the walls and brick blocks floating near the ceiling à la Super Mario. Video screens in the walls show animated maids bobbing and bowing to a perky soundtrack.

I opt for the Righteous Puppy Parfait; tea-flavoured ice cream and strawberries, topped with cotton candy, star sprinkles and a cute dog face crafted out of almonds and chocolate.

"Time for delicious magic!" trills Usagi-chan. She coaches me through an incantation, forming a heart with our hands and pushing it out towards the dessert. "Together, OK? Delicious, delicious! Moe, moe! Kyuuuuuu!"

This chant of 'moe' (mow-eh), which in the otaku world means the emotional attachment towards a favourite character, is supposed to make the food tastier. I can't say it's effective, but I'm giggling and cheerfully playing along. I was expecting something a tad salacious, but it's all good-natured fun.

"We get a lot of foreigners here, and a lot of couples. Lots of different kinds of people come," explains Usagi-chan. "It's like entering into a fairy tale."

Virtual reality experiences at Adores

Adores, Shibuya, Japan Seattle Credit Andrew Goldie

Colourful interiors at Adores Shibuya: credit Andrew Goldie

Moving on, I head across the street to Adores, a four-floor arcade with a new suite of VR experiences. The first floor is open to the street and dedicated to crane games.

Many tourists who have wandered in out of curiosity and are spending a few coins trying for a goofy souvenir. The second floor has mobs of high-school girls waiting in line for purikura picture booths and a young couple enthusiastically engaged in a zombie shooter game. The couple that slays together, stays together.

The most popular area is the third floor, home to slot machines, pachinko booths, and StarHorse4, Sega's lucrative horse racing simulator. The lounge chairs with attached screens are full of intensely focused players, all male. Betting on a digital race doesn't seem like much fun, but player Takeshi Sato explains it's more complicated than it looks.

"You don't just bet on the races, you train your own horses, the jockeys too. You have to take care of the horses, keep them in good condition so they can level up. It takes skill and experience," he says.

I watch over his shoulder as he sets his jockey to lifting weights and buys feed from a menu that includes equine favourites like apples and sugar cubes (Also, worryingly, energy drinks. Isn't that horse doping?). Before long, Sato is completely engrossed, so I silently wish his horse Frappuccino a good run and head for my last stop.

Shibuya's coolest (geekiest) bar

The entrance to MADCS, a bar dedicated to amekomi (American comics) fandom, is harder to find than Superman's Fortress of Solitude, but I finally locate it up a sketchy flight of stairs. Inside, I'm greeted by a life-sized Iron Man suit (which can actually be worn if you're small enough) and tall, bubbly bartender Hilary, cosplaying tonight as Peggy Carter from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Nighttime scenes at Scramble crossing, Shibuya, Japan Credit Unsplash

Nighttime scenes at Scramble crossing, Shibuya, Japan: Credit Unsplash

Hilary inherited an interest in American comics from her dad, she explains, as she makes a Captain America-themed cocktail, a tart blue concoction with a lemon wheel representing the shield. When she was a kid, other Japanese girls her age were into Sailor Moon and other kawaii (cute) characters, but she was more interested in smart-mouthed superheroes like Ant-Man and Wolverine.

It was a solitary interest then, but she's clearly found her tribe now. Two gents join us at the bar, both regulars she greets by name, and they're shortly trading stories from the recent Tokyo Comicon, where Hilary snagged a photo with Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo.

"He's quite short, so I was the one putting my arm around his shoulders," she laughs. "He's small and his face is cute. Like a guinea pig! But that fits my image of [alter ego] Dr. Banner."

Despite their clannish rep, these comic super fans are super welcoming. Almost immediately, the fellow to my right is showing me photos of his Marvel action figures and explaining how he got a custom Mjölnir hammer for his Cap figure after THAT scene in Infinity War (spoilers!). Meanwhile, Hilary digs out some comics from her collection for me to peruse. When it's time to go, Hilary gives me a Spider-Man sticker for stopping by and I toddle off home with a new appreciation for fashionable Shibuya’s serious nerd cachet.

photography Andrew Goldie