This is an article I originally wrote in 2017 on a trip to Japan. In Summer 2022 as the end of the Japanese travel restrictions are in sight, I wanted to move this article to our new blog. The information is still relevant: open google maps and go. You will have a great time.
I recommend you follow my favorite Hard Off hunter on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hardoffdiary. The man tours Japan, going by plane, train and ferry to find Hard Off stores.
There are quite a few articles online talking about Akihabara and a few more about Hard Off stores and which ones to look at. My article is rather more of a strategy guide, this is how I go retro game hunting. It’s about how I get outside the center, hit a number of Hard Off’s in a day and trawl through the treasures each one contains.
It might not be the most efficient but do you have money or time on your hands?
If you have money but not time, stay in Akihabara. If you have time but not money, my guide is for you.
Also keep in mind I know ZERO Japanese. I can say hello and thank you. That’s it. I am getting by and doing all of this without any knowledge of the Japanese language.
What is Hard Off?
Hard Off is a huge chain of second hand stores in Japan and they are glorious. They have great quality stuff and also huge sections of “Junk” which mostly still work but have physical blemishes or other problems. They also have sister stores “Mode Off” for clothes, “Hobby Off” for Manga and action figures, “Off House” for home stuff (note, I have no idea why it’s not “House Off”, which admittedly does sound like a bunch of cranky, cane wielding doctors battling it out hunger games style), even “Liquor Off” however I imagine the booze they sell isn’t second hand.
Hard Off is great because they are SO MANY of them.
No doubt there are awesome small independent second hand stores which I would love to know more about but this guide is about hitting as many locations as possible, I am going for a wide spread here.
Finding a Hard Off Store
There are so many of these, its hard not to find a Hard Off.
To find stores, I use Google Maps, which will become my lifeline, my provider, my guide, my everything when it comes to retro games hunting.
I can’t say this enough, Google Maps is a god send. It will help you find the stores, help you work out if that is a good store to visit and help you get there and back again. You can not do this without a phone and a data connection. Don’t have data in Japan? Get a prepaid SIM, this one I has does 500Mb a day and after this you get throttled back to 1998 dialup speeds but its enough to get you home at least.
My general rule for finding a Hard Off store is: the more obscure and further out of the center it is, the better it will be.
As an extreme example, the one in Akihabara is terrible because that’s how Aki rolls. Then you start to go 30 mins outside the center to a nice store in a shopping area on the train line and there is some better stuff BUT of course there isn’t such great stuff here because it is easy to get to! You won’t find the best stuff where everyone else goes. If you can find a store which is a 20 minute walk from the nearest train station then I guarantee you it’s got some good shit in there.
If something is a good 30 mins walk from the nearest train I guarantee that you will have a spiritual experience inside and the god themself will be waiting personally to hand over a bargain.
I shit you not, the point here is to have an adventure, to get away from the regular stores. This isn’t just about buying, its about the searching!
Ok so finding the stores. Basically just take a geographical area in Google Maps and search it for “Hard Off” and badda boom, badda bing, here are you stores! Zoom out a little to the greater Tokyo area (works in any area really) and you can see, there are a crap load of these bad boys.
Ok so when you zoom out it doesn’t show you them all, what you need to then you is zoom in on smaller areas and chose “search this area” to see whats around.
Now we are starting to see there are
There are a ton of these stores! How do i choose one?
I dont think you should choose just 1, choose several in a region and just go for it.
Don’t overthink it, don’t worry about the travel time, just get on the train and go there.
However, Google Maps isn’t always your friend, because sometimes when you search for “Hard Off”, it includes “Off House” stores without telling you. Sometimes these stores are together, both in one building but sometimes you travel an hour to find the location only has a “Off House” and Google was plain wrong.
To avoid this, before selecting a place, use Google Maps Street View! Zoom in on that bad boy and have a look around. Sometimes the street view puts you in the back alley behind the store so you need to click around the streets to get a good frontal shot of the building. For example on my previous Google Maps screen grab, there are two Hard Off stores on the map which seem very close, oohhh this is a good candidate for a trip as you can walk between them. However if you Street View into the slightly upper one, you see that it is in fact just a Off House
Ok you cant scroll in this static image but trust me, this location ONLY has a Off House, so that’s a no go.
On the other hand, when using Street View on another location, it is confirmed there is a Hard Off and a Off House in the one building.
Hello Mr Japanese man on a bike, you know what is up.
Ok so I have worked out what is actually a Hard Off store but there are still so many!
True dat. After this, it is basically down to your own feelings as to which stores you go to. I try and hit a region in one day, so I’ll find stores all in the east, or all in the north or something.
Do not be afraid to just get on the train and go. Load up that PASMO card and just go out there. In my experience, you need to be spending an hour on public transport to get anywhere good. An hour! Well this is one of the biggest cities in the world and you want an adventure right? So imma give you one baby. You want to travel to the far away stores but the guide is right next to you.
One thing I do is because I love the adventure and I love walking around regular neighborhoods, if the public transport time is like 50 mins but its an hour to walk, I will tend to just walk. I balance this off how tired I am, I find if I do an hour walk then I am tired later in the day but if its a gorgeous sunny day then screw it, get outside, get some fresh Japanese air and you never know what random stuff you will come across.
Trust the almighty Google Maps, for it knows and sees all
So we are back to the core use of Google Maps, getting you the hell where you want to go. All of Tokyo’s public transport is in the Google Maps, just tell it where you want to go and it will guide you.
That’s the great thing about it, no matter where you are, no matter what isolated, small, outta nowhere place you find yourself in, Google Maps will always get you home.
Half the time I have no idea where I am, all I know is I am following the route to the next destination and I couldn’t be happier. I love exploring the countryside, I love seeing everyday regular people doing everyday regular stuff so this is a huge joy for me.
TRUST GOOGLE MAPS!
Don’t make the mistake of thinking “oh you, I’ll just take a train to the next place, switch there and Ill be ahead of this schedule. No you won’t. I guarantee you will be further behind at the end. Google knows and sees all and let it guide you.
Google is wrong yes, but rarely and it is wrong way way way less than your westerner ass.
It helps that the Japanese know how to run a public transport system, my god do these people know efficiency. Trains are usually very much on time, sometimes buses can be more hit and miss. Google Maps also isn’t perfect at showing you the exact location of a bus stop, so you may need to hunt up and down the street a little to find the stop and use some brains. However once you are on that bus, switch that brain off, turn on the option for “notify me of upcoming transfers” and enjoy the view.
Once you have hit one store, use the “search this area” to find another store and rinse and repeat. Even stores which seem quite close might still be an hour by public transport.
DON’T THINK, JUST GO.
I repeat, do not overthink your travel. This is Tokyo and it’s huge, just get on that next bus and head to the next place. If the next place is under an hour away, it is a win. I bet you there is another great store within an hour of you.
So in my example I am heading to the Hard Off Siatama Kamikocho, which is a 15 minute bus ride from Omiya station. When I looked on Google Maps I saw this and instantly fell in love.
It’s a small place on a small street an hour outside the center (and only an hour because there is a rapid connection up to Omiya). When I arrived (this was late in the day) I was greeted by this beautiful sight.
So you are in the store, now what?
This it is baby, the big moment you have been waiting for, take you time and look around. There is always the “good section” with the stuff plastic wrapped and should be working pretty much 100%. The stuff from the good section also has a warranty of 10 days I believe.
There can be some good deals here too! Even at this more obscure stores, you can find regular stuff at a better price. However, here is where you finely honed retro hunter skills will come into play because prices vary greatly between stores. I don’t know the system which Hard Off corporation uses to price their goods but it must be some system to keep track of every small piece of shit from cameras to musical equipment to retro games. No idea how they do it but overall they are pretty good.
However prices do vary, I am thinking of Super Smash Bros for the N64 which was cart only for 500yen in one store, but then the next was 2000yen AND in that same more expensive store, they had a freshly minted boxed version with manuals also for 2500yen. So I grabbed that bad boy cause I am a sucker for Smash Bros. Sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose. I won on the Smash Bros. I also won by finding the 4MB Saturn Memory Cart for 1000yen but I lost when I found a Gamecube Wavebird controller only for 1500yen but then the VERY NEXT STORE had a complete Wavebird in box, for 2000yen.
That’s the game baby and remember, it’s all just a game and you gotta enjoy the adventure of it.
JUNK JUNK JUNK IN THE TRUNK
Every store as a junk section where stuff may still be working fine but there is some small reason why these precise Japanese people won’t sell it at full price.
Stuff in the junk is either stupidly cheap, like 100yen or it is some reasonably lower price. If the item is a bit cheaper than usual, they have a price tag with a description in Japanese. Again Google is your friend here.
Get the Google Translate app, snap a picture of the tag and it will usually do a pretty good job of telling you what is up.
Sometimes it is harder when the tag is inside a cabinet but you can ask them to open it. Yeah it is weird when a guy opens the cabinet for you and you immediately snap a photo but hey, you do what you gotta do.
One of my favorite systems is the Nintendo DS and there are A LOT of these in the Junk section. My rule is: I don’t want a DS above 500yen and ideally 300yen for something which isn’t damaged and can be cleaned up is great (note from Louis: now in 2022, I might revise such low numbers).
Many are out of power though so what I do is carry the USB charger cable and my external phone battery with me.
Keep the battery in your pocket, run the DS cable out and as you are browsing through those glorious blue bins, you can plug it in and easily see if a unit will turn on and hold charge. I am not sure if this is allowed but be discreet and polite and I think no one has a problem with you.
For my money, any PlayStation consoles are overpriced in Japan. It is weird, to me everything else is generally good but these PS2 and PS3 prices are basically what I can pay at home, although I admit they do have a good range of limited run consoles, like the white or pink slim PS2 units which looks amazing.
BUYING THE STUFF
Going to the cashier isn’t too hard even if you don’t speak Japanese. If you have something from the junk section, they will always ask you “you know this crap from the junk right?” in Japanese. I do not know Japanese so I know to expect this line and when you hear “junk” in the sentence just give a thumbs up and say “hai junk” or anything to say, “I understand this stuff is all left over crap and you never want to see it again”.
TAKING THE STUFF HOME
Oh shit, so now you are more than an hour outside of the center an you have 3 bags full of junk to haul back home. I have been there and it’s a mission to say the least. I have a big day pack I take with me which makes carrying stuff easier, my rule is if I have filled the bag, then the day is done… well not unless there is a SUPER bargain at the end of the day. Which I usually do, cause I am a sucker.
Getting all this crap back to your home country is a mission too, however the “Off Corporation” (or so I assumed they are called) can help here again. Just head into a “Off Home” and find a cheap suitcase to carry all this extra crap. OH AND GET LUGGAGE SCALES.
Like a few bucks and this will save your ass cause I guarantee you can not tell the difference between 23kg and 29kg. Booking an extra bag home on the flight is only about 70 euros for a whole extra 23kg where as if you are over by like 3 or 4 kg in your main bag, they will slug you about 70 euros just for that.
Somehow every time I go to a Off House there is always one, big ass suitcase which is sturdy for about 1200yen.
All the other suitcases are way more expensive but there is always one really good priced one for some reason. Get a big ass suitcase for cheap cause you only need it this one time. If you spend 12 euros on the suitcase and 70 euros on a extra checked in bag you can take another 23kg of glorious glorious retro goods with you.
One more thing, you are going to get PTSD from that theme song
Every store plays the Hard Off jingle over and over and fucking over again. All day, every day. The three stages of Hard Off PTSD are
1. Oh this is a fun catchy jingle, yay its fun to be here!
2. Aaahhh I can’t take this shit anymore, I will kill a mother fucker the next time I hear it
3. My life is empty and useless without this song, I need to have it playing so I can fall asleep. This song will raise my children for me.
To aid my lack of sleep, I made this video which loops the jingle for 30 minutes. You are welcome.