SEOUL: Inside the world's biggest electronics market
It's a given that anyone visiting Japan on their first consumer electronics press trip will mention two things: one is Blade Runner, the other is the Akihabara area, Tokyo's 'electric town', which they're likely to say is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Well, I have news for them: Korea's Yongsan Electronics Market, here in Seoul, has Akihabara beat hands down, both on the choice of stores and the sheer diversity of products available.
Whereas Akihabara has increasingly moved away from hardware and into software, becoming the haunt of the anime and gaming otaku, Yongsan has stick to what it knows best - and that' selling everything from the very latest TVs, cameras and computers right down to the smallest components.
And while guesses vary as to the number of companies trading here, it's not hard to believe the official estimate, which says 7000.
For many visitors, the ETLand - ElectronicLand - building will be the place to go. It's home to a huge number of competing businesses, all selling similar ranges of products - or at least so it seems. Down on the ground floor are camera stores and general electrical shops, selling TVs, fridges, dishwashers and of course the inevitable rice-cookers - lots of rice-cookers.
It's not surprising that this building has become a must-visit for the city's newlyweds, who go along to equip their new homes with a complete set of electrical and electronic appliances, from the fridge to the big TV and home cinema system.
We're just moving into prime winter wedding season here - the ads are everywhere in department stores, jewellery retailers and the like, and ETLand is clearly keen to stake its claim.
Move on up through the building and the wonders continue as you find an entire floor dedicated to mobile phones
or LG's walk-in service centre. Here, in booths rather like those you used to find in the dole office, divided off by partitions, you can drop in and go one-on-one with a service technician while they put right whatever's wrong with any LG product you can carry to the centre.
And the concept of service goes even further in ETLand: There's a large number of these custom-built computer shops
where you can sit down with a consultant and spec out the computer you want, then have it built for you while you complete your shopping. It's an unusual sight, but you do see many consumers lugging completed computers out of the store and into taxis, having spent a while in these shops, which vary from the smart to the 'explosion in a computer factory', with boards, drives, fans and wires everywhere.
And then you find the hi-fi - serious high-end hi-fi, in stores from the minimalist
to the outlandish - note the array of McIntosh amps below, not to to mention the massive Avantgarde bass-bin at the centre of the rear wall, which I've previously only ever seen at high-end shows in Germany, and never 'in the wild'.
There are also stores conforming to the familiar 'how much very expensive equipment can you cram into the smallest possible space?' Asian norm, such as the one below,
and others with a smaller, but still impressive array. One for the B&W fans below.
Sitting alongside the latest shiny new high-end stuff are the vintage audio stores such as this
selling everything from ancient valve amplifiers, radios and massive professional horn speakers to these pristine-looking reel-to-reel machines.
Even the nearby record store has a serious system in its classical department, combining Musical Fidelity amplification with these big Tannoy pro monitors (below). We'll even forgive them the use of a Pioneer universal player as the source, but the choice of Sarah Brightman singing Christmas carols was a bit harder to excuse.
And just for the Forum poster who asked the other week about using amplifiers on their side, here's a glimpse through the window of used audio dealer Dr Hi-Fi - yes, those are players and amps racked up like library books!
But there's more to Yongsan than mainstream consumer electronics brands. The place is full of small specialists shops, some selling only scales, others specialising in clocks or fans, many light-bulb stores, and one majoring on deeply scary looking replica weapons. At least I hope they were replicas! This is Buy the Gun:
Out in the back alleys you find the tool-shops and component suppliers,
such as this one selling only plugs and sockets
and then just when you think you've seen it all, you cross the railway lines at Yongsan station and wander eyes wide open into iPark Mall, where it all starts all over again.
Here we have a department store the likes of which you have never seen before. Each floor, going from front to back, goes 'fashion, masses of consumer electronics, normal department store stuff' so you can walk from sportswear to computers to bedding.
And up on the top floor are music stores on a huge scale. There's a massive Yamaha store, selling what I swear is enough product to equip an orchestra, and other stores such as this one
where you can buy anything from a triangle to this amazing church organ - every good home should have one.
And on that festive note I'll end with the perfect stocking filler, courtesy of the Vestax concession nearby. Yes, it's the groove-chewing SoundWagon, the little VW Microbus with a stylus underneath, an amp within and a speaker on the top, which plays your LPs as it trundles round in circles on them.
But then with used LPs selling for as little as 20p here, perhaps one shouldn't worry too much...