Despite a half-century of denial by Japanese cultural officialdom, manga (comics) and anime (animation) are among the most recognised signs of Japan to the West. Twenty years ago, many would offer bonsai, kimonos and tea ceremonies as emblems of Japan. Now it's garage kits, character costumes and fan conventions.
Symbolised by the otaku social phenomenon (a reviled yet resounding 'fan/nerd' subculture), manga and anime are prime entertainment industries and major cultural forces. Japanese pop culture is possibly the most potent globally due to its saturation, range and extremities. Of course Japan is a lot more than manga and anime. But the manga and anime that proliferates is of a monumental scale.
Manga sales in 2004 accounted for 37% of all publications sold. Shonen Jump - the most popular of the giant weekly compendiums of manga - notches a circulation of 3 million copies. Weekly. Back in 1995 it did 6 million weekly. The overall downturn is largely attributed to the spread of second-hand manga stores, libraries and cafes - which means that the popularity of the medium is undiluted.
Gradually, the West is realising that manga/anime is of a more complex nature than that established by Western superhero comics and series. Japan's most revered animator Hayao Miyazaki enjoyed international respect by winning the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away - the most successful Japanese movie of all time in Japan. Like all Miyazaki's films, it's noticeably devoid of the paternal patronising which characterises Western children's fare. By extension, the culture of manga/anime in Japan can decimate your assumptions about something as 'crass' as cartoony images.
Encountering this culture in Japan is not only easy - it's inescapable. Cute cartoon characters are everywhere and in the most unlikely places. Many Japanese treat this iconography as indifferently as we might treat Helvetica lettering on freeway signs.
To gauge the economic might of manga/anime, you could attend the Tokyo International Animation Fair (March at Tokyo Big Site). It's a one stop hit for proving exactly how big anime is in Japan. Some estimates have it that nearly 5,000 titles of anime are currently produced annually (covering features, TV episodes and OVAs - direct sale DVDs). The number of booths, companies and buyers at Tokyo International Animation Fair supports these estimates.
Less corporate in its orientation is Comiket (short for 'Comic Market) held twice yearly in Tokyo (August and December, also at Tokyo Big Site). This is the massive gathering of fan-produced amateur manga known as doujinshi. To the untrained eye, doujinshi looks like 'official' manga, but most are parodies of famous manga characters. Complete sub-genres exist here, ranging from gag-strips to sexual re-imaginings of popular titles. Unlike the copyright-neurotic West, the Japanese manga/anime industries support the doujinshi networks. The last decade witnessed many a famous manga artist emerge from this sprawling subculture. Also at Comiket one can experience the kosupre phenomenon: 'costume play' where fans dress up in their favourite character's attire. It's a bit nerdy, but the Japanese kids take it to another level. Your scepticism may melt into admiration.
Branching out from these events into the everyday, there are hundreds of anime/manga stores throughout Tokyo. Current districts to explore include Koenji and Nakano where many second-hand collectors' stores have sprouted. A major chain is Mandarake whose super-store in Nakano will require many hours of your time. It houses thousands or rare and affordable merchandise of every kind. Don't be dismissive of what appears like a teenage overload: the age demographic of those who shop here will surprise you. And they're not just men.
But if you want to dive in and truly get lost, head to Akihabara. Many guides still tag Akihabara's "Electric Town" as the electronics district. True, that sector survives there, but a closer look reveals a massive increase in manga/anime stores lining the strip. Notably, the upper floors of these stores withhold the more perverse (hentai) end of the spectrum with PC games, magazines and DVDs. The stores are incredibly crowded and narrow, plus any one store will simultaneously be playing 10 CDs and 10 DVDs. If you think you know noise, you don't. Free admission and an exhausting ride.
A final admonition. Forget the old binaries of new-versus-old, natural-versus-artificial, past-versus-future. In Tokyo they circulate freely like carp in an ornamental pond. The thrill in experiencing manga/anime culture lies in its demolishing of High-versus-Low paradigms familiar to us in the West. The images of anime/manga will retain their effect when you return home. After Tokyo, your own city can appear like a strangely artificial theme park. A great place to live.