Although Tokyo was built around what is now the Imperial Palace, in fact it is a city with many centers. The entertainment districts are perhaps the most famous, but there are also specific neighborhoods to visit if, say, you’re in the market for a guitar, snowboarding gear, or old books.
When it comes to otaku (geek or nerd) culture, Tokyo has two key centers that stand out for Japanese people and tourists alike: Nakano Broadway and Akihabara. The latter is a large hub of electronics, maid cafes and manga/anime shops and is the home of music supergroup AKB48. If Akihabara in the east is the heart of Tokyo’s otaku scene, then Nakano Broadway is the brain, a cerebral mecca of art and subculture in Tokyo’s western end. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the lead-up to the 1964 Summer Olympics, Japan and its capital underwent an intense period of construction and change. A new Olympic stadium was being built and the nation was preparing to show the world that it had overcome the hardships of WWII. Nakano, on the east-west JR Chuo Line that bisects the city, was then a shining example of the new Tokyo. When it was finished in 1966 along the line of a traditional shotengai shopping street, Nakano Broadway was downright futuristic.
The complex celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016 and, if one were to pinpoint exactly when it made the transition from city ahead of its time to hive of subculture, it would have to be 1980, when Mandarake first set up shop. Now a huge chain of specialty stores selling everything from used manga to VHS tapes, toys and fan-drawn art under the epic slogan “Rulers of Time,” Mandarake has 27 distinct locations within Broadway alone.
But the thing to keep in mind about this labyrinthine location is that it’s about so much more than just manga and anime. Although the Sun Mall arcade on the first or ground floor has more traditional shops and cafes, including a recommended standing sushi bar and a UNIQLO branch, the basement floor and floors two through four of Nakano Broadway are truly underground, boasting stores that make the word “niche” seem insufficient. If you’re searching for the perfect offbeat souvenir to bring back home, look no further. In fact, this may well be the highest concentration of underground culture in Tokyo.
Among the more than 300 shops there are ones for used sneakers, used video games, rare skateboard decks, old and obscure toys and other collectables, shirts and buttons bearing humorous and untoward Japanese phrases, and so much more. Of particular note is one shop that sells rare photography books, and there are also places that sell jewelry, watches, high-end headphones and cameras, to say nothing of art supplies, several kinds of health clinics, cafes, and fortune-tellers.
Recently even the highest levels of power have become aware that the subcultures around manga and anime that thrive in Japan are among its most potent cultural exports. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s “Cool Japan” promotion initiative is one of the driving forces behind the current boom of tourism that aims to capitalize on this culture, and it is a testament to how seriously the government takes the issue.
To take the pulse of this vibrant scene, a trip to Nakano Broadway is a must. If you’re lucky you may even spot a few famous frequenters, including a kindly old man who dresses in a girl’s school uniform and loves taking photos with strangers, and a less friendly fellow who walks around in a full Nazi Waffen-SS uniform, with whom conversation is generally to be avoided.