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Sometimes dubbed ‘Western Tokyo’s Akihabara’, Nakano, just a few stops away from Shinjuku, deserves its ‘otaku heaven’ moniker. But considering the size of Nakano Ward and its sheer diversity, even those not obsessed with manga are bound to find a slice suited to them.
The area has more or less survived Tokyo’s incessant modernisation drive: head slightly northeast from the station and you’ll find an old-school, partially pre-war block chock-full of izakaya, bars and more, while Edo-era temples and serene parks can be found further north still. It’s a bustling mix of office workers, university students and families, and the locals are generally very friendly, laid-back and up for a chat.
Unless it’s a weekend, when Nakano Central Park’s Good Morning Café serves food from 8.30am, you’re best off grabbing something to go at a konbini or coffee chain for breakfast.
Take a leisurely 20-minute walk north of the station to Araiyakushi Baishoin, a temple complex which borders a calm park. It’s also a local cherry blossom hotspot.
Feed your sweet tooth at Kyle’s Good Finds, an American-run bakery that deals in proper carrot cake – a true rarity in Tokyo. Head down Ai Road, a local shopping street where you can find all kinds of knick-knacks on the cheap.
Nakano is known for its ramen, and devouring a bowl or two is part of the essential local experience.
Get fish-based spicy miso ramen at Saika; go for tsukemen with a thick, potage-like vegetable dipping broth at the ever-popular Nidaime Enji; order the special barasoba with its massive topping of thinly-sliced char siu at Ramen Barasobaya. Or, try to queue at Aoba, named one of Japan’s best ramen.
Nakano’s reputation was cemented by one building: Nakano Broadway. A multi-storey mall at the end of the covered Sun Mall shopping arcade, it has a whole host of anime, manga and cosplay-centric shops, the most famous of which is Mandarake, a valhalla for the subculture-obsessed. It has several outlets inside the Broadway, including the retro and highly Instagrammable Mandarake Henya.
You’re bound to spend a good few hours inside the mall, even if you’re not a big anime fan – browsing alone is fun enough. But that’s not all: there’s also Bar Zingaro, artist Takashi Murakami’s very own café-bar; Korinbo, a fully vegetarian restaurant; and Haruya Shoten, a bookstore with a nice selection of Japanese design goods.
Don’t forget the basement either, where you’ll find a supermarket, a few greengrocers, a chai shop, the Nakamura Suisen fishmongers which has a great selection of cheap sushi and sashimi bento (eat them at nearby Nakano Shiki no Mori Park on a good day), and the Daily Chico ice cream parlour, where you can get eight-tiered, multi-flavoured soft serve.
As with most major stations on the western Chuo line, yakitori joints and izakaya are the name of the game in Nakano. Most of them are clustered in the old area north of the station. Many have become more English-friendly in recent years, but even if they’re not, the often local clientele is always up for a chat and happy to help you out.
A good place to start is at any branch of Shimonya, a small chain of skewer specialists which started right here in Nakano. Each location specialises in one type of skewer (beef, pork, chicken, deep-fried kushiage, fish), but prices are uniformly low and the quality is pretty decent. Look out for the yellow signs saying ‘四文屋’.
Otherwise, follow your nose: there are okonomiyaki joints, sushi restaurants, standing wine bistros and everything in between.
Wind down from your day at Juke 80s, an eighties music request bar where most drinks are a flat ¥500 (disclaimer: one of our staff used to work here). You could also get a prayer with your booze at the monk-run Vowz Bar inside the derelict Nakano World Kaikan, or have a beer at Nakano Beer Kobo. Walking around and just popping your head into any random bar is half the fun though, and you’re bound to end up with a new friend anywhere you set foot.
Don't forget to...
Join the queue and get an imagawayaki (a warm, round, cake-like snack with a filling of your choice) at Refutei, right opposite Nakano Station's north exit.