For manga, anime, and gaming fans, Tokyo’s Akihabara is the holy land of merchandise and collectibles. Prices in Akihabara, however, can be quite steep and the sheer number of shops can be very overwhelming. If your budget is limited and your heart is not yet ready to make the pilgrimage to Electric Town, you might want to go to Akihabara’s more affordable alternative: Nakano.
Nakano (中野区, Nakano-ku) is full of retail stores selling anything and everything geek. Make no mistake, though, this ward west of Tokyo is not just a mini-Akihabara. It has its own local, oftentimes wacky charm with its eclectic mix of quirky cafés, restaurants and bars, lively parks, and traditional shrines. Even if you’re not into geek culture, you are bound to find something interesting here.
Let’s dive in and explore what Nakano has to offer for the Japan junky.
Nakano Sun Mall
Take a train on the JR Chuo Line, get off at the Nakano Station, find the north exit, and you will immediately see the 225-meter covered corridor of the Nakano Sun Mall. The corridor’s glass cover allows natural light to filter in during the day. The sun motif is reinforced by yellow-colored poles and lamps in the shape of suns hanging from the Ceiling.
The long walkway is replete with shops selling a wide range of items such as food, clothes, medicines, accessories. A complex labyrinth of back alleys and side streets containing more shops and interesting nooks stem from the corridor. The main target of visitors, however, is the biggest retail complex of Nakano, which is located at the north end of the Sun Mall corridor: Nakano Broadway.
Nakano Broadway is a multilevel shopping and residential building. From the 1960s to the 1970s, the building was home to high-profile people like celebrities and politicians. In the 1980s, though, other areas in Tokyo became more popular so residents began to relocate and hobby stores began to move into the building.
Today, the basement is dedicated to local produce, other foodstuffs, salons, pharmacies, and even fortune-telling stalls. The ground floor has boutiques. The second to fourth floors contain shops selling manga, anime, and gaming collectibles. Serious hunters of one-of-a-kind items go straight to one of the stores of Mandarake.
Mandarake is a huge chain of retail stores selling new and secondhand collectibles. It started in 1987 as a bookstore selling second-hand manga. It has since expanded to selling anime merchandise, gaming paraphernalia, figurines, memorabilia, books, and cosplay gears.
There are a lot of store branches across Japan, but Nakano Broadway has over 30 stores in the building! Each store has a unique name and specialty. Here’s a guide to all of the stores within Nakano worth visiting:
|1/F||Mon||Mandarake’s showcase store where special merchandise is displayed.|
|2/F||Card-kan||Sells trading cards, game cards, and even stickers.|
|Cosplay-kan||Sells cosplay items, from full costumes to paraphernalia like wigs and accessories like badges.|
|Daisharin||Sells plastic and die-cast car models.|
|Deep-kan||Sells doujinshi (self-published magazines).|
|Galaxy||Sells retro video games, and consoles.|
|Kaguya||Sells planes, robots, and car modeling kits.|
|Katsudo Shashin-kan||Sells Japanese movie posters and baseball memorabilia including some signed jerseys.|
|Live-kan||Sells doujinshi for female fans.|
|Micro-kan||Sells assorted items from erasers and stationery sets to Studio Ghibli souvenirs and masks.|
|Ryusenkeo Jiken||Sells model trains and paraphernalia.|
|Special 1||Sells Ultraman, Transformers, and Kaiju collectibles.|
|Special 4||Sells anime and game figurines like One Piece POP figures and some Gachapon (capsule) toys.|
|Special 5||Sells American and other foreign hero toys like Spider- Man figures, and LEGO products.|
|Special 7||Sells indy sofubi figures.|
|UFO||Sells anime DVDs and Blu-ray sets; anime, live-action movie, and game soundtracks.|
|Wink||Sells memorabilia of Japanese actresses, female idol groups, and seiyuu (voice actors).|
|3/F||Honten 1||Sells all types of manga and light novels, and DVDs of theatrical performances.|
|Honten 2||Also sells manga and light novels, but many have more mature themes.|
|Infinity||Sells memorabilia of Japanese and Korean male actors, boybands like Tokio, and seiyuu (voice actors).|
|Kaitori Counter||Shop where collectors can sell their items.|
|4/F||Anime-kan||Sells original anime cel drawings and scripts.|
|Henya||Sells antiques, novelty, retro, and vintage items; commemorative goods from sumo tournaments.|
|Kaiba||Sells art and reference books, most of which are in Japanese.|
|Konpeito||Sells “paper goods” (paper- based toys, games, and cards that used to be inserted in old manga or magazines) and “omake” (freebies or bonuses of candies like small plastic cars or robots).|
|Mania-kan||Sells vintage manga, magazines, and more art books.|
|Plastic||Sells stuffed toys and plastic dolls, some of which look like vintage dolls.|
|Special 6||Sells robot model kits.|
*Note: Mandarake keeps renovating their stores so there might be new ones not in this list or some specialties might be rotated to other stores.
You can spend a whole day just going to the different Mandarake stores. But other stores also sell collectibles. Here are some of them:
- A-Moju specializes in PEZ dispensers with various designs, from Star Wars to Smurfs.
- Alphaville is a game shop dedicated to bishoujo-kei (beautiful girl) games and adult magazines.
- Anime Shop Apple Symphony (used to be named Commit) sells a lot of anime cel drawings.
- Train Models Bigyard buys and sells different types of train sets like N-gauge, Tetsu Kore, and B-Train.
- BLOX sells a wide variety of goods, including posters of Hollywood films and some pretty cool bomber jackets; but it’s more noteworthy items are its Michael Jackson merchandise from CDs to stickers to old magazines with the King of Pop on the covers.
- F-1 Signass contains a lot of Formula One collectibles like die-cast car models, team uniforms, and autographed photos of F-1 drivers.
- Fukuo Stamp Sha has been buying and selling stamps and coins for 48 years.
- Game Station buys and sells games of all kinds: old, new, foreign, Japanese. Gaocchi specializes in selling items made during the Showa era (1926-1989), including vintage baseball and wrestling trading cards, kaiju figurines, Sanrio toys, and even Crayon Shin-chan stickers.
- Kanransha sells movie posters of anime, live-action movies, and even Japanese posters of movies from foreign countries.
- Robot Robot has three stores. The first one buys and sells figurines and Gachapon toys; the second sells merchandise of foreign comic books and movies; and the third is dedicated to Ultraman toys, Japanese anime merchandise, and American goods.
- Trio 2 sells back issues of music magazines and J-pop and K-pop merchandise.
If you want to get a gaming collectible by earning it, try going to one of the gaming arcades in Nakano Broadway.
- Adores Nakano has different games, from UFO catchers (crane games) to pachinko, from fighting games to horse racing games.
- namco Nakano (yes, the name is spelled with a lowercase “n”) is a two-story arcade with a lot of games to choose from. If you’re waiting for your turn to play, you can view ongoing fights on monitors and check other players’ strategies. The arcade also has special game-related displays from time to time.
- Nakano TRF has new games but what many people like to play in this shop are the old-time 2D fighting games like Samurai Spirits Zero Special.
Eating Around Nakano
If your inner geek is satisfied and happy, your legs tired, your wallet nearly empty, why not have a break at one of Nakano’s food spots?
If you’re a ramen fan, you will have a lot of choices in Nakano. There’s Aoba, which is considered as one of the best ramen restaurants in Japan (but there’s usually a queue for this place so be prepared to wait for a few minutes); Barasobaya, which serves a special char siu (pork) that is both grilled and stewed resulting in a juicy, melt-in-your-mouth bite; Budouka offers a very thick and rich style of ramen; Mentakumi Yousuke is famous for its almost chicken-soup-like ramen; and Hoozuki, whose specialty is tantanmen, a spicy Chinese-style ramen.
If you’re into sushi and sashimi, Nakamura Suisan is the place to go. This is actually a store that sells fresh fish, but it also sells reasonably-priced bento boxes of various sushi and sashimi.
If you’re into vegetarian cuisine, try Korinbo, a family-style restaurant that serves tasty vegetarian fare.
If you’re into something more playful but still tasty, go to Bar Zingaro. Here you can get a matcha latte and hamburger with flower designs based on the pop artwork of the owner, Takashi Murakami. You can even buy additional souvenirs from this café.
If you want to be surrounded by more anime merchandise while having your lunch, take a five-minute walk from Nakano Broadway and you will see one of the most unusual and kitsch restaurants in Nakano: Dai Kaiju Salon. Dai Kaiju means “big monster” and the restaurant looks like a toy specialty store from the outside. The monster theme starts from the entrance where a human-size Mucho doll stands guard and invites you to enter its lair. Stuffed monster toys, figurines, and posters greet you as soon as you enter the doors. The menu has items like Kaiju Ice Cream Sundae (an ice cream sundae topped with monster-like decorations). For events, the restaurant hosts monster cosplay nights and movie marathons.
If you want to get out of enclosed spaces and enjoy food al fresco, grab an inexpensive but filling lunch from one of the restaurants, food trucks, or convenience stores at the Nakano Shiki no Mori Park or the Nakano Central Park, which are just across from each other. During summer, Shiki no Mori Park has plenty of umbrella-covered tables and chairs where you can just sit back and enjoy your food. These places can get crowded, though, so be prepared for some background chatter while you’re eating.
After all of that savory stuff, try to see if you can meet the challenge of the eight-layer ice cream of Daily Chico. The shop sells soft-serve ice cream cones or cups. You can order just one scoop or more, depending on your budget and ability to consume ice cream in a very short amount of time. But the big challenge is to order the famous and towering eight-layer ice cream cone. The flavors change but one serving can contain the following flavors: banana, chocolate, coffee, grape, matcha (green tea), ramune (a carbonated Japanese soft drink like Sprite) strawberry, and vanilla.
Nakano’s Izakaya and Yaki-tori Joints
Nakano has a lot of foot traffic all day long since it has a major train station. So, just like other similar areas, it contains a lot of yaki-tori (grilled chicken on skewers, but these restaurants also serve other types of food and drinks) and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) diners.
The side streets of Nakano, especially those branching out from Nakano Sun Mall, comes alive at night when tired office workers and many university students relax with a glass of beer and some grilled meat.
Try some of Shimon-ya’s famous grilled chicken skin, liver, and tripe. Everything here is very affordable in spite of the great taste and good-quality ingredients. This place is always packed so be prepared to be surrounded by people, lots of noise, and the smell of food being cooked.
If you want to go to a less noisy place with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure, try Juke 80s Bar where you can eat, drink, and listen to 80s music. A lot of foreigners visit this place.
For something truly Japanese, drop by the Saba Gin. This restaurant serves all sorts of Saba (mackerel) dishes that complement various alcoholic drinks.
Beer Kobo is also a favorite spot for locals who want a quiet atmosphere while drinking their tipple. This bar’s design is very cozy and there are little booths where you can have some privacy. The bar brews its own beer and offers basic food complements.
Of course, if you’re really into anime culture, you would probably want to try going to the Kuroneco Maid Café. Although its name implies a coffee shop where waitresses are dressed in maid costumes and wearing cat-ear headbands, the Kuroneco Maid Café is more of a bar since it offers nomihodai (all you can drink) deals. For a certain price, you can down as many cocktails and alcoholic drinks as you can while you enjoy the attention of cute girls dressed in maid outfits.
Nakano’s Nooks and Crannies
As stated earlier, Nakano Sun Mall has a lot of side streets and back alleys that lead to more shops and other interesting spots. If you’re not into pop or anime culture or if you would rather explore the less beaten paths of Nakano, here are seven recommendations for you:
- Araiyakushi Baishouin has been around since the 16th century. Historically, it is known as a temple where you can get eye-related illnesses healed by the temple’s priests. It is also a local hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot.
- Fruit Parlor Sun Fleur (Fruit Academy) teaches visitors how to cut and carve various fruits into interesting shapes. A lesson takes about an hour but you must reserve your slot in advance.
- Heiwa no Mori Park is a forest haven for locals and visitors. It is especially popular for kids because it has an athletics course that can turn even the smallest child into a ninja warrior. There are swings, rope bridges, wood obstacle courses, floating bridges, and many more fun facilities.
- Kotobuki Yu is a small Showa-era onsen that is said to have water “medicated” with herbs. It’s very popular with university students since its rates are very Affordable.
- Manga School Nakano is a place where you can learn how to create a manga of your own. You can learn the basics from Nao Yazawa, creator of Wedding Peach.
- Nakano-Ku History and Folklore Museum has many interesting artifacts that allow you to learn more about the area’s history and customs.
- Tetsugaku-do Koen (Temple of Philosophy Park) dates back to the Edo era. It is a great place for a stroll while contemplating the philosophy of life. The park’s statues of important religious figures, shrines, and pagodas are very conducive to this type of deep thinking. The park is also a great picnic spot, especially during the hanami season.
Let’s Get Shopping
Nakano is considered a good example of “local” Tokyo. Here you will find the old thriving unrelentingly with the new. Here you will meet otaku (die-hard fans), office workers, parents, children, university students, and fellow foreign visitors. Here you will discover hidden gems—an original cell of your favorite anime, a signed copy of your favorite J-pop band’s CD, a new favorite ramen shop, a new liking for chicken guts, and Japanese beer.
You’ll probably need at least a week to explore every part of this offbeat ward, but every minute here will definitely be an adventure.