While Akihabara gets most of the attention and press when talking about them-crazy-otaku here in Japan, it is by no means the end-all for getting your nerd shopping on in Tokyo. While Akihabara tends to be crowded with all manner of super dork (both domestic and imported), awash in moé fetishism and no longer having the redeeming quality of a closed down main street on Sundays for maximum pedestrian convenience (they stopped doing that after that jerk killed a bunch of people), Nakano Broadway presents a slightly more interesting alternative with the added benefit of being a place you can take your non-nerd friends and not be incredibly embarrassed.
Nakano Broadway is a five-story building located in the shopping side streets of Nakano. Known amongst fan circles for its selection of anime shops, it’s actually much more than that. An indoor shopping mall with a disorienting layout that makes efficient navigation almost impossible, Nakano Broadway houses a diverse number of shops that sell a varied, and often odd, selection of wares far beyond just anime. It’s a fascinating place to wander around. Not only will you get lost you’ll discover all sorts of bizarre shops as you’re forced to backtrack through the incredibly illogical floor layout.
When you first enter Nakano Broadway you’ll see an escalator, which isn’t very convenient unless you know exactly where you’re going because it goes directly to the third floor. I’ve been told that Yuji Hori got the idea for the dungeons in the original Dragon Quest from Nakano Broadway’s bizarre layout and I believe it. In addition to the escalator that skips a floor, you’ll often find yourself going down hallways that either loop around or abruptly end in a dead end, with little rhyme or reason. Trying to do a thorough walkthrough of each floor can be frustrating as you’ll be forced to backtrack. In short, it’s not very user friendly.
But ultimately that’s a big part of its charm. The other part would be the sheer variety of shops and restaurants housed within the five-story building. The basement is primarily women’s clothing and grocery stores, with some used CD shops and one or two ramen restaurants thrown in for good measure. The first floor houses slightly more unusual fare, like a shop that sells nothing but telephone cards and another shop that’s filled with piles of shoes. As you go higher things get weirder: in addition to the arcades, restaurants, animation cell shops and the eight different Mandarake storefronts (each specializing in a different kind of item) you’ll find oddities like the shop that sells decommissioned firearms, multiple high-end jewelry stores, a store that sells nothing but yo-yos and a shop that specializes in Christian goods (Jesus candles, and so forth) and imported Mexican groceries.
One of my favorite shops (which just recently closed down) was a poster shop run by an old guy on the fourth floor. While he had an impressive selection of old movie posters and advertisement flyers, they were arranged so poorly that it usually took far more effort than it should have to locate something you were looking for. Asking the old guy showed his lack of organization as he’d often have to poke around in three or four different spots just to find what you wanted. Not to mention the entire shop was so filled with junk that you’d have a hard time fitting any more than three customers. I often wondered how a shop like that could afford to stay open, but that’s exactly the kind of oddity that gives Nakano Broadway its appeal. Sadly, the last time I went by his store it had been mostly gutted, with him selling off what little remained for very low prices.
Oddities aside, Nakano Broadway has a lot to offer to anime fans. While shops in Akihabara tend to focus more on new products, most of the shops in Nakano Broadway specialize used items; meaning that if you’re looking for older toys, books, CDs, posters or animation cels, Nakano Broadway is a good place to look. As I mentioned earlier, Mandarake, the king of used anime goods in Japan, operates at least eight different stores in Nakano Broadway. Each one specializing in a different area such as girls’ manga, boys’ manga, videogames, toys, magazines or animation cels.
Nakano Broadway’s appeal is far beyond that of just being a mecca of anime goods. It’s a shopping experience that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Japan. Every visit leads to new discoveries and it’s such a bizarre place that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend visiting to non-anime fans. It’s just that cool. For anime fans, I won’t say that Nakano Broadway is better than Akihabara, but it certainly is different. While Akihabara is much larger, Nakano Broadway makes for a far more interesting shopping experience with just a hint of the surreal.
Some of my own related thoughts on Nakano Broadway can be found here: http://www.cjas.org/~leng/lainspotting/2006/03/infornographic-design.html
In a way, the retirement of people like that old guy is changing the counterculture of Tokyo as effectively as any commercial rent hikes or City Hall desire to sanitise everything vaguely subversive. The students of the 70s who supported the Yamato fan movement, set up Comiket and became Gainax also created their own micro-economy that was the foundation of today's 'Cool Japan' brand. Will succeeding generations carry on the fan economy in their own way, or will it be lost because we've all gone hikikomori, so enthralled by passive consumption that there's no-one left to man and stock the stores we consume in?
If that sounds unduly melancholy, just looks what's happening to Akihabara. There are still plenty of grungy little stores up narrow stairs in the back alleys, but I've been going there for over ten years and the pace of minor prettification and major rent hikes is accelerating. I really don't want to see Nakano go the same way.
When I first got there, in 1999, most of the 4th floor shops were still open.
Now there is maybe 1 open shop left.
The only reason for gooing to the 4th floor now are cleaner toilets.
It's become a bit scary up there.