When people think about a day or night out on the town in Tokyo, there are several obvious places that come to mind: the nightlife of Roppongi, the young urban culture in Shibuya, the neon lights of Shinjuku, the historical Japanese aesthetics in Asakusa, the nerd culture in Akihabara, etc., etc. But in between these huge downtown neighborhoods lies some truly interesting, vibrant neighborhoods that are often overshadowed by these popular destinations. Today I will be introducing Nakano: a city packed full of otaku subculture that is also littered with an eccentric food and drink scene and shopping district.
Nakano (中野) is a city located in Nakano-ku, and is in close proximity to Shinjuku. You can get to Nakano Station by train through the Chuo Line, Chuo-Sobu Line, or Tozai Line, and by bus from many locations across Tokyo. Many people from all over Tokyo come here, day or night, to enjoy some of the attractions that Nakano has to offer, in particular Nakano Broadway, the Shōtengai (shopping district), and the food and drink district.
Nakano Broadway (中野ブロードウェイ)
Quite arguably Nakano’s most famous tourist spot, Nakano Broadway is a mall that’s located at the end of Nakano’s shopping district. When looking at the entrance of the mall, which is painted red and decorated with big bold letters that spell out its name, one might think that this is just another regular shopping center. But once you step inside, that façade quickly fades away as you are surrounded by the bizarre stores that represent the peculiar side of Japanese culture that’s so famous overseas.
Often referred to as a “mini-Akihabara”, Nakano Broadway is filled with dozens of strange stores mostly catering to the serious geek. Browsing around, it feels as if you are transported back in time to a flea market from the 90’s. Most shop owners are incredibly eager to talk shop with their customers about hobbies and interests. While most people come here to find deals on products related to anime, manga, gaming, and tech parts, other otaku culture resides here as well. You can easily find Showa-era goods, pop idol merchandise, cheap knock-offs, and many other items. In other words, if there is a niche hobby, then there will probably be a store for it! The 4th floor has a fighting game arcade for the avid gamer and a Takashi Murakami exhibit for the art enthusiast. Last but not least, you can also find a market that sells all sorts of fresh produce and meat in the basement. Nakano Broadway is full of things to check out so you can easily spend an entire day there without even realizing it.
Shopping District (Shōtengai)
Nakano’s shōtengai, named Nakano Sun Mall (中野サンモール) is located at the north exit of Nakano Station. An outdoor mall fixed with roofing that allows sunlight to flow in, this shopping area allows you to shop while breathing in the fresh air and enjoy the natural light that the sun provides. At night, the mall is lit up with colorful lights that make it feel like it is Christmas everyday in Nakano; a truly kira-kira experience!
This shopping district has everything you need. Countless amounts of clothing retail stores, which includes a three-story Uniqlo store, multiple department shoe stores, and a variety of formal wear shops, line up on both sides of the semi-outside mall. Tons of accessory stores are available to check out as well if you need anything from purses, jewelry, eyeglasses, or hats. If you need a break from shopping, there are a plethora of restaurants here as well, ranging from mom-and-pop spots, to chain restaurants like Yoshinoya and Yakiniku Like and the occasional cafe. There are also many random stores that sell sweets and knick-knacks, perfect gifts for your friends and family. My personal favorite spot is the cat café, Coo Rikuya: the coffee is delicious and the cats are so freaking cute!
Food and Drink District (ふれあいロード・昭和新道・中野レンガ坂)
Nakano is famous for its diverse food and drink scene. Although there are many locations to visit when it comes to grabbing a bite or having a drink throughout the ward, there are three must-go areas: Fureai Road (ふれあいロード), Shōwa-Shinmichi (昭和新道), and Nakano Rengazaka (中野レンガ坂).
Easily accessible from Nakano Station’s north exit, Fureai Road is Nakano’s biggest area when it comes to food and drink. As you enter the street, you are bombarded with vibrantly colored billboards and signs enticing you to come enter their respective establishment. Hundreds of dimly-lit, narrow, localized stores make up this district, each with their own individualistic flair that separates it from the rest of the bunch. Izakayas, bars, ramen shops, restaurants, and tachinomi’s (Japanese standing bars) are here waiting for you to come take a bite. Even though people from all over Tokyo come here to take a load off after the workday is over, this is where most Nakano locals come to hang out with their friends; locals are extremely friendly so it is a great place to meet new people and really experience Nakano’s distinct culture.
Despite this place mostly coming alive at night, this area is a great place to stop for a lunch break. I suggest checking out Go-Choume House (五丁目ハウス): it is Nakano’s most delicious Ramen shop!
Running parallel from Fureai Road is another popular food and drink area called Shōwa-Shinmichi. Similar to Fureai Road, Shōwa-Shinmichi is littered with small, narrow, dimly-lit places to grab a drink or a bite but in contrast, Shōwa-Shinmichi is much more intimate and cozier. Quietly nested away from the bustle and noise of Fureai Road, the shops here are much smaller and private, some only being able to seat five to six people at most. The vibes are completely different: just as the name of the street suggests, you are transported back to the Shōwa-Era, as billboard signs are replaced by Japanese lanterns. It is not uncommon to go somewhere for the first time and become best friends with the bartender or staff. This area is only active at night, so save the day time for Fureai Road and come here during the evening. Truly a Japanese experience, it is hard to explain the type of familiarity and nostalgia you experience simply by coming here. I suggest checking out my favorite whiskey bar, Bar M, where the bartender is extremely friendly and will make you feel like you have been friends since long ago.
The last area that many come to Nakano to wine and dine in is Nakano Rengazaka, located around the south exit of Nakano Station. Compared to Fureai Road and Shōwa-Shinmichi, Nakano Rengazaka has a fancier and more romantic atmosphere. Perfect for a lunch or dinner date with that special someone, the street is made of cobblestone and an array of trendy restaurants and drinkeries are planted within this area. In spite of not having the same volume of businesses to visit in comparison to Furei Road and Shōwa-Shinmichi, there are still dozens of beautiful storefronts that by simply viewing, you will be charmed enough to want to enter and order some food or drinks. At night, this street is beautifully illuminated by romantic lights where it feels like you are taking a stroll in what could be perceived as Japan’s version of Venice. My favorite date spot here is Wine Kura BanKan: the selection of wine and the atmosphere make for a great casual, romantic date.
There are so many things to do when you’re out exploring Nakano City. Whether you’re out trying to experience some underground otaku culture, looking to get some new threads or souvenirs, or trying to enjoy some delicious eats or share a drink with friends, Nakano is the place to be. Next time you’re out exploring Tokyo, come give Nakano a try!
Featured Photo By Michele Vergolani on Unsplash
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