My trip to Akihabara this year left me more flatlined on the neighborhood than I’ve ever been before. As I’ve said many times before, I’ve never been impressed with this wildly overhyped otaku heaven and don’t feel that it lives up to its reputation in the least. Sure, there are a few nice stores and a fun arcade or two, but by and large, the area has become a tourist trap that stereotypes itself to commercially viable extremes.
Maybe I haven’t gone digging through the recesses of Akihabara enough to truly enjoy it, but after this last trip to Tokyo, I don’t think I’ll ever have to. I found a new area, at the advice of Editor-in-Chief Sean P. Aune, that perfectly embodies the spirit of all that you heard about Akihabara and is Tokyo’s truly genuine, nerdy Japanese escapist paradise of your dreams.
Nakano Broadway probably has remained free from Akihabara’s commercialization thanks to its relative inconvenience from the downtown area. While Akihara is a mere four-minute train ride, to get to Nakano from the central Tokyo station, you have to catch a twenty-minute train ride through the center of town on the Chuo Line and head out past Shinjuku to parts of the city that tourists rarely ever go.
In the Nakano neighborhood, you’ll find several major businesses advertising among the tall buildings, but by and large, it is an unassuming little slice of Tokyo that remains unimpressive and undiscernable from the rest of the urban areas that the public transit system can dump you off at. No enormous anime posters, no maid girls or idol groups advertising in the streets, no massive crowds, no noisy gaming arcades.
You honestly would never suspect that such a nerdy paradise resided in such a place. To find Nakano Broadway, you have to walk through a very standard Japanese shopping arcade into the main entrance, and even then, there isn’t a whole lot that hints to you about what lies above. The first floor consists of stores you’ll find just about anywhere in Japan, and the basement is actually a grocery store.
However, the second and third floor is like a trip into another world.
Nakano Broadway does have some of the big, mainstay nerdy shops you can find in Akihabara, but by and large, it’s comprised of small businesses and family-run shops. Retro gaming stores, manga and trading card shops, toy showcases, an overabundance of capulse machines, all of these Akihabara products are cramped into tight hallways with stationery shops, restaurants, tailors, insurance companies, Showa-era toy stores, and a variety of other small businesses, everything from genuine massage parlors to stores that sell antique dolls and movie posters.
Within these walls is a maze of hallways with no real rhyme or reason to their layout. Like I did, you can get lost for hours looking at all the fascinating products that are on sale.
Rather than the explosion of “This is Japan!” you get when walking from the gates of Akihabara station, Nakano Broadway is more like a step back through time to 1960s Tokyo when Japan was built around commercial centers like these, touched with a dash of modern-day fun as well. Tiny shops piled into a community with one another all exist to boost one another’s businesses. This sentimental, old-school setup helps satisfy a niche that Akihabara doesn’t quite fulfill anymore, and that’s the feeling you’re stepping into something genuine, not fake or constructed to live up to stereotypes and expectations.
Nakano Broadway was celebrating its 50th anniversary when I went there this past weekend, and my guess is that it’s been running its business the same way for all five of those decades.