The vast suburban area which lies west of shinjuku has traditionally been home to an eclectic group of creative people (writers, musicians, etc.), including many manga and anime artists who, especially in the past, used to live here, probably because apartments were cheaper. The westbound chuo and seibu shinjuku train lines are particularly important for the history of manga. A number of people who were involved in seminal avant-garde comic magazine garo, for instance, lived in asagaya. As for animation, almost 100 of the 400 production studios in japan are located in suginami ward and musashino city, in the area roughly included between koenji and mitaka stations. Over the last few years, more and more otaku-oriented stores, bars and restaurants have opened, attracting an increasing number of fans away from the usual centers of anime and manga consumption. While many of these places are scattered around western tokyo and require a fair amount of train time, neighborhoods like koenji and asagaya have a slightly higher number of otaku spots and deserve to be explored properly.
For people who only know Tokyo through mainstream press and TV programs, Koenji may be—together with Shimo-Kitazawa—one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Like Shimo-Kita, Koenji has long nurtured a local community of artists and intellectuals who have given the district a particular vibe. The main difference between the two places may be that Koenji arguably features a wider palette of cultural and musical influences and a stronger tradition of anti-establishment political activism (e.g. it was the starting point to the anti-nuclear protests which followed the 3/11 disaster in Fukushima). At the same time, this is still a typical Japanese neighborhood, with plenty of temples and old-fashioned shopping streets, and every summer hosts the Awa Odori traditional dance festival (last weekend of August) which attracts about 10,000 performers and one million people.
Koenji is particularly famous for two things: used clothes and music. From the JR Chuo Line South Exit, go right and find the entrance to the covered PAL shopping street. Walk the whole length of the arcade and at the end you will find Look Street (ルック商店街). Koenji is said to have about 100 used-clothes shops, and one fourth of them are concentrated along this street, sharing space with cool coffee shops and a few pre-war buildings that were spared by US aerial bombings.
As one of the main centers of alternative youth culture, Koenji is the go-to place to enjoy indie music of any kind. While it is particularly famous as the birthplace of the local punk rock scene, the many live venues and music bars cater to different genres, from folk to glam rock, jazz and experimental music.
It’s no surprise, then, that Koenji abounds in retro and thrift stores and other quirky shops, including of course those of the otaku variety. While nearly all these places are located south of the train line, let’s first visit the lone store on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Cross the square in front of the North Exit and head for the red arch on the far left. Walk the whole length of the shopping street and turn left (there’s a bakery on the corner). At the end of that short street you will see a shop called Star Case on the second floor.
That’s our building.
Star Case is considered one of Tokyo’s best Star Wars shops and is definitely worth a look if you are into it, but we actually want to go to the store next door, Ichibanboshi. This vintage toy shop is mainly devoted to figures (Godzilla, Astro Boy, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, you name it). Inside, all the available space is taken by glass cabinets full of soft vinyl toys, while others hang from the wall inside their plastic cases. Ichibanboshi is also famous for its collaborations with indie sofubi maker Real x Head.
VISIT TO A GAME CENTER
Video game arcades—or game centers, as they are called in Japan—used to dot the cities and shopping malls around the world. Most of that scene has now disappeared, replaced by home consoles, PC software and portable devices. Only in Japan time seems to have stopped as many people still enjoy their weekly (sometimes daily) commute to those loud, crowded and mesmerizing temples of electronic fun. The secret of their longevity is the clever way in which game producers and arcade owners have managed to create a kind of experience that goes beyond the games themselves and can only be enjoyed in the arcade environment.
Japanese game centers can be either one-floor mazes or multi-story fun palaces, but their basic layout is about the same anywhere you go. Let’s take as an example a medium-sized, three-story Taito arcade in suburban Tokyo. The first floor is crammed with UFO Catcher (crane and claw game), a couple of Taiko no Tatsujin (Drum Master) (a particularly popular game that attracts players of any age and sex) and a few kid’s games such as card-based games. These cabinets are strategically placed near the entrance because they are more likely to attract casual passersby, young couples and families. Originally UFO Catcher was the name of a prize game that arcade industry giant Sega created in 1985 and derives its name from its UFO-shaped claw. It has proved so successful over the years that even today, all crane games (including those made by other companies) are called like this. Anyway, whatever the type, you better avoid them like the plague, because they are nothing but coin suckers. Though deceptively easy, your chances to get one of those cute stuffed toys (unless you are blessed with beginner’s luck) are close to naught. It’s not by chance that revenues from UFO Catcher can be as much as 40 percent of all game revenues at arcades in Japan.
Going upstairs, the second floor (in bigger arcades even the third and possibly the fourth) features what many consider the heart of a game center. It is here that you will find the typical games that most people identify with arcade fun: shooting games; fighting games; and dedicated cabinets. These genres have evolved dramatically since the first hit games appeared in the late 1970s (rememberSpace Invaders?). Shooting games, for instance, have always been the dominant arcade games, but recent STGs (as they are known in Japan) can be so complicated that they only attract the more dedicated players (someone would call them maniacs) as it takes a lot of time and money to memorize their amazingly intricate patterns. As for fighting games, constant innovation on 3-D technology has made them increasingly appealing and today the likes ofStreet Fighter,TekkenandVirtua Fightershare pride of space with the STGs. When it comes to virtual brawls, one of the more interesting features in Japanese arcades is that many if not most cabinets are connected to common motherboards. In this particular game center, for instance, two rows of four cabinets each are placed back-to-back. This way each person can challenge one of the players on the opposite row. It’s completely anonymous yet the fact that you are actually playing against someone who is in the same room adds a thrilling note to the already exciting situation. The downside, needless to say, is that if you are unlucky enough to be challenged by a master player you will likely walk out of the game center with empty pockets and a bruised ego.