Day 6: Nakano Broadway – Harmonica Street – Zauo Restaurant

It’s been a long time since my last update, and some 1 year 2 months since I actually visited which makes continuing this blog absolutely ridiculous -_-   But I will continue to write for the sake of…posterity?.. Slowly.

 

Nakano Broadway (中野ブロードウェイ). Those of you who are familiar with the otaku scene in Japan will most likely already know that this place is a must-visit for native and overseas otaku alike. Along with the previously covered Akihabara (秋葉原) and Otome Road (乙女ロード) in Ikebukuro (池袋), the three locations make up the absolute major “holy sites” in the Kanto region.

These areas host shops, hobby stores, food places and event venues for fans of anime, games, manga etc. Places where people are less likely to judge and pull funny faces when you let out your inner geek 😀

If you’re lucky enough to visit western Japan (towards the Kansai region), make sure to also check out the electronics street, Osu Denki-gai (大須電気街) in Nagoya (名古屋) and Nipponbashi (日本橋) Otaku Road in Osaka (大阪) which provide similarly for the local folks (too bad I won’t be covering them!).

1 nakano alleyway vending

You’d think that by now I’d learn not to constantly get up so freaking early when shops don’t even open – some habits are hard to kick.

Since most places open between 10am-12pm, adjust your travel and timetables accordingly unless you want to watch salarymen bustling about commuting to work!

Since there was nothing to do for about an hour, I wandered the side-streets in the area, soaking up the atmosphere and as usual drinking myself full on vending machine stuff.

I’d read about this area before coming. The small maze-like streets near Nakano Broadway are known for their colourful yet dingy izakayas (pub houses/ taverns) and street food. If you love your alcohol and hearty grub then this is the place to be. The streets come alive at night, & you often hear of people crawling around and getting lost in all the sake and yakitori. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much to do in the morning, not that it was my kinda scene anyway (huff).

2 nakano alleyway 1

3 nakano alleyway 2

4 nakano alleyway 3

5 nakano alleyway 4

6 nakano alleyway restaurant

Back round towards the station area, near the Sun Mall entrance to Nakano Broadway there are a few shops dotted about, including this weird Soba (buckwheat noodle) stall I just happened to notice. All these guys were having their breakfast stood up. I just found it weird and funny. Normally, I’d be right at home dining in a ramen-ya but I was kinda too intimidated to squeeze in here.. would’ve been pretty awkward for a foreigner girl!

7 soba stall

I got hungry after seeing this and started to look around for breakfast myself. Thankfully, I could trust the fast food chains to be ready for me when I needed them! Enter Matsuya Foods (松屋フーズ) – these ubiquitous yet often overlooked yellow signed chain stores offer comfort foods such as curries and meat & rice dishes like gyūdon (beef bowls). My nickname for the outlets is “squirrel house” since the kanji for “松” reminds me of the Chinese word for squirrel “松鼠”.

8 squirrel house

I’d been curious about the brand for a while but had no idea what to expect. Upon entering, I located a ticket machine to the left (hell yeah!) , which menus could be set to English (whoopee)! To my pleasant surprise, the breakfast menu included variations of the traditional Japanese breakfast, which typically consists of (Japanese short grain) rice, miso soup, a portion of fish or tamagoyaki  and assorted pickles or veg. Having a proper Japanese breakfast was always on my to-do list so I was glad to have it ticked off  🙂

9 squirrel breakfast
My choice for the day – rice, miso with seaweed, salmon, veggies, and natto.

I know it sounds pretty ludicrous but I was quite excited for this meal. There was a soothing sense of homeliness to it. Probably also because it was so quiet in the morning. As a tourist it’s easy to get under the false impression that sushi, ramen, and karaage are “normal” Japanese foods rather than the fast food junk they are (not to say those things are crap – I LOVE ramen).

Anyways, it was nice. Especially the natto. That is, a dish of fermented soy beans. Sounds simple enough right? Well if you don’t know already, let me just warn you that natto is not for everyone! Like cheese, coleslaw, or marmite, you’ll either love it or loath it! First, stir in the sauce, then stir like crazy with your chopsticks (do learn how to use chopsticks by the way). Eventually, you’ll produce a clump of sticky beans stuck to what looks like a thick band of cobwebs that stretches and gloops around like slime.. the final taste is fermenty? But the sticky slime is surprisingly light and not nearly as gross as I thought it would be.

10 natto 1
Try it. I dare you
11 natto 2
Stirring this up was damn fun, just look at all that goo! Lovely 😀

Okay, needless to say this can be quite an acquired taste. According to one of my colleagues in the UK, it’s possible to find this stuff in big Chinese supermarkets, though I haven’t really looked for it myself. Also, I suspect that what they give you in the chains are probably the “clean” versions. Homemade stuff can get seriously pongy! For an anime lesson on natto, look no further than episode 2 of Sabagebu:

11.5 natto 3
God do I love this show. I gave it a myanimelist rating of 9. That’s right. Bite me.

I noticed the patrons (around 4-5 of them) were all men who looked between the ages of 25-40. Possibly single with little time to prepare breakfast for themselves in the morning. Who knows, but I’d like to come back here at a different time and see what kind of clientele the chain normally draws in.

So enough of that. Moving on I continued to explore the surrounding area, spotting the popular chains Matsumoto Kiyoshi (drugs/cosmetics store) and Don Quijote (a discount store selling a mishmash of different toys, gifts and household items). This is mega handy for a bit of time-killing.

13 nakano donkey
Don Quijote storefront. Random shit galore.

I was too lazy to take a photo of a particularly interesting toy I came across inside here (and I completely forgot to return to buy it later ;_; ). It was a replica of a Nagashi Somen (flowing somen) setup – an elaborate slide, made up of connected bamboo halves with water flowing down it. Somen (thin white flour noodles) are then trickled down the slide so that dinner guests are able to playfully grab them with their chopsticks into their own sauce bowls. Only the Japanese could come up with shaz like this… it’s also very unhygienic.

Somen
Nagashi somen as depicted in Koufuku Graffiti

Towards noon, places were starting to open up, so I headed to the Sun Mall Shōtengai (サンモール商店街), a walkway lined with all manner of diners and shops which leads straight to the entrance of Nakano Broadway. This street is a mini-trip in itself. For more details and nice looking pictures follow the link to this page: http://likeafishinwater.com/2014/06/03/nakano-sun-mall-shotengai/

So after all that faffing around in the morning, I finally visited the main attraction of the day. My immediate impression upon stepping inside Nakano Broadway mall, was that the place had seen better days and that some renovation was required. It’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it felt like an old shopping centre from the 90’s, like the Arndale was in my hometown Manchester – before the times when massive conglomerates with their chains and coffee shops completely conquered the retail space. The decor on the upper walkway is strangely rickety and nostalgia inducing. It’s too bad I forgot to take pictures along the way 😦

Since it’s been covered well and extensively in other articles all over the net, I won’t go into posting a sh*t-ton of pictures (also mainly because I don’t have any lol). I’ll just be musing over my opinions of the place. In fact, for your otaku needs I recommend using the brilliant resource that is Danny Choo’s website http://www.dannychoo.com/en/post/25749/Nakano+Broadway.htm Also, here is the official webpage of Nakano Broadway, which includes floor maps: http://www.nbw.jp/index_e.html

15 nakano shop 1

16 nakano shop 2

Other than the seemingly endless Mandarakes stores populating the mall, there’s also an odd hodgepodge of bric-a-brac gift stalls, clothing boutiques, clinics and mundane grocery stores on the basement floor. The atmosphere is surely unique, and yet also reminds me of the quirkiness of a place back in Manchester UK, called Affleck’s Palace. Though it’s nowhere near as big as broadway, Affleck’s is also home to anime related goods, as well as other underground (indie, rock, occult etc.) related clothing, accessories and stuff.

Not surprisingly, as foreshadowed by my visit to the Akihabara branch of Mandarake, I wasn’t overly fond of the experience of shopping in Nakano Broadway. The buying and selling of used merchandise is standard practice for collectors and  denizens of the otaku subculture – keeping the secondary market and trading industry alive. However, I normally can’t stand the idea of owning something that’s used, unless it happens to be a rare game that otherwise cannot be found. Add that to the dingy, grungy atmosphere with the dull reddish decor and lighting (which I swear they do on purpose), it’s all just a bit too stuffy for my tastes. Call me a snob, but I’d much prefer the clean and tidy spaces of Akiba!

It didn’t really help that I couldn’t find what I was looking for either. Broadway is known for housing rare and retro goods, catering to fans of the old favorites like Astro Boy, Gundam etc. Some spaces have even been redecorated to look more like museums than actual shops. Broadway is advertised as being the the place to go to get the stuff you can’t find elsewhere, and yet, there leaves a lot to be desired. Minus the experience of physically shopping (if you love that sort of thing), I am pretty confident that you would be much better looking online for very specific items.

A lot of merchandise from popular anime of recent years also make their way onto the shelves. Video games seem to be under represented. But shops that do carry game-related figurines tend to house them in random junk-filled boxes on some dusty floor, or in those glass cabinets owned by private individuals (which they rent to advertise their collection for sale). To say one would be looking for a needle in a haystack is an understatement…at least, I didn’t stand a chance at locating the object of my desire ;_;  (a figure of Hiro from the Spectral Force/ Spectral Souls series):

Hiro
Twas never meant to be…

One thing I always find amusing though are the unmanned gashapon shops. Just rows and rows of toy capsule machines ready to eat away those ¥100 coins weighing down your pocket. You can get some of the funniest souvenirs from those things 😀

gatch machine
Sushi cat anyone?

And of all the crap I thought I might have bought on the day, this (below) is all I took home, and for some reason I always remember the old lady who sat by herself at the stall, surrounded by these random bits of cutesy looking stuff:

cats
What a weird day.

I didn’t linger around for too long, since the weariness from the previous day was catching up with me. One last thing I’d like to mention though are the spooky closed hallways. There was a floor with a half of the place closed up! I had no idea why, whether it was just the wrong time of the day or if they were refreshing the area for a later – if anyone can shed some light on this please let me know.

17 nakano shop 3
Why is nobody home?!

 

My next destination was Harmonica Yokocho (ハモニカ横丁) in Kichijōji (吉祥寺) which is easy enough to get to from Nakano. I took the Chuo line (中央線) from Nakano Station to Kichijoji station & headed to the north exit.

A colleague of mine commented that no matter which station you get off on in the Tokyo metropolis, or wherever you go, there’s bound to be something to see or do whether you are looking for it or not. This holds true for wandering the local Kichijoji neighborhood.

18 harmonica street near

18.5 street event 1
A few minutes later, some cutesy idol looking girls clamber onto the stage at the end of the road and start pratting about. I think it was a pageant or something.
18.6  temple
A random Buddhist temple I came across. After looking into it, I discovered that 月窓褝寺 hosts a traditional matsuri (祭), or festival at some point during the year. Looks pretty fun too.

19 harmonica street entrance

I finally discover the entrance of Harmonica Yokocho which gets me all excited. The maze of outlets inside, crammed tightly side by side in little alleyways are supposed to be reminiscent of a harmonica formation. It’s known as a great place for bar hopping, with plenty of eateries and street foods. I spotted what looked like a crafts store and a grocery stall. But guess what? Yup. NOTHING WAS OPEN!! Goddammit!

I would normally laugh at myself, but at that moment I was simply too disappointed and rather annoyed 😦

It’s basically a ghost town in the daytime, and though I would’ve liked to have stayed in the area or return later, as it were, I had to meet my sisters for dinner in the evening.

22 harmonica street mochi stall
Freshly made mochi.

At least this one place was open. It’s a wagashi (confectionery) store! I watched the lady here prepare a fresh batch of mochi. If you’ve read Day 3 of this blog, you might remember me mentioning mochi when talking about dango. Mochi are rice-based (generally round) pudding looking things with a unique soft texture, and in the center is usually a sweet bean paste of some sort. There isn’t anything quite like it and it’s hard to describe accurately. As I’ve mentioned in Day 3, you can buy packaged mochi from most Chinese supermarkets in your local Chinatown. However, fresh Japanese mochi has a melt-in-the-mouth quality that can’t be replicated overseas 🙂

If you would like to try some fresh mochi in UK, head down to Cha-ology tea-house in Ancoats, Manchester. The owner is trained in preparing matcha tea and wagashi. It has a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere, resembling a traditional tea-house in many ways.

cha-ology
Cha-ology mochi, made using proper Japanese rice flour.

I headed back to my hotel shortly to rest and prepare to meet up with my sisters. I’d been walking around so much the previous days that my body was aching all over by this time. Nothing a hot bath and late afternoon tea party couldn’t fix. I grabbed myself some sakura and mung bean flavored mochi from Harmonica street earlier.

23 tea 1
It’s soft, and bouncy, and sweet, and sticky…mmmnn
24 tea 2
There’s nothing like chilling out by yourself in a hotel room halfway across the world with trays of delicious mochi (plus a dorayaki) and a nice cup of kocha.

My last meal of the day was to be at Zauo restaurant, just west of Shinjuku station (ざうお新宿店). It’s rather easy to locate and is in the vicinity of a great many other popular Shinjuku sites. In addition to the department stores such as Lumine and Isetan there’s the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑), Meiji Shrine (明治神宮), Yoyogi Park (代々木公園, Yoyogi kōen) and the quirky Golden Gai (ゴールデン街), which like Harmonica Yokocho, is full of seedy bars and eateries, gearing up during the night.

Although Shinjuku is little more than a train stop for the purposes of my trip this time, it is a place full of history and home to a plethora of museums – well worth looking into.

Zauo restaurant is rather different to most places. You’re given the opportunity to catch your food – alive, which is then cooked and prepared for you! After being taken to a table, you are free to grab a fishing rod and go fishing! (Actually, my sisters were to afraid to do anything at first so we ended up sitting at the freaking table for 10 minutes before deciding to just up and go). The mini-shrimp bait cost about ¥200 per small tray I think, but since practically no-one mans the damn things or even cares you can just grab them. They don’t work properly anyway! I’m not guilty!

There are several big pool-like tanks with different types of fishes swimming about, and well, you just fish. We had too much fun to take pictures it seems, but you can easily research if you’re curious.

In the time we were there, 2 foreign dudes caught something. I also got a bite. A feisty little bastard it was too. And let me tell you, those damn fish are bloody strong! I had no idea how to get it out of the water and eventually it got away ;_;   Had I been serious though I’m pretty sure I could’ve just yanked it out! But I was too mindful of other customers who were near me. Just struggling with the thing made crazy splashes everywhere, I can’t image what would’ve happened had I tried to fling it towards the surface – it probably would smacked someone in the face…

But screw that, if you happen to visit, don’t give a damn about the person next to you. You get that damn fish! Else you’ll end up with regrets (sniff). Although we technically had a time limit of 2 hours, one of the staff decided to target us obvious gaijin and give us a secret cheat (clearly in the hopes that we would promote the establishment). He took some blue-tack looking bait from a tin, and as soon as he lowered it into the water, a crap ton of fish swarmed towards the rod. What took me the best part of an hour to achieve was done in just under one minute -_-‘  , successfully too.

We took a prize picture with the trophy fish (a Sea Bream). But it was a hollow victory and spoiled the fun. Should you be shadily pulled to one side – you know what to expect!

25 fish meal
As disappointing as it was that we couldn’t catch a flipping fish between the four of us, it was still satisfying eating the little shits.
26 fish raw
And for the sake of sadism, here’s a closeup of the little bastard all raw and cut up as sashimi. Chomp.

There was a surprising number of annoyances today, but it still didn’t stop me from making some good memories. The moral of the story is – wake up late, don’t expect too much, and don’t give a crap about wetting random strangers with icky fish water.

Next up: Day 7 Hanno

 

Day 2: Akihabara – Tokyo One Piece Tower

Akihabara is known by the locals as Akiba. A kind of a holy land for the otaku creed where games, anime, manga, toys and all sorts of related merchandise get sold and traded. I won’t go into too much detail about the place’s past (for loads of glorious photos visit good old Danny Choos website: http://www.dannychoo.com/en/post/25744/History+of+Akihabara.html), in short, after WWII a black-market trade of electronic bits and radio parts made it an ideal place for students and manufacturers to build gadgets there. Eventually, things like household essentials like TVs, washing machines & refrigerators were being sold, and then later on computer hardware which attracted otaku-like men to the area… As an anime fan, it’s probably one of the first places that people recommend you go to, and for good reason! Its traditional status as the home of otaku is so set in the subcultural mind that it’s depicted as the base city for adventurers guilds in anime Log Horizon.

A bunch of guys queuing outside (for AKB48?), probably for a live show
A bunch of guys queuing outside (for AKB48?), probably for a live show

I might have gotten a little overexcited in the morning and woke up waaay too early :-s   Back home in UK, shop opening times vary from 8am – 8pm. In Japan it’s generally from 10am – 9pm. So being the idiot I am I arrive by about 8:30 only to find a ghost town with people dashing here & there to work. Please do not make the same stupid mistake I did on your own trip!

I started off by wandering around the main street Chuo-dori to get used to the place. As well as the commercial area, there are a bunch of side streets which are easily missed if you don’t bother to venture into them. It would be a shame since there are plenty of neat little food stalls & hobby shops with things you won’t find in the big stores. The games district itself covers only a small area of Akiba, but walking around can be surprisingly tiring, especially with baggage. Make use of the coin lockers at the station by dropping off your haul from time to time, and trust me, if it means you can keep shopping without carrying around 5-7kg of baggage it’s bloody worth it!

The first thing I actually did was eat since there was nothing else to do. Grabbed a blueberry & cream crepe (which was very yummy by the way) from a convenience store and gobbled it up at the UDX Plaza.

crepe

Before coming to Japan, I’d been playing a PlayStation Vita game called Akiba’s Trip 2. The game creators used real models of the gaming district to build the in-game town and the result is pretty true to life. I tried using my memory of the game as a map which worked out pretty well actually lol  xD. Granted, a lot of shops don’t exist or have now been replaced by other stores, and the game romanticizes the place but the overall feel is very accurate (actually, it’s superior to the real thing!). Here’s a comparison between reality and game:

(click to enlarge) Pretty neat right?
(click to enlarge)
The world of anime and games is so much better than reality…yep, I said it.

After the crepe I still felt hungry & set out to find ramen. Unfortunately, the only places that open early are fast food chains/ franchises. So off I went to a burger joint – Becks. I had the set menu burger + drink. But since there was absolutely no English support I got a little flustered and pointed to any old random thing (felt like Tomoko from Watamote at this point), which turned out to be iced coffee  -_-

Err.. what was I ordering again?
Err.. what was I ordering again?
Becks as referenced in Akiba's Trip 2
Becks as referenced in Akiba’s Trip 2
Delicious. Just sit away from the smoking area though.
Delicious. Just sit away from the smoking area though.

As the day creeps towards 10:00 the town comes to life slowly. From the quiet hustle & bustle of traffic and salarymen to the sounds of anime music, video adverts on screen, and recorded greetings booming from store entrances.

ak3aki2One of the first things I noticed was how surprisingly touristy some of the electronics stores like Laox and Softmap were. There seemed to be a steady stream of coaches parked outside of these places – tourist guides dropping people off directly so that they could start spending their money en-mass on tax free electronic goods. Even the store greetings are recorded in Mandarin! The buying power of Chinese tourists will no doubt be great for the economy, but it’s also sadly a demonstration of the commercial invasion of otaku Akiba by the big corporations. The reputation of Akiba as a tourist destination draws in mainstream consumers which the government probably thinks is a positive effect of the Cool Japan movement. Sadly, otaku who used to hang out in the streets of Akiba detest the direction the area is taking and have even made protests to that end (see http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2007/09/27/general/akihabaras-awful-truths/#.VaEThvlD5TU). So don’t ever be surprised if the denizens of the town are more likely to be suits & tourists rather than geeks & cosplayers, just a fair warning… I will compare this state of affairs with my future post on Nakano Broadway.

The sparkly new Radio Kaikan.
The sparkly new Radio Kaikan.

Despite my disillusionment I still had a fun time overall, blasting my way through Radio Kaikan, Gamers, Animate, and multiple Softmap stores. Softmap is best in terms of price for toys and figures. I also visited Mandarake, which trades almost exclusively in second-hand goods; toys, CDs, DVDs and games. Perfect for those on a budget who can bear rifling through the stuff in (seriously) dingy shop floors. The fact that I did not like the place doesn’t bode well for a certain place I will visit later on…

pic1

A little wall-scroll & poster store I intend on revisiting someday  :-)
A little wall-scroll & poster store I intend on revisiting someday 🙂
A worker unloads a van of soft drinks/ beverages to refill a vending machine (which are plenty & ubiquitous in Japan due to the lack of vandalism)
A worker unloads a van of soft drinks/ beverages to refill a vending machine (which are plenty & ubiquitous in Japan due to the lack of vandalism)

soyAfter spending close to £500 ($750 or 95000¥), I ended up broke for the day and headed home. My foot in an aching pain due to the sheer weight of my shopping bags 😦 Though I came to revisit Akiba on my last day I never did make it to see the night view, something I regret and therefore aim to achieve on my next visit!

towerIn the evening, I went to the One Piece Theme Park at Tokyo Tower with my sisters. Just a 5-10 minute walk from the closest train station, it really is impossible to miss unless you’re practically blind. The tower is featured in a number of anime. From what I can remember, the Clamp series Cardcaptor Sakura, X, and in more recent memory Tokyo ESP (the manga is great, not too keen on the anime adaptation).

There is a rather large number of market-stalls near the entrance, holding a mind boggling quantity of quirky souvenirs and edible goods. An ideal place to buy random crap for your colleagues and relatives back at home.

tower shop1

Hey there fat guy!
The fat guy on the right is the titular character from My Neighbour Totoro.

As usual when you arrive late in the day, it’s quiet. At the theme park, the entrance fee is extortionate for the unlimited attractions option (something like £20+, $31, 3800¥) which we did without – it didn’t stop us from taking part in the attractions anyway.

The whole ambiance is very well thought out and planned, with jolly music played throughout the theme park and life sized models painstakingly recreated. As to whether I recommend this place for fans of One Piece, I highly suggest going as a big group since its quite obviously tailored towards being family and kid friendly. There is an attraction based on each one of the main characters, for example, Zoro’s sword lessons, Usopp’s shooting game, Brook’s ghost tour and Chopper’s hide ‘n’ seek in the cabins of the Thousand Sunny. I don’t want to give too much away since it will spoil any surprise for would-be visitors. However, I can say I enjoyed it a lot. There are also live shows performed by the official cosplayers who I think look true to the original characters (we didn’t watch though since it was getting late).

Sue-007

chopper

usopp

comic

The themed cafe downstairs is pretty standard if not costly, with things like steak, curry, spaghetti, salad etc. There’s also Franky’s bar with corn snacks, soft drinks and meat based churro-looking-things. Thankfully there’s also a food court in the building upstairs offering ramen, pizza, salads etc where we went to eat.

beer
That’s right – alcohol free beer. But unlike the shit you get back at home, this stuff actually tastes good and also has ZERO CALORIES!!!
food
Nom nom..

After eating, we headed home.

The sky finally made good on its threat to rain on us. It’s a good thing we were informed in advance by the newspapers the hotel staff kindly bring to us each morning!

As we were leaving, I noticed that the tower looked exceptionally pretty at night in the rain  😀

nighttowerNext up: Day 3: Mount Takao – Shinjuku – Shinjuku Awaodori