Surrounded by sleepy “bedroom” towns, Nakano has quiet backstreets and a small “downtown” area around the station – a compact but dense district of local life, entertainment, and great food and drinks. Journey with us to this island of activity in a long archipelago of stations along the westbound Chuo line.
Where the Locals Go
We can start with the eclectic Dai Kaiju Salon, a café and bar adorned with a collection of monsters, creatures, and abominations all in the form of plush toys, action figures, and dolls. Just next door is the Bakaruma Shisha Bar (2F, 5-55-6, Nakano, Nakano-ku), a chill and cozy hole in the wall. Down the street lies Café Shuk Ring (1-14-14 Arai, Nakano-ku) serving up French toast, coffee, and a living-room atmosphere. After a long day, rest weary bones at Kotobuki-yu (1-13-14 Arai, Nakano-ku), a natural hot spring sporting low rates (¥460 for adults). Heading even deeper into the residential side of Nakano, you’ll spot the legendary Kyle’s Good Finds, a bakery founded and operated by the eponymous Kyle, a 33-year resident of Tokyo who has been running his bakery in the same shop for nearly three decades. Though baked goods are his forte – make sure to try the carrot cake and brownies – Kyle also makes a great Thanksgiving bento.
At the end of the main shopping street lies Nakano Broadway, a complex of specialty shops and boutiques. Mandarake, an emporium of manga, figurines, and other collectibles, fills up most of the third floor, but there are other small shops selling similar goods. It’s also home to Bar Zingaro, a café created by contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. His works adorn the walls, while plush toys based on the artist’s designs sit on shelves and tables, making for a chic yet friendly atmosphere. Try their shaved ice or adorable assorted lattes.
A few second-hand camera stores are in the area as well, with Fujiya Camera being the main one. Here you can find all manner of classic film cameras as well as modern digital gear. Nakano is also known for its lively theater scene with small local theaters such as Momo and Bonbon, as well as the underground Hope, opened in 2009. Venues such as The Pocket, founded by a husband and wife duo in 1998, were the seeds for a grassroots theater movement in the area. For traditional Japanese fare, there is Nakano Performing Arts Little Theater (5-68-7 Nakano, Nakano-ku), specializing in acts such as rakugo (storytelling) and owarai (live TV comedy).
A Microcosm of Tokyo Cuisine
The famed Okajoki, is a classic seafood izakaya dating back to the 1970s. The main room of the two-floor establishment is dominated by a large robata (hearth) used to grill skewered fish. The traditionally dressed chefs and waitstaff, and rustic décor, transport you into a Showa era dream. For lunch, Kurumari serves up an omurice topped with gobo (burdock root) sauce. The cozy café also has a sizeable selection of board games which can be played in the evening for ¥200 to ¥300 per 30 minutes. Their cottage cheese and orange peel deep-fried crêpes make for a delicious dessert.
To change pace from the local eats, step through the doors of Langsam Langsam (3-34-23 Nakano, Nakano-ku) and be transported to the European countryside. The quaint bistro’s name means “slowly slowly” in German, and you’ll certainly feel the relaxed pace while you enjoy grilled chicken or sautéed yellowtail over a glass of wine.
Sweet tooth? Papabubble Caramels Artesans’ original Japan branch is in Nakano. Their world-class candy comes in a hodgepodge of fruity flavors. Spice things up at Garaku Soup Curry, which hails from Sapporo and attracts a line out the door with their signature dish: spicy broth, tender chicken, and veggies. You can set the level of spice, but be warned: their hottest option is pretty piquant. If you like your curry less soupy, then Temma Curry (5-61-17 Nakano, Nakano-ku) has your number with their assortment of dishes ranging from curry-bread to pork cutlet curry over rice. Also check out Maguro Mart (1-10-12 Nakano, Nakano-ku). They serve some of the best maguro (tuna) in Tokyo.
When the Night Comes
Nakano’s bar scene is lively and eclectic. One common sight in the neighborhood is the snack bar, or “snakku.” These less-than-savory but not-that-seedy drinking establishments offer karaoke, drinks, and colorful characters. Though not for everyone (they can be intimidating and a bit pricey), they certainly offer an authentic slice of underground Japan. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum lies Hallogallo, a vegan bar run by a friendly English-speaking husband and wife duo. The modern décor is cozy, and the vegan menu is tasty and well-paired with the cocktails on offer.
Try the Cucumber Cooler. Just down the street is Juke 80s, a theme bar specializing in – you guessed it – 80s music. Bar I’m Diary is a suave and dark cocktail bar. Bar Sarto (5-63-4 Nakano, Nakano-ku) is a classy joint tucked in an alleyway near Nakano Station. The district is also chock-full of standing bars including Tachinomi Yakiya (2-27-14 Nakano, Nakano-ku), Sour Stand 8 (5-63-3 Nakano, Nakano-ku) and Standing Wine Bar Awa (5-55-3 Nakano, Nakano-ku).
Lukasz Palka is the co-founder of EYExplore, www.eyexplore.com