Nakano is pure Tokyo: around the next corner you might find a tiny shrine, a vintage clothing shop, a pencil-thin house, a mom-and-pop rice-cracker shop, or all four on the same block.
If you’ve been to Tokyo, or even just watched Lost in Translation, you know Shinjuku. The world’s busiest train station, the legendary Park Hyatt, that papier-mâché robot battle dungeon. Shinjuku is thrilling, and awfully convenient. But with its luxury high-rises and platoons of taxis and tourists, it’s about as conducive to finding hidden urban treasures as midtown Manhattan. So where do you go to see what Tokyo is really all about?
Right next door. Literally one stop west of Shinjuku on the Chuo Rapid train is Nakano, a low-rise neighborhood of meandering pedestrian streets, independent ramen shops, a bustling covered shopping arcade, and an entire mall devoted to Japanese pop culture. The jumble is pure Tokyo: around the next corner you might find a tiny shrine, a vintage clothing shop, a pencil-thin house, a mom-and-pop rice-cracker shop, or all four on the same block.
Nakano is so cool, it’s where Nirvana played their final show in Japan, at the Nakano Sun Plaza in 1992. But because most guidebooks give it a single paragraph at best, you can explore the neighborhood without having to crowd-surf.
Nakano doesn’t have any hotels of note, but the nearby Shinjuku Granbell opened in 2013 and is one of Tokyo’s only true boutique hotels. The economy rooms ($137 for single occupancy, $202 for double) are—well, “intimate” is a nicer word than “tiny,” but that just means every scrupulously-considered amenity is within reach. You can also go all-out for less than you’d expect ($915) and book the penthouse Club Suite, with a skyline view and acres of luscious gray marble, designed by progressive interiors guy Hiroyuki Matsunaka of designroom702.
Pro Tip: On the short walk from the Granbell to Shinjuku station, you’ll pass Takano, Tokyo’s foremost fruit boutique. It features two floors of fruit shopping (including, yes, those famed $200-and-up cantaloupes), a buffet, and a full-service restaurant. But we recommend the basement Paferio, a counter serving nothing but fruit parfaits: perfectly ripe seasonal fruit mixed with soft serve ice cream, jams, sorbets, spherified fruits, and other accents. Try the muskmelon parfait—it only tastes like it cost $200.
Japanese anime and manga otaku (superfans) come from all over the world to shop Nakano Broadway, but it’s worth visiting even if you’ve never seen My Neighbor Totoro. (Seriously, you’ve never seen Totoro? Please get on that.) The second and third floors of this mall feature twenty-six separate stores operated by pop-culture purveyor Mandarake, selling comics, DVDs, figurines, clothing, and trading cards. On the fourth floor, look for the shop with the red shrine gate at its entrance. This is Mandarake Henya, which loosely translates as, “Shop full of shit too weird for our 25 other stores.”
Pro tip: The basement of Nakano Broadway is the food floor. Get a treat at Daily Chiko, a soft serve counter where the specialty is an eight-story cone whose flavors might include matcha, black sesame, and ramune, a popular blue soda that tastes…very blue. For a savory snack, hit up the fish shop, which sells a staggering array of fresh and affordable sashimi.
Daily: 12 P.M. to 8 P.M.
What’s for lunch: ramen, of course
Nakano is home to over fifty ramen shops, including national chains, pioneering shops dating back to the fifties, and creative indies. One of our favorites is Aoba (“green leaf”), one of the first ramen shops to combine fish and pork broth to make “double soup.” Get the tokusei chūkasoba, ramen with extra slices of chashu pork and a perfect soft-boiled egg (watch the cooks halve each perfectly cooked egg on a jagged wire that looks like a Bond villain’s torture device). Or go to nearby Nidaime Enji for tsukemen (dipping noodles), which are prepared upstairs and sent down via dumbwaiter. Lift the noodles with your chopsticks and give them a quick dunk in the ultra-rich sauce before slurping. We’ve never gotten through a meal at either of these places with an unstained shirt. Totally worth it.
Pro tip: To order at Aoba, buy a ticket from the machine just outside the shop. The buttons are labeled in Japanese, but there will definitely be someone else in line with you; just ask them to point out the button for tokusei chūkasoba. Hand the counter person the ticket when you take your seat.
Mon-Fri: Lunch 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M., Dinner 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.
Sat-Sun: 11:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. *
Japan loves to bathe—here, you can stay in small urban apartments boasting massive tubs that would make an American McMansion master bathroom jealous. And when a Japanese family plans a vacation, parents and kids alike dream of sinking into a steaming, therapeutic hot spring in the countryside. There’s nothing quite so relaxing—and humbling—than getting naked and lobster-pink with strangers.
You don’t have to head out of town to a rural inn to bathe in natural hot spring waters, but you do have to head out of Nakano. Luckily, it’s a quick and scenic ride on the Keio Inokashira line, which shuffles through a sprawling urban park on its way to Takaido station, just steps from Utsukushi no Yu (“bath of beauty”). Leave your shoes and cares in a locker up front and soak in a variety of indoor and outdoor baths. Men and women split off to opposite sides of the complex, and yeah, you have to get naked.
Pro tip: Like most baths in Japan, Utsukushi no Yu doesn’t allow tattoos. It’s an antiquated anti-gangster thing. If you’re minimally inked, however, cover it up with a bandage and they won’t ask questions.
Daily: 9:30 A.M. to 12 A.M.
Price varies by time and day but is always under $12/adult and $10/child
This izakaya, across from Life Supermarket, is not hard to spot: a fish head will be staring at you from the lavish seafood display in the front window. Inside, it’s controlled chaos—people from all walks of life laughing and drinking away the day, ordering the next round of beer or sake from harried diner waitresses. On any given day, Dainichikarashuzo offers over two hundred varieties of seafood, and just as many choices of sake (called nihonshu in Japanese) and shochu. In summer, go for awabi sutēki (abalone steak), katsuo (skipjack) sashimi, mizu nasu no oshinko (pickled Kyoto eggplant), and ayu (broiled sweetfish). And any time of year, don’t miss hotate bataa-yaki: plump scallops sauteed in butter. Nothing about this dish would be out of place at a New England seafood shack, and that’s why we love it.
Pro tip: More and more restaurants in Japan are going nonsmoking. This isn’t one of them. However, private dining rooms are available, as is an English menu.
Daily: 2 P.M. to 11:30 P.M. (last order is at 10:45)