Rediscovering Ikebukuro, Tokyo's forgotten district
Ikebukuro may be the oft-overlooked, slightly gritty cousin of Shinjuku, Ginza, Shibuya, Roppongi, and Akihabara, but that hasn't stopped it from developing a funky groove of its own.
The area -- which literally means “lake bag” in Japanese -- has everything from anime arcades, maid cafes and mega malls to an aquarium and planetarium, not to mention a gyoza theme park, a flourishing ramen scene, and an ongoing sizzling hot electronic store war.
One could say Ikebukuro has got everything in the bag -- except that lake.
Hotbed for artists and musicians
Ikebukuro is now often associated with the high-voltage competition between Bic Camera -- the electronic hypermart which has its roots in Ikebukuro from 1978 -- and Yamada Denki, as well as the department store battle of Seibu versus Tobu.
But the area first gained a reputation as a hotbed for artists and musicians during the early Showa era and was hence nicknamed “Ikebukuro Montparnasse” -- after the hub of intellectual and artistic life in Paris in the early 20th century.
In tribute to this bohemian village heritage, the area was chosen to build the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in 1990, where dramas and musicals are staged.
Also adding to the cultural quotient of Ikebukuro’s West exit is the presence of the Ikebukuro Performing Arts Theatre, established in 1951 as a venue for both budding and veteran rakugo (Japanese art of humorous story telling) artistes and aficionados.
There’s also a healthy sprinkling of fringe and black-box theater venues in the area such as Theater Green and Owlspot, as well as a cluster of eight cinemas that has given the area a reputation as “Tokyo’s cinema city.”
In fact, the cinemas have grouped together to form its own guild and publish a free monthly magazine featuring cultural contents such as art, movies, music, theater and fashion.
Cinema Rosa (+81 (0) 3 3986 3713), Ikebukuro’s oldest cinema established in 1946, was a pioneer in screening foreign films, independent productions and anime feature films.
Tokyo's third-tallest building
Over at the East exit of the station -- ironically where Seibu Department Store is located (‘Sei’ meaning ‘West’), with Tobu Department Store located at the West exit ('To' referring to ‘East’) -- Sunshine 60 rises above its concrete comrades at, you guessed it, 60 stories high.
At 239.7 meters, that makes it Tokyo’s third-tallest building behind only the Midtown Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Also located at Sunshine City are an Ancient Orient Museum, aquarium and planetarium.
In keeping with the times, Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro now boasts the most advanced digital 3D cinema system by the Hollywood-based maker, Masterimage.
Maid service train
Just round the corner from Sunshine City, is where art, or rather anime, crosses over into reality in a road now known as Otome Road (‘otome’ bears connotations of innocent, literally wide-eyed girls in the anime syntax).
The 200-meter stretch, now a must-see sight for any anime pilgrimage to Japan, consists of anime authority K-Books, a specialty doll shop by K-Books, Animate anime mega store, and girls-only comic cafes -- with girls crossed-dressed as waiters.
In fact, the stretch is becoming the Akihabara for female anime fanatics.
One can now also hop onto Japan’s first ‘maid service’ train to the next prefecture. (Yes, master, that’s referring to cosplay maids providing high-pitched, in-carriage service in place of regular beings.)
A world of restaurants
Raging youthful hormones aside, Ikebukuro is now also ground zero for the grilled horumon (innards) restaurant war now spreading like wild charcoal-fueled fire around Tokyo.
But if grilled guts sound like too much to stomach, the streets are bubbling over with ramen rivalry -- Ikebukuro is where the legendary ramen chain Taishouken was founded and queues spilling out onto the streets are a common site.
But despite it's backwater statues, Ikebukuro has some of the greatest mix of restaurants in the city at affordable prices.
Alongside local specialities are also ethnic restaurants from Pakistan, Uruguay, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and of course, Chinese, to choose from.
The West exit of Ikebukuro station is now known as Tokyo’s unofficial Chinatown, with grocery stores selling Chinese produce from all over China and probably more Chinese being spoken than you’ll hear along Yokohama’s official Chinatown.
After all, the ward that Ikebukuro belongs to has become the dwelling place for the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants since 1986.
While space for a lake in the district now looks unlikely, the government plans to add more greenery to Ikebukuro’s bright lights and neon signboards with a new, eco-friendly city office with allowance for a green lung by 2014.