Counting Nakano among the best


There’s no better word than “counter” to encapsulate Nakano, a ward in Western Tokyo. It’s an area of counterculture, counterintelligence, casino-card counters and, of course, lunch counters; perhaps even a place where you might find your counterpart in life.

Take counterintelligence for starters. Nakano was once the home of the infamous Rikugun Nakano Gakko (The Nakano Military School), Japan’s top-secret training facility for elite undercover specialists. Just last year, what appears to be the only surviving manual outlining the techniques taught by the school — from poisoning to propaganda — was unearthed.

All written documents from the school, established in 1938, were supposed to have been systematically destroyed after World War II, but ex-trainee Tsuhei Saito found the manual tucked in with personal effects sent to his home 60 years ago by a colleague. The octogenarian decided that revealing the manual to the media would set the record straight, finally, on what really went on at the school.

Counterintuitive to its past role as “subterfuge central,” Nakano Ward’s outline on the map somewhat resembles the shape of a dove, with its beak pecking at Shinjuku, its wings spreading out toward Nerima and Suginami wards, and a pair of little feet dangling toward Shibuya.

While the contour of the ward is undoubtedly a coincidence, the ward’s modern-day commitment to peace is not. In 1982, residents petitioned the ward authorities to draft a proclamation supporting a nuclear-free stance for Japan, and in 1990 issued a further call for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. In one of the ward’s parks, Heiwa no Mori (Forest of Peace), the branches of the trees are dense with crows perched like the souls of departed spooks, but the open spaces below are filled with the laughter of children.

Small, but busy

Locals sometimes refer to Nakano, which means “middle fields,” as Tokyo’s “Doughnut Hole.” It’s 15.5 sq. km in size and has a humble skyline with a mere handful of high-rise buildings. It’s dwarfed by the larger wards around it, in which buildings soar skyward.

Yet, counter to its appearance, Nakano is the most densely populated of all Tokyo’s 23 wards, housing a mind-boggling 20,000 people per sq. km.

And, of those people, a large percentage are young, single and energetic, fueling a music and street-dancing scene in the alleys near Nakano Station. Nakano, the birthplace of legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, has attempted to establish itself on the music scene, but with limited success.

In its heyday, Sun Plaza’s hall hosted the likes of Bob Marley and King Crimson, and Zero Hall, while struggling to turn a profit prompted jokes about its name, still holds shows by professionals and local amateur musicians alike. At the very least, Zero’s glass windows facing the street make excellent makeshift mirrors for dancers who gather daily to practice.

Some of Nakano’s street performers will undoubtedly hit Broadway, but not necessarily the one in New York. The Nakano Broadway complex, built in 1966, introduced the then-novel concept of installing 300 retail shops spaces directly below 230 luxury residences. The project combined convenience with security, welcomed pets, featured roof gardens and variable apartment layouts, and attracted rich and famous occupants. Think of it as an early version of Roppongi Hills.

Today, Nakano Broadway is internationally renowned as home to some of the best counterculture manga stores in Tokyo. One of the largest vendors, Mandarake, conducts a morning meeting like any other conservative company, with shouted greetings and rote responses, except one or two employees counteract the formality in cosplay outfits, dressed as their favorite manga characters. Not exactly standard procedure at Mitsubishi.

Mixed in with comics and anime paraphernalia are shops with Omega watches and pricey jewelry, secondhand plasma TVs, used CDs, and even some excellent lunch counters.

Veggie delight

One such counter is Kourinbou, a tiny vegetarian establishment. Reian, the charming proprietor, hung her shingle in Broadway 20 years ago. “I came from Taiwan, and at first life was hard. But the people of Nakano helped me with every single thing. I could never, ever leave this place.”

The feeling seems mutual, as Broadway regulars lineup to lunch there daily.

One in 30 residents in Nakano is a foreigner. Just off Broadway, Kyle Sexton, owner of Kyle’s Good Finds, has pleased customers for 13 years with his famous made-to-order birthday cakes and holiday turkeys.

At Nakano’s Toy Museum recently, Indian mothers gathered to enjoy a craft workshop with their children. “There are a lot of Indians in Nakano,” explained Dipti Shah (26), “and this museum is wonderful for kids.” Opened in 1984, the privately run facility is beguiling. Four floors, including a retail shop of predominately wooden toys; a playroom; craft center; and displays of toys from around the world (Kenyan dolls, an Inuit beaver, an early Meccano set) make it well worth the 500 yen entry fee.

Because toys speak an international language, no one ends up “lost in translation” (though Joganji, the temple Charlotte visits in the eponymous movie, is in Nakano).

Medicine, philosophy and cats

In 1889, steam trains made only four stops between Shinjuku and Hachioji, and Nakano was one. Arai Yakushi, a Shingon temple dedicated in 1573 to the Buddha of medicine and cures for eye diseases, was undoubtedly part of the draw.

By 1915, Buddhist scholar Enryo Inoue had designed Tetsugakudo Koen (Philosophy Park) to inspire 77 separate forms of Westernized, philosophical contemplation. Inoue was especially concerned with challenging Japanese beliefs in spirit possession and fortunetelling. One wonders what he would have made of Nakano’s wildly successful new Japan Casino School in Higashi-Nakano, turning out a fresh crop of clever, bilingual croupiers. Are they counting on casinos being legalized soon in Tokyo? You bet. But the odds aren’t good.

One bit of Nakano lore was revealed to me by Hideo Inahashi of Tsujiya, a shop that’s been selling geta (wooden sandals) in Nakano since 1927. Back in 1695, Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, sometimes known as the “Dog Shogun,” put the Shorui Awaremi no Rei (an edict to protect animals) into effect by establishing a facility for wild dogs in Nakano. The facility no longer exists, Inahashi says, but he points to a shelf in his store. “Now we protect stray cats,” he says. The hard-bitten face of a ginger tomcat peers at me, and I suddenly realize I’ve been seeing cats everywhere in Nakano.

Haruki Murakami’s recent novel, “Kafka on the Shore,” features Nakata, a man who talks to cats in Nakano Ward and is on a search for his spiritual counterpart in life. Nakano seems like a good place to start that kind of search.