Tokyo has always been an otaku’s paradise. The sprawling metropolis hides gateways into whatever interest one can have, whether they’re just taking their first steps into this world, or want to take their experience to the next level.
A lot has changed, as you would expect, over the past few years. With the country virtually closed off for two years due to the pandemic, familiar spots have vanished, while new ones have emerged in the capital’s landscape for a new generation of overseas visitors to enjoy now that borders are back open. There’s no need to settle for the zany cafe experiences and copyright-dodging street karts of the 2010s — this decade is about sinking into the many niches Tokyo accommodates.
Part of this reimagining requires a change in perception. The word “otaku” traditionally sparks stereotypes of nerds, but that’s not quite right. An otaku can be focused on any number of things — video games, baseball, the works of Steely Dan — but they know that one topic inside and out. It’s not a simple obsession, but rather a knowledge built over years of focus.
In creating a new otaku guide to Tokyo, it’s important to keep different levels in mind. For many coming to the country, it’s best to start as a “casual” by getting accustomed to the familiar spots and new landmarks in the city. For those willing to step out of their comfort zone — and maybe navigate situations entirely in Japanese — there’s also a “hardcore” mode, but don’t worry: The Japan Times will chat with experts in these fields to get their perspective and steer you right.
What better place to start than with anime, one of Japan’s strongest pop cultural exports to the world and a field of art enjoying greater global attention than ever before?
Many anime fans might already be familiar with Animate, a chain of stores selling every sort of item related to Japanese animation imaginable. Those who haven’t been back to Tokyo in a bit, though, might not be acquainted with the recently reopened and remodeled Animate Ikebukuro flagship branch, the biggest from the franchise and one of the biggest anime stores in the world. It offers all manners of anime-related goods alongside special pop-up events, galleries and a cafe. Whether you are seeking out a specific item or just want to get a sense of what the anime landscape is like, this is the best starting point — plus, you can glean even more insight by stopping by the Animate Theater located right next door.
Similar sanctuaries to all things anime can be found at Tokyo Anime Center in Shibuya, featuring various limited-time exhibitions and shops tied to specific franchises. Not far away is the redesigned Shibuya Parco, a department store catering to all kinds of tastes but featuring a healthy collection of anime-centric shops, including one devoted to the manga serial “Shonen Jump.” Jump on a train and head to Akihabara, a traditional anime haven, to visit Seekbase, a shopping space featuring far more than just anime ... but also, plenty of anime.
“Located not far from Akihabara Station, Seekbase is full of otaku-y shops like Mandarake CoCoo, dedicated to soft vinyl figures; RECOfan, a record shop with some rare finds; and Tokyo Video Gamers, a bar with retro arcade cabs and bartenders who love talking about games and anime,” says Japan Times anime reporter and critic Matt Schley. “For the less otaku inclined, craft brewery Hitachino also has a taproom here. Something for everyone, indeed.”
The classic manifestation of this sort of otaku-leaning center remains Nakano Broadway. Opened in 1966 as a luxury retail destination located just west of Shinjuku near Nakano Station, the spot mutated into a destination for every otaku obsession imaginable but is especially a must-visit for the anime set.
“Floors two and three house the most figures, manga and other memorabilia,” Schley says, “but the basement has its own delights, like a soft-serve ice cream stall and a seriously excellent Indian curry joint.”
Sometimes, you need your meals to be animated, too. Anime fans have long been spoiled when it comes to eateries themed to their favorite franchises — with one catch: Most are transient, lasting for a little bit before being replaced by another property serving up colorful pancakes and omurice (egg omelets with rice). While the theme changes regularly, Tower Records Cafe Omotesando tends to always boast an anime at its center, with recent occupants including popular series “Spy×Family” and “Bocchi The Rock!” Those who want to know exactly what kind of tie-up food they are getting, though, should visit ufotable Cafe Koenji, a cafe produced by the anime studio of the same name behind hit series such as “Demon Slayer” and “Fate Stay Night.”
Once you’re filled up, it’s time to feast on some spectacle. You have to actually venture a little bit outside of Tokyo for this one, but Yokohama is hardly a trek, and heading out to the coastal city will lead anime fans to a big ol’ Gundam. Technically, it’s the centerpiece of Gundam Factory Yokohama, a spot devoted to the beloved giant mecha series, complete with a Gundam cafe, shop and “academy.” Yet the tour de force is a life-size Gundam in a dock tower, moving at designated times.
“Sure, there's also a life-size Gundam in Odaiba, but this one moves,” Schley says. “Originally scheduled to close down in March 2023, the RX-78F00 has been given a reprieve until March 31, so you've got another few months to see it in action.”
The giant mechas and familiar franchises might be flashy, but the first step to taking anime otaku-dom to the next level is to educate yourself on the history and evolution of the medium.
Tucked away near Nishi-Ogikubo Station on the Chuo Line, the quaint Suginami Animation Museum offers one of the best off-the-beaten-path anime experiences in the capital. It offers deeper insights into how famous works came together and how the industry has changed over the years while also housing special exhibits and a theater playing a wide variety of anime features and shorts.
“One of the coolest parts is the wall signed by dozens of animators who've graced the place with their presence, as well as the replica of Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino's desk,” Schley says. “Also check out the nearby Inazuma Cafe, a regular haunt for anime types.”
Part of the challenge of Suginami Animation Museum — and what lands it in the hardcore track — is how none of the staff speak English. Yet nobody said this would be easy — that’s the last section! — and going forward a little Japanese knowledge or, better yet, the confidence to just go for it, will open up new opportunities.
There’s no better place to exit your comfort zone than a bar. Bar Mugen in the trendy Koenji neighborhood caters to the anime-loving set: shows on the TV screens, anime art all around and no shortage of figurines around the venue. If you want to meet like-minded locals, here’s one of the best spots to do it. On the other side of the city is Mogra, a club in Akihabara catering to all corners of electronic music with several nights a week devoted to anime music. While specific parties change all the time — check the schedule — you can always count on their A-Pop Bar gathering, held every Tuesday and featuring DJs spinning anime hits and remixes.
You can also find anime-themed dance nights at Shibuya-based development Miyashita Park’s Or music bar, specifically their monthly HE4VN event, which also includes Vocaloid and Virtual YouTuber music.
Why settle for listening to anime music and buying anime goods when you yourself can transform into an anime character (well, as close as possible)? Off-Kai in Ikebukuro is an “animation fans hair salon,” and allows customers to get a hairstyle inspired by popular characters all in a setting decked out in anime decorations. Back in Akihabara, anime fans can hit up Venus Rico, a nail salon specializing in anime-inspired designs. They even collaborate with franchises, allowing superfans to get their cuticles themed toward a variety of series.
Yet the ultimate dream of any anime otaku is to see the spots that inspired the settings of their favorite series — luckily, Tokyo boasts many of them. I’m not talking about the obvious ones that have inspired proper tours and internet guides to locating them (you want to experience “Your Name” in person? Go right ahead) but rather the ho-hum backdrops found in series that you have to work to find. A personal example — fans of indie-rock-centered series “Bocchi The Rock!” know the Shimokitazawa area serves as the setting for this charming show. But how about Times Parking Lot Shimokitazawa 8th, a collection of parking spaces that feature in a few early episodes of “Bocchi’s” first season? It might not be the most thrilling ... but to truly show your devotion, find your favorite series’ equivalent car park and hunt it down.