Nakano looks like any other station on the JR train line – the same convenience stores, the same cafes, the same chain restaurants, the same shops. But at the heart of Nakano—and behind the doors of Nakano Broadway—hides a home to subcultures and hobbyists: a sprawling mix of collectibles and obscurities in shops that range from vintage manga comics and classic movie posters to military paraphernalia and do-it-yourself doll creation.
When I met with Dong Shan GK, he called it, “a little universe of sub-culture things”—a place existing under the skin of an otherwise ordinary cityscape.
“It’s like something you just can’t see from the outside,” he said. “You have to dip into it, and then you will see something amazing.”
We walked the halls of Nakano Broadway, and explored. GK sketched the architecture and design, while I peeked in at shops filled with old comics, and Hollywood movie memorabilia, and floor to ceiling boxes of model gundam robots. One shop sold single frames of animation. Another was dedicated entirely to model trains.
“I think the interest of one place is not because of what it looks like,” said GK. “It’s about what kind of story is there.”
We walked by a dejected looking kissaten cafe, and a tiny massage parlor run by girls in maid outfits. There are certainly stories here, I thought. It’s just a matter of which ones to tell. GK settled on a small group of people playing arcade machines on the third floor.
“How are you going to draw this place?” I asked.
“[When] you go to a place, you can smell it, and you can touch it… I will show people what the taste of this building is if you eat it,” he said. “And you see a building, and you feel it’s very tough and solid, but if you put it in ramen, what kind of ramen will it be? What kind of taste is it like?”
I liked the idea. It was refreshing. It made me wonder. If the rest of Tokyo were bowls of ramen, what would they taste like? What flavors would they be?
At the end of our brief tour of Nakano, GK had drawn Nakano in bowls—an expression of place, culture, and people, through its taste. On one page, a robot reading comics in a bath of ramen, and on another, a gamer up to his knees in soup.
It was a different perspective on place and individuality—the essence of a location in a simple bowl of ramen.
As we walked the stairs to leave. I looked at the advertisements on the walls—the specialty shops and the movie posters and the upcoming events. So many different worlds I might never be a part of. So many experiences I might never have.
“What is Nakano to you?” I asked. “What makes it interesting?”
“I think Nakano is a place for these kind of people to breathe the air they want to breathe,” GK said.
And I hoped then, as we walked down those stairs, that scattered throughout Tokyo was a place for everyone to breathe the air they wanted to breathe.