The Chūō Line: Gateway to Tokyo’s Distinctive SubculturesGuide to Japan Culture Society
The Diverse Cultures of Tokyo
The Yamanote Line is a loop railway service in central Tokyo that serves as a main transportation artery for the city. Operated by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), it is intersected at its center by the east-west oriented Chūō Line, another trunk railway line run by the same firm.
The Chūō Line originates at Tokyo Station and services points as far away to the west as Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures via Shinjuku. In operation since 1889, it is one of the oldest railway lines in Japan. In 1904 it was the site of the introduction of the first electric trains to be used on Japanese railway lines.
A large number of railway lines use major stations on the Yamanote Line as their points of origin, and the thriving areas surrounding these stations each have their own distinctive local color. For the Chūō, this jumping-off point is Shinjuku, from where it wends its way westward through a number of fascinating districts.
The Chūō Line passes through towns that have their own distinctive art, literature, and other forms of mainstream culture, as well as subcultures from manga and anime to music and fashion. Over the years, ancient traditions and diverse cultures have come to coexist, and one result of this is an abundance of innovative local cuisines that offer relatively inexpensive dining choices. And as rent is low compared to the metropolitan center, the districts along the Chūō are attractive places to live.
There are some who say that everything you might possibly need is readily available in the towns along the Chūō Line, and so once you move to one of them, you never want to leave. I myself moved to an area along the Chūō in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, in order to attend a school there and have lived there ever since.
When the author Ibuse Masuji (1898–1993) was young, he built a house in Ogikubo along the Chūō Line, where he lived for many years. His (Ogikubo fudoki (Record of Ogukubo) states that in the late 1920s and 1930s, it was popular among the young writers to move out to the suburbs of Tokyo. Ibuse notes that “third-rate writers would move to areas along the Chūō Line to the west of Shinjuku.” While more popular writers moved to Ōmori—to this day a place where notable cultural figures live—and the nearby suburbs in the southeast of Tokyo, he described Ogikubo in the west as a place where “nobody would talk behind your back even if you walked about in something shabby like a dotera padded jacket. It’s the perfect place for those who profess to be poor young literati.”
Regardless of how untidily one dressed in those days, no one would point a finger in ridicule, and anyone leading any kind of lifestyle at all would be accepted. This sort of broad-mindedness is still present along the Chūō Line today. As a result, there have been many examples over the years of popular manga artists, actors and actresses, musicians, and a variety of other performers who spent time living there when they were first starting out.
The areas surrounding stations along the line like Nakano, Kōenji, Asagaya, and Nishi-Ogikubo are each known for their distinctive “personalities.”
Hobby Center of Japan: Nakano
About four minutes from Shinjuku is Nakano Station, a magnet for hobbyists of all kinds.
The official mascot of Nakano ward is “Nakano Daisuki Nakano-san,” a doll with articulated joints and a bob haircut. The doll’s backstory is that it came to Nakano because it knew that any personality quirk would be accepted, and it has lived there ever since as it found it could do whatever it likes. In fact, there are numerous shops in Nakano that offer a variety of things that people enjoy and collect, including wristwatches, cameras, and model trains. But most popular among them are the characters associated with manga and anime.
Near the north entrance to Nakano Station is row of popular shops collectively known as Nakano Sun Mall, which is connected directly to a shopping plaza called Nakano Broadway. Upon entering, visitors are overwhelmed by a distinctive cacophony of color.
The basement level is devoted to foods, but a clothing store called Petit Paris occupies one area of the space. The main attractions are the shops located on the second through the fourth floors that feature anime and manga characters.
One booming trend in the anime and manga realm is trading cards. Used in card games, the most sought after among them in Japan are Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. These cards are so popular that many fans collect full sets, and some hard-to-find cards are currently selling for north of ¥100 million.
In response to this trend, the number of trading card shops located in Nakano has increased, and this in turn has led to larger numbers of tourists—from around Japan and even abroad—visiting the station in search of cards. Many of these shops have spaces where customers can bring along their decks and play games for free; it is not uncommon these days to see foreign tourists battling each other at the gaming tables.
Kōenji: A Mecca for Vintage Clothing
The station after Nakano is Kōenji, located in the city of Suginami. Kōenji is known for the musicians, aspiring actors and actresses, and other “bohemians” who used to congregate here. As many of them were unabashed oddballs, no matter how eccentric your clothing, you would have been hard pressed to stand out in this crowd of eccentrics.
Today, Kōenji is undergoing changes. Long known for its profusion of boutiques featuring unique offerings and its distinctive fashion culture, these days Kōenji is seeing numerous second-hand clothing outlets set up shop. Spurred on by the recent popularity of used wear among younger shoppers, the trend has turned Kōenji into a hip place for the fashion-conscious to shop.
In Kōenji, “second-hand clothing” refers not to used clothes sold at rock-bottom prices, but rather to more upscale “vintage clothing.” It includes what is known in Japan as Ame-kaji—“American casual”—as well as vintage European items. In all cases, the items are unique and carefully chosen for their style. Less expensive than brand name items, they are nonetheless more expensive than so-called “fast fashion.” Vintage American casual items like sweatshirts and denim jackets are experiencing renewed popularity, and as a result many of these items sell for tens of thousands of yen each. M-47 and M-65 cargo pants and other items of military clothing have been prominently featured on social networking sites, which has led to a rise in their prices.
Every summer a major traditional dance festival, the Kōenji Awa Odori, is held here in an area bounded by Waseda street on the north and by the Ōme-kaidō on the south. Around a million people attend each year over the two days the dances take place.
Asagaya: A Place for the Cultivated
As noted above, Ibuse Masuji lived in Ogikubo, but he would go out for a drink with friends and fellow writers in Asagaya. His usual group consisted of young authors who lived mainly in the towns along the Chūō Line, Dazai Osamu being among them.
Asagaya maintains that culture even today with something of the scent of “literature” in its streets and shops. The commercial district to the north of the railway station is not particularly large, but it is home to a famous movie theater that features unique programs. There is also a theater for stage plays. A lane known as Asagaya Jazz Street is a center for music events. The eating and drinking establishments in the neighborhood are known for their cultivated, mature atmosphere, but there are also a number of izakaya (casual bars that serve food) that are open until morning. These are popular among writers and stage performers who drink heavily and enjoy bar-hopping.
Although it is a leading commercial district in Suginami now, in the past it was a forest populated mostly by wild animals. When nearby residents filed a petition requesting that a railway station be built in Asagaya, it was summarily rejected on the basis that “foxes and raccoons don’t take the train.” The landowners then appealed to their representative in the Japanese Diet, which eventually resulted in the construction of the Asagaya and Kōenji stations. The landowners tried to give the Diet member payment in appreciation for his efforts, but he refused to accept it. In lieu of this, the landowners donated plots of land on which they constructed a road leading from the Diet member’s home to Asagaya. Today, this road is the center of the area’s commercial district known as Asagaya Pearl Center, which stretches from the south entrance of the railway station.
A large number of local shops are located in Pearl Center, including several selling taiyaki. Visitors can often been seen eating these sweet fish-shaped treats while walking through the shopping district.
For Confections, Visit Nishi-Ogikubo
Another of the attractions of the towns along the Chūō Line are the many drinking establishments that are cheap and inviting. Near Nishi-Ogikubo Station is an area known as Yanagi-kōji whose origin dates back to the chaotic days just after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Even today, the area still reminds modern visitors of what Japan looked like in the early postwar years. Nishi-Ogikubo is popular for its complex and diverse food culture, and it is especially known in central Tokyo for its high-quality and visually attractive sweets.
Nishi-Ogikubo is also home to some of Japan’s top pastry chefs and patisseries, as well as long-established bakeries. Some of the most popular of these shops sell out an hour or two after opening in the morning. Many of Tokyo’s most famous shops and boutiques have a presence in this district, and there are traditional Japanese confection shops as well, and so visitors can sample a wide range of sweets while shopping in the area.
(Banner photo: A restaurant and bar district near Nishi-Ogikubo Station. The towns along the Chūō Line are known for their abundance of popular shops. © Fukusako Ayako.)