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By Simon Wright
I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Ikebukuro, enough people probably already have. But it’s only fair you are told the full story, or at least a more balanced one, rather than just the sugary fluff a Google search can provide.
Usually when I tell a Japanese person that I live in Ikebukuro, there is a slight pause in the conversation before they respond with shifting eyes, “Great shopping there”, which can be fairly accurately translated as, “That’s the dirty foreign part of town”. And there are elements of truth to this.
It is no secret that Ikebukuro is home to the yakuza faction called the Kyokuto-kai, and the Japanese yakuza drama West Gate Park didn’t help the image either. Though, on a side note, I have confirmed with Mr Aka, Mr Red, a congenial gentlemen who happens to be a local pimp dressed perennially in his trade mark red coat, that the popular drama did wonders for business.
Even the name “Ikebukuro” itself – with its kanji 池 pond and 袋 thing, which can translated as “swamp” – has fated the area in some measure to all the creepy crawly things that dwell in the shadows. To top it off, the mascot for the city is a night owl. You get the picture.
So yes, there are elements and sections of “The Buk”, which may make some feel, let’s say, uncomfortably queasy. But just like people, all cities take on a life of their own and have many sides. The Buk is one of the larger cities within greater Tokyo and the more you explore, you will soon learn it has no shortage of great restaurants and bars to ensure an entertaining night out. And yes, as I’m often awkwardly reminded, great shopping too.
Tobu and Seibu operate large department stores in both east and west Ikebukuro and Sunshine City is close by, offering expansive views of Tokyo, an aquarium, and the occasional J-pop girl show on the ground floor, which is a sight in itself. Not necessarily the girls, but certainly the hoards of captivated men jumping up and down in puddles of drool.
The real attraction in Ikebukuro is the eating out. The options are endless, particularly on the east side, and affordable too. And if you ever feel like a change of scene, Shibuya is a 15-minute train ride away and Shinjuku only seven. So the convenient location and regular trains (Ikebukuro is one of the main transport hubs in Tokyo) allows you to explore other parts of greater Tokyo with relative ease.
A lesser known aspect of Ikebukuro is its otaku culture. Akihabara is of course the mecca of otaku, attracting a rare breed of men, but Ikebukuro attracts the female crowd. The manga on offer is also largely produced by women and is definitely worth a look.
Rikkyo University is on the west side so there are a lot of students bar hopping between trendy folk bars and cafes, and there’s many hidden gems just waiting to be found. My personal favourite is Zen Bar, a small little hide out run by Yoshi. He offers a tequila nomihodai for those braze enough to go round for round with him and he’s a man well schooled in the art of good conversation.
The popular foreign hangouts for the Poms, Yanks, Canucks, and Ockers, are usually The Hub, both on the east and west side of Ikebukuro, and The Black Sheep, where bands put on shows and provide the backdrop for a booze-fuelled night full of good laughs and a hangover to remember them by.
In short, Ikebukuro has a bit of everything and there is something for everyone – the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. But that’s what also gives it its unique character. It’s what makes it interesting. It’s what makes it real. It wouldn’t be The Buk without it. It’s just a matter of venturing out into this diverse part of town and finding what you are looking for.