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Asagaya Anime Street, An Alternative to Akihabara?

posted on by Kim Morrissy

When it comes to anime hot spots in Tokyo, Akihabara and Ikebukuro would be at the top of most fans’ lists. But these meccas of anime fandom are not in the center of where anime is actually made and produced. The majority of anime studios in Tokyo are based west of Shinjuku in quieter suburban areas such as Nerima, Musashino, and Suginami. While these areas do get some anime-related tourism because of their proximity to popular hubs like the Ghibli Museum and Nakano Broadway, they tend to slip underneath fans’ radars for the most part.

Some recent government initiatives, however, have set out to change that—or at least add more places on the map for the anime-loving tourist. Asagaya Anime Street, which first opened in 2014, is dead bang in the middle of anime studio central, and is quite literally located beneath a set of train tracks. Asagaya is home to some of the big names in the anime industry, such as A-1 Pictures, Satelight, and MAPPA, and from there it's possible to get to most of the other studios in the west Tokyo area via a pushbike.

Given Asagaya's centrality in the anime industry, one might wonder why an anime-themed shopping district like Asagaya Anime Street hasn't existed sooner, but I imagine that it's more convenient for the studios to work in a discreet environment and let the fan consumerism happen elsewhere. Even Asagaya Anime Street itself is a low-key affair, consisting of a single dimly-lit street in a quiet neighborhood. Many of the shops have either closed or been replaced since the official opening three years ago, and there's none of the flashy advertisements and displays one would find in Akihabara.

This doesn't mean that Asagaya Anime Street is not worth visiting for the hardcore anime fan, however. Its underground nature makes it appealing to the fans who would rather not visit the mainstream attractions. It's not a great place to buy anime goods, given that the range of stock pales in comparison to the big chains, but the excellent Shirobaco café (no relation to the Shirobako anime) does make it worth it. The Shirobaco café is owned by Studio Satelight, and showcases the latest properties from the studio with a production-focused bent.

Among the anime collab cafes I've been to, Shirobaco definitely provides the closest experience of being inside an anime studio. A large screen inside the eating area shows footage of an anime episode taken while the episode was still in its earlier stages of production. This is the footage that the voice actors see when they dub the anime. At some events held at the café, the voice actors will even perform their roles in front of the crowd.

In addition, the walls are lined with still images from the latest Satelight anime, and customers who order over 1000 yen worth of food from the collaboration menu will receive a copy of a key animation frame. Currently, the café is promoting What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us? I bought a drink and the butter cake (a food item which is so central to this bittersweet show) and got this nice key frame from the first episode for my trouble.

If that wasn't enough, even the café’s regular menu is for anime nerds! For example, the entrée is referred to as the “aban,” and a little note explains what this means in Japanese: the bit before the OP sequence plays in an anime episode. Creative touches like this ensure the café’s continued popularity, even as the rest of Asagaya Anime Street languishes from disuse.

Surprisingly enough, the other popular parts of Asagaya Anime Street have very little to do with anime. There's an interactive zombie-themed horror attraction, as well as a space for playing board games that also doubles as a live venue for comedians, among other things. Even if it's not “anime” per se, it appears that Asagaya Anime Street has found a niche for eclectic geeky pursuits, which anime fans may well appreciate.

In the end, I suppose Asagaya Anime Street will be regarded as a failed development project, given that it has not grown at all since its opening. When the project was first unveiled, it was billed as an alternative to Akihabara that would bring anime fans closer to the creators they admire, but with the exception of the Shirobaco café, this never really panned out. Perhaps all the event spaces reserved in the street were originally intended for industry people to hold talk events and book signings, but they appear to be hardly used today. Chalk it up as another failure of the Cool Japan project to coordinate its promotions of Japanese anime culture with the anime studios themselves. If you enter Asagaya Anime Street with the expectation to buy anime goods and shake hands with creators, you'd almost certainly be disappointed.

Personally, however, I liked Asagaya Anime Street. I wasn't expecting another Akihabara or Nakano Broadway. After all, if I just wanted to buy anime goods, I would go to an Animate or Mandarake store somewhere. Asagaya Anime Street struck me as a small and cozy place, easily overlooked but with bright glimmers of activity here and there if you know where to look. While it's not the kind of place you could spend an entire day at, it's only a five minute walk from the Asagaya station, so it's worth dropping by for an hour or two if you're in the area.

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