If you’re an otaku, Tokyo is the best place to be. No other city on the face of the earth can hold a candle to Tokyo in terms of vibrant subcultures and amazing subcultural experiences that are completely open to anyone who stumbles upon them.
Kansai is awesome in its own right, however, and the region is well worth visiting, even if you’re not interested in rich cultural traditions, gorgeous architecture, and delicious food. There are plenty of things for an otaku to do in Kyoto, Osaka, and Takarazuka.
If you’re headed to Kansai, do yourself a favor and get an Icoca card from the JR automated ticket machines as soon as you exit the Shinkansen into the station. The Icoca is the Kansai equivalent of Kantō’s Suica card. Like the Suica, you pay need to pay 2000 yen for an Icoca. 500 of that yen is a deposit that will be returned to you if you turn in the card at a station office, and the rest can be used to go anywhere, anytime, on any vehicle. You can put more money on your Icoca at any station, and your remaining balance will be returned to you along with your deposit when you return the card. If you already have a Suica, you can use it for all JR rail lines in Kansai, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. Since the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus or taxi, and since the best way to get around Osaka is by subway, it’s definitely worth getting yourself an Icoca.
Besides being filled with temples and famous historic sites and traditional Japanese arts and so on, Kyoto is a tech hub and a college town populated by students, artists, and young professionals. The infinite alleyways snaking behind the main boulevards are lousy with ultra-modern restaurants, tiny theme bars, hostess clubs, host clubs, crazily decorated clothing boutiques, and art spaces the size of a hotel room. Alcohol of all types is cheap, plentiful, and delicious, and strange and fascinating things happen on the streets and along the Kamo River after dark, especially on the weekends. Kyoto is a great city to get lost in.
The top Kyoto attraction for otaku is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place is amazing. As an added bonus, it’s also bilingual and Anglophone-friendly. The permanent exhibit is a hyper-illustrated walkthrough of the history and development of manga, the tools and artistic techniques used to create manga, the publishing culture of manga, the genres of manga, and the internationalization of manga. The museum also hosts special exhibits showcasing the work of specific manga artists and illustrators, many of whom are local to Kyoto.
All along the walls of the museum are bookcases on which are shelved the most massive collection of manga I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some massive collections, such as the one housed in the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library). Most of this manga is Japanese, but a sizable portion is foreign, including all sorts of North American and European translations and originals. The best part about this library is that you can take anything down from the shelves and read it for as long as you want. The museum also has a smaller library of academic materials dedicated to manga. Again, most of these materials are in Japanese, but there’s also a ton of stuff in English and other European languages. Was there some obscure manga exhibition in Germany? They have the catalog. Was there an issue of The Comics Journal from ten years ago that mentioned shōjo manga? They have that issue. The museum also publishes a few high quality pamphlets and periodicals that you’re free to take as you please (my favorite is a small magazine highlighting the areas of Kyoto featured in recent anime and manga).
To get to the museum, take the subway to the Karasuma-Oike Station, which is served by the Karasuma and the Tōzai lines. Take Exit 2 out of the station, turn to your right at the top of the staircase, and walk for a minute or two until you see the museum on your left. The museum is a converted primary school building, and you’ll know it when you see it. The pennants hanging from the telephone poles along the street in front of it help. Because the museum is awesome, they’ve posted an illustrated map explaining how to get there.
There are also a small handful of otaku specialty stores clustered along Teramachi between Sanjō and Shijō (these are all the names of streets/walkways). If you’d like to get to this area from the Manga Museum, go back to the intersection where you came out of the subway, cross the street, and turn left on Oike to go towards the Kamo River. Walk for about ten blocks (which actually isn’t that far) and enter the Teramachi covered shopping arcade on your right. To get to this area from anywhere else, start at the Sanjō-Keihan Station and cross over the Kamo River on the Sanjō bridge. Keep heading west on Sanjō for about two blocks until the street dead-ends into a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called “Sanjo Cupola.” Keep going straight through the Sanjo Cupola until you emerge into the open air (there will be a giant mechanical crab ahead on your right), and immediately turn left into the Teramachi covered shopping arcade.
After walking for awhile, you’ll see a Melon Books above a drugstore to your right. Melon Books sells hardcore pornographic manga and doujinshi for men, so enter at your own risk. Further ahead on your right you’ll see a bookstore called Manga・Can (漫画館), which is a great place to browse and discover new manga titles. A bit further ahead on your right is the Kyoto branch of Gamers, which has games (mainly of the erotic variety) on the fourth floor and manga and doujinshi on the fifth floor. Most of the merchandise stocked by Gamers is targeted at men, but the store isn’t as hardcore as Melon Books and caries many things of interest to female otaku as well.
Running parallel to Teramachi to the east (one street over to your left if you’re walking towards Shijō) is another shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. Right before you emerge onto Shijō while walking along Shinkyogoku, there will be an Animate to your right on the second-floor level above a small open plaza. Like all Animate branches, the Kyoto store is distinctive. It has a large and well-stocked manga section that showcases work by local artists, work that has won regional manga prizes, and work appealing to yuri sensibilities.
If cross Shijō on Teramachi, you’ll find yourself on a small, uncovered street. Several dozen feet past Shijō, there will be a five-story Tora no Ana on your left and a five-story bookstore called Shinchō Shoten (信長書店) on your right. Both stores are custom-made for otaku.
Right next to Shinchō Shoten, in a tiny alley about twelve feet past the bookstore and leading off the right, is one of the best-kept secrets of Kyoto: a tiny vegetarian restaurant and sake bar called Mikōan (彌光庵). The food is cheap and delicious and varied enough that no two people will get the same meal even if they order the same thing. The décor and atmosphere are like something out of an urban fantasy novel. There are also several adorable, fluffy cats wandering around the restaurant at any given time, and they don’t mind being friendly if you engage them. Mikōan is all about how awesome Kyoto can be if you wander off the beaten path.
Osaka never gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as rich or as populous as Tokyo, but it’s still a huge city filled with interesting places to go. The urban landscape of Osaka resembles that of Tokyo, but it’s different in all sorts of neat ways. You really will hear people speak Osaka dialect here, which is lots of fun if you’re learning Japanese.
Nanba is the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara. This neighborhood runs alongside a broad avenue called Yotsuhashi-suji or, more appropriately, in the smaller streets and alleys branching off from either side of Yotsuhashi-suji. Nanba Station is an epic mess of stores and restaurants and hotels, and there are many ways to navigate your way outside, but the area you want to be in is on the northeast side of the station. Depending on what train line you’re coming from, it might be easiest to walk through the Takashimaya department store and exit the building from the main entrance. In any case, a small street called Nansan-dōri snakes along the west side of the station. Follow it until you see a Taito Station, and turn left past the arcade. If you keep walking west along the small road (which is still called Nansan-dōri even after if veers away from the station), you’ll begin to see otaku-related stores on your right. The area between Nanba Station, Nansan-dōri, and Yotsuhashi-suji is where all of the electronics stores, maid cafés, used video game stores, and specialty book stores are. You will find a Melon Books and a Yellow Submarine along these backstreets, but, if you want to go to the K-Books and Animate, follow Nansan-dōri until the big intersection and turn right on Yotsuhashi-suji. The K-Books and Animate will be down the street to your right, and the Mandarake will be across the street on your left.
If you’re looking for doujinshi, it’s definitely worth your while to visit the K-Books here, which stocks tons of work produced by Kansai artists. Doujinshi for large fandoms are more or less equally distributed across Kantō and Kansai, but work for small fandoms from small regional conventions doesn’t always make it to Tokyo. There are also a number of original doujinshi at the Nanba K-Books that don’t fall into pre-established genres and resemble nothing so much as they do North American indie comics.
For an otaku, I think the major attraction of Osaka is the Umeda Mandarake. According to fanlore, this is *the* Mandarake, the Mandarake to end all Mandarakes, and the One True Mandarake. The Umeda Mandarake is a sprawling three-story building stuffed to the gills with crap, garbage, and treasure. The building itself looks (and smells) like it should be condemned, and the soft, creaky floor literally sags under the weight of all the junk in the store. Otaku relics are lovingly displayed in glass showcases, while the dim overhead lighting flickers and throws shadows around the piles of unopened cardboard boxes stacked in the corners. The clerks cosplay, and there is a small stage for performances on the second floor that also serves as a dais for life-size renditions of pop culture icons. This place must really been seen to be believed.
Also, if you’re looking for original doujinshi drawn by artists like Yuki Kaori and CLAMP, this is the place to go. In addition, on the staircase landing between the second and third stories, there is a table with a few stacks of “Mandarake Note” notebooks in which visitors to the store can draw and scribble away to their hearts’ content with the art tools provided. If you take the time to flip through some of the old notebooks, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some really familiar names and art styles. If you’re an a creative mood, you can take over your own notebook page.
Fittingly for a quest of such magnitude, it’s a pain in the ass to get to the store. The easiest method is to take one of the south exists out of the JR Osaka Station (or the Hankyū Umeda Station across the street), get in a taxi, and pay the driver ¥660 to take you to the Osaka Tokyu Inn hotel. If you’re facing the Tokyu Inn, you’ll notice a Small Alley of Ultimate Sketchiness running alongside the right side of the hotel building. Turn left into the alleyway and keep walking until you emerge into a shopping arcade with the Mandarake right in front of you.
If you want to be adventurous, you can go on foot. Take the Mitōsuji South Exit from JR Osaka Station (which can be accessed from JR rail lines and the subway lines) and cross the street under the huge pedestrian bridge. Alternately, take the South Central Exit from JR Osaka Station and climb the stairs to get on top of the huge pedestrian bridge. Either way, you’re heading for the Umeda Hankyū Building. What you’re going to want to do, either by going around, going under, or going through, is to get to the other side of this building. At street level on the other side of the building you’ll see an intersection with a concrete island in the middle of it, and, on the far side of the intersection, a covered shopping arcade called “E Street.” This shopping arcade goes on for a few blocks and in the middle crosses over an open street and changes its name to Hankyū Tōtsū Shōtengai (阪急東通商店街). The Mandarake is on towards the end of the shopping arcade on the left. The shopping arcade itself is tacky and raucous, and any of the restaurants lining the passage can provide you with a ticket out of Sober City on the Cheap Alcohol Express, if you’re interested in that sort of cultural experience.
While you’re in the area, the Osaka Pokémon Center is on the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru department store above the South Central Exit of JR Osaka Station. The store has all sorts of special goods connected to Osaka and the Johto region that you can’t get anywhere else, as well as special Spot Pass promotions for fans who bring their Nintendo DS with them.
Takarazuka is a mid-sized suburb located about a twenty minute train ride away from Osaka (and a forty-five minute ride from Kyoto, with one transfer in the middle). Not only is the area around the station interesting (it’s like an exaggerated fantasy version of the Europe described by Marcel Proust), but the city is also home to two major otaku-related attractions.
These two attractions are the Takarazuka Grand Theater building and the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum. Finding your way around is half the fun of an excursion to Takarazuka, so I won’t give directions. Let it suffice to say that you’re looking for the Hana no Michi (花のみち). This is an actual street divided by a raised walking path lined with flowers. It’s just as romantic as it sounds, and the Takarazuka Revue themed bronze statues along the path add to its charm.
The Takarazuka Grand Theater is the home base of the Takarazuka Revue, which is fabulousness incarnate. Even if you can’t catch a performance (if you do want to see a performance, you’ll want to book your seat well in advance), it’s fun to wander around the massive theater complex just to drink in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fan club; and, if you’re even luckier, you might get to spot a performer. The Quatre Rêves gift shop, which is easily accessible from the Hana no Michi, stocks all sorts of CDs and DVDs, as well as tons of glossy print material. Of special interest are “bromides,” which are laminated photos of Takarazuka actresses dressed in the costumes of their famous roles. If you’re not interested in spending money on pictures of glamorous ladies, you can get all sorts of material for free in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, and promotional fliers. There are also television screens set up around the theater complex where you can chill out and enjoy videotaped awesomeness at your leisure.
At the end of the Hana no Michi and down the street a bit is the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum, which is marked by a giant sculpture of Tezuka’s Phoenix just outside the main entrance. The museum hosts rotating exhibitions in a spacious and well-designed gallery space, but the permanent exhibition of Tezuka memorabilia is also interesting. Not only does the museum display the usual array of photographs and animation stills, but it also showcases the notebooks that Tezuka kept as a young adult. Even if you’re not a Tezuka fan, it’s difficult not to be awed by the range and scope of the artist’s imagination as represented in these notebooks. The museum has a handful of interactive installations, but my favorite is the Animation Studio (アニメ工房) on the basement floor, where anyone can sit at a computer station, draw pictures with the tablet and stylus provided, and then animate them. There’s also an open library with editions of Tezuka manga from around the world, as well as ample space to sit down, relax, and read. You’ll see visitors dressed in Tezuka cosplay (with floopy berets and seventies glasses), and the entire building is covered with images, murals, etchings, and sculptures. Visiting the museum is a unique experience and well worth the trip out to Takarazuka.
In conclusion, Kansai is a great area to visit, and not just for temples and historical sites. Kyoto and Osaka and Takarazuka can be just as edgy, quirky, and fun as Tokyo, and there’s no reason for a short-term or a long-term visitor with otaku inclinations not to make the trip down to Kansai.