Gritty or charming? Ikebukuro is probably my favourite area of the city. Often derided as the 'ugly sister' of Tokyo, it is rarely top of any tourist's 'must-see' lists, but its working class charms are worthy of a visit.
Hosting the second busiest train station in Japan (and the world), over 1 million passengers pass through its gates every day. Yet despite the hustle and bustle, the area retains a more laid back, homely feel than its western Tokyo neighbors Shinjuku and Shibuya. The station splits the area into East and West, the West hosting more eateries and university/student areas, the East more fashionable shopping and tourist attractions. Interestingly, the large department stores on either side of the station are ran by rival half-brothers. On the West is the Tobu department store, and on the East is the Seibu department store. The Seibu store was once the biggest department store in Japan, until the Tobu store was extended to steal that crown.
The obvious place to start is Sunshine City. Located on the East side, it was built on the site of the old Sugamo Prison which housed high ranking Japanese war criminals after the Second World War. Seven of those, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, were actually executed here. The modern day facilities though are far more welcoming. Opened in 1978, the highlight here is the 60th floor observation deck in the Sunshine 60 building. Although it may not be located too close to any iconic sights, there is still a fantastic view on offer from this top floor observatory. It is served by one of the fastest elevators in the world, so there are no long waits to get to the top! The Sunshine City complex also holds shops, restaurants, a hotel, an aquarium, a museum, a planetarium and an indoor children's theme park—plenty to keep you occupied for the day! Tokyu Hands is a great place for souvenirs, quirky gifts and everyday items like stationary and cookware. There is even a 6 floor Toyota showroon / visitor centre for the car enthusiast and Nekobukuro, a cats pet shop/cat petting zoo.
If you still have time, let's explore the rest of the area. One of my favourite places in Ikebukuro to lose a few hours is Junkudo—a huge 10 storey bookstore with a bit of everything—even English language books on the top floor. There are chairs on every floor, so you can take your time deciding whether to buy or not. Ikebukuro is building a reputation for itself as an 'Akihabara for girls,' and it all centers on Otome Road, just Northwest of Sunshine City. Otome Road translates literally as "Maiden Road"—a nickname befitting the number of manga and anime shops aimed at women. These, along with shops such as BIC Camera, a huge electronic store in East Ikebukuro and Lumines, a women's fashion store in the West, help make Ikebukuro a shopper's paradise.
For the more cultural visitors, why not consider visiting the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater? Re-opened in 2012 after renovations to promote Japanese art and culture, this modern building contains—among other things—a concert hall, theaters, art galleries and restaurants. But is perhaps better known as having the world's longest escalator! Plus if you like ramen, Ikebukuro is sometimes called the Ramen Warzone—there are rival restaurants scattered about, you should not have trouble finding one. Not a ramen lover? No problem, there are plenty of alternatives: gyoza restaurants, foreign foods restaurants and the huge food halls under the department stores at the train station. So... why not give Ikebukuro a try?