Part one of a series detailing the settings of Rachel, and why I chose to place a monster in them.
All photos were taken by me.
If you take the North Exit out of Ikebukuro Station, then cross the road and follow the Yamanote Line, you'll walk past one of Tokyo's few remaining soft-core porn cinemas, the posters outside displaying bare breasts and promising rather tame erotic content. Take a short walk west, and you'll find yourself in one of the city's "entertainment" districts, based around the appropriately-named Romance Road. Another area, just off Heiwa Dori ("Peace Road") is a maze of dark alleys, crammed with apartment buildings and gaudy neon love hotels. Heiwa Dori itself is a small Chinatown, with South Asian and Middle-Eastern communities close by. Chinese supermarkets and Halal-friendly stores mark the area as more-than-typically multicultural for Japan.
The overall impression, though, is one of faded glories, the formerly-impressive Sunshine City skyscraper and shopping mall now more of a 70s' eyesore. Not as cool as places like Shinjuku or Akihabara, Ikebukuro is a place to get lost in, down narrow roads with old bars and coffee shops. Walk for ten minutes and you're in the start of the suburbs, the buildings interspersed with tall chimneys of traditional public bathhouses. Tatami (traditional flooring mat) makers next to modern-day 7-Elevens and Familymarts. The world's second-busiest train station, and an important transport hub for the city. Packed commuter lines leading to the north-west into Saitama Prefecture.
Ikebukuro is a rough place (well, for Tokyo...) and I knew the area well, living in or close to it for years. It's the kind of place whose charms reveal themselves slowly, as you find yourself spending more time there, enjoying the tackiness and dirt, the surprising areas within walking distance. An interesting French cafe hidden behind 80s' love hotels. A dark path leading to one of Tokyo's most interesting shrines. Watching the trains from a bridge over the tracks, knowing that just a few bridges over is a popular suicide spot. The owl motifs on the east side of the station, just because of a silly play on words ("bukuro/fukuro" can mean both "bag" and "owl" - "Ikebukuro" literally means "pond bag").
I knew when I started writing Rachel that I would set part of it in Ikebukuro. I loved the back alleys and sense of decay that infested the place. Rents were low due to the perception of high crime, and racist fears of the local foreign population. There were plenty of people a vampire could feed from, and also quiet alleys where she could get away with it. And the love hotels where she would go with her girlfriend, places to hide from their worries and the people who would hurt and punish them. Rooms where you could make a real mess, with staff who were hopefully used to a bit of blood...
There was an abandoned office building at the north end of Heiwa Dori, and Rachel spends some time there in the book. It's gone now, of course, as Tokyo is constantly in flux. A reminder that hardly anything stays the same there, something that I wanted to tap into with my writing. The weight of history I love about vampire fiction, and the fast-paced pulse of the largest city in the world.
Like the city, Rachel is constantly moving, restless and afraid, from what lurks in the shadows and the darkness in her own past.