i lived in this area of tokyo for a full five years in the ‘nineties. moving to a country famed for its differences, on the other side of the world, and no knowledge of the language was something of a gamble and a step into the dark.
the experience changed me greatly. ikebukuro is an odd place, not fashionable at all, it has a reputation for being grubby, old-fashioned, and in some areas near the station particularly sleazy, many of the back streets are haunted by illegal gambling, massage parlours, love hotels, and in the late evening the home of street-walking trafficked sex workers from south east asia or russia and eastern europe, ready to relieve the homeward bound office worker, exiting the myriad bars and eating places, of his drink sodden yen.
for the most part its size and complexity and particularly that of its station are due to its position as the prime dropping off point for trains coming in from the outlying saitama and tochigi prefectures and the confluence of ten or so main railway services. it also boasted, at the time i was there, of the two biggest department stores in the world (i can provide no evidence whatsoever for this claim i’m afraid): the rivals tobu and seibu both attached to railway franchises, one serving west, and the other eastern suburbs and tokyo’s outlying districts. look in the guidebooks and most will tell you not to bother, but i have some very personal and happy memories there as a ‘cultural specialist’. yes, that’s what it said on my visa.