If you truly want to experience Tokyo, or need to squeeze in some last-minute souvenir shopping before continuing your travels, consider spending a few hours in the city’s shotengai. Essentially meaning “shopping street,” the shotengai you’ll find here are diverse, ranging from pedestrian-filled streets with flashy signs and vendors loudly hawking their wares, to quiet, almost forgotten corners of Tokyo with mom-and-pop stores offering traditional goods.
Either way, shotengai often are found near train stations or the heart of a neighborhood, making them relatively easy to access. There’s just so many and your favorite likely will come down to personal preference. Keeping that in mind, here’s a few recommendations.
Just a five-minute walk from Nippori Station you’ll come to Yuyake Dandan (Sunset Stairway), which can either mark the start or end to Yanaka Ginza. A fairly traditional shotengai with an atmosphere taking you back to the Edo period, there’s a collection of about 70 different stores here offering everything from wagashi sweets and street food to unique souvenirs.
You might notice a running theme at Yanaka Ginza: cats! There’s absolutely tons of neko-themed merchandise and even “cat tail donuts” and ice cream with a wafer displaying a cat’s face at a little shop called Yanaka Shippoya. You might also see actual cats roaming the streets too.
While technically not part of the shotengai, nearby Yanaka Cemetery is a popular spot for strolling (especially during autumn and spring), while Ueno Sakuragi Atari has authentic buildings from the Showa era that house a beer hall, bakery and café that specializes in all things olive oil – consider giving an olive oil latte a try.
Running between Ueno and Okachimachi stations is Ameya Yokocho. Often simply called Ameyoko, it’s usually crowded with locals and foreigners alike searching for a deal or a meal from the many food stalls lining the street. In a way, Ameyoko is similar to Shibuya or Shinjuku. There’s brightly colored signs and LED screens flashing advertisements, large chain stores, food vendors and lots of people.
The area is divided along two avenues, Ameyoko and Uechu. The latter is all about shopping and the former more of a foodie hub. Speaking of food, if you want it, chances are Ameyoko has it. You’ll see everything from stands offering today’s catch to ramen, takoyaki, dumplings, kushiage, bubble tea and a popular stall called New Fruit selling freshly cut fruit on a stick.
Affectionately nicknamed “Grandma’s Harajuku,” this rather large shotengai certainly draws an older crowd, but in no way does that mean it’s not for people of all ages. Here you can find traditional shops offering freshly baked sembei, anpan, daifuku and other Japanese snacks.
Many people also come to visit Koganji Temple, which regularly holds small festivals a few times every month. And there’s no way you’ll miss Maruji with its bright red store front. This place sells a rather unique item: red underpants. Actually, you can find a red version of pretty much anything here. The color red traditionally being associated with energy and luck.
Kind of a two-for-one, Asagaya Pearl Center and Nakano Sun Mall are both located near each other, with only Koenji Station separating these shotengai. Unlike most others mentioned, both are completely covered pedestrian shopping centers. So, even on a rainy day, you can still enjoy wandering the eclectic shops.
Between the two, Asagaya Pearl Center is larger, known for its music events and cultural festivals – the most famous being Tanabata in August, during which large papier-mache figures (Anpanman, Nintendo and Ghibli characters, that sort of thing) are hung inside the center. Even when a festival isn’t happening, you could easily spend a day browsing the many shops and restaurants.
While not quite as large, Nakano Sun Mall is equally packed with stores and food stands, like Bonjour Bon, which has a legendary maple melonpan. It also connects to Nakano Broadway, a popular spot for anime, manga, gamers and Japanese subculture.
Definitely something of an unknown, and that’s honestly part of its charm, this shotengai is located right next to Keisei-Tateishi Station. It’s old-school, giving off a truly authentic vibe. Starting around noon, you’ll have local vendors begin to open their stalls, from butchers to fish mongers, fresh vegetable stands and noodle shops, it feels a world away from the fast-paced nature of Tokyo.
Here you also can find a couple shops with locally-produced ceramics and other traditional Japanese handicraft. Likewise, there’s a few places to eat, which remind me a lot of Daimon Yokocho in Hakodate. They’re small, with irregular hours, but have absolutely incredible food, ranging from sushi and udon, to sozai (kind of like a Japanese delicatessen), motsuyaki and oden.