The arteries of the commercial life-blood of cities in Japan, shōtengai—or shopping streets—are not only vital for the economy, but also for the culture of the cities where they’re found. Some trace their way back to a wave of black markets that surfaced during the postwar era. The economy was shattered, which led to nationwide rationing of goods, and the black markets that were the precursors of the shōtengai provided a more underground opportunity to procure scarce goods. Meanwhile, others emerged through collective endeavors to revitalize the local economy following a disaster, namely the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The unique history of each shopping street shapes their distinctive atmosphere, which is what makes them so fascinating. Join us in a walk through some of Tokyo’s most memorable shopping streets, where culture and commerce blend seamlessly.
Ueno-Ameyokocho Shōtengai is a prime example of a popular black market that now lives on as a bustling thoroughfare. During the postwar era, Ameyokocho, or Candy Alley, consisted mainly of candy vendors that sold items that were difficult to find due to post-war rationing. At the time, merchants from Tohoku traveled to Ueno Station, sold the goods they brought with them, bought as much candy as they could carry, and sold them back home for a threefold profit. Later, during the Korean War, US supply routes were raided for Hershey’s chocolate, blue jeans and Ray-Ban sunglasses, which were bought and sold there, earning one street in the thoroughfare the name America Yokocho—America Alley.
Today, its legacy lives as a commercial market that follows the traditional rules that hearken back its founding. Most shops only specialize in selling one good, they only take cash and encourage bargaining. With over 400 shops that stretch along 600 meters, it surely merits a day’s worth of exploration.
Closest Station: Ueno Station
Sugamo Jizo-Dori Shōtengai
A portal into old Tokyo, Sugamo Jizo-Dori Shōtengai—humorously referred to as “Grandma’s Harajuku”—has a nostalgic feel, thanks to its distinctive entryway. Unlike the more fast-paced shōtengai Tokyo has to offer, Sugamo Jizo-Dori is known for its tranquility and is often frequented by the elderly. The streets are flat, with textured bricks to prevent slipping, and stairwells have a ramp alternative to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. Standing tall and prominent, Koganji Temple can be found nearby, home to the Togenuki Jizo, or the “splinter-removing” Buddha. It is widely believed that visiting this temple helps cure ailments. Within the thoroughfare, shopkeepers selling omikage can be found. These slips of paper come in packs of five, each designed with a distinctive sacred image. It is believed that consuming these slips of paper, or sticking them on an affected body part, will heal.
With over 200 shops along a 800-meter-long thoroughfare, there is much to explore, including street-food stands, general stores, and clothing shops. Be sure to check out Mizuno, the creator of shio daifuku, a confectionery consisting of a soft mochi shell filled with anko red bean paste.
Closest Station: Sugamo Station
Nakano Sun Mall Shōtengai
With a long glass-covered arcade, illuminated by natural light that streams in through its sunroof, this shopping street traverses a small stretch of Nakano, which is situated west of Shinjuku. Nakano Sun Mall Shōtengai is bustling with street-food markets, unique cafes and anime merchandise shops. Make sure to check out Bonjour Bon, a pastry shop which sells what some consider to be the best melonpan in Tokyo.
The Nakano Shōtengai was built in 1966 as a covered arcade as a vision of the future. However, it instead emerged as a haven fostering otaku-culture, laying the ground for the thriving commercial district it has become. The interior of the shōtengai is decorated with vibrantly colored walls, inlaid with tiled floors, and each shop within the arcade sports a sun-shaped sign. With over 100 shops ranging from national chains to locally-owned delicatessens, it offers much to feast on and much to explore.
Closest Station: Nakano Station
Situated by Togoshi Park and set in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Tokyo, the Togoshi-Ginza Shōtengai is a prosperous economic zone. The shōtengai covers a length of 1.3 kilometers and boasts over 400 different shops. These include furniture stores, pharmacies, cafes, local greengrocers and meat markets, and izakaya. Unlike the busier markets, which are often crowded and difficult to navigate, Togoshi-Ginza offers a more peaceful shopping experience, with charming and friendly shops which are perfect for running errands. Furthermore, it is one of the only tabe-aruka spots in Tokyo, where eating while walking is not frowned upon. This makes the shōtengai an ideal spot for those seeking to try Japan’s street food. Be sure to try the Togoshi croquette, a local delicacy which different vendors have different takes on.
The shopping street’s history dates back to the recovery from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which upturned the bricks from the neighborhood’s streets; the shops that make up Togoshi-Ginza Shōtengai are said to be constructed from these repurposed bricks.
Closest Station: Togoshi-Ginza Station
Situated west of Shibuya off of Komaba, Shimokitazawa is a refuge for bohemian-chic inclined shoppers looking to vamp up their wardrobes. The neighborhood is sprawling with smaller stores, warehouses, and garages bursting at the seams with unique pieces, such as vintage American letterman jackets, multi-color wool and leather trench coats, and vintage designer clothing going for amazing prices. Each store is curated for a particular aesthetic, from vintage to designer couture. Shimokitazawa is Tokyo’s thrifting paradise, and a must for those who want to dress well, but are limited by their budget.
The shōtengai’s history is grounded in agriculture, which during the Meiji period consisted of principally farming land rich with open fields and forests. After the Great Kanto earthquake inner-city dwellers sought refuge in the rural outskirts of Tokyo, hoping to avoid future disasters. In 1927, the Odakyu Odawara line was opened to allow passage between the inner city and Shimokitazawa, increasing its population and transforming it into a suburb. However, not until the end of the Second World War—as a consequence of the ravaged economy—did the area bear resemblance to what it is today. Black markets popped up, and it turned into a commercial nexus for Tokyoites discontented with post-war rationing.
Closest Station: Shimokitazawa Station
Jake Benjamin Roiter