By Kumi Nagano
Tokyo's traditional shotengai, or shopping streets, have experienced a visible decline in this age of the mega-mall, but these bargain alleys still offer a shopping trip like no other. We've lined up six of the best here – all of these old-school arcades are packed with independent stores, tiny restaurants and food stalls that'll help you avoid the post-shop drop. And if you'd rather explore Tokyo's boozier alleyways, consult our guide to the city's top yokocho.
Six of our favourite shopping streets
Chilli lovers rejoice – Minato’s Shiba shopping street dedicates itself to spicy food and has truly earned the nickname ‘Geki-kara Street’ (‘extremely spicy street’). Yet the phrase ‘extremely spicy’ hardly does justice to one type of chilli found on this street – the fearsome bhut jolokia, around 200 times hotter than tabasco, is officially the world’s hottest. If you’ve got an extraordinarily high tolerance for spicy food, try Munch’s Burger Shack’s bhut jolokia chilli cheeseburger. Other highlights on this fiery thoroughfare include Shintenchi’s geki-kara beef ramen, Kamozushi’s extra wasabi sushi, Asian Shokudo Pakchee’s gekikara gapao rice, and Saioji Ikomaken’s gekikara stir-fried ramen. And, just in case you weren’t sure, geki-kara means ‘super-spicy’. Don’t let fear put you off a trip to Shiba – the restaurants will nearly always allow you to customise your spiciness levels, from a mild tingle to the tear-inducing.
Combine shopping with a game of spot the goblin at Tenjin-dori Shotengai, where statues of manga mainstays live amongst the 50 stores lining the arcade. To begin, walk out of Chofu Station’s north exit and head towards Fuda Tenjin shrine into the Tenjin-dori shopping street. A sculpture of Kitaro (one of the main characters from the manga series ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’) will greet you into the street – you can spot him at three other locations while shopping, while two of his friends are propped in seemingly random places. Once you’ve found them all you can reward yourself with a trip to Chofu Seifudo, where the unusual daifuku dessert flavours include lemon cheese and coffee.
Who knew that Japan’s oldest shopping street is hidden underground in Asakusa? This 60-year-plus shopping street looks as though it’s barely changed since the Showa period – there are old stained ceilings with visible pipes and wires and retro signs plastered on the walls. Here you can find everything from standing-only ramen joints to barbers and fortune tellers. It’s easy to access directly from the Asakusa metro station on the Ginza subway line.
Fill yourself up for only ¥1,000 at this bargainous eat street. Start at Toridai where you can get fried chicken balls for only ¥10 each (there’s a limit of 50 per person), before hitting Aisaika for tsukune meatballs (¥20 each) or chicken cutlets (¥160) the size of your hand. If you want cheap rice balls, Kamataya has over 50 varieties to pick from. Once the stalls’ offerings have gone they’re gone, so visit early in the day to be sure of getting hold of what you crave. The best way to get to Jujo Ginza is via the pedestrian-only arcade right outside Jujo Station. The area is shopping street ground zero with Jujo Chuo and Higashi Jujo nearby too.
At 1.3km, Togoshi Ginza is the longest shopping street in Tokyo, and is home to around 400 outlets. At this street food hotspot, yakitori, yakisoba and dango joints are everywhere, but it’s croquettes that prove the major draw. Try the potato versions by Oniku no Asano Meat or Goto Kamabokoten’s unique oden croquettes. If you’re looking for something sweeter, visit Asana for delicious dango mochi dumplings. When you’re tired from all the walking, the Togoshi Ginza Onsen public baths are on hand for a quick soak. The street is pedestrianised from Monday to Saturday between 3pm and 6pm, and from 2pm to 7pm on Sundays and holidays.
The longest covered shopping arcade in Japan, the 800m Musashi Koyama Palm begins right outside Musashi-Koyama Station’s east exit, and stretches all the way to Nakahara-kaido, towards Nishi-Koyama. Although the 250 shops are dominated by chain restaurants and stores, there’s still room for some great independents. Toriyuu has been around for about 90 years and serves delicious yakitori chicken skewers (¥150 each). At Osama to Strawberry you can get their famous 60cm tall and 3.5kg-heavy king parfait, while homemade Italian gelato is the speciality of Takeya Dessert Inn. End the day by getting your feline fix at Cat Snack, a bar packed with moggies. The Palm’s roof makes it a great choice for rainy days – just remember to not ride your bike here, as the street is for pedestrians only.