On my last trip to Japan, I queued with my friends Yoshie and Tatsu at Toridai, a decades-old food store in the Jujo Ginza shotengai (shopping street) in northern Tokyo. There’s always a line at Toridai. It’s a beloved neighborhood institution selling takeaway fare, including famously delicious and cheap chicken meatballs for just ¥10 a piece.
So, why did standing in line for 15 minutes at a timeworn suburban delicatessen that was part of this old-school shopping street become one of my holiday highlights?
From the kinetic crush at Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing to the selfie stick chaos at Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple — I actually don’t mind the festive, frenzied energy of tourist crowds. I also love ticking off Japan’s impressive bucket list of iconic sights. Yet over six visits, I’ve discovered an equally captivating side to Japan in its everyday streetscapes. They’re starkly different to those in Australia (my home country).
That’s why when Yoshie and Tatsu, born-and-bred Tokyoites in their 60s, offered to show me around, I said, “Take me to your favorite local shotengai!”
The winding charms of Japan’s shopping streets
Tatsu was born in Jujo, a lively, working-class neighborhood in Tokyo’s Kita ward. Kita was a collection of rural villages and towns until the 1880s when it was connected by rail to central Tokyo.
Tatsu lived in Jujo for 31 years, just five minutes’ walk from Jujo Ginza. When he was a child, it was unpaved, unroofed and lined with wooden shops. The dirt road turned to mud in the rain.
We strolled past Taisho era buildings from the 1920s, bought tea in a quaint establishment from the 1950s and sipped drinks in a cafe with a somewhat dated 1980s vibe. All the while, I felt buoyed by the spring in Tatsu’s step and his obvious pride as he offered this peek into his past.
There’s a lot of nostalgic longing in Japan for retro stylings of days gone by. You can travel back to the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, at the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum and Osaka’s Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho, via food “theme parks” decorated as imitation Showa period towns. In this artifice of faux street signs and advertising posters, colors appear saturated and hyperreal.
In a similar way, when I explore old Japanese streets, I tend to view their faded facades through a halcyon haze.
From the late 1800s, as their country Westernized and modernized, some Japanese saw their traditional public spaces as embarrassing — poor, dirty and old-fashioned.
Yoshie and Tatsu, however, are of an age where they can look back fondly at Japan’s post-World War II economic boom and cherry-pick golden moments and memories rather than the concurrent rise of drab, cramped, concrete housing and descent into exhaustingly hellish office culture.
I’ve met a few young Japanese who dismiss classic shotengai with yawns. But there are also 20-somethings running new enterprises in them, like contemporary craft or coffee shops. Old-world kissaten (cafes) steeped in doilies and wood paneling are currently cool again and teenagers flock to trendy Taiwanese-style bubble tea bars.
“Compared to the center of Tokyo, elderly people can enjoy the warm community of shotengai like Jujo Ginza, and young couples and students can enjoy the cheap prices,” Tatsu told me.
Tons of dust has settled on closed shutters across many rural shotengai. However, Marugamemachi in Takamatsu, Shikoku island, is an inspiring example of a dying small town shotengai that was revived in the 1990s. Its street association revamped its décor, diversified its shops and spurred the construction of a new hospital and condominiums.
Generally, though, the healthiest shotengai are near or next to major train stations, fed by brisk pedestrian traffic. Notable ones include Tokyo’s Togoshi Ginza (the city’s longest at 1.3 kilometers) and Osaka’s Tenjinbashisuji (Japan’s longest at 2.6 kilometers) which houses about 800 businesses.
Compared to the center of Tokyo, elderly people can enjoy the warm community of shotengai like Jujo Ginza, and young couples and students can enjoy the cheap prices
Train stations offer other workaday charms. Japan’s first eateries under elevated train tracks sprouted in the 1920s around Yurakucho station in Tokyo. Here, loud chatter still rises to compete with carriages rumbling overhead, entwined with smoke from charcoal grills. Atmospheric under-rail pass restaurants also abound around Sannomiya station in Kobe.
Parallel worlds thrive underfoot. Densely populated Japan is a world leader in subterranean planning and development. A maze of six underground malls stretches from Umeda station, Osaka. Ekimaedori is a bright, elegant thoroughfare between Sapporo and Odori stations, up north in Sapporo city, that provides shelter from the harsh Hokkaido winters above.
Daylight in Tokyo is like nowhere else, bouncing and fracturing between endless skyscrapers. Respite comes at night, in low-rise lantern-lit side streets and alleys. It’s hard to resist Japan’s distinct after-dark dives, like the open-air yatai stalls of Fukuoka city’s Tenjin district or the intimate, clandestine drinking dens of Nagasaki city’s Shianbashi area.
And to really escape the sightseeing hordes, delve into the basement floors of the interconnected buildings Ekimae Dai-Ichi, Dai-Ni, Dai-San and Dai-Yon in Osaka and San Plaza, Center Plaza, and Plaza West in Kobe. These are unfashionable arcades decked in linoleum and fluorescent lights, crammed with cheap, character-soaked diners. I didn’t see any other foreigners, but it’s easy to draw smiles from the welcoming vendors.
Daylight in Tokyo is like nowhere else, bouncing and fracturing between endless skyscrapers. Respite comes at night, in low-rise lantern-lit side streets and alleys.
Every visit, I uncover another slice of bygone Japan and pray for its survival. Change always comes. High-speed Maglev bullet trains are in development along with new stations 40 meters or more below ground. The deluge of tourism has arrived and not all Japanese are pleased. In Tokyo’s long-established Yanaka Ginza shotengai, a butcher yelled at me when I snapped a photo of his store, even though I stood 20 meters away.
Many of the few open spaces that remain in Japanese cities were once feudal lords’ homes. Streets bear historical traces: bustling roads lead to ancient temples, shrines, and castles, winding paths cover former routes of rivers and streams and narrow laneways mark sites of previous post-war black markets.
It’s easy to lament urbanization and gentrification. However, before Japan revealed its modern, reconstructed face to the world during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, late 1950s Tokyo was rat-infested, drug-ridden and dangerous at night. The water was undrinkable and nearly half its population had tapeworms.
Last trip, my Japanese friend Takako took me to the quiet island of Ikuchijima, which is part of the Shimanami Kaido cycling course in the Seto Inland Sea. Only about six shops were open in its once vibrant Shiomachi shotengai. There was a granny frying perfect potato croquettes in a ramshackle stall.
“She’s about 80 years old,” Takako said. I marveled at this sprightly, grey-haired dynamo and her stream of customers, injecting upbeat energy into a desolate spot.
In the suburbs, housewives weave past you on bicycles with baskets carrying fresh tofu. Orderly lines of schoolkids in identical yellow caps trail teachers like cute ducklings. Streets are rich in details if you enjoy the extraordinary within the ordinary.
Tatsu’s most treasured thoughts of Jujo Ginza are not of its architecture but of playing with his childhood friends until they were scolded and shooed away by the shopkeepers. He remembers the candy the merchant treated him to each time his mother bought green tea.
Dust is just dust. I’ve romanticized peeling paint and shabby signage enough. The real fascination lies in human connection. Tiny gestures and interactions. The theatre backdrop may shift, but if you follow the flow of people — eking out their existence, carving out their livelihoods — you’ll never stop finding fleeting fragments of beauty.
I’ve just realized, this is what I was really seeking all along.
Explore Japan’s scenic shotengai
Here are all the shotengai areas listed in this article from north to south in Japan.