Views A Tokyo Skytree Tour
“Shitamachi” Shopping Streets
A walk through the traditional neighborhoods at the foot of Tokyo’s latest landmark.

Paul Warham [Profile]

[2012.07.06] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | االعربية |

The completion of the Tokyo Skytree has brought new crowds flocking to the well-preserved shitamachi neighborhoods of the surrounding area. For these streets, whose chief appeal lies in their old-fashioned atmosphere and vibrant local flavor, this influx represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

The Rootsy Appeal of the “Low City”

Lying in the shadow of the newly opened Tokyo Skytree on the east bank of the Sumida River, the Kira-Kira Tachibana Shopping Street is a narrow jumble of family-run shops and food stalls that stretches approximately 500 meters from one end to the other. A little after three on a weekday afternoon, local shoppers are reemerging after a brief downpour to buy in supplies for the evening meal. Elderly housewives cruise past on rickety bicycles. A cat preens itself in the shelter of an empty cardboard box. Voices call from shop to shop as shopkeepers banter with their customers.

One of the area’s many cats takes a breather as the crowds start to return after an afternoon downpour.

At the bustling Torishō yakitori stand, the young owner fields a question as he bundles together a selection of skewered chicken. “Where do we source our stuff? Oh, here and there, you know . . . Actually, most of the chicken comes from Iwate. But believe me, you wouldn’t know the difference!” he cackles. “You want me to heat that up for you? Course you do . . . it’s much better hot!” Customer service shitamachi-style—a world apart from the elaborate ballet of bows that greets shoppers at Ginza’s luxury boutiques, just 30 minutes away by train.

The Torishō chicken stand has been serving the community for over 50 years. One of Torishō’s perennial bestsellers, the “chicken gyōza” dumplings are made from several different cuts of chicken.

Ōwa Kazumichi: “This street is part of the fabric of the local community.”

“A local shopping area like this is one of the lifelines of the local community. We’re an essential service—like water or gas,” says Ōwa Kazumichi, second-generation owner of the Daiwa Clothing Store and director of the local traders’ association. “The street is part of the fabric of the local community; a vital part of people’s lives. We offer something that the big chains and department stores can’t provide.”

A New Star Is Born

The Tokyo Skytree officially opened to the public on May 22, 2012. More than 5 million people visited in the first month, welcomed to the tower and the glittering shopping center next door by Sorakara-chan (the “Little Girl from the Sky”), a rosy-cheeked cartoon character with a winsome smile and a star-shaped shock of blonde hair. Within a year, that number is expected to reach 32 million—more people than visit Tokyo Disneyland each year. Local government figures predict that the economic impact of the Skytree will be worth as much as ¥88 billion a year in Sumida Ward alone.

The Tokyo Skytree from Tōbu Hikifune station.(Photo courtesy of the “Visit Sumida” Tourism Office)

At least for now, the area around the Skytree remains redolent with what the Japanese call a “retro” atmosphere, home to many buildings and small businesses that have survived intact since the immediate postwar era—an eon ago in a city that often seems to exist in a whirl of constant reinvention. The new tower is an impressive sight, visible from miles across the city. In the shitamachi areas, where there are few tall buildings to compete, the Skytree is ubiquitous, constantly popping up like an oversized pogo stick from between roofs and buildings. Like Mt. Fuji in the famous 19th-century woodblock prints of these same shitamachi districts, the Skytree seems to lie in wait around every corner. 


Oden: Many find it tastes better than it looks! The Skytree makes another appearance.

A range of Skytree-shaped snacks is among the treats on offer at Daikokuya, a family-run food stall that for the past 60 years has catered to local aficionados of oden, the better-than-it-looks stew of vegetables, fish cakes, and tofu that is Japan’s quintessential cold-weather street food.

The area’s latest attraction is in evidence again a few doors down at the Miyoshi Tōfu Kōbō shop, where special “Sky Tree” designs adorn the packaging on the slabs of freshly made tofu. “It’s a shame you didn’t stop by earlier,” the “salesgirl” says as we stop for a photo. “My daughter’s much more photogenic than I am! Her husband’s the boss now. They’ve left me behind to mind the shop!” Posters on the wall introduce the soya farmers by name, and the shop organizes trips that give children from neighborhood families an opportunity to try their hand at planting rice in the farmers’ fields in Chiba Prefecture. There is a palpable sense of community in the air.

Skytree tōfu on sale at the Miyoshi tōfu shop.

 

Serving the Local Community

“We’re a classic example of a locally based shopping street,” Ōwa says. “Most of our customers live within 500 to 700 meters of the shops. The opening of the Skytree may be an opportunity for us to attract new customers. But unless we can maintain local support, we won’t have much to offer people from further away. It’s vital that we continue to value our connections to the local community. That’s the only way we can make Kira-Kira Tachibana into a place that appeals to locals and visitors alike.”

Further down the street, selections of sushi are arranged on a table outside the Tanuki sushi restaurant. Inside, an elderly couple sits at the counter preparing the packages. “It’s a service we offer,” the wife explains. “People like to pick up a few bits of sushi on their way home. We’ve been doing it for more than a decade now. Kohada is one of our most popular items,” she says, pointing out a packet of silvery shad-like fish. “That’s a real shitamachi favorite. And just 400 yen for a packet of six! Take some home for your wife!”


A shopper picks up some takeaway sushi at Tanuki Sushi. The shad-like kohada and geso (squid) are just two of the many varieties on offer.

Ōwa recognizes that both the shopping street and the people who use it are starting to show their age, and that a generational shift is needed if the street is to maintain its vitality into the future. “We all need to adapt as times change,” he says. “In that respect, a shopping street is no exception.” The spread of modern supermarkets and megamalls has turned a lot of Japan’s old shopping arcades into shuttered ghost towns. How will Kira-Kira Tachibana cope with the encroachment of the supermarket chains and the arrival of the country’s latest glittering tourist attraction on its doorstep?

Kira-Kira means “twinkle twinkle” in Japanese. These stickers adorn the “Kira-Kira brand” products in the local shops.

“We can’t afford to be complacent. We need to make sure we continue to serve the needs of the community. We’ve held a morning market once a month for the past thirty years, as well as big sales five times a year. We do our best to create a family atmosphere: the Tanabata festival in July and the evening markets in September are both great fun for the kids. We’re also working hard to develop our own ‘Kira-Kira brands.’ We’ve set up an area where the older customers can put their feet up and rest over a chat with their friends. The “mobile shopping” service is another way that local businesses try to meet the needs of older residents. Several shops travel together to local apartments where there are large numbers of older people. It’s a way of ensuring that people stay connected to the community, even if they no longer get out and about as much as they used to.”

The idea is to provide shoppers with an experience they can’t get anywhere else—and perhaps inspire the youngsters of today to keep the area’s traditions and spirit of community alive into the next generation. Although some family-run shops have been forced to fold for lack of a successor, in many cases the younger generation is playing a vital role in keeping the traditions of the area alive.

Other articles in this report
  • Traditional Crafts in the Modern DayThe city of Sumida in Tokyo has a history of craftsmanship and light industry dating back to the seventeenth century. That influence remains strong even today. We look at a selection of the area’s shops, all of which have an original take on traditional techniques and crafts.
  • A Traditional and Modern StructureThe Tokyo Skytree project started in 2006. From the beginning, its creators determined to draw on the oldest Japanese architecture and aesthetics even as they crafted an ultramodern tower befitting the Tokyo skyline of tomorrow.
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  • [2012.07.06]

Translator and editor, Nippon.com. First came to Japan in the late 1980s and has been a regular visitor ever since. After studying Japanese language and literature in England and the United States, joined Japan Echo Inc. in 2009. Has translated novels by Kitakata Kenzō, Hosaka Kazushi, and Seirai Yūichi. In his spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and exploring Tokyo’s izakaya, though not all at the same time.

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