“Shitamachi” Shopping Streets
Guideto JapanSociety Culture Lifestyle
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!”
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?
“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.
Hato-no-Machi: Keeping the Past Alive
A few minutes away in Higashi-Mukōjima, another shitamachi shopping street has launched an ambitious project to attract creative young people to the area in an attempt to revitalize the neighborhood and ensure that its unique qualities survive.
At first glance, the Hato-no-Machi Shopping Street looks like a place where time has stood still. A narrow network of alleys lined with rusty bikes and neglected vending machines, Hato-no-machi has a history that goes back almost 80 years—practically ancient history in Tokyo terms. This was one of the few areas of the city to survive the fire bombings of 1945 more or less unscathed.
Close to the entrance stands a blue water pump, dwarfed by the looming figure of the Skytree behind it. The pump collects rainwater from the roofs of local houses and provides water for use in the event of fires and other emergencies. The alleys here, barely two paces wide, are too narrow for fire trucks to pass. The only traffic noise comes from the occasional whirring click of a shopping bike. Low-volume music leaks across the street from someone’s radio. From a kindergarten playground on the street corner comes the sound of children skipping.
Postwar Boom Years
Although it is hard to imagine today, in the immediate postwar years Hato-no-machi was a lively red light district, one of several areas where the Occupation authorities turned a blind eye to prostitution. The area’s name (which means “Street of Doves”) is said to come from a slang term for the women who worked here. Several of the former houses of assignation survive, distinguishable by the tiles that line their exteriors and give them the appearance of bathhouses turned inside out. On one, bright pink and green tiles cover the extravagant pillars and eaves around the boarded-up entrance, where a discarded plastic umbrella leans against the doorway.
From the eaves of the wooden building next door a sign advertises “Telephone and Telegram Services Available Here.”
The Eden Coffee Shop and Restaurant has been in business since 1959, dating back to the area’s boom days. “Back then, you had to watch your back,” the owner remembers with a smile. “There were still lots of these guys around then,” he says, drawing a finger across his cheek in a gesture that signifies ‘yakuza.’ “But they all moved on a long time ago; only the good guys are left here now.” Many of Eden’s regulars have been coming for decades, and the café serves as a place for locals to gather and shoot the breeze. “What day is it today anyway?” asks an elderly man at the counter as his plate of the daily special arrives.
“The history of the Hato-no-Machi shopping street goes back almost 80 years,” says Matsuhashi Kazuaki, proprietor of the Cut Bank hair salon and chairman of the local traders’ association. “After the red light district closed down in the 1950s, the street thrived as a regular shopping area specializing in fresh produce. For a while the geisha establishments and traditional restaurants of neighboring Mukōjima were the biggest customers. But once those places fell out of favor with the big-wig politicians and businessmen, the area fell into decline. The local population was getting old, and a lot of businesses pulled down the shutters for good.”
Attracting a New Generation
Today, though, the neighborhood’s well-preserved air holds an exotic charm of its own for a new generation. Matsuhashi believes this may be the key to revitalizing the neighborhood and preserving it for the future.
“We want to preserve our unique atmosphere and history, at the same time as revitalizing the area and making sure it stays viable into the future. That’s the idea behind the “Challenge Spot! Suzuki-sō” project, which we started in 2008. We decided the best way to bring new energy into the area was to encourage young people with fresh ideas to move here.” Several years ago, the local traders’ association took out the lease on the Suzuki-sō building—a disused apartment building that was scheduled for demolition. The association rents out the premises to young tenants with ideas for making creative use of the space. “We try to keep the rent to an absolute minimum. The idea is to have young people use the premises for crafts, small-scale art projects, anything creative, really . . .” Today, Suzuki-sō is fully occupied.
One of the tenants is Kami Kōbō Dōchidō, a boutique-style paper shop. The stark, minimalist interior is lined with displays of original notebooks, paper, and postcards, many of them making creative new use of recycled packaging materials and other discarded fragments of paper. “It was my husband who had the idea,” says the young woman in charge. “He used to help out at the paper firm my parents run down the river in Ryōgoku. He kept picking up the fragments of paper from the floor, saying what a shame it was to let it all go to waste. So when we heard about this project, it seemed like an ideal opportunity.
“A lot of young artists, writers, and other creative people are moving into the neighborhood. The whole area gets really busy during special events like secondhand book fairs and flea markets. I think people are drawn in by the old-time aura and the special atmosphere. It’s something that’s hard to find in other parts of Tokyo.”
In the Shadow of the Skytree
Another local small business that has benefitted from the local initiative is Koguma, a stylish café that makes creative use of a wooden building that has stood on the site since 1927. The premises used to house a community drugstore, and old bottles of medicines still line the shelves in one corner of the interior. Customers sit at dark wooden school desks to enjoy old-timey classics like ice cream sodas and grilled curry on rice.
The young owners first visited the area as part of a theatrical group. “We were drawn in by the atmosphere of the neighborhood. It’s not typical Tokyo at all. There’s a real sense of community here. We’d been coming on and off for about three years when we heard that these premises were available. We leapt at the opportunity!”
As well as maintaining the building’s original features, the owners are working hard to preserve the distinctive atmosphere of the neighborhood and have made an effort to reach out to elderly residents as well as the younger crowd that visits on weekends.
“In our theatrical work, we used to perform outside in order to incorporate the natural sounds of the environment into the performance. We want to do something similar here, to preserve the inherent qualities of the place.
“Our friends told us we were crazy to think of starting a business in this part of town. But things have gone quite smoothly. The Skytree has helped to reinvigorate the area. I don’t see the age of the area as a drawback. In a way, it reminds me of the backstreets of Paris, or the hutongs in Beijing. It’s exciting to visit places like that as a tourist. You get a vivid sense that you are experiencing a slice of real life—something unique. I think that’s something we can offer people here.”
Matsuhashi says these efforts have already started to bear fruit. “Thanks to businesses like Koguma, we are gradually learning how to communicate our message to the outside world more effectively. Lots of young people have started to visit the area. In the future, I really hope we can continue to combine the knowledge and expertise of the older and younger generations. If the locals who have lived here for years and the more recent arrivals can continue to work together, I’m sure we'll be successful in building a new future for this special place.”
(Originally written in English. Photographs by Yamada Shinji.)