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Much More than Shopping! Experience the Japanese Local Shopping Streets ‘Shoutengai’

Experience local Japanese everyday culture and history, while enjoying shopping for unique items and munching on delicious food at a shoutengai! The local Japanese shopping streets are perfect for when you want to take a break from the hustling Tokyo 2020 games, and you can find them all around the city, so you never need to travel far. Read about the shoutengai phenomenon and a few of Tokyo’s most famous ones here!

BY Karolina Höglind

Sugamo
An institution of traditional Japanese culture: The gate to the southern side of the Sugamo Jizodori Shoutengai hosts a set of chairs for visitors to rest their feet.

What is the Shoutengai

Japanese local shopping streets known as ‘Shoutengai’ offers a mix of shopping, food and events. Each street has its own mix of local stores and bigger brand names lined up on each side of a street which is often shut off from heavy traffic. The Shoutengai have been the go-to place for daily shopping, as well as the cornerstone of local communities, for almost a century. Shoutengai can be found all over Japan, and each of them offers its own unique charm and atmosphere. The sizes and number of shops vary, but wherever you go, you are likely to find something unexpected and fascinating. Because of the variety of stores gathered in one place, you can find everything from household items and clothes to food and drinks. However, with the part it has played in the Japanese society over time, it is more than just an interesting shopping experience. A visit to a local Japanese shopping street is a visit to a part of Japanese modern history and culture.

The ups and downs of Shoutengai history

The Shoutengai phenomenon started to appear around after WWI in the 1920-30s during the Japanese post-war economic growth. Shopping at the shoutengai soon became the norm as housewives went there for daily to buy food and necessities. It became the heart of the local working-class community. A place where everyone knew each other, where people went to spend their free time; the place for the local events and gatherings.

For a long time, the local shopping districts were vital for the neighborhood, both from a social and economic perspective. But with time comes change, and it has brought along its fair share of issues for the shopping streets and its local businesses. With the popularization of department stores, many people now shop elsewhere. Aging store owners are not able to find someone to take over their store. As many local shopping streets see an increasing number of shops closing down, a phenomenon known as ‘Shutter Streets’ (シャッター通りShatta−dori) has arisen throughout Japan. Many once lively streets have turned into rows of shutters, with only a handful of stores still in business.

Many businesses are replaced by modern shopping facilities or new apartment buildings. Some shopping streets are being revitalized. With partial support from government funding, and innovative business models, many places are back on their feet and keeping their status as an important part of the local community.

Events and festivals organized by Shoutengai organizations have become enticing attractions garnering attention from locals, as well as other Tokyoites and tourists alike.

Togoshi ginza street2

The traditional and the modern side by side: a shop selling traditional, local food from Fukui prefecture stands next to a trendy bubble tea shop.

The appeal of old-school local shopping

Walking along the rows of small shops and restaurants, you won’t be able to anticipate what you will stumble upon. You might even come across a place that has existed long before the last Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. With hundreds of Shoutengais all over Tokyo, there are endless hidden gems just waiting to be explored.

SHOPPING – Tokyo is well-known as a shopping heaven. What sets the traditional, community-style Shoutengai apart from the more tourist frequented areas is the chance for the authentic and unexpected. Household goods that are part of everyday life for the locals, might be completely new to you and make for the perfect gift to bring back home! The experience and special connection you feel towards an item when bought from a smaller, local business is also invaluable. When it comes to shopping, you are likely to find things you didn’t even know you were looking for!

FOOD – Undoubtedly one of the most important parts of going to a shoutengai is the food. As it was originally for locals, everything is available at a very affordable price. These food vendors have local charm and sense of intimacy. Cuisine ranges from traditional dishes staying true to the flavors that have worked decade after decade, to the food entrepreneurs fighting to gain customers with their one-of-a-kind specialty. At a Shoutengai you can find a cheap and delicious lunch or lighter snacks to munch on while walking along the row of shops.

Eating while walking, or 食べ歩き(Tabearuki), is often frowned upon in Japan, but here it is encouraged. Sometimes the variety and number of ttake-out only shops can be overwhelming. You can be sure to leave the Shoutengai with a satisfied stomach.

FESTIVALS – As part of tradition, as well as part of the effort to make the area more appealing, the associations supporting the Shoutengai(商店街組合- Shotengai kumiai)often organize events and festivals. Keep an eye out to see if anything is going on at your local shopping streets, or any of the more major streets during the time of your stay. One example is the Azabu Juban shopping street’s summer festival Azabu Juban Noryo festival, which is usually held around late August.

Taiyaki

The easy grab-and-go sweet! Taiyaki is a traditional Japanese cake with a variety of fillings from the classic sweet beans, to the eclair-like custard or seasonal varieties.

Yakitori

Yakitori are traditional grilled chicken skewers and a classic comfort food.

Some well-known Shoutengais in Tokyo

Part of the fun can be to explore them as you come across them. However, there are a few more famous areas which might be worth checking out to get the most out of your stay. You can find a few listed at Tokyo’s official website.

Three different shopping streets and what they have to offer!

Togoshi Ginza

Gated but welcoming: Shoutengai can often be distinguished by the decorative gates arching over the street.

Togoshi Ginza Shoutengai

Located in the southern part of Tokyo, Togoshi Ginza Shoutengai is one of the longest shopping streets around the Kanto area at 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles). It is not only long, it is also very lively. Thanks to its reputation for offering some of the best B-class gourmet in the city.

With an almost 100-year history, and one of the main players in the revitalization of the Shoutengai, this shopping street promises culinary adventures to satisfy any palette. Watch out for TV crews and celebrities as you dive into the alluring munchies from animal shaped donuts, and camembert soft-serve to more traditional sashimi, oden and taiyaki.

How to get there:
Togoshi-Ginza Station (Tokyu Ikegami Line)
Togoshi Station (Toei Asakusa Line)
Find the latest info at Federation of Togoshi-ginza Shopping Street.

Musashi Koyama Shoutengai

This shopping street is an 800-meter-long (0.5-mile-long) bargain-filled path, and the longest roof-covered shopping street in the Kanto area. It’s the perfect place for affordable shopping on a rainy day. The influence of mid-century western architecture that runs through the area creates an interesting aesthetic fusion in this now older shopping district. It reflects Japan’s fascination with the west during its construction in the 50’s. Food wise, it is easy to grab something quick at a standing eatery or take a break inside one of the many cafes or restaurants. For shopping, this is a place where you can find many traditional Japanese items, from cheap bargains to the elaborately handmade. They make perfect gifts with a little bit of heart and history to them.

How to get there:
Musashi-koyama Station (Tokyu Meguro Line)
Read more about it at their website: Musashi Koyama Shoutengai

Palm Musashi Koyama

Musashi Koyama Shoutengai: The roof spanning the entire 800-meter long stretch ensures that shopping can be enjoyed in any weather.

Sugamo Jizodori Shoutengai

You have probably heard about Harajuku, and this shopping street is often called “Obaachan no Harajuku” — the old ladies’ Harajuku. It is not the liveliest of shopping streets, but it is filled with classic gems. The unique and famousmain product sold here is lucky red underwear.

Sugamo has a high number of elderly residents, which sets the atmosphere of the area and the kinds of shops you can find. Without a doubt it’s a different side of Tokyo from the high-technology skyscrapers and trendy Tokyo you are used to. Don’t forget to begin your adventure down the shopping street by touching the big fluffy butt of Sugamon, the official character of Sugamo, for good luck!

How to get there:
Sugamo Station (JR Yamanote Line and Toei Mita Line)
Sugamo Jizodori Shoutengai Center Promotion Association (Japanese only)

Sugamo lucky underwear

Fortuitous red: Sugamo Jizodori Shoutengai is well-known for its famed lucky red underwear.

Summary

A visit to a Japanese Shoutengai will tick many boxes when it comes to experiencing Japan, from shopping and food, to traditional culture and local history. Head out to find your favorite with a full wallet and empty stomach!

Karolina Höglind
Swedish 5 years living in Tokyo

Sweden born and bred Tokyoite. She started her journey to Japan as many others, through watching Sailor Moon on TV from a young age. Now her interest stretches out to culture, food and social issues. While studying at a Japanese university, she worked as an editor for a Tokyo-based culture magazine and as a radio host. She now spends her time as an office worker by day and Tokyo explorer by night.

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