Tokyo's Secret Shopping Paradise
In Tokyo’s less-touristy northeast, the former black market of Ameyokocho offers everything under the (rising) sun. BY MARIE DOEZEMA. PHOTOGRAPHED BY ALFIE GOODRICH
Published on Nov 13, 2012
There’s nothing like Cheez Whiz and soft-shelled turtles to make foreigners feel right at home in Tokyo.
Welcome to Ameyokocho, one of the Tokyo’s most international and eclectic parts of town. While there’s plenty here to remind you that you’re in Japan—from boisterous shouts of irashaimase to conveyer-belt sushi joints—other smells and tastes can transport you, however fleetingly, to Istanbul, Bangkok or Nairobi. For the uninitiated, walking through Ameyokocho—an open-air market in northeast Tokyo, along the train tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations—can be intimidating, an overwhelming mix of pointy-elbowed bargain-seekers, seedy-looking love hotels and relentlessly noisy pachinko parlors. Vendors barking into megaphones at top decibels, peddling everything from vitamins to grab bags of cheap chocolate, add to the chaos.
While the east side of Tokyo is generally a less popular place for foreigners to live and shop than the swankier west side, the Shitamachi, or old downtown, neighborhoods around Ueno Park have a unique charm and are one of the last places to experience old Edo culture in the city. Street cats prowl small alleys lined with window boxes and dotted with bicycles, while the clip-clop of wooden sandals can be heard as locals make their way to the nearby sento, or bathhouses, soap and towels in hand.
After four years of living in this part of Tokyo, Ameyokocho remains one of my favorite areas to explore. While I might hit the fancier foreign-friendly grocery stores on the west side of town for granola or stinky cheese, Ameyokocho market is my top pick for treasure hunting or aimless wandering. This isn’t just shopping—it’s entertainment. Much has changed since the post-war years, when Ameyokocho was known as the place to buy black market goods in Tokyo, but these days the area remains a popular place for browsing and people watching. You can find most things you might need or want (from salad spinners to neckties), in addition to countless things you never knew you wanted, or stopped wanting several decades ago (think duck-shaped measuring cups and lava lamps). On the practical side, there are dirt-cheap handbags, bins of clothing and running shoes crying out to be pawed through, and plenty of bling, from earrings to cellphone charms. If traditional is more your style, there are stalls selling green tea, dried fish, fans and even samurai-emblazoned socks.
Because of its array of international ingredients, Ameyokocho is popular with Tokyo’s embassy staff. One Sri Lankan embassy friend relies on the market for the jumbo prawns and spices that go into her trademark curry. One gray morning, I meet up with Robert Osogo, chef of the Kenyan embassy in Tokyo, for a shopping trip. Our plan is to hit the basement market of the Ameyoko Center Building, in the heart of Ameyokocho, home to an impressive selection of produce, spices, spirits and more parts of pig than most people know what to do with. “It’s is the closest thing to Nairobi I can find in Japan,” he says.
Osogo is a passionate chef and an intrepid shopper, at home wandering market stalls in search of the perfect ingredients. We had planned to meet at a kebab stand, a place I had passed countless times, always distracted by the smell of roasting meat and the long line outside. I show up at the shop just as Osogo is calling me on my mobile phone to tell me he is there too, though nowhere to be seen. Apparently there are three kebab shops, all with the same name and within several hundred meters of each other. With the help of various kebab shop workers—who get a kick out of our game of hide and seek—we manage to find each other somewhere in between.
We descend the dingy stairs into the market and are hit by disparate smells and ingredients crammed together. A medley of diverse languages rings through the air. There are fresh herbs, leafy greens, live seafood and slowly squirming turtles. Tropical fruits include plantains from the Philippines and the potent love-it-or-hate-it durian, imported from Thailand.
Osogo is here to stock his own fridge with tastes from home and to buy ingredients for an embassy lunch the next day. I follow him around in hopes of gleaning some recipe ideas. I trail behind as he points out his favorite varieties of chilies and suggests recipes for small lentils and stir-fried greens. After making several rounds of the food stalls to find the best deals, he buys three kilograms of ground chicken for samosas; two free-range chickens; three whole tilapia; and several cuts of oxtail. The frozen tilapia in this market doesn’t begin to compare to fresh tilapia from Lake Victoria, Osogo tells me, but it is the best he can manage in this country. Same story with maize flour, the main ingredient in ugali, Kenya’s starch of choice. He can find the flour in Japan, but the taste and texture are never quite right. Still, 11,000 kilometers from home, he’s grateful to find it at all.
Though bargaining is something much of the world might take for granted, quibbling over a couple hundred yen is simply not done under most circumstances in Japan. In this part of town, however, normal rules don’t apply. Hardcore hagglers often wait until dusk to hit the market, when salmon roe and octopus can be had at a fraction of their prices earlier in the day. It is still morning, but a bit of bargaining is in order. The best deal of the day is the two chickens, priced at ¥400 apiece, but selling as a pair for ¥700. My happiest finds include preserved duck eggs; bundles of fragrant coriander, an ingredient hard to find in most supermarkets; and, for its nostalgia factor, Skippy peanut butter.
We emerge into the humid air and make our way to a stall selling fresh fruit—strawberries, cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple—on a stick. One of the best approaches to Ameyokocho is to graze your way through. Free samples of nuts and dried fruits abound, and take-out stands sell a wide range of goodies, from sweet to salty. There’s seasonal soft-serve ice cream in flavors ranging from black sesame to cherry blossom, as well as cream puffs and crepes. On the savory side, there’s oversized gyoza; okonomiyaki, an omelet-pancake hybrid filled with veggies, meat or seafood; and takoyaki, doughy spheres stuffed with octopus and doused in mayonnaise and seaweed. If you’d rather settle in for a spell, there are plenty of casual restaurants with stools and small tables spilling onto the street, selling sushi, yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), snacks and cold beer. By now I have my favorite shops for freeze-dried okra, imported olive oil and manuka honey, but the best part about a trip through Ameyokocho is the little things that catch you by surprise. Today, I stop short when I see an antique Western-style saddle in one of the covered alleyways. Going price? A cool ¥380,000, or about US$3,640.
When the hustle and bustle of the market become too much, I head to my favorite massage parlor—there are many places offering shiatsu and
reflexology in the neighborhood—and I get an hour of shiatsu pounding by a tiny-fisted but fierce woman. Though it may not be the glitziest spa in town—no organic cotton loungewear here, only oversized sweatpants and a grandfatherly fleece top—it works out the kinks. Trains thunder by overhead, but for ¥3,600 (US$35) an hour it’s one of the best deals in town.
There’s no doubt Ameyokocho is a place of plenty. Standing near the market’s iconic entrance sign, I ask Osogo if there’s anything missing. He pauses, and comes up with one crucial element of home: the taste of his mother’s cooking. That’s something no market, not even the mighty Ameyokocho, can muster.