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Shotengai - experience daily life in Japan

If you find yourself in Japan, make sure to wander off the beaten track a little bit and you will find shotengai- a pedestrian street filled with traditional shops. Here you will come across a wide variety of shops, cafés, restaurants, amusements and goods.
Picturesque shotengai in Yanaka, Tokyo.
The history of shotengai is believed to date back to the medieval markets and free shops of the early 16th century. Today these streets, lined with small shops gives visitors a glance into the everyday life in Japan since shotengai is a place where the locals go to find their everyday necessities and speciality items. The size of the shopping street differs, with some of the larger ones stretching for a few blocks and in all directions. It is not uncommon to have to wait to cross over a road in order to continue your shopping in the shotengai. Some shotengai are covered by a roof and these are usually called arcades.
Senbei (rice cracker) shop and sakeya (alcohol shop) in a shotengai.
In shotengai you might come across:

Bakeries - which are called panya in Japanese, are not like bakeries in the west. In the Japanese panya you will find a lot of interesting breads often topped or filled with sweet or savory ingredients, like hot dogs, spicy fish roe, nori seaweed and bean paste.
Barbershops - tokoya or rihatsuya in Japanese. Where Japanese men go to get their hair cut and beard shaved. 
Butchers - called nikuya (literally meat shop) in Japanese offers all kinds of meat, including the famous wagyu (Japanese beef). At nikuya you can also find things like breaded cuts of meat and sometimes already cooked items.   
Fishmongers - called sengyoden in Japanese. Here you will find the freshest fish and seafood as well as processed types of fish.  
Japanese confectionary stores - wagashiya in Japanese, sells traditional wagashi- Japanese candy. These include dango (sweet rice dumplings), kompeito (crystal sugar candy), daifuku (filled mochi - sticky rice cake) and rakugan (solid dry sugar candy in pretty colors and shapes).
Japanese restaurants - called washokudo in Japanese is the place to go if you want to try great home style cooked food. Things like shogayaki (ginger pork), kaki furai (deep fried oysters), baked fish and the tastiest miso soup an be found in washokudo. 
Sake shops - called sakeya in Japanese. Here you will find all kinds of alcoholic beverages since sake means alcohol in Japanese. If you are looking for the "Japanese sake" you should ask for nihonshu. 
Teashops - called ochaya in Japanese. Focusing on Japanese green tea of different kinds, as well as tea pots and cups this is heaven for tea lovers. Usually you get a small taste cup of hot (in colder months) or cold (in the summer) green tea as you browse the shop. Some stores also sells nori (swaweed).
Traditional cafés - called kissaten in Japanese. Old school cafés that serve coffee and black tea as well as small dishes. Usually frequented by regulars and not smoke free. 
Vegetable and fruit shops - called yaoya in Japanese is where you can find fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season. A lot cheaper than at your nearest department store and usually better than at supermarkets.

etc.
Standing ramen shop in Asakusa Chika Shotengai.
Unfortunately a lot of the old traditional shops are being replaced by 100 yen shops, drug stores and chain cafés but some are still going strong and the shop owners do their best to keep the shotengai alive and attractive to their customers. Being able to get things like handmade tofu, high quality tea, fresh produce and bread as well as trying local well prepared food is really a treat. 

3 shotengai to visit in Tokyo.
You can find shotengai everywhere, usually around train stations and in smaller neighborhoods in Tokyo. Here are a few recommendations if you wish to visit a shotengai in Tokyo area.

Nakano Sun Mall
Nakano Sun Mall.
Leading from the Nakano station to anime lovers paradise Nakano Broadway, this covered shotengai (arcade) houses a lot of different kind of shops, cafés and restaurants as well as game centers. Well worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood!  

Asakusa Chika Shotengai
Asakusa Chika Shotengai.
This underground (chika means underground) shotengai is hidden away in Asakusa, but I have stumbled across it a few times while searching for the subway entrance. Here you will find massage parlors, barbershops, fortune tellers and a standing ramen shop that is full of old time charm. The Asakusa Chika Shotengai opened in 1955 (Showa era) and is supposedly the oldest underground shopping street in Japan.  

Asakusa also have a few covered  shotengai where restaurants, kimono shops and tableware vendors line the streets. 

Yanaka Ginza Shotengai
Crowded Yanaka Ginza Shotengai on a Sunday.
To get a taste of the old Tokyo I recommend a visit to Yanaka Ginza. This shotengai is in the north end of the Yanesen area (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi), a short walk from the Sendagi or Nippori station. The area in general is one of the only places in Tokyo where the atmosphere of the old ”shitamachi” (Edo) still exists. Here you can find fruit and vegetables shops, izakaya, 100 yen shops and small design stores and the mood is really relaxed.
Orion dori, shotengai in Utsunomiya.
Of course you can also find shotengai all around Japan, not just in Tokyo. So stay on the lookout for these bustlings shopping streets whenever you are in Japan.

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4 comments

Well-written, comprehensive article! Thanks for the super recommendations, Johanna- these shopping streets are a highlight of any visit.

Great pictures as always! Love the charm of these little shopping streets!

Me too! Thank you Kim. :)

Shotengai are my favorite! I hope they keep going strong!!