Shitamachi: A Face of Tokyo You’ve Never Seen Before

Shitamachi: A Face of Tokyo You’ve Never Seen Before

By Nika Tresor | 2017-12-11 | 2.4k views
We all know Tokyo as this dazzling nightlife metropolis, where skyscrapers and neon lights take over over the cityscape as soon as the sun goes down. However, there is this little area of Tokyo that is unlike any of those things – an area that brings us back to what the city was like centuries ago. This area is known as Shitamachi, and it is hands-down the best place to experience traditional Japanese culture in all of Tokyo.

Now, I called Shitamachi an ‘area’ for the sake of keeping it short and comprehensive. However, Shitamachi is more like a set of small areas sprinkled throughout Tokyo, that includes Akasaka, Ueno, Yanaka, the area around Nihonbashi, and more. Now, you might be wondering what is it that ties all these places together into the so-called Shitamachi. 
A textbook definition of the area would be ‘the lower city,' a part of Tokyo where commoner culture flourished from the early Edo period up to the second world war. Now, commoner culture might not sound like something too exciting to us Westerners – but when it comes to Japan, most of the things we are familiar with, including food, kabuki theatre, Japanese stamps, and even geisha are all part of commoner culture. Yamanote (that translates as the ‘hand of the mountain,' and can be interpreted as the opposing ‘higher city’) was used to refer to the areas inhabited by nobles and samurai. While it may be hard to point out an exact line dividing the two, the Japanese like to put it this way – everything East of the Imperial Palace is Shitamachi, and everything West of it is Yamanote. 

So, why would you want to experience Shitamachi? First of all, it’s one of the few ways to experience traditional Japanese culture in all of Tokyo. Second, it can be a nice change of pace from the big city you’ve probably seen (or are going to see) enough of. Third, shopping, especially if you’re looking for traditional Japanese sweets or crafts to bring home as authentic souvenirs. And, last but not least, food – Shitamachi is oozing with shops selling traditional foods and sweets, such as wagashi, soba, senbei, and much more.
With that out of the way, let’s see how you can experience Shitamachi in one day. Granted, you won’t be able to see all the areas and walk all the narrow streets, but rather experience some of the highlights of Old Tokyo without skipping out on food or shopping.

You can start off with a visit to the Shitamachi Museum in Ueno. Although you might not be the most enthusiastic museum-goer, I highly recommend you start your immersion in the history and atmosphere of Shitamachi with a visit to this place. The museum reproduces the townscape of Shitamachi between the Meiji Restoration and WWII, including various shops, houses, and apartments. The experience is very hands-on – you can take your shoes off and step into any of the reproduced stores or rooms, sit on the tatami, or take a look behind the counter of a dagashiya sweets shop. The museum is open every day from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, so you can pop in early in the morning for a short immersion in Tokyo old town history.
I’d recommend you skip Ueno park – there’s so much to see there that it deserves its own day. However, there’s one thing you might want to check out as part of your Shitamachi tour, and that’s the Kiyomizu Kannon-do temple. It’s considered one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, and it has an interesting shishiodori vintage omikuji machine where you can get your fortune told (English ones are available as well!)
Tsuki no Matsu tree in fronto of Kannon-do in Ueno Park, via
Head through Ameyoko and take in the bustle of one of the most famous markets in Tokyo. The shops open around 10 am, so you should be able to shop, eat, and play to your heart’s content after visiting Shitamachi Museum. Founded after WWII, Ameyoko became some sort of a Tokyo Babel Tower, where you could find treasures gathered from all over the world. You can still find vintage military uniforms there, as well as embroidered souvenir jackets – both relics of the American occupation years. Ameyoko is also a great place to stack up on traditional Showa-era Japanese candy, also known as dagashi (not to be confused with wagashi, which are traditional sweets.) You can find them all over the market, but hit up Nishi no Kashi if you want to stock up for real.
Walk to Ueno-Hirokoji station and get on the Tokyo Metro Ginza line headed to Asakusa (¥170 one way) and get off at Asakusa Station. For starters, treat yourself to some lunch – there’s a bunch of restaurants, noodle bars, and whatnot around the station, but if you want to keep it quintessentially Japanese for the sake of your Shitamachi immersion, go for some Edomae sushi. While the name might sound fancy and foreign, Edomae sushi are just simple nigirizushi topped off with fish caught in the Tokyo Bay – hence the Edo in the name. If you’re willing to go all out, try Bentenyama Miyakosushi (roughly ¥5500 - ¥7500 per meal.) If you’re on a budget, try Zanmaisushi (up to ¥3000 per meal.)

Head towards Nakamise shopping street. If you haven’t done your share of shopping in Ueno, now is the time to go all out! Nakamisedori is probably the best place to resemble a Shitamachi merchant street in all of Tokyo, as there are a lot of family-owned craft shops and food stalls. However, as it has become a popular tourist spot in the last couple of years, there’s also a fair share of cheap, made-in-China souvenirs. Your best bet is to wander off the main street if you’re looking for things like yukata, second-hand kimono, or ukiyo-e prints.
After that, take some time to explore Sensoji Temple – probably the biggest and most famous temple in all of Tokyo. Take in the huge Kaminarimon gate and the five-storied pagoda as well.

Grab an afternoon snack from Kamejyuu – a famous store selling all sorts of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets.) Their specialty is the dorayaki – a confectionery resembling a pancake sandwich with a layer of red or white bean for the filling. Or, if you prefer a more Western-style filling, get a taiyaki at Kurikoan. Still a Japanese confectionery, taiyaki are fish-shaped pancake sandwiches with either red bean, matcha cream, or vanilla custard for the filling.
After that, take a walk through the Asakusa side streets towards Kappabashi – this is where the Shitamachi atmosphere is at its peak. It’s best to wander around without a particular destination in mind and use this time to let your thoughts and impressions settle in. A day trip through these areas will certainly change the way you think about Tokyo. You’ll come to realize that there is a hidden face of the city that not many get to see and experience – a part where time seems to have stopped twenty, fifty, and sometimes one hundred years ago.
And don't forget dinner! One food Shitamachi is particularly famous for is monjayaki - a type of okomiyaki that is softer and runnier than usual. There are plenty of shops that sell monjayaki in Asakusa, but I'd recommend you try out Tsukushi - they've been in business for over 40 years,  and serve classic blends of ingredients that you have to grill yourself on the teppanyaki on your table. Careful not to leave it for too long though - it cooks much faster than regular okonomiyaki, and will end up sad and burnt if you leave it for too long.
Naturally, Ueno and Asakusa-Kappabashi are not the only Shitamachi areas you can explore. Yanaka is another big one – you can spend a whole day exploring the Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, and the hundreds of old temples and shrines in the area. So are Ningyocho, Fukagawa, and other areas around Nihonbashi. However, visiting them all in one day is pointless, and here is why:

Shitamachi is not an area, and is not a list of things to tick off your ‘to see’ list. It’s an experience, best described by wandering around the narrow shopping streets, trying street foods from family-run stalls, and shopping for locally-made goods.
If Tokyo were a big department store, Shitamachi would be a bustling market – a slower, but much more enjoyable and personal experience you should definitely give a try.

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    Elli Gill
    2018-02-06 12:49:46

    Thanks, this was an interesting read. I always enjoy experiencing and exploring the 'common' every day parts of cities, I feel like it's the places you find the most genuine representation of a culture. I like to imagine what it's like to actually live in these areas

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