Stories through Shopping: a history tour of Ginza with a healthy dose of retail therapy

Ginza is well known as one of the most luxurious spots to visit not just in Tokyo, but on the face of the planet. It's heaven for shopaholics, with big name brands, boutiques, and fancy department stores all inhabiting the area. What isn't as well known as some of those designer names, however, is much of the area's incredible history. Wade through the hoards of Gucci, Chanel and Dior, and you'll find some unique spots to enjoy that have been around for hundreds of years. 

If you'd like to get a history lesson as well as spend some yen on fun souvenirs or tasty eats, look no further - here are some of Ginza's fascinating stores that all have a well-documented past.

For stationery try Itoya

If you're a fan of all things pen-and-paper, Itoya has to be added to your Tokyo itinerary. Founded in 1904, the flagship store is here in Ginza, and contains all your stationery needs (and then some) over a multi-storey layout. From pens in every color of the rainbow, notebooks and journals galore, adorable greeting cards, travel goods and more - if those kind of items pique your interest then you'll need to set aside a few hours to explore this place. One of the things I love most about Itoya is that you can write postcards then and there and mail them off in store. In an era where emails and text messages are the norm and handwritten communication seems to be a dying art, it's nice to sit for a minute, put some thoughts on paper and mail it off to a loved one. I'm sure there's not a person on the planet that doesn't enjoy getting some fun mail that isn't a bill - especially if it's a neat postcard from your travels!

You can find Itoya's flagship Ginza location at the map address below.

For beauty products try Shiseido

If you wear makeup it's likely that you've heard of or even personally used Shiseido products before - they're seen as a leader in the cosmetics and beauty field. They got their start back in 1872 right here in Ginza as Japan's first Western-style pharmacy, and this was particularly unique at a time when herbal medicines were the norm across the country. You might get a little confused when you walk into the building on the original site and see sweets and not cosmetics - well, Shiseido's founder Arinobu Fukuhara started a Shiseido branded Ice Cream Parlor back in 1928, so it still ties into the company's history! As well as the Shiseido Parlor location at the spot where the company originally got their start, there's also Shiseido The Ginza which is just across the street if you need to stock up on some beauty buys. Sweet treats and cosmetics? Well played Shiseido, well played.

Saying "yes, please!" to sweets and beauty? Head to Shiseido at the address below.

For a department store try Mitsukoshi

Department stores are some of the most convenient places to shop when you're on vacation - you can find a bit of everything in the one spot. If you're after a department store with history though, look no further than Mitsukoshi. The store was founded way back in 1673 when they only sold kimonos, and from those humble beginnings they expanded both their product lines and their physical presence . There are now several Mitsukoshi department stores not just in Japan but internationally as well. The multi-level Ginza store location has shopping aplenty, with everything from clothing and accessories to barbers, shoeshiners, food and more. And yes - if you were after a kimono as a souvenir they still sell those, too.
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You can shop 'til you drop at Mitsukoshi at the address below.

For green tea try Maruyama Nori

Maruyama Nori have been around since 1854, and they originally started out as dried seaweed purveyors. Their nori is so well regarded that many high end restaurants will seek out their products specifically. For instance, you may have heard of Sukiyabashi Jiro - the sushi restaurant from the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". The nori used there is from Maruyama Nori itself, and his restaurant is three Michelin star rated -- so you know this stuff is the real deal. As well as their dried seaweed, Maruyama Nori are also passionate about green tea, going under the name Jugetsudo for that side of the business. If you'd like to try some quality green tea and dessert, they are right by Kabuki-za - the main Tokyo theater for the traditional Japanese performing art of kabuki. If you can manage to get tickets to a kabuki show to coincide with a trip to Maruyama Nori, you've got yourself a beautifully historic day all mapped out.
Spot of tea and some history? Head to Jugetsudo by Maruyama Nori below.

For Anpan, try Kimuraya

Ever heard the saying "the original is the best"? Well, that might just ring true in this situation. Kimuraya in Ginza is said to be where anpan first began back in 1869. It's also said to be Japan's first western style bakery. The fusion of Japanese red beans and western style bread has gone on to be one of the country's most well loved baked goods, and even inspired the infamous children's cartoon show "Anpanman", where the program's hero and namesake is a character who has a head made of none other than the red bean filled treat. As well as anpan, they have plenty of other breads to try - including varieties with sweet chestnut paste, cream cheese, and strawberry fillings amongst others. If you'd prefer a savory bite to eat, try their curry pan for another uniquely Japanese bread product.

Get some historical carb-loaded goodness at Kimuraya at the map address below.

For shopping at Ginza's icon, try Wako

It's hard to miss the iconic Wako building that occupies the corner of some prime Ginza real estate. From the late 1800's to 1921, the famous Hattori Clock Tower stood on the site that Wako occupies today. Eventually that building was demolished to make way for a new one - but the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 pushed back those plans. The tower that you see there today was completed in 1932, and as a nod to the previous tower it was also fitted out with a clock. The grandeur of the art deco styled building definitely stands out - not gaudily, but in a charming way from some of the other more modern designs nearby. It managed to escape the devastation of World War II when many other surrounding buildings weren't so lucky - and after the war the Wako Building even served as a base exchange for military personnel stationed in Japan. If you pop inside the Wako Building for a spot of shopping today, you'll find all manner of goods from men's and women's clothing and accessories, to handbags and chocolates - but Wako are probably best known for watches and jewelry.

Head to this art deco delight at the map address below.

For some tasty winter warmth try Otako

If you're looking for something traditional to eat that will also warm you up with winter in our midst, then oden might be right up your alley. Oden is a popular winter dish in Japan, and consists of tasty treats like eggs, fishcakes, tofu and konjac cooked up in a dashi broth. If you're after somewhere that does it right, then heading to Otako is a must. They've been serving up oden since 1923 - that in itself is a testament to how good their food is, in a city where businesses simply don't have longevity if they're mediocre. As well as oden, they serve up some other izakaya-style fare - there's sashimi, tempura and plenty of drink options. You'd be remiss to head to Otako and not try what they're best known for though - oden is such a cold weather comfort food that you should pop it on your itinerary if you'll be in Tokyo in the coming months.

Want to spend your yen on some tasty oden? Hit up Otako below.

For a sweet treat try Shiose Souhonke Honten

You may have heard of wagashi before - it's a traditional Japanese sweet that is usually made from red bean paste, mochi, fruits, or a combination of those elements. There are a number of purveyors of wagashi not just in Tokyo but across Japan that have histories spanning hundreds of years, but if you're after trying a sweet treat from a company that has been in existence since 1349 (yes - that's not a typo), then heading to Shiose Souhonke Honten is the way to go. The company was founded in Nara, and their influence was seen as a bit of a 'sweets revolution' - prior to Shiose Souhonke Honten most Japanese sweets consisted of things like dried persimmons, chestnuts, and red bean soup. If you're into all the cuteness that Japan has to offer, you definitely won't be disappointed here - their wagashi lineup even includes Hello Kitty inspired designs.

Try wagashi from a business that has hundreds of years of experience at Shiose Souhonke Honten below.

For rice crackers try Matsuzaki Senbei

Rice crackers make for a great on the go snack, or a fun foodie gift to bring back home for friends and family. If you're looking for some of them as souvenirs, what better place to stop at than somewhere that's been in the rice cracker production game for over 200 years? Matsuzaki Senbei have been perfecting their craft since 1804, and they have all manner of tasty snacks including soy sauce, sesame and red pepper senbei varieties. They've even got artistically decorated senbei if you'd like an edible piece of art, with designs ranging from Hello Kitty to seasonal themed senbei featuring autumn leaves and trees. 

Want to bring home some senbei? Check out Matsuzaki Senbei at the address below.

Japan is a country that is loaded to the brim with fascinating culture and history. Hopefully these suggestions not only allow you to indulge in some enjoyable shopping and tasty eats, but also provide an opportunity to learn about how these stores got their start.

Enjoy Tokyo, and Safe Travels!

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