Ameyoko-loco: What to See, Eat, and Buy at One of Tokyo's Most Populous Markets
With Tokyo in ruins at the end of the second world war, Ueno Station became a gathering point for those who had no other place to go. The station was a terminus for many train lines heading north. Returning soldier, laborers, vegetable peddlers and others passed through this station and an open-air market quickly sprung up in the area. As the place grew, it attracted the Yakuza and other underworld types who began their own black market. You could buy items that were either forbidden by the occupational forces or hard to find because they were rationed. It is said that sugar and candy were hard-sought items that could be found here. This led to its current name, Ameya-Yokochō ( アメヤ横丁 which can be directly translated as “candy shop down a side alley.” Today, it is simply known as Ameyoko (アメ横). Some sources surmise that the "Ame" part, written in katakana, the script usually reserved for foreign or loan words, stands for "America" alluding to the proliferation of American products after the war.
Ameyokocho is an area between Ueno and Okachimachi stations, with the core shops directly under the JR Yamanote line. The two distinct marks of the area that have never really changed are the throngs and throngs of people and the number of shops selling cheap goods. The area swells especially at the end of the year when shoppers are hunting for bargain snacks and food in preparation for the New Year holidays. Merchants selling sweets and snacks are constantly barking out to customers in a voice distinct to Ameyokocho, “Snacks. Chocolates. Snacks. These are the best prices in the world. I am practically giving this stuff away. I’ll go out of business if I keep these prices. Snacks. Chocolates. Snacks.” You can watch him pile box on top of box as he offers yet one more item for “free” to the next customer who will buy the set. It is part show and part salesmanship and is worth the trip just to watch this.
There are still bargains to be found there, but its real charm is a peek into Japan’s past just after the war and its rise to become an economic powerhouse. Here are some noteworthy spots to check out.
1. Military Surplus Shop
One of Ameyoko's most popular shops is Nakata Shoten, the place to go to for air force jackets, cargo pants, backpacks, military issue boots, canteens, and practically everything and anything related to the military (think badges, camouflage print, leather, and ammo). Nakata Shoten offers real and replica items from the US, Japan, Germany, France, China and Russia and supplies the uniforms, gear, and accessories needed to shoot World War II movies. Stop by to browse their extensive collection or to purchase something durable for yourself.
By underground, I mean that you literally have to go to basement or B1 level to access this market. But at the same time, I wonder how many of these goods have actually passed through stringent Japanese health and safety inspection. This is the place to get your supply of spices, seasonings, and condiments unique to Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian cuisine. Here you will find unusual fresh and dried fruits (i.e. durian, plantain bananas, papaya, fresh jackfruit), exotic food (i.e. the infamous
balut or boiled partially developed bird embryo) rare vegetables (i.e. kongxincai, fresh coriander), unfamiliar cuts of meats, internal organs, and strange looking fresh seafood on sale. Stop by for a break from Japanese conversation to hear Tagalog, Putonghua, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Address: 4-7-8 Ueno, Taito-ku Telephone: 03-3831-0069 Closed on the 3rd Wednesday of the month Official Website: http://www.ameyoko-center-bldg.com/
3. Wholesale and Retail Candy and Snacks
If you are looking for what the this shopping area is named after -- namely candy -- there are two noteworthy shops to look for. The first is Yoshiya, a shop boasting of 1,000 imported confections, specialty chocolates, jams, tea and food items at any one time. Prices are reasonable due to direct importation. Worth the trip just to see the variety of novelty sweets available such as these Katzenzungen ("cat's tongue" made of German milk chocolate) and Tabasco spicy dark chocolate. Yoshiya has been in business for over 60 years now. If however you are looking for bulk Japanese candies, sweets, chocolates and snacks to bring home as souvenirs, the best place to go to is Niki no Kashi, which boasts of more than 5,000 items on sale. Their retail prices are already cheap but you can get even greater discounts by buying the specified minimum quantities. This is where you can find those only in Japan KitKat flavors and limited edition seasonal flavors of well-known Japanese snack brands. This shop has two whole floors crammed full of nibbles. Stop by and be overwhelmed with the choices.
Niki no Kashi Address: 4-1-8 Ueno, Taito-ku Telephone: 03-3833-3911 Open everyday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
4. Street Food
There is a whole gamut of street food on Ameyokocho. On the healthy end, there are fresh fruits on sticks for ¥100 or so, a refreshing snack especially in the summer and a chance to taste the freshest fruits of the season. Then there is a lovely tea shop that is 90 something years old called Cha-no-Kiminoen that sells really delicious green tea soft cream at ¥350 (pricey for soft cream but totally worth it). As you walk through Ameyokocho, you will inevitably get a whiff of many different smells, some strange, some appetite-stimulating,some familiar. This is the place to be gastronomically adventurous. Just remember that what some people would not dare touch, others consider a delicacy. At Ameyokocho, you can get Turkish kebabs, authentic Szechuan style spicy soups, and Shanghai-style xiao long bao. Prefer something Japanese? Settle yourself on a stool in one of the many izakayas right along the street. Cha-no-Kiminoen Address: 4-9-13 Ueno, Taito-ku Telephone: 03-3831-7706 Official website: http://www.kiminoen.jp/index.html
Access: Ameyokocho runs along the train tracks of the JR Lines from Ueno to Okachimachi Stations. There are many entry points, but most people start from Ueno Station, Ueno-Okachimachi Station, or Ueno-Hirokoji Station. Most stories typically open at around 10:00 in the morning and close at 8:00 in the evening. Several stores close on select Wednesdays.