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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.