When most visitors imagine shopping in Tokyo, they think of classy department stores with well-turned-out women pointing white gloves in the right direction. Other popular images include the massed ranks of electronic goods at Akihabara, or perhaps the trendy boutiques for the young or young-at-heart in places like Shibuya and Omotesando.
For those actually living in Tokyo though, shopping is a much more practical activity; the criteria for a good location to shop being that you can get most things you need at a reasonable price. That’s why traditional shopping streets, or “shoutengai” as they are known, are an important feature of Tokyo life. These shotengai, often located near stations, tend to mix the old with the new, and you often find family-run stores next to modern fast-food restaurants or pachinko parlors.
Two stations from Meguro on the Tokyo-Meguro Line, Musashi Koyama has one of the most interesting shotengai in Tokyo. The 1km long street was opened in 1956, when it was known as the biggest in the Far East, and it still has plenty of stores left over from that time. Turn left as you leave the station and you’re already at the entrance to this vast glass-roofed arcade. There are open-fronted shops strategically placed at the entrance serving Chinese dumplings (gyoza), fried octopus balls (takoyaki) and skewered chicken (yakitori).The latter also doubles as a standing bar and pulls in shop-weary customers of all ages on weekends and leads into the maze of small side streets, filled with tiny bars and restaurants, that exist by the side of the shotengai – the limited size of these establishments guaranteeing that, should you enter, you are bound to end up talking to someone.
Inside the bustling shotengai proper, there are fruit stores, ¥100-shops, sushi-restaurants, pharmacies, pachinko parlors, cafes, as well as shops selling Japanese cakes and vegetables, books, kimono, green tea… the list is endless. Interestingly though, the further you walk away from Musashi Koyama station, the cheaper the goods on offer seem to be. The greengrocers at the end of the shotengai is the place of choice for the older ladies, who know a good deal when they see it, and ¥100-for a bunch of bananas in Tokyo is a pretty good deal.
Elsewhere, places like “Book Off”, a chain, second-hand CD, DVD, manga store is worth a browse, as is the bizarre “Hollywood Mirror,” a novelty goods shop where you can buy souvenirs that will confirm to your friends back home that Tokyo is just as wacky as they thought. More practically, the Shinryudo clothes outlet has T-shirts, shirts, sweaters etc at prices you wouldn’t hear mentioned at department stores, and if you hang around till 8pm, the Chiyoda Sushi store starts to slap big discounts on its take-out sushi.
If you do find yourself loitering there till evening, you could do worse than slipping into one of the side streets mentioned earlier, which seem to come alive at night when the red lanterns of the izakaya traditional Japanese bar-cum-restaurants are turned on. There are bars with drinks as cheap as ¥500, and quite a few interesting non-Japanese places too.
Not on most people’s travel itinerary perhaps, but Musashi Koyama shotengai gives you a chance to experience a real slice of Tokyo life, and to come away with one or two bargains in the process.
Access: Musashi-Koyama Station, Tokyo-Meguro Line