Dolls, Dogs, and Delicacies – The Treasures of Ningyocho in Tokyo
What do dolls, dogs, and delicious sweets have in common? Well, they are all to be found in Ningyōcho, the little-known treasure of a neighborhood of Tokyo's Nihombashi. The name means "doll town," and a long time ago the area was famous for its puppet shows, puppet makers, and puppeteers. Nowadays, the only remaining doll "theaters" are the two signature Ningyōcho clocktowers. Shows run hourly from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. but be sure to have your camera ready, because they last only 2 minutes!
One clocktower is located outside Ningyōcho Station (Hibiya Line), and the other is a short walk from Suitengūmae Station (Exit 7, Hanzomon Line). When the show finishes, you can still enjoy the comical art on the clocktower panels, depicting everyday life in the Edo Period.
Further evidence of the doll culture in Ningyōcho is ningyōyaki. Ningyōyaki (meaning "baked doll") is a light and fluffy cake filled with creamy anko, or sweet bean paste. Ningyōyaki come in all sorts of interesting shapes, but the most common forms are the heads of the shichifukujin, or Seven Lucky Gods.
Conveniently located near Exit 7 of Suitengūmae Station is Shigemori's, a famous ningyōyaki shop where you can watch the sweets being baked and purchase just a single head or more.
The shop is located just across a large crosswalk from Suitengū Shrine (水天宮), which brings me to my next point: dogs.
In Japan, dogs are a symbol of childbirth, thanks to their big litters. Thus there is a cute statue of a dog and her pup on the shrine grounds. Suitengū might be a good place to stop by after watching your puppet show and buying a fresh, hot "baked doll." At this shrine you will see other interesting things like a kappa, a water-dwelling creature with a plate on his head, iconic hand wash fountains with dragon figures for spigots, and shrine attendants selling special belly bands in place of the usual charms sold at shrines. On the day of the dog, which falls on a different day each month, Suitengū is a popular spot for expectant mothers. As a sightseeing spot, it is also very beautiful in spring.
Dolls and dogs aside, one of the main attractions of Ningyōcho is Meijiza Theater (明治座). This theater was established in 1873 and hosts an array of shows, from kabuki to enka to live action remakes of popular animations. Tickets start at 6,000 yen, and you will see posters advertising the shows all over town.
If you reserve an evening show, you can spend the day sightseeing as you head toward the theater, which is about a ten minute walk from Ningyōcho Station if you don't get distracted.
And there is plenty to be distracted by. Although in the opposite direction of the theater, Tamahide (玉ひで) is just a step outside Ningyōcho Station. Said to be the birthplace of oyakodon (a simple and delicious rice bowl dish that features sweet and savory eggs, chicken, and usually onions), this restaurant draws long lines daily. Make sure you make a reservation if you don't want to wait.
Heading in the direction of Meijiza Theater (and Hamacho Station) will set you for a nice walk along Amazake Yokocho Street (甘酒横丁).
The name comes from the sweet rice drink, amazake, that is made either from rice and koji (alcohol-free) or from rice and sake lees, with added sugar for sweetness (alcoholic).
Amazake is popular as a hot winter drink, but it is also known to help prevent heat-induced fatigue. Apparently, a popular side hustle for unemployed samurai was selling amazake. They drank the non-alcoholic version before their alcohol to prevent hangovers, which were forbidden.
This shop also specializes in soybeans products, such as soymilk donuts.
Next door to the amazake shop is Morinoen (森乃園), a tea shop established over 100 years ago, specializing in roasted green tea, or houjicha. You will be amazed at the varieties for sale. Be sure to visit the second floor is a sweets cafe, where you can enjoy all sorts of houjicha sweets like houjicha parfait, or in summer, houjicha shaved ice.
If you have any room for more sweets, taiyaki, made from the same ingredients as ningyōyaki but with a crispy, waffle-like texture, is also a popular snack for tabe-aruki, which means to eat while strolling. There is usually a good long line at this small shop next to Daikinboshi.
Aside from good eating, you may want to pick up a souvenir while in Ningyōcho. Yūma (ゆうま) is a Japanese crafts shop is jam-packed with goods made with kimono fabric and was made popular thanks to a film starring the famous actor, Abe Hiroshi.
However, I found the shop staff uninterested and the goods a bit overpriced. If you are looking for a truly hand-crafted product, there is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall kimono recycle shop back between Suitengūmae Station Exit 7 and the Ningyōcho crosswalk. The sign is rather hard to spot and the shop is down a narrow hall, but you will recognize it by its noren, a traditional curtain hung in shop doorways. The prices are good and the owner is amiable.
Of the many places along Amazakeyokocho visited by Abe Hiroshi, Toritada is one of them. You'll spot his photo, which they have proudly hung in the shop window.
Here you can enjoy a hand-made egg roll (tamagoyaki) expertly made by one of the shop ladies.
If you have time to step off Amazake Yokocho, Imahan (今半) is a famous beef shop selling high-quality beef, Imahan's special meat sauce, packaged beef curry, as well as korokke, or meat-filled croquette. If you were in too much of a hurry for Tamahide, this is a nice, light option. Imahan also draws lines, well into the evening.
Sasaki Sake Shop (佐々木酒店) is a small, family-owned liquor shop. If no one is behind the counter when you enter the shop, just call out "sumimasen" in a loud voice, and someone will come out from the back. If you are too shy, there is a liquor vending machine outside.
A newer shop, Walleteria specializes in Japan-made leather goods such as wallets and purses. If you're lucky, you can meet the shop dog, too!
Before you arrive at Meijiza Theater, there is a lovely little strip of green called the Hamacho Green Road. Look for the statue of Benkei, the legendary warrior who died standing up, though his body was riddled with arrows. You can also take a seat on one of the benches to enjoy the snacks you purchased, and conveniently, there is a public toilet.
From there, Meijiza is just a minute or two. You can't miss the bright orange building. Before you go in for your show (or whether you save that for another day), be sure to check out the Meijiza Shrine.
If you are feeling ambitious, keep heading straight, and you'll arrive at another green space, Hamacho Park, and beyond that, the famous Sumida River (Sumidagawa), where a giant fireworks festival takes place every summer in August.
There is still more to see and do in the area, but you would have to live there to see it all. For now, I hope you enjoyed the highlights of Doll Town.