The Artisanal Pride Of Edo in Nihonbashi

All roads lead to Nihonbashi — at least the mileage markers seem to indicate that. It is a curious thing to enter the city of Tokyo on the highway and see a mileage marker indicating Tokyo 100km. “100 kilometers to where?” Well, Nihonbashi, of course. In the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), Nihonbashi was the commercial and cultural center of Edo, the old name for Tokyo. Today, you will find a metal plate in the middle of the Nihonbashi (the actual bridge) marking kilometer zero, the starting point for measuring the distance of all major highways in Japan. Most visitors to Japan stop at Asakusa and Ginza but miss Nihonbashi altogether, which is really a shame because there is much to see and experience in this part of the city.

Chuo-dori, the main street running through Nihonbashi, is home to several historic buildings including the Bank of Japan (Japan’s central bank), Mitsubishi Department Store (one of the oldest department stores in Japan), and the Mitsui Main Building (designated an Important Cultural Property). Because the old buildings are 31 meters high, newer buildings match this height in order to preserve the original skyline of Nihonbashi.

Though the original bridge is now partly obscured by an elevated highway (putting in my vote to put the highway underground as they did in Boston to show the splendor of the bridge and the canal), you can still find the spirit of old Edo in some of the shops. Some of the oldest merchants still have shops that trace back their history to hundred of years ago, and they are true artisans who take pride in producing one item. Products range from traditional Japanese sweets to pickles. Yes, you can find these most anywhere in Japan, even convenience stores , but once you taste them from a true artisan in Nihonbashi, you are spoiled for life. You are not tasting something produced yesterday, but something that has been kept for hundreds of years, with each generation handing down the tradition to the next. You are tasting history.

But to be sure, you are also tasting a work in progress. Because each artisan is always seeking to improve and is never truly satisfied with their product. While you may gush about how good their product is, they will respond with a polite smile but inwardly wonder, “What could I do next time to make it better?” That is the true experience of Nihonbashi. Come only if you want to have your palate spoiled for life, savoring the potential of how the ordinary can be extraordinary.

This article features 6 must-visit shops at COREDO Muromachi, a three building shopping complex developed by Mitsui Fudosan, a real estate giant that traces its roots back to the Echigoya kimono store in 1673. COREDO comes from the words “core (this is)” and “edo,” expressing their vision to be the center of Edo lifestyle and culture. The small street between COREDO 1 and 2 is reminiscent of the old days—paved with the same stones as the Nihonbashi Bridge, lighted by traditional lanterns that change in design along with the seasons, and shop entrances adorned with traditional curtains called noren. These shops sell only the best and finely crafted products. Relive the artisanal pride of the Edo period with a classy twist.

1. Tsuruya Yoshinobu (鶴屋 吉信) COREDO Muromachi 3, 1F

Simple tools are used to make intricate designs.
Wagashi master shapes a cherry blossom.

To watch a wagashi master craft traditional Japanese sweets right before your eyes is a meditative experience. You will inevitably be mesmerized by how he can draw out forms from shapeless masses, as if the form already existed. At Tsuruya Yoshinobu, a wagashi shop founded in 1803 in Kyoto and with a history of serving the ancient Imperial Household, confections made right before you is part of the experience. These sweets look too good to eat, but you must if you want to taste pure delight that just melts in your mouth, thanks to wasanbon, an expensive, fragrant and ultra fine sugar from Tokushima Prefecture. The sweets menu changes to match the flowers and the traditional events of the upcoming season.

2. Hakkaisan (八海山) COREDO Muromachi 2, 1F

To be honest, I never liked sake and dreaded it whenever it’s served to me and I have to politely try it. Until I tried Hakkaisan’s winter sake. I was floored by how refreshing and gentle the sake tasted, unlike other sake I’ve tasted that seem to assault the senses. Hakkaisan’s sake is pure sophistication. Brewed in Niigata, one of the coldest regions of Japan that can get up to three meters of snowfall in the winter, Hakkaisan harnesses the local wealth of knowledge on preserving and fermenting food. Only the highest quality rice is used, polished until only the center of the rice grain is left, and purest water from the Raiden Spring at Mt. Hakkai. The result is sake unlike any other.

3. Nishiri (西利) COREDO Muromachi 1, 1F

Surely, I thought, tsukemono (Japanese pickles) taste pretty much the same everywhere, with slight variations in tartness, saltiness, and sweetness. Until I tried senmaizuke, a pickle made from a special turnip grown in the Shogoin district in the Sakyo Ward of Kyoto and sliced so thinly, thus its name, “a pickle of a thousand slices”. Crafted 150 years ago by a chef to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, senmaizuke is the most refined, delicate, and exquisite pickle that I’ve ever had in my life. A pickle but not a "pickle" pickle, it was a class of its own. Another noteworthy pickle is Nishiri’s pickled apples. With no hint of sourness, the fermenting process seemed to have highlighted the refreshing taste of just-picked apples, making it a perfect topping for yoghurt or dessert.

4. Hakuza (箔座) COREDO Muromachi 1, 1F

Gold flaked senbei or rice crackers.
Elegant gold leaf wares.
Gold leaf macaroons.

If you, like me, think that anything gold is garish, then a stop at Hakuza will change your mind. Hakuza, headquartered in Kanazawa Prefecture, specializes in producing gold leaf necessary for restoring National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties such as the shrines and temples listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. In the shop, you will find interesting ways gold leaf can be integrated into everyday use, including food items with edible gold leaf such as syrup and rice crackers. Gold is believed to have detoxification and revitalizing properties. Kanazawa was a cultural center during the Edo Period as it was the seat of the powerful Maeda feudal clan. They take pride in this heritage and still produce 99% of Japan’s gold leaf products. The centerpiece of Hakuza Nihonbashi shop is a structure called Ougon no Tenku meaning ‘golden sky.’ It’s a dome covered inside and outside with 16,000 sheets of gold leaf. Inside, you will be enveloped by golden energy as your skin reflects golden radiance.

5. Kiya (木屋) COREDO Muromachi 1, 1F

Knife sharpening service at Kiya
A knife for every possible cutting need.

This cutlery specialty shop traces its history in Nihonbashi all the way back to 1792. In the Kidai Shoran, a picture scroll depicting Nihonbashi’s Chuo-dori in 1805 (a larger replica can be viewed in Mitsukoshimae Station), you can see a shop curtain with the Kiya’s trademark sign on it. Kiya now enjoys the reputation of being the most famous knife brand in Japan, offering handmade, beautifully crafted wares built to last. Different knives are recommended for different food items. Kiya’s most famous knife is the deba knife used for carving raw fish. It is sharpened only on one side, resulting in a super sharp edge you can use to debone fish with precision. Quoting a card from Kiya, sending a gift of cutlery means “wishes of good fortune, so that you can cut your way through the hardships of life and become as strong as steel".

6. Ninben COREDO Muromachi 1, 1F

Making freshly shaved katsuobushi
Whole Katsuobushi fillet sitting on its special grater.
Katsuobushi products make great gifts.

Ninben first opened in Nihonbashi in 1699, and since then has been supplying high quality dried, fermented skipjack tuna, or bonito. If you have always purchased pre-shaved katsuobushi flakes, you have been consuming pale shadows of what authentic katsuobushi is, packed with flavor with smokey notes often lost in cheap versions. Katsuobushi and kombu form the basic umami flavor of a lot of Japanese dishes. At Ninben, you can purchase a fillet of katsuobushi (and this is actually a traditional Japanese wedding gift because of the way the fillets fit together like a close couple and the tortoise-like shape they form which is a symbol of long life) and shave it at home with a grater specific for this purpose, or use the in-store machine to freshly flake your chosen filet.

Editor's Note: Before, in the paragraph 2. Hakkaisan COREDO Marumachi 1f, the sake was called amasake. It was actually winter sake. The error has been corrected.

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