Tokyo's Amazing Markets
Cities with a long history tend to have multiple markets that sell different goods, or specialized shopping districts.
Istanbul has an entire street dedicated to light fixtures. Athens has a has a bookstore district. And let's not forget ethnic markets the world over.
Tokyo is no exception to the rule and that's hardly surprising considering how organized the city is. Most visitors are, of course, aware of Akihabara, the Electric City where one can buy anything that requires electricity, and Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. Younger tourists flooding into Harajuku to check out the latest trends taking over Japan will also be aware of Takeshita Dori, the birthplace of many a fashion craze.
There are, however, some lesser known markets and shopping districts that also merit a visit. Here are a few:
1) Yanaka Ginza
Probably not as "off the beaten path" as some of the other items on this list, Yanaka Ginza owes its popularity to its shitamachi (Old Tokyo) atmosphere. A short walk from both Nippori and Sendagi stations, Yanaka is a narrow shopping street with small shops selling everything from food to geta sandals. The surrounding area is full of cafés and art galleries that attract both local and foreign visitors.
2) 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan
Once filthy and left to rot, in recent years the space under the Yamanote Line between the Akihabara and Okachimachi stations has been renovated and turned into an artisan market. Visitors can buy artisan jewelry, clothes and accessories, shift through the countless handmade trinkets on sale at the various stores or just grab a bite at one of the market's restaurants. If you are lucky enough you might even find an empty hammock at Asan, a quirky little café with tasty food and excellent deserts.
I first heard about Kappabashi, a street between Asakusa and Ueno, from a friend that was here to attend a sushi preparation course. At the time I had already been living in Tokyo for 3 years so imagine my surprise when he first told me there is a place where one can buy any food-related equipment from cutlery to plastic food samples used at restaurant displays. Sure enough, during my first visit I discovered just how thorough the local stores are: Restaurant uniforms in all sizes, anything even remotely related to preparing, serving and consuming food and drinks, even dishes that are not at all popular in Japan, can be found here. The area is easily accessible from Tawaramachi Station, on the Ginza Line.
This busy shopping street half-way between Ueno and Okachimachi stations used to be full of candy-selling stalls. Nowadays things like coffee beans, fresh fish, spices and handbags are much easier to find. The area is also packed with small restaurants and yatai (mobile food stalls) so you can also enjoy the lively atmosphere over some ramen and a bottle of beer.
5) Jinbocho Book Town
Book lovers should not miss the chance to visit one of the largest secondhand book markets in the world. Jinbocho is home to almost 200 bookstores and publishing houses, so it goes without saying that you can find books on just about every subject imaginable here, even in English. The annual secondhand book festival, usually taking place in early spring, is exactly the kind of event people in the habit of tsundoku (hoarding books that go unread) will definitely love but should probably avoid.
6) Shimokitazawa Thrift Stores
Used furniture and antiques, vintage clothes, specialized stores catering to various youth subcultures, independent retailers, macrobiotic food and artisan coffee are among the top reasons to visit Shimokitazawa. You might want to skip this one if you are not a fan of hipsterdom.
7) Cat Street
A narrow street between Shibuya and Omotesando, popular with Tokyo's young and fashion-conscious crowds. Several outdoor sports brands as well as street fashion stores can be found here. It is not uncommon for street photographers and fashionistas to come to the area for inspiration.