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The shotengai in Sugamo
The shotengai in Sugamo

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If You Want to Know Tokyo, Visit the Shotengai

The city's covered shopping arcades are filled with butchers, snack shops, and other daily delights

To experience traditional Tokyo, spend a few hours perusing a shōtengai. Lined with small mom-and-pop shops, these pedestrian-filled streets are usually located near a train station or at the heart of a neighborhood. The establishments along them include drug stores, coffee shops, banks, and a post office as well as many food vendors and restaurants offering simple set meals or bowls of noodles.

The vendors specialize in a wide variety of Japanese pantry staples, such as tofu, fresh produce, seafood, rice, pickles, and miso. In many shōtengai, these small purveyors are being replaced by supermarkets, convenience stores, and ¥100 shops, but pockets of old-school charm persist.

Some types of shops to keep an eye out for in a shōtengai:

  • Seafood purveyors offer fresh, frozen, and processed seafood, seasonal whole fish, sashimi-grade filets, air-dried whole fish, and sashimi platters. You won't see much of this seafood outside Japan.
  • Butchers specialize in pork, chicken, and beef. Here you'll find marbled wagyu beef, Tokyo-raised pork, and cuts of chicken for yakitori.
  • Sōzai are like Japanese delicatessens, selling prepared dishes that rotate throughout the year. Seasonal vegetables are pickled, sauteed, and simmered to serve as side dishes to round out a meal and for bento boxes.
  • Wagashi sell traditional Japanese confectionaries such as dango (rice flour dumplings on a stick that are grilled and covered in a sweet and salty soy sauce), daifuku (pounded sticky rice stuffed with a sweet red bean paste), and other sweets.
  • Panya are Japanese-style bakeries serving oyatsu-pan (sweet and savory snack breads) with toppings ranging from hot dogs to custard.
  • Sakaya sell beer, sake, shōchū, and other spirits, and often stock sake-friendly small bites like dried squid and nuts.
  • Asagaya Shotengai | Photo by Keiichi Yasu/Flickr

  • Ochaya are tea shops that offer a variety of green tea, as well as nori.
  • Shizen shokuhinya are natural food stores, often found in big shōtengai, offering organic produce, brown rice, and fermented products.
  • Imported foods shops are where locals get their canned Italian tomatoes, imported chocolates, and other European or American prepared foods.
  • Yaoya grocers specialize in fruits and vegetables.
  • Tofu shops are sadly dying out, so consider yourself lucky if you can find one selling freshly made and deep-fried tofu that has been cut, pressed, and fried in-house.
  • Kanbutsu specialize in dried goods, notably pantry staples like kombu and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), as well as beans and other sea vegetables.
  • Kissaten are traditional Japanese coffee shops, often dark and smoky, and a good place to rest your feet.

There are hundreds of shōtengai throughout the metropolis, all of which are listed on the Tokyo Shotengai website. The following are worth going out of your way to explore.

Kichijoji Shotengai | Photo by Blondinrikard Floberg

Sugamo, Toshima-ku

The closest station is Sugamo on the JR Yamanote and Mita subway lines — a great place to stop by if you're getting Michelin-starred ramen at Tsuta.

Sugamo's shotengai is popular with elderly shoppers who come to visit the Togenuki Jizo Temple. There is a tradition of wearing red underwear on one's 60th birthday to bring good fortune and health in the future, so don't be surprised at all the shops selling bright red underwear. In particular, Sugamo is known for shio daifuku, a mochi ball stuffed with a sweet red bean paste, which is sold at traditional sweets shops specializing in daifuku.

Enuki is a specialty store that sells nori printed with designs — including bears, bunnies, hearts, and Mickey Mouse — for making your own bento box lunch. 4-34-2 Sugamo, Toshima-ku |

Oimoyasan is a sweet potato-focused shop that serves small bites like chewy daigaku imo and crunchy imo karintō, two forms of fried, sweetened sweet potato. 4-29-1 Sugamo, Toshima-ku |

Kanro Shichi Fukujin is a traditional sweets shop on a side street off the main shōtengai. Instead of coffee, it serves matcha with classic Japanese desserts such as sweet mochi or kanten (agar-agar) with fruit and kokuto (black sugar) syrup. Another specialty worth trying is their amazake, a traditional, sweet fermented rice drink. 3-37-5 Sugamo, Toshima-ku |

Kawamuraya specializes in fermented vegetables pickled in salt, vinegar, miso, and sake lees. 3-21-15 Sugamo, Toshima-ku |

It's hard not to pick up some seasoned rice crackers in flavors like curry, sesame, nori, and chili at Raijindo Sembei. Also, try the zarame, a rice cracker dipped in soy sauce and then covered with sugar crystals. 3-33-9 Sugamo, Toshima-ku |

Goma Fukudo sells a variety of sesame products, four of which worth grabbing: toasted sesame seeds (both white and black); nerigoma, or toasted sesame paste; caramel-like sweets; and of course, the ice cream. 3-19-13 Sugamo, Toshima-ku | no website

Daikon for sale in a shotengai | Photo by Wombatarama/Flickr

Sunamachi Ginza, Koto-ku

The closest station to this shōtengai is Minami-Sunamachi on the Tozai Line. Catch a taxi from the station and ask the driver to take you to Sunamachi Ginza shōtengai. If they require an address, ask them to bring you to Kita-Suna 3-1-1, which will land you at the entrance to the shōtengai.

This is my favorite shōtengai to visit because it is harder to access, making it incredibly local; I've never run across other tourists here. I usually arrive hungry and have small bites along the walk down it. It's not considered polite to walk and eat, so if you want a small bite, stand to the side of each vendor as you eat, and then move on. Often the shops will take your trash once you are done eating.

Uoso is a popular fishmonger, with a wide variety of fish to take home, including whole sashimi platters. I am always taken with how cheap they are. 5-1-26 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku | no website

My favorite Japanese supermarket chain, Akafudadō, has a large store on the shōtengai. This is a great place to observe how the locals shop, especially because central Tokyo has few big supermarkets. When I conduct shōtengai tours, this is one of the visitors' favorite stops. 4-25-2 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku |

One of Sunamachi's most popular shops is Sumaei Kamaboko-ten which specializes in satsuma-age (fried fish cakes) simmered in a savory dashi. Fish cakes are most often purchased at supermarkets pre-packaged and, like tofu, the shops still making them from scratch are rare. This shop in particular is well-known and is often featured on television and in print. 4-9-9 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku | no website

Okinawa-kan specializes in food from Japan's southernmost, tropical prefecture: Okinawa. The prefecture is home to unique products like mozuku (a slippery sea vegetable served in a tart citrus-based shoyu) and umi budō (grapes of the sea), as well as juice from the shikuwasa, a super-tart type of citrus. I keep a bottle at home for adding to cocktails. 4-24-6 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku |

You must visit Sano Miso if you love fermented foods. It stocks a large selection of artisanal miso from throughout Japan, including sweet Kyoto rice miso, earthy Kyushu buckwheat miso, and the dense and intense 100 percent soybean Hatcho miso. All varieties are on display in large buckets with clear lids. Pick up some pickles, along with some kōji (the fungus used to ferment soybeans) if you want to try making miso at home. 3-36-18 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku |

For an idea of popular side dishes in Japanese homes, check out the colorful selection of sōzai (seasonal prepared dishes) at Someya. Many dishes will be familiar, like simmered kabocha or kinpira (julienned burdock and carrots sautéed in a sweet soy sauce). These are hard to eat here, but easy to pack and take back to your hotel room or rented apartment. 4-18-15 Kita-Suna, Koto-ku | no website

Taiyaki | Photo by Ayu Oshimi/Wikimedia

Asagaya, Suginami-ku

The closest station to this shōtengai is Asagaya on the Chuo and Sobu JR lines. Asagaya's covered shōtengai is one long pedestrian street and is easy to access from the train station. Take the south exit and you'll see the entrance to the covered shopping street to your left.

Just as you enter the covered street, on your right you'll see Hachinoki, which produces seasonal wagashi. It offers sakura-motif sweets in the spring and maple leaf-motif in the autumn — but often the ingredients don't change, just the designs. 2-15-4 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku |

Taiyaki Tomoean grills taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes stuffed with sweet red bean paste), a treat with 100-year history. Consider it an on-the-go snack since they're best eaten hot. 1-35-20 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku |

Takano Seika is a produce shop and a basic supermarket known for its cheap produce. It is a boisterous shop filled with thrifty shoppers. A great place to stock up on fresh fruit for your stay in Tokyo — it doesn't get much cheaper than this. It's another a fun spot to watch how the locals shop. 1-17-18 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku | no website

Harmonica Yokochō near Kichijoji shotengai | Photo by Irwin Wong

Kichijoji, Musashino-shi

The closest station to this shōtengai is Kichijoji on the Chuo and Inokashira lines. Exit Kichijoji Station and take the North Exit, which leads out to this covered, L-shaped shōtengai. The entrance on the left is labeled "Daiyagi," while the entrance straight ahead is labeled in English as "Sunroad." Take a left first and go down the Daiyagai. |

Satsume-age fill up the open refrigerated case at Tsukada Satsuma-age. The cakes are stuffed with fillings like edamame, shiitake, and squid legs, and make a good snack and an even better match with beer or sake back in your apartment or hotel. 1-1-8 Kichijoji-honcho, Musashino-shi |

Tsuchiya Shōten is a famous kanbutsuya (dried goods specialist) that is known for its  beans, kombu, and sesame seeds. 1-8-3 Kichijoji-honcho, Musashino-shi | no website

The aroma of roasting green tea wafts into the street from tea shop Yamariya. A wide selection of tea and tea accoutrements are available. 1-2-5 Kichijoji-honcho, Musashino-shi |

To find the following shops, return to the Sunroad entrance, take a left, and head away from the station.

If you are craving pretzels or kaiser rolls, you'll find them at the German bakery Linde. 1-11-27 Kichijoji-Honcho, Musashino-shi |

If you visit late in the afternoon, it's worth grabbing a beer and some small bites in the Harmonica Yokochō. It is comprised of a few super-narrow streets filled with several dozen small casual spots serving items like grilled skewers, ramen, and gyōza.

Yukari Sakamoto is the author of Food Sake Tokyo, a guide to Japanese cuisine, food culture, and a walking guide to Tokyo's food neighborhoods. She offers tours to Tsukiji Market, depachika, and local markets. Yukari worked as a sommelier at the Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Grill and at Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store.

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