Original article written for momondo – available here.
Japan is a nation of contrasts and diversity, sporting everything from a rich Samurai heritage to immaculate landscapes. It is also famous for its numerous markets and shopping areas, be they kaleidoscopic arcades or traditional fish markets crammed with a plethora of Japanese culinary delights to suit all tastes.
Here is a carefully selected mix of 10 of the best street markets and shopping areas in Japan:
One of the marquee food markets in Japan, also known as “Kyoto’s kitchen” in the local vernacular, Nishiki Market is a long shopping street that is home to hundreds of small shops and stalls. Spanning several centuries of history, many of these stalls are family-run establishments that specialize in one particular type of food and often work closely with an adjoining shop.
Feast on pickled vegetables (tsukemono), tofu, rice crackers, yakitori chicken and other staples of Japanese cuisine at will. You will also find numerous shops selling kitchenware crafted for chefs, hobbyists and amateurs alike. All of this is a brief five minutes away from Shijo Station, on the Karasuma Subway Line.
Shinsaibashi and Dōtonbori
Osaka’s iconic shopping streets, Dōtonbori and Shinsaibashi warrant high placement on your “to do in Japan” list. Shinsaibashi-Suji is a 600-meter covered arcade packed with restaurants and cafés selling a range of local as well as imported delights.
Dōtonbori, located further down this pass, is a neon bubble of bright lights and electronic signposting, best enjoyed in the dark of night when the shimmer from the adjacent canal is, in itself, a dashing spectacle. Revered for its numerous okonomiyaki (pancake) stalls, you will find much more than just food here – an armada of souvenirs, make-up products, bags and other items awaits you on your riverside stroll.
Heiwa Dori Shopping Street
If you find yourself on the island of Okinawa, you will definitely want to visit the Heiwa Dori shopping street. This buzzing location is lined with various specialist shops selling glassware, pottery and clothing in the popular covered arcade format.
The shopping and dining options on offer here are equally endless – you will find bare necessities such as umbrellas and gloves to trademark Okinawa shisa dogs, which make for excellent souvenirs.
Feast on fresh produce which you can buy and have cooked on the spot in some places along this street and if you are feeling adventurous, try some awamori (a revered rice whisky from Okinawa).
Should you have the good fortune to travel to Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island, you will want to check out the Nijo Market in the city of Sapporo. Boasting over 100 years of history, the Nijo Market is one of Hokkaido’s landmark markets, raking in swarms of locals and travelers who come here in search of authentic Japanese cuisine.
Noodle shops, grocery stalls, scallop vendors and crab mongers are the order of the day in these parts. You will also find several restaurants and bars nestled in-between the many shops. While the Sapporo Nijo Market is open from 7am to 6pm, get here early if you want to sample the freshest produce and get the most variety. Keep a lookout for the narrow Noren Yokocho alleyway, where you will find an array of closely-packed restaurants offering popular Japanese cuisine, such as sea urchin and salmon eggs on rice.
The variety of what can be bought at Ameya Yokochō makes it a must-see site on your Tokyo itinerary. Once a thriving black market for sugar and potatoes, Ameya Yokochō is a loud, proud bustling hub of activity located in the Ueno area of north-eastern Tokyo. Here, you’ll find anything from fresh fruit and vegetables to tofu, cosmetics, jewelery and all manner of motley that oozes with a charm of its own.
The passionate price war between all the shouting vendors makes for a great spectacle – and a handsome reward for the persistent shopper. Ameya Yokochō opens at 10am through to 7pm daily, though some shops are closed on Wednesdays.
Omoide Yokochō is a crammed alleyway that is home to over 60 yakitori restaurants, which roast their scrumptious wares primarily on coal burner grills. You will find this shopping area on the Western flank of Shinjiku station – come hungry as there are spoils galore to be had here.
Wash down your meal with a swig of sake (Japanese rice wine), which you will find plenty of in Omoide Yokochō. The alleyway’s charm is not in its elegance, however – brace yourself for a smoky cocktail of grill fumes and the nocturnal cacophony of vendors luring you in for a good meal. It is, however, elements such as these that give the area a revered, authentic quality which makes it an unforgettable experience.
The Nokomise Dori is located a stone’s throw away from the Sensoji Temple (the oldest in Tokyo) and is THE place to buy souvenirs in town. Stock up on kimonos, geta (Japanese snow sandals), chopsticks, folding fans, mini-lanterns and other iconic gadgets and gizmos.
If you’re feeling peckish from all your souvenir shopping, tame your hunger with snacks such as senbei rice crackers, Manju buns and Dango dumplings, which you will find plenty of here.
A trip to Nakamise Dori is not complete without a visit to the nearby Sensoji Temple, whose placid interior provides a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the adjoining streets, and is a veritable slice of Japanese culture.
The Oedo Antique Market
Weather permitting, The Oedo Antique Market is your one-stop Japanese antique hangout in Tokyo. Held on the first and third Sunday of every month by the Yurakucho Station, The Oedo Antique Market is one of the larger street markets in Japan, replete with antique wares such as old clocks, paintings, ornaments, pottery, kimonos, and lots more.
Bagging a bargain is not the easiest task in the world though – you will find many treasures here, but they are closely guarded by a force of adept dealers who keep their prices high, so bring your A-game along for the hunt.
Tsukiji Fish Market
If you do nothing else in Tokyo, be sure to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. As the name suggests, this is a veritable seafood Mecca. Sushi, sashimi, bluefin tuna and ramen are in plentitude here and, as you may imagine, it is not a site for the squeamish nor the faint-hearted.
If you are up to the challenge, however, start your day at the crack of dawn by attending one of the iconic tuna auctions (you will need to join the queue as early as 3:30am due to limited places.) Fear not, if you are not up at daybreak – Tsukiji Fish Market offers plenty during the day too.
Primed for a move to the nearby adjoining Toyosu district in 2017, where a modern facility has been built to house it, Tsukiji as we know it won’t be around for much longer – so reel in a slice of Japanese history while you still can.
Extraordinarily popular among students and musicians, Shimokitazawa, also known as “Shimokita” is a hefty concoction of second-hand record shops, theaters and bars. You will also find several exceptional restaurants in this area. Given how expensive Tokyo can be, you’ll find more bang for your buck here compared to the high-street prices of other shopping districts, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ginza.
Shimo-Kitazawa is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon, during the evening and on weekends, when the narrow streets of this hip suburb come alive.
Whilst you’re here, drop by Bear Pond Espresso – a coffee shop that typifies the grungy originality of the area.