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Walking Nihonbashi Area

The Kilometer Zero marker in the middle of Nihonbashi. Photo by Yukiko Tanaka

By Yukiko Tanaka

For The North American Post

My recommendation for a week (or two, depending on your stamina) in exploring Tokyo is to begin from the Nihonbashi area; if you start your day early enough and can be on your feet the whole day, you can continue on to cover Ginza, Tsukiji area, even quickly Tsukishima and Tsukudajima. Some of you, however, may want to do this in two days.

The area referred to as “Nihonbashi” is rather spacious, taking up roughly half of the Chuo Ward; to its northernmost is Kanda River and Sumida River is to the east, flowing down into the Tokyo Bay. As in the case of neighboring Kanda, a specific area name follows like “Nihonbashi-Ningyocho.” You will first explore the Ningyocho area, which surrounds the subway station (located on the main thoroughfare of Ningyocho-dori), and then you either end your day at the Yaesu mouth of the Tokyo Station or go on further.

The name of Ningyocho (“dolls town”) came from the fact that there were theaters here in the Edo era; in fact, two out of three theaters officially approved by the Edo government were here. Although they eventually all moved to Asakusa, Ningyocho–in other words–was the center for fun and pleasure–seeking activities for the town folks and continues to be a bustling town with its streets filled with food stalls, shops and other activities. While you explore Ningyocho district, do not miss the miniature puppet theaters set up high on the side of the main street; you can see similar theaters in the regular size  with dolls, as well as how they work, at Tokyo-Edo Museum in Ryogoku (JR and Subway).

There was naturally a pleasure quarter nearby. Called Yoshiwara (“yoshi” means reeds, which grew in this re-claimed marshy land), it was also later relocated, to accommodate for samurai residences, the area being close to the Edo Castle, north of Asakusa. The relocated quarter, also called Yoshiwara (with different characters), developed into the famous Pleasure Quarter, flourishing until the 1950s when licensed prostitution ceased to exist.

Having reverted to the town of commoners during the Meiji years, there were geishas serving their clients; today a few remain and are available at one or two teahouses. Although there has been quite a decline in number from those in the Meiji era (nearly three hundred), the continuation of the tradition certainly adds a flavor of the old time to this enclave today.

In the mercantile section of the old Edo LowTown, which was old Nihonbashi, nowhere else than Ningyo-cho has retained the flavor of the past-the flavor almost entirely lost elsewhere in Tokyo. This is primarily because Ningyocho miraculously escaped US bombings (at the end of the Pacific War); it has also been relatively unaffected by the diggings and the buildings of the city for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although a few signs of change can be seen, like fast food chains starting to invade, you can still enjoy the feel of the era prior to Tokyo’s plunge into a post-modern mega city. You can do it at a leisurely pace in an hour or so. You see shops sitting intact as they were pre-World War II engaging in their retail businesses as they had been doing for years. The houses are old and modest in low-rises but are well preserved. The absence of concrete and steel high rises, not to mention loud neon, makes you feel you are in an old era where the pace of life is a bit slower. You should wander into narrower streets, a few of which are roji (alley), strictly for foot passengers and barely wide enough for two people to walk. These roji are now quite rare in central Tokyo.

Amazake-yokocho, a street off the main Ningyocho-dori, is the best bet for you to take a walk on. Many of the establishments on both sides are eateries ,but there are others. For instance, there is a store selling hand-made basketries and bamboo products, where you might see an old woman tending the store. Shops and restaurants you see in Ningyocho are historic, some boasting having opened their business at the end of the 18th century. In dealing with old-fashioned hand-made knives, scissors and kitchen tools, Ubuke-ya, for instance, has been in its current location (on Ningyocho-dori) for more than a hundred years. Their modest storefront, all wood and unchanged from the original, is pleasing to your eyes but it is worthwhile to go in to look at what they sell, much of which has disappeared from stores elsewhere. The other store, Iwai, specializes in hand-made bamboo products while yet another deals with shamisen, a three-stringed instrument essential for the puppet theater.

As for eateries, Tamahide–which is on the other side of Amazake-dori off the main street–opened in the late Edo Period. Specializing in oyako-donburi, a very common dish of chicken and egg, it is very busy during lunchtime with people making a long line to get in (I do not recommend it for it is overpriced for what you get). Sushi of various types (except nigiri) freshly made and sold at Shinoda-zushi, on the other hand, are good and reasonably priced. It also has a long history of operating in the same spot.

Most of these eateries seem to be resisting modernizing their storefront and interior and give time-honored beauty. When you compare these places with a few chain restaurants that have invaded on the main street, you realize what is being lost.

Here, in Ningyocho, you will also find a few restaurants that serve yoshoku, or “western cuisine.” Very popular in the pre-war era and earlier, they serve western cooking, like cutlet and omelet, but modified in a Japanese way. Although these yoshoku restaurants are elsewhere in Tokyo as well, those here–Ogawa-ken, for example–are authentic in their storefront, menu and taste. Many Japanese today have nostalgia for it.

[Editor’s Note]

This series will be published every week. The writer can be reached atytanaka03@gmail.com.