On a short walk south of Nishiojima Station past the Ario Kitasuna shopping mall in Tokyo’s Koto Ward you will find Sunamachi Ginza, a traditional shopping street.
A commercial district where people walk or ride their bicycles through a narrow strip of shops looking for cheap deals on daily necessities and local fare, it stands in stark contrast to Ario’s mega shopping center with its multilevel parking and the Ito Yokado supermarket selling everything under the sun.
Sunamachi Ginza, not to be confused with Ginza, the upscale shopping district in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, is one of the city’s prime examples of old Japan — a place where the history is palpable and few non-Japanese venture, except for some who might make the discovery by accident or those taking part in local food tours.
With a little more than four years remaining until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the 670-meter-long roofless shotengai (shopping street), which features about 180 shops, is planning new ways to attract more shoppers and keep this vibrant part of the capital alive.
Although such shopping streets are disappearing across Japan due to a lack of storekeeper successors and overwhelming competition from shopping malls, Sunamachi Ginza offers a glimmer of hope for mom-and-pop retailers.
After walking through the west entrance a little before noon past a formidable line of customers waiting in front of a famous fish dealer, I am led by Yu Kono, 33, of the Tokyo FooDrink Tour to Tempei, a tempura shop and catering service run by Eiichi Hirai, 47, and his immediate family.
Kono has arranged meetings with some of the shopping promotion association’s bigwigs. As part of the tour, I will also get to sample some of the culinary delights, such as the yakitori, minced cutlets and even the local sake, all priced very reasonably.
A family-owned business that began more than 40 years ago with Hirai’s mother and two other female family members, Tempei provides customers with freshly fried tempura in boxed lunches and also prepares lunches for other shops in Sunamachi Ginza.
“We want people to taste our freshly fried tempura. As evening approaches we run low, so it’s best to come around this time when you can pick out the tempura you like,” Hirai says.
A big rugby fan, Hirai is hoping to do his part to get more people, Japanese and foreign-born alike, to visit the shopping street during the 2019 World Rugby Cup and Tokyo Olympics. He hopes to greet foreign tourists in English.
“We want customers to taste even a little of our tempura,” he says, “especially, when it comes to foreign tourists we hope to give them a feel for Sunamachi Ginza — which isn’t a tourist spot. We want them to feel the heart of the people here.”
The shopping street started with just 28 shops in 1930, according to the association. Until around 1970, small factories and transport companies were scattered here, and many of the shops began handling cheap foodstuffs and clothing targeting employees of these small businesses.
In an area of expanding population and bordered on the south and north by residential districts, Sunamachi Ginza, known affectionately by locals as “a side-dish department store,” has seen its customers’ needs diversify to focus on perishable foodstuffs, sozai-ya deli items, and a growing number of chain stores.
“There used to be a lot of factories like foundries and small family owned businesses. They needed craftsmen and others who could help and make life easier, so more shops began to sell deli foods and clothing,” says Shunichi Okubo, 62, chairman of the association and owner of Umemura, which specializes in Japanese confectioneries and traditional red beans and rice. “The shops here have had that distinction for a long time.”
One of the main charms of Sunamachi Ginza is being able to eat and drink while strolling down the block. However, Okubo warns visitors to be careful not to spill any sauce or drinks on the clothing in the thrift shops.
“When I was a kid I would buy croquettes and walk down the street. You can eat yakitori and drink beer on your way. The only problem is sometimes people will drip sauce on the clothing in the shops. They don’t do it on purpose, but it sometimes happens when it’s crowded,” he said.
As we talked about the difficulties of operating a shopping street, I ate some of the shop’s inari zushi, a sweet-flavored pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice.
For Okubo, his biggest worry is the absence of successors, adding that getting ready to welcome people with English greetings for the Tokyo Olympics will also be a challenge.
“The biggest problem (because of an aging population) is we don’t have any successors; there are no young, capable people among the association directors” he says. “With no successors to join as directors, shops have to be rented out.”
The Japanese government has set a target of drawing 40 million inbound tourists annually by 2020, with its goal of attracting 20 million well within reach.
One time- and cost-effective proposal by the association toward 2020 is promoting Sunamachi Ginza via social media. The idea is to get more non-Japanese who visit the shopping street to spread the word about the area’s appeal to their friends around the world.
As for how to cope with the influence of encroaching super markets on Sunamachi Ginza?
“It looks crowded now, but when I was a kid you couldn’t ride through here on your bicycle,” Okubo says. “Because of supermarkets fewer customers come, but if I think about it we’re probably doing much better than other shopping streets.”