I was looking through a famous user-generated travel website that advises visitors on where to go, stay and eat. I typed in Sunamachi Ginza and cringed when I read: “fine area for tourists,” “traffic closed off for a ‘pedestrian heaven’ " … "leading brand names" … "illustrious stores in the Mitsukoshi building,” “upscale wine bars,” “very expensive.”
Obviously these overseas visitors had confused the real Ginza with Sunamachi Ginza.
There is a special ambience to traditional Japanese shopping streets ("shoten-gai"). People from neighboring areas visit shoten-gai on foot or by bicycle. Mom-and-pop shops specializing in daily necessities and cheap eateries line a narrow street where people come and go, often stopping to chat with familiar faces.
It’s old Japan, pre-supermarkets and mega shopping centers with huge parking lots and stores that sell nearly every imaginable thing under one roof. It’s a bit sad that walkable, vibrant shoten-gai are disappearing throughout Japan.
Sunamachi Ginza is known for cheap fish and delicatessens. Somehow “deli” sounds too posh for a "sozai-ya" (take-out food shop)!
As soon as I reached the beginning of the 670-meter-long shoten-gai, lined with about 180 shops, I came across a seriously long line of people waiting to buy fish from a famous shop. I peered inside to check out the prices and yes, things were cheap.
I noticed several small groups of non-Japanese being escorted by an English-speaking guide.
Small-group local food tours are quite popular these days. I overheard a Westerner raving about a "korokke" (croquette) he’d just eaten. Croquettes are found around the world, but I have to agree, Japanese korokke with crispy crust covered with thick and sweet, salty brown sauce is truly a gem.
A walk through Sunamachi Ginza and suddenly products found in ubiquitous 100-yen (80 cents) shops throughout Japan do not seem like such a bargain. I found socks for 60 yen, 100-percent cotton bath towels for 85 yen and decent shirts for 100 yen.
Food is cheap, too. Fresh Pacific saury can be had for only 77 yen. As my mother taught me, I checked the fish’s eyes to see if they were bloodshot, a sign that the fish is not fresh, and the Sunamachi Ginza fish passed with flying colors.
When was the last time you saw a tortoise-shaped scrubbing brush? I had heard the phrase "kamenoko tawashi," but I had never seen the real deal. Wow, such a thing really exists!
Or how about a famous coffee shop chain with a tout outside to lure in customers? Or a vending machine that sells fresh kimchi (Korean pickles)? Around here, you want it, they got it!
When I stopped to snap a photo of a chicken restaurant, the owner came out and said hello. When I waved, he told me to stay where I was and that he would be right back. He returned a minute later and gave me an old 50-yen coin dated Showa 39 (1964).
“This is a present for you!” he said and ran back inside. The coin is bigger than today’s 50-yen coin. What a nice surprise!
A group of elementary school students were talking to the woman making "oden" at Masuei. “This 'hanpen' is made from shark. It’s made fresh here so there’s no preservatives or coloring in it,” she explained.
The kids shrieked, saying they couldn’t believe that they had been eating shark!
For a taste of old Japan, where everyday people connect, and where expensive brand names are nowhere to be found, visit this Ginza in Koto Ward and not that Ginza in Chuo Ward. I’m sure you’ll fall in love with its shoten-gai.