Nihonbashi is a must-go location for second-timers to Tokyo looking to experience a modern yet cultural Japan. As a Tokyo local, show host Kyota Ko introduces his reasons for having made Nihonbashi one of his favorite weekend hangout place.
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. I’m Kyota Ko, and today I’d like to share with you one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend in Tokyo.
I’ve been living in Tokyo for 32 of the 36 years I’ve lived so far. And my go-to weekend hangout places have shifted as I progressed into different stages of life. When I was in high school, it was Shibuya. In college, it was Shinjuku. In my twenties it was Omotesando. I just went to the no-brainer go-to shopping districts where everyone hung out.
I wasn’t very keen on exploring different places in Tokyo until my son was born. Since he was a half year old, I’ve been taking him places every weekend. I am really grateful for my son in many ways, but one of them is that he became the reason for me to explore the city I was born in. I went to a different part of Tokyo every weekend, just my son and I, and after 5 years, I noticed I have been to plenty of nice places in this city.
So I thought I’d share my findings in this Podcast. Today, I’d like to talk about one of my utmost favorites, Nihonbashi. I’m sure any guide book on Tokyo would recommend you to go there, but I have my reasons to recommend that you spend at least half a day in Nihonbashi.
Go to Nihonbashi, free yourself from the crowd
First of all in terms of geography, Nihonbashi is within walking distance from Tokyo Station. I’m sure you will stop by Tokyo Station if you visit Tokyo because by all means, you should. It’s beautiful there and it’s a great place to see the past and present of Japan coexist in one big space.
Nihonbashi Station is station number G11 on Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. It’s very convenient to go to Asakusa and Ueno for sightseeing, and Ginza, Omotesando and Shibuya for shopping because they’re all on the same Ginza Subway Line.
The biggest reason I recommend Nihonbashi especially for your second time on to Tokyo is because of the breathing space. Nihonbashi is mainly a business district, which means it doesn’t get too crowded on weekends. If you go to Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro on a weekend, you cannot really avoid walking shoulder to shoulder with people around you.
I think this is because those popular shopping areas don’t have any restrictions on where companies can set up shop and what kind of brands can set up shop there, so all generations flock to Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, and therefore you get all the neon signs competing with each other, it’s loud to your eyes, and we consistently get a big crowd on weekends.
Meanwhile in Nihonbashi, most of the stores there have been around for decades and a good number of them are businesses that have been around for several centuries. Nihonbashi is a business district that’s almost exclusive to companies of that kind of caliber to set up shop.
Find the oldest Japanese food traditions in Nihonbashi
Nihonbashi is the name of a train station, the name of the area around it, and also the name of a bridge. Nihonbashi literally translates to “Japan Bridge.” There is a classy stone bridge built over a river that flows through a long valley of office buildings in this area, and that’s the Nihonbashi bridge.
Mitsukoshimae Station G12 is a station next to Nihonbashi on Ginza Line, and the Nihonbashi Bridge is located between Nihonbashi station and Mitsukoshimae station, and the two stations are within walking distance. I often have a nice walk between those two subway stops, and therefore Mitsukoshimae is another favorite place for me.
Now Nihonbashi was the origin of many different forms of Japanese culture.
For instance it was where the Tsukiji fish market first was between the years 1600 and 1935. Nihonbashi was the destination of almost all fish caught in eastern Japan, and every morning, tons of fish were brought to the fish market on boats from the sea and rivers.
I’ll post a picture of the old Nihonbashi bridge on the blog post for this podcast so that you can see what the fish market looked like, and also how the bridge looked like when it was still made of wood instead of stone. Nihonbashi has been burnt down 10 times because of fire and it was rebuilt several more times and what we see now is Nihonbashi Bridge the 19th.
Anyway, so because the first fish market was there, naturally, many sushi restaurants started in the Nihonbashi area and some have survived until now. Yoshino Zushi is a sushi restaurant that’s around a century old, Jano-ichi is another sushi restaurant that’s over a century old.
Also for the same reason, unagi restaurants or in other words restaurants serving eel have been a local specialty of Tokyo for a long time. Sushi and Unagi are both really pricey. An average, satisfying and nutritious non-sushi or unagi lunch at a restaurant in office areas are priced at around 1000 yen to 1500 yen. But if you have sushi for lunch in Nihonbashi that’ll probably be double or triple, and if you have unagi that will probably be 4000 yen per person.
They’re that good, but sushi and unagi are often considered food for a special occasion in Japan because of the price.
So if you’re looking to have some good local food for a more casual price, go to a soba restaurant. Soba noodles are a local specialty in the Nihonbashi area too. One of my favorite soba restaurants there is Yabukyu.
Their soba is good of course, but I really, really like their tempura – deep fried seafood and vegetables. I personally recommend their vegetable Tempura soba. It’s cold soba served with 7 kinds of vegetable tempura. It’s priced at around 1600 yen and I guarantee you will be surprised at how vegetables could taste so good.
I’ll give you a map for all the restaurants I’ve mentioned so far on the blog post for this podcast. You’ll find a link to my blog in my podcast profile. Or you can google “metro classic Japanese.”
Sushi, tempura, soba have been refined over centuries
Now what’s funny is that sushi, soba and tempura were all eaten as fast food in Tokyo from around 200 to 300 years ago. Tokyo was called Edo City at the time, it was a heavily populated city, and if I may, let’s call these people of Edo “Edonians.” Edonians were always super busy and super hasty, so they would stop by at street vendors to pop in a few pieces of sushi or tempura, or chug a bowl of soba and then go back to work within a few minutes. Sushi, tempura and soba were fast food for the common people.
But the restaurants that have survived since the beginning of these food cultures have refined these dishes to a point where nobody would dare to call them fast food anymore. The way they’re made is still simple as hell, but somehow, these restaurants have figured out ways to elevate the taste to a whole new level.
It’s kind of like the American hamburger, which is supposed to be fast food that’s made with simple ingredients and through simple procedures, but Americans have sophisticated the burger to a point where it’s become a real treat. Some hamburgers taste unbelievably good. Likewise, the sushi and tempura you will have in Nihonbashi will taste unbelievably good.
Experience the finest shopping experience at Mitsukoshi
Nihonbashi was also the origin of the Japanese shopping experience. There’s a department store called Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi and it was the very first department store of Japan. It’s now housed in a 7 story Renaissance style building that’s over 90 years old, but Mitsukoshi’s history dates all the way back to 1673.
You know when we go shopping, we see a price tag on everything and we pay what’s written on it? Well that was not how shopping went back in the 17th century. You would ask a shopkeeper how much a cucumber was, and then the shopkeeper would look at your face and what you were wearing and decide the price for you on the spot.
How did that work? if you’re wearing something nice you must be an important person. You don’t want to piss that kind of person off. So the shop keeper would give you a fair price. If you’re not dressed like that, well, you probably are not going to be a great regular customer anyway, so let me price it as high as something you can’t afford. That’s what shopkeepers did in Edo City. Prices were like jazz played by jerks. They were improvised!
But Mitsukoshi put an end to the madness and established a business model where they guaranteed a fixed price tag.
Now Mitsukoshi started off as a clothing store, but back in the 17th century, clothing stores didn’t sell clothes at their stores. They would have a list of customers and they would visit each customer’s home. This meant that clothing shopping was only for the rich. Salespeople would only visit the homes that could afford their products.
So Mitsukoshi decided to change all that, and they started selling clothes at their massive shop, and anybody was allowed to come in to see what they had to offer. There is a very delicate miniature replication of this Mitsukoshi shop from the 1800s at the Edo Tokyo Museum. It was called Mitsui Echigoya back then. I took a picture of it so let me post it here on my blog.
So anyway Mitsukoshi made huge innovations in people’s shopping experiences. Ordinary people were able to shop for clothes thanks to Mitsukoshi. They made shopping a form of entertainment for the masses.
If you go up to the 5th floor you’ll get to see, and buy if you want to, some of the finest Japanese artifacts and tablewares gathered from all over Japan. I get amazed at what human beings can actually make every time I visit the 5th floor of Mitsukoshi.
See the finest traditional handicrafts
Speaking of artifacts, Nihonbashi is also where you can see and get the finest handmade Japanese souvenirs.
The 2nd floor of this building called Coredo Muromachi Terrace is almost like a mini museum of modern Japanese arts and crafts.
Kiya is a cutlery specialty store with a history of over 200 years. It has an impressive showcase of cooking knives of all shapes and sizes.
Kuroeya is a specialty store for handmade wooden Japanese lacquerware with a history of over 300 years. They make bowls and cute little cabinets made of shiny black or red laquer with paintings of flowers and petals.
Haibara is a specialty store for traditional quality Japanese paper that often come with pretty patterns called washi, also with a history of over 200 years.
Haibara sells envelopes and letters, and some other products made of washi, but if you’re into arts and crafts or you have a friend who’s into arts and crafts, what I’d recommend you get are sheets of washi.
They sell sheets of washi as they are, in the original form before they origami them into somethings else. And they’re pretty cheap! I think it was 400 to 600 yen per A3 size sheet. I’m sure it will be fun to think about what to do with them. I’ve bought several myself. And Haibara the shop building itself is in a very interesting building that’s shaped like a gigantic jewelry box. Very Instagrammable.
The last one I want to mention here is the Yamamoto Nori shop. Nori are dried sheets of seaweed. It’s the black sheet that wraps around rice balls. This shop has been around for almost 200 years. Nori is not the first Japanese food one would recommend to visitors from other countries, but the nori sold at this shop tastes extremely good, and so far the non-Japanese people I have given a Yamamoto nori to have all asked for a second or third serving, so I’ve been to this shop several times.
One of their signature products is the canned nori. There is this nori packaged in a small golden can with Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” printed on it. I have one myself, of course just the can because the content is too tasty to be left uneaten. So I’ll post a photo of it. It’ll make a great souvenir.
Experience the highways of Edo
Last but not least, a must-do in Nihonbashi is to go on a river cruise. There are a few organizations offering 40 to 90 minute river cruises for a few thousand yen and they all depart from right beneath the Nihonbashi Bridge.
The one I went on with my 6 year old son was called “Nihonbashi Cruise.” No twist to the name, but oh my God, I really, really recommend that you get on this one. You get on a medium sized motor boat with a maximum of about 40 more passengers; the boat is open air; and you just speed away up and down several rivers and go through valleys of Tokyo’s office buildings and limbo under close to a dozen bridges, just like how Japanese people back in the 17th to 19th century traveled within the city.
Rivers of Tokyo were the highways of Edo. River boats were public transportation, like buses. Samurais and Edonians would get to their destinations really quickly thanks to the efficient river system. And getting on a Nihonbashi cruise will let you experience the daily lives of Edonians. So do it!
The cruise company actually offers several types of cruises. They have half a dozen daytime cruises of different courses and different lengths of time – some are 40 minutes, 60 minutes, or 90 minutes long. They have a sunset cruise and a night cruise. It’s priced between 1500 yen and 3500 yen per person. And good news for kids and parents. The last time I checked, kids under 12 years old can board the boat for free.
So my son got a free ride. We chose the sunset cruise which I think departed around 4 o’clock. This was in December so it was mighty cold. The cruise company gave us a big heat pad for free. They’re a Japanese invention called Kairo, and basically it’s a thin packet of iron dust.
So you shake it and the iron oxidizes because it’s exposed to air, and it produces heat. You stick it into your pocket and then stick your hand in the pocket, and your hands will be kept warm. They’re really cheap – they cost like 30 yen and you can find them in any convenience store in winter.
Anyway, so I had bought some extra myself and I stuck like three in my son’s coat, one in each of the 3 pockets he had. 2 for myself, and my son sat on my lap at the front-most seat and we both wore our hoodies on our coats to keep ourselves warm. We were ready to go. There were no more than 20 other people on board.
The cruise set off and it’s pretty fast. Buildings were passing by on both sides of us like an impressionist painting. My son’s all excited and he got even more excited every time we sped under a bridge.
The tour guide was a middle aged man, and I guess he only does it in Japanese, but he was really good at narrating how we were speed-boating passed all these historically important places. We were feeling the wind on our backs and it felt really good.
The river we were on reached Tokyo Bay and it was starting to get dark. I had lived in Tokyo almost all my life but I had never seen our concrete jungle from the sea, at sunset. It was really beautiful and it immediately made me feel proud of the city I lived in.
The boat reached the beach off of Odaiba island where we turned back to go back towards Nihonbashi Bridge again, and this time, we were going against the ice-cold wind. It was freezing, and I was shivering, but at dusk, Tokyo starts turning on its lights everywhere. it was breathtaking.
And just when we were about to move into a river again, there was a flock of seagulls or some other kind of bird, around 200 or 300 of them sleeping on the water, and our boat was cutting right across the middle of all of them. So they woke up all at once and swarmed into the air. It was as if the boat was chasing a colony of birds.
My son was commenting on what he was seeing all along, screaming during the ride because of the cold, but he got off the boat back at Nihonbashi and he was pumped. I was pumped. One of the best 3000 yen I had ever spent. I will definitely take another ride with my son when it gets warmer again.
So please, if you’re going to Nihonbashi, book a river cruise on an open-air boat. Don’t get on a boat with a roof just because they have English-speaking guides. Have your hotel concierge book it for you, for example. Nihonbashi Cruise is the company’s name, and I recommend the sunset or night cruise.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this episode. The blog post for this podcast will be up on www.metro-classic-japanese.net. You’ll see photos and maps there so you can get a visual taste of the wonderful Nihonbashi area and also help yourself plan your next trip there. Please subscribe to my podcast or bookmark my website for more on how to enjoy the daylights out of Japan. I also post photos daily on Instagram. Please look up “metro classic japanese.” So until next time! それでは、またお会いしましょう。