Shotengai: Local Shopping Streets For A Touch Of Real Japan | CoolJapan

Big, glitzy shopping malls with bright lights and advertisements vying for attention are synonymous with the major shopping districts throughout Japan. Established departmental stores, famous international brands and trendy Japanese brands lined side by side, all make for a very exciting shopping experience.

For intrepid travellers who prefer to get off the tourist grid, another charming shopping experience awaits in local neighbourhoods. Here, you will find the local’s version of a shopping district called Shotengai.

Inside Kichijoji Shotengai

For a touch of real Japan, visit a Shotengai in Japan. (Photo from: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

These traditional shopping arcades do not have the glamour of downtown shopping malls but they are the heartbeat of the locals. Mainly home to small independent businesses, some family-run for generations, these seemingly plain shopping streets allow a peek into the real life of the locals. From stalls selling fresh produce to everyday necessities to the ubiquitous JPY100 thrift shops and cheap food vendors, the Shotengai is a unique aspect of Japan that shows the more relaxed pace of life in the heartlands.

Here are a few Shotengai that are worth exploring the next time you visit Japan!

Jujo Ginza, Tokyo

Just a 10-minute train ride from buzzing Shinjuku is Jujo, a working-class district that is brimming with local life. And, at the heart of this suburban neighbourhood is Jujo Ginza, a fully covered shopping arcade with a history going back to the 1930s.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, people moved here and opened small businesses to cater to the local community. It has since expanded to 159 standalone shops that occupy approximately 380 metres of connected shopping streets.

Step in and you will see various shops lining both sides of the walkway. Compared to the frenzy of Tokyo, the atmosphere here is friendly and congenial. Locals amble around leisurely, buying vegetables and fish from local grocers, while students queue up for mouthwatering Korokke (Japanese croquettes).

There is probably not much to buy in terms of fashion or souvenirs, as Jujo Ginza caters to the needs of the local residents. However, cheap and good eats are aplenty. Grilled skewers, ramen, takeaway bento boxes and bubble tea are just some food choices vying for your attention.

What stands out amidst the grocery stores, tantalising eateries, hair salons, and thrift shops are the kind and genuine smiles of the people. The warmth of human connection is one of the best things to enjoy in this old-school shopping street.

Sanjo Shotengai, Kyoto

Laidback Streets Sanjo Shotengai Kyoto

The laidback appeal of Sanjo Shotengai. (Photo credit: Jason Riedy via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Being the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has retained a lot of its old-world charm that appeals to both its citizens and tourists. There are several traditional shopping streets that still exist and a particularly interesting one is Sanjo Shotengai.

Sanjo Shotengai was formally established in 1918 but it has been around since the late 1860s. Although it is less than one kilometre long, it prides itself on being one the longest “completely covered shopping arcades” in Japan. This means that you can take your time poking your noses into the various shops, without worrying about the hot summer sun or sudden downpours.

In the daytime during weekdays, Sanjo Shotengai is quiet and unhurried. Great for sipping coffee in a nostalgic kissaten and checking out a small Shinto shrine (Matatabi-sha) frequented by the locals. In the evenings and on weekends, these old streets come alive with people going about their daily lives. There are provision shops, fruit and vegetable stalls, dessert shops, restaurants and izakayas, massage parlours, old-fashioned barbershops, clothing stores, drugstores and everything you need in a community.

It is a fascinating shopping street that combines the old and new, with traditional craft shops existing alongside trendy patisseries. With over 180 shops to explore, take your time and enjoy a different side of Kyoto.

Takamatsu Marugamemachi Shotengai, Kagawa

Shopping At Kagawa

A slice of daily life at Takamatsu Marugamemachi Shotengai. (Photo from: IMBiblio via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Also known as the Central Takamatsu Shopping Arcades, this sprawling shotengai is a wonderful example of how Japanese culture has adapted to modern times through redevelopment.

Encompassing eight shopping arcades that stretch out in all directions, covering a collective length of 2.7km, Takamatsu Marugamemachi Shotengai is the longest shopping arcade in Japan! Today, it is popular as a fashion and dining hub. But beneath the gleaming shops lies a rich history that traces back more than 400 years.

In 1588, under the ruling of the Ikoma clan, this district flourished as people moved here to help build the Takamatsu castle. But as with many rural towns, this local shotengai struggled to survive in the face of modern development. After its 400th anniversary in 1988, Takamatsu Marugamemachi Shotengai underwent massive revitalisation projects. Not only was the architecture given a facelift, a new hospital and residential condominiums were also constructed.

The atmosphere nowadays is vibrant and thriving. In the afternoon, shoppers fill the streets and cafes as the locals busy themselves with day-to-day activities. When night falls, Japanese salarymen and tourists head to the izakayas to unwind after a long day.

It is an eclectic mix of independent Japanese brands and international retailers, coexisting in a traditional neighbourhood structure of a shotengai. Although it is modern, you can still feel the cultural richness of Japan.

(Cover photo from: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr/CC BY 2.0)