Planet Tokyo: The Mercatosphere 東京星の市販圏

With the exception of beer and grocery shopping, I don’t really count kaimono (literally “buying things”) among my hobbies. However, I must say I had a fine time shopping in Tokyo, mostly because I visited two markets that catered to a couple of my principal materialist pursuits: New Balance sneakers and exciting food.

The first market was Ameyoko アメ横 in Ueno. I stumbled upon this bustling area while looking for the famous Mita Sneakers, whose website boasts some exclusive New Balance Classics (my fetish of choice) that are indeed very fly. I had originally visited the New Balance Store in Harajuku, and found the most awesome NBs I’ve seen in a while, but they were a very limited edition (each shoe came with its own serial number!) and alas, they didn’t have my size. So I figured Mita would be my next best bet. They certainly did have a lot of sweet kicks, but nothing really jumped out at me; I decided to go outside and check out their street stall I had noticed on the way in. And when a took a look around, a whole world of footgear radness opened up before my eyes! Dozens of sneaker stalls lined the alleyway, including three (three!) ABC Marts. But it wasn’t all shoes; part of what made Ameyoko so interesting and fun was how cobbled-together it all seemed; mentaiko wholesalers stood next to designer luggage shops; cheap knock-off fashions stood next to the real thing; dried fish vendors operated next to overpriced second-hand stores. There were also restaurants aplenty, karaoke joints, standing bars, pachinko parlors, electronics stores, and crappy souvenir stands. It felt more like Hong Kong than Tokyo, and it was understandably crowded, even on a Monday afternoon. I will say the demographics that would probably enjoy Ameyoko the most would be twentysomething Japanese men and tourists who are looking to do a little one-stop Tokyo shopping (serious fashionistas, especially women, may be unimpressed). To be honest, I was mostly just thrilled to find a pair of rare, electric blue, limited edition, all-suede 576s, in my size, for only ¥6400!

And then there was Tsukiji 築地市場, which really needs no introduction (other than perhaps to note that the kanji 市場 is confusingly read shijō rather than ichiba in this case). Emiko wisely and fortuitously booked our stay in a hotel within leisurely walking distance from the market, a sprawling complex built on one of the densest harbors in world. As far as I’m concerned, it can only be described as legendary. It is the largest seafood market in the world, funneling fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and algae from around the world through Tokyo Bay and into the mouths of Japan’s hundred million-odd pescavores. Of course, Tsukiji Market is known for how huge it is, but its size is not necessarily what makes it impressive; I was more exhilarated by the density, the efficiency, and the ground-in griminess of the whole operation. One of the most frightening aspects of the whole Tsukiji experience are the long, tall motorized carts that appear to have been manufactured exclusively for navigating Tsukiji. Their determined pilots zoom around the market’s narrow passageways, brushing past each other with… well, not quite reckless abandon, but some kind of abandon anyway. They have a job to do, and they certainly do not brake for tourists. Why should they? We are obnoxious, after all.

Of course, the carts aren’t the only alarming sights to be seen in Tsukiji. The floors are cluttered with bits–no, chunks of fish, including tuna heads as big as my own. Chain-smoking laborers slice through all manner of sea beasts with knives, cleavers, broadswords, katana, hacksaws, band saws, and circular saws. Stunned eels squirm about in basins filled with bloody water. Extremely fresh jumbo shrimp wriggle in their plastic packaging. Bug-eyed squid, mottled by their own ink. Boxes of sea urchin roe, stacked into little skyscrapers. Sloppy piles of felled octopi. Other white people (shudder).

I would call it carnage, but it was all strangely, gracefully organized; each cart, butcher, and blade was like a diligent organelle working towards a common goal: turning slimy sea life into clean, wholesome food. Oddly, I was still looking forward to our sushi breakfast upon exiting the market (and wow, was it ever tasty).

The last market I visited was Nakamise-dōri 仲見世通り, the hopelessly touristy boulevard of souvenir shops and food stalls that lead up to Sensō-ji 浅草寺 in Asakusa. The whole area is tacky, crowded, and rather ugly. It caters to foreigners’ preconceptions about Japanese culture (ninjas, Hello Kitty), and to Japanese visitors’ penchant for worthless plastic shit (keitai charms, Hello Kitty). But somehow, I love it.

I love it partly out of nostalgia: when I was a dorky budding Japanophile in high school, Nakamise-dōri was just the emporium of charming exotica I had been looking for in Tokyo. The merchandise on display was novel enough to hold my interest, yet dumbed-down enough to be accessible and vaguely familiar to me. Stretched out between two big red temple gates, it’s an extravaganza of lapel pins, lucky cats, Rising Sun hachimaki, handmade chopsticks, handkerchiefs printed with the Tokyo Metro map, and drum-banging mechanical monkeys. Nakamise-dōri is like the Fisher-Price of Japanese marketplaces: my first shōtengai.

I’ll always remember Nakamise-dōri fondly, even if I’ve outgrown the geeky fetishism that made me like it in the first place. Now, I like it for the sheer spectacle of it all, but also for a handful of genuinely delightful shops along the street selling pottery, textiles, and sweets. Takeya, the chopstick store I mentioned, is a real gem; their Edo kibashi 江戸木箸 are so gorgeous (and expensive) that I can’t imagine using them to eat anything other than the finest kaiseki cooking.

And then, there is the famous agemanjū 揚げまんじゅう, which may very well be my favorite of all the confections Japan has to offer. I think I like them even more than Goma Tamago. Their deep-fried tempura-like batter wraps a satisfying crunch around warm, squishy-sweet fillings, creating a consummately satisfying texture I have not encountered in any other Japanese confection. With a pumpkin-stuffed agemanjū in one hand, a bottle of ramune in the other, and Puffy AmiYumi on my iPod, sunny Sensō-ji once again became my teenage Japanophile paradise.

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