Exploring the Nostalgic Local Shopping Streets Along the JR Chuo Line!
Shopping streets, called “shotengai” in Japanese, are hubs of local culture and neighborhood histories. While urbanization has led to their decline, several offbeat, one-of-a-kind shopping streets stand strong in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward along the JR Chuo Line, allowing visitors to relish an authentic local atmosphere. For this edition of our “Area of Japan” series, we toured three of these shopping streets: Asagaya Pearl Center, Koenji Junjo Shopping Street, and Ogikubo Kyokai-dori Shopping Street, to discover their features and unveil their specialities!
Mar 09 2023 (Mar 16 2023)
The Characteristics of a Japanese Shopping Street
Shopping streets (shotengai) are rows of retail stores often located near train stations and residential areas. You can find many types of shops lining the street, from clothing to antique stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and more. Many have signs at the ends signaling their entrances, and they are known for their down-to-earth and lively atmosphere.
Along with shopping, these streets are also places where cultural exchanges take place, such as events and sales that celebrate the characteristics of the area.
Stations along Tokyo’s JR Chuo Line like Koenji, Asagaya, and Ogikubo are particularly well known for their nostalgic shopping streets, each flaunting a uniqueness that embodies the neighborhood. For this article, we toured each to uncover what makes them stand out!
You’ll need reservations while in Japan. See our writers’ top picks!
Asagaya Pearl Center: A Lively Shopping Street Famous for Its Arcade
Asagaya Pearl Center is a shopping street in the center of Asagaya famous for its bustling arcade. It was already a large shopping district with over 120 stores in prewar years, however, in 1922, after the opening of Asagaya Station on the Chuo Line, many more retailers began to accumulate, developing into its current form. Today, the number of stores in the area has increased to about 240, ranging from restaurants to supermarkets, along with those selling clothing, knick-knacks, and more.
The name “Pearl Center” comes from the image of a pearl necklace, where all the pearls are joined together to make it shine. It likewise reflects the hope of the shopping street to continue prospering in the future.
The Asagaya Pearl Center is characterized by a long arcade that stretches for 700 meters from the South Exit of Asagaya Station on the Chuo Line to Ome Kaido Road. The arcade provides shade and shelter from rain while protecting businesses from natural disasters and fires.
Recommended Spots in Asagaya Pearl Center Shopping Street
・Kamaju Kamaboko: An Oden Store With 80+ Years of History
We visited Asagaya Pearl Center in the morning, before most stores had opened and the crowds gathered. Fortunately, the renowned “oden” specialty store, Kamaju Kamaboko, was ready for business - and our hungry stomachs! Oden is a Japanese dish of various ingredients stewed in a light soy sauce-flavored broth, and Kamaju Kamaboko has been serving it here since 1936.
There are around 18 kinds of oden on the main menu, running from classics like “chikuwa” (grilled fishcake), “daikon” (Japanese radish), sausage, “shirataki” (noodles made from konnyaku), and “mochi kinchaku” (a small pouch made of fried tofu with a rice cake inside), to unique additions like “hanpen” (a kind of fishcake similar to chikuwa) and cabbage rolls, which are handmade and packed with savory juices.
As their name suggests, Kamaju Kamaboko also serves “kamaboko” (steamed fishcake), which is proudly handmade from a recipe passed down the generations. Their kamaboko boasts a soft, melt-in-the-mouth texture popular with all kinds of people, and is additive-free. After asking the owner for their recommendation, we were served “miyako-age,” a white kamaboko with egg whites and onions. It had a satisfyingly crunchy bite, bolstered by the sweetness and aroma of onions.
While oden is known as a winter food, it is sold even in the summer here, so you can pop by for a delicious pick-me-up anytime you like. Due to COVID-19, you cannot dine in, but takeout is available.
・Taiyaki Tomoe-an: One-of-a-Kind Taiyaki Cake!
Continuing along Asagaya Pearl Center, we arrived at Taiyaki Tomoe-an, who sell the highly coveted fish-shaped “taiyaki” cake, alongside other treats like “condensed milk mochi” and shaved ice in summer (May-October).
Here we tried the “taiyaki hiraki” (literally “opened taiyaki”), which is only found at Tomoe-an. It is made by cutting a baked taiyaki in two before covering it in batter and squeezing it into a flat, thin shape on a hot plate, and finally letting it dry. There are two flavors: “original” and “mirin,” both with a crunchy bite from being pressed and dried. The bean paste inside is less sweet than regular taiyaki, making it a truly unique dessert, and a must-try when visiting!
・Touche: Adorable Knick-Knacks From the UK
Strolling down the street, the pastel “Touche” suddenly caught my eye. Outside was an assortment of delightful items, like window stickers and colorful socks, that I just couldn’t resist!
Most of Touche’s merchandise is imported from England, ranging from accessories such as necklaces and brooches to clocks, teacups, and other decor. Many are antiques born from the hands of traditional artisans, giving them an old-fashioned British elegance. Popular items include the “lucky necklace,” made of silver into a sophisticated design, along with the adorable little tin “wee boxes.” Each is small and modest, yet designed in detail with the utmost precision.
Alongside England are also goodies from Italy, France, and Germany. So, if you have traditional European taste, like myself, you should definitely stop by!
Koenji Junjo Shopping Street: Retro Stores With Nostalgic Vibes
Koenji Junjo Shopping Street can be reached after a 20-minute walk or 1 minute train ride on the Chuo Line from Asagaya Pearl Center. It is accessible from the North Exit of Koenji Station, and as soon as you exit, you’ll spot its large sign, making it a breeze to find. Originally called “Koenji Ginza,” it was renamed “Koenji Junjo” in celebration of the success of the Koenji-born novelist Nejime Shoichi's novel “Koenji Junjo Shotengai.”
Koenji Junjo Shopping Street feels much larger than Asagaya Pearl Center. It has about 250 stores ranging from those selling second-hand clothing to used books, instruments, and interior design.
There are also several big chain outlets that buy and sell everything from vintage clothing to hippie fashion at bargain prices.
You’ll need reservations while in Japan. See our writers’ top picks!
Recommended Spots in Koenji Junjo Shopping Street
・Shigekuni 55 Bakery: Premium Bread and Hip Vibes
Passing through a street lined with antique stores, we came across the small and chic Shigekuni 55 Bakery, which has been baking bread for 20 years. All the bread is made in-house with 100% Japanese wheat, and there are around 20 different types in total.
I particularly appreciated the atmosphere at Shigekuni 55 Bakery. While on the smallish side, it had a trendy cafe-like vibe filled with soft sunlight and lively music in the background. Unable to resist, we indulged in their vanilla-flavored melon pan, which had a delightfully crisp surface with a soft inside and a palatable vanilla flavor, making it very different from those at convenience stores!
Shigekuni 55 Bakery has plenty of fans, so the bread sells out quickly. If you’re hankering for some fresh, high-quality bread while in Japan, make sure you get here early!
・Gonnosuke: Packed With Unique Antiques!
Koenji Junjo Shopping Street is famous for its antique stores, attracting treasure hunters from across Tokyo seeking forgotten gems. Gonnosuke is almost like a museum, offering a hoard from the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1989) eras. Before entering, I was captivated by the stack of old gear piled up outside, including wooden baskets, bags, picture frames, and many other items with a flair that is rarely seen nowadays.
The owner collects all sorts of antiques, including small toys, enameled accessories, wooden ornaments, and pendulum wall clocks. Each has come a long way, and you can sense their history by just looking at the colors and designs.
The owner told us that many of his customers are young people who want something uncommon and offbeat. While some of the items are very old, they can still serve a useful purpose in your everyday life!
Ogikubo Kyokai-dori Shopping Street: Stroll and Relax in the Serenity of Daily Life
Next we visited the Ogikubo Kyokai-dori Shopping Street, a two-minute walk from the North Exit of Ogikubo Station, marked by a gate with “Kyokai-dori” (教会通り) written on it.
Compared to the other two shopping streets, Ogikubo Kyokai-dori is a bit smaller, coming in at around 500 meters long with relatively narrow streets hosting fewer stores. All in all, it contains around 70 businesses including cafes, restaurants, general stores, and beauty salons. However, this smaller scale makes it a more relaxing place to hang out, and the light music playing from the street speakers gives off a feeling of peace and serenity.
Kyokai-dori means “church street,” and it was named so because it leads to a nearby church. Walking to the end of the street, we came across Amanuma Church, which was established in 1917. This church has been visited by many foreigners living in Japan over the generations, creating a friendly global atmosphere. There are also lights hanging over the street, glowing with an exciting warmth after dark.
Recommended Spots in Ogikubo Kyokai-dori Shopping Street
・Sakurayama Kabo: A Scone Haven With 30 Varieties
While Sakurayama Kabo specializes in handmade sweets and fruit jams, their most popular offerings are scones. They make around 30 types of scones that vary each season, which use healthier sugar from Hokkaido sugar beet instead of white sugar or eggs. All the other ingredients, such as butter and flour, are also sourced from Hokkaido, which is famous for high-quality dairy.
While the scones steal the show, the fruit jams and syrups are also worth checking out. The fruits used are carefully selected each season from farms all over Japan, and as little sugar as possible is used to keep their natural flavors. On top of that, they use no additives or preservatives of any kind.
Following the owner's recommendation, I ordered the “apricot cream cheese scone sandwich,” along with a coffee-flavored scone and tea. Being freshly baked, the scones were soft and had a crisp outside and moist inside. They were not overly sweet, as not much sugar is used, and the flavors of butter, milk, and other ingredients were fully present. For me, the best part was the apricots - their sweet and sour taste blended with the richness of the cream cheese to yield a perfectly balanced flavor!
Instead of hectic shopping, if you’re looking for a place to relax on the weekend in Tokyo with coffee and a sweet treat, Sakurayama Kabo is where to go! You can also buy souvenirs and birthday cakes for friends and family!
・Midori no Coffee Mame Baisen: Relish Coffee From Around the World!
With the alluring aromas of coffee surrounding the store, it was impossible to walk past Midori no Coffee Mame Baisen without popping in!
Stocking 30-40 varieties of coffee beans from across the world, customers can choose their beans and have them roasted on the spot. The beans are labeled with their acidity, bitterness, lightness, and more, as well as roasting recommendations, making it easy to find your style.
In addition to coffee beans, there are also a wide variety of beverages to enjoy in-store. The menu is divided into two main categories: regular coffee and decaffeinated. Being sensitive to caffeine, I ordered a decaf brown sugar cafe latte. The coffee aromas and rich milk blended with the subtle sweetness of the brown sugar, making for an exquisite mouthful. Caramel lattes and chocolate lattes are also available, which I’ll definitely be trying on my next visit!
Before leaving, the owner kindly helped me choose some coffee beans, and I ended up getting the store's most popular “Ogikubo Winter Blend.” If you have a chance to stop by, definitely give them a try! Also, the selection changes with the season, so there’s always something new to explore!
Shopping Streets to Shop, Relax, and Discover Along Tokyo’s JR Chuo Line
Exploring these shopping streets, you will encounter a bounty of tucked-away cafes, souvenir shops, antique stores, and more, each with its own distinctive and intriguing atmosphere. These gems embody the local mood and essence of everyday Japan, showcasing a lesser-seen side of Tokyo. Next time you’re planning a day out, jump on the Chuo Line for a day of shopping, eating, and socializing!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.