Shibamata - A Vintage Nook in Tokyo That Doesn't Look Anything Like the Big City!
Shibamata in northeast Tokyo is not often included in your typical Japan travel itinerary but, unlike other parts of the capital, it has a perfectly preserved, historical townscape that introduces visitors to a completely different side to the metropolis. For this edition of our “Area of Japan - Where I Would Like to Bring My Friends” series, one of our editors will show you around Shibamata, where you can get a taste of how Tokyo looked like back in the day and enjoy traditional buildings and eateries serving snacks unique to the area, as well as a generous dose of serenity and quintessentially Japanese sights without having to leave the big city!
Apr 26 2023 (Apr 28 2023)
Shibamata Taishakuten Sando - Explore Tokyo’s Most Nostalgic Neighborhood
With a townscape brimming with nostalgia and streets lined with old-fashioned buildings, the historical neighborhood of Shibamata brought me back in time as soon as I stepped out of the station. Maintained as is since the 17th century, the temple approach was gradually lined with more and more shops from the end of the 19th centuryーmany of which escaped the fires of warーpreserving rare sights of Tokyo’s past. Among the invaluable heirlooms that survived to this day is Shibamata Taishakuten Sando which doubles as a retro shopping street and temple approach leading to a true masterpiece of Japanese wood carving, Shibamata Taishakuten Temple.
Officially called Kyoeizan Daikyoji, Shibamata Taishakuten Temple is renowned for its many unique features such as the 400-year-old Zuiryu no Matsu (Fortune Dragon Pine) which resembles a dragon about to fly, the towering and graceful Nitenmon Gate which was built by Edo-period last great master builder Tomekichi Sakata in 1896, and the temple’s main hall which always leaves visitors in awe as it is covered in highly elaborated carvings representing ten different Buddhist sermons from the Lotus Sutra!
The approach stretches for about 200 meters from Shibamata Station to Shibamata Taishakuten Temple, slowly immersing me in the town’s old-school charm, making for the perfect break away from modern Tokyo.
Standing along the Edogawa River, Shibamata has been a bustling point for the transit of people and objects by water since ancient times. When Taishakuten Temple was founded in 1629, the area started to attract even more visitors as the deity enshrined is believed to restore health, leading to the development of the vibrant temple approach. The town and shopping street continued to expand through the centuries while flourishing as a day-trip getaway for Tokyoites up to the Showa era (1926 - 1989), when a new railway line and other infrastructures were established.
Shibamata is today numbered among the metropolis’ “shitamachi,” a group of old neighborhoods retaining unique traditional landscapes while still maintaining their lively spirit and distinctive traditions. Among these are the popular neighborhoods of Asakusa and Yanaka, but Shibamata is the only one designated as an National Important Cultural Landscapeーthe only existing in Tokyo and one of two spots recognized as such in the entire Kanto regionーby the Agency for Cultural Affairs. As it perfectly embodies the evolution of the capital's suburban daily life and culture through time, Shibamata really is a place where you can delve into a relatively unknown side of Tokyo!
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Introducing Shibamata’s Historical Shops and Retro Treats
The temple approach offers many opportunities to get a taste of Shibamata’s unique culture and flavors. Charmed by the fascinating shopfronts and mesmerized by glimpses of old-fashioned interiors hiding behind their entrances, I found myself stopping many times along the way, eager to unveil traces of all the eras Shibamata went through.
Shibamata Haikara Yokocho - Get a Taste of Shibamata’s Good Old Showa Days
Easily noticeable right next to the access of Shibamata Taishakuten Sando is a favorite of mine, Shibamata Haikara Yokocho. Teeming with funky retro plates and bold signboards, the playful facade is an expression of the town’s exuberant Showa days, a notoriously dynamic moment in Japanese history. Before venturing into this treasure trove of nostalgic treats and memorabilia, I couldn't help but buy a drink at Haikara Yokocho’s iconic robot vending machine, a must-try for everyone wanting to get into the spirit of the shop!
Shibamata Haikara Yokocho incorporates its owner’s childhood memories of the “dagashiya” (old candy stores) that used to dot the area in past decades. Growing up as a retro building lover, he decided to open his own shop and revive the dagashiya culture of Shibamata which is tightly associated with the Showa period.
Dagashiya experienced their greatest popularity in those years and were a common after-school hangout spot for younger students, as they sold “dagashi,” sweet and savory snacks that you could afford on even the tightest budget. Interestingly, the very word “dagashi” derives from the union of two Japanese words: “da” (futile) and “kashi” (candies), illustrating the inexpensive and fun nature of these retro treats.
Once inside, I was welcomed by the shop’s endless array of multicolored boxes and glittering wrappings. Shibamata Haikara Yokocho has such a vast selection that I could have easily spent the afternoon just browsing through the 1,000+ options available.
What’s fascinating about dagashi is that not only do they have the most quirky packaging, but also some of the most intriguing and unusual flavors on the market. Whether you have a sweet tooth or you prefer savory snacks, there’s something for everyone, from the pocket version of popular Japanese dishes such as “takoyaki'' or “taiyaki” to the one-bite reinterpretation of beloved desserts like pudding.
Picking snacks I’ve never tried before and getting surprised by unexpected flavors and unfamiliar combinations or simply finding new favorites… every time I set foot inside Shibamata Haikara Yokocho, it feels like an adventure for my taste buds!
The delightful labyrinth of retro wonders expands to the back of the shop, where walls and shelves are packed with postcards of 1960s singers and baseball players and lined with colorful pinball machines that you can have fun with. On the second floor is the Shibamata Toy Museum which exhibits nostalgic game machines and Japanese children's games from the Showa period. There is also a corner reminiscent of a Japanese house, offering a glimpse into the good old days!
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Takagiya Roho - Savor Shibamata’s Most Beloved Sweet at this Meiji-Period Shop
Jump back in time another 90 years and you’ll find yourself in front of Takagiya Roho, one of Shibamata’s Meiji-period treasures and another of my personal favorites. They serve a local specialty, the glossy green “kusa dango,” a type of sweet dumpling made from rice flour and Japanese mugwort.
Although being part of busy Tokyo, Shibamata is renowned for its flourishing rice fields, with a type of rice called “kasaimai” having been cultivated in the area since the Edo period. This is how Shibamata came to specialize in snacks using rice flour, like “senbei” rice crackers or dango. “Yomogi” or Japanese mugwort, which gives kusa dango their distinctive green color, has also been used since ancient times for its medicinal properties and was initially added to the dough of the dumplings as it was believed to ward off bad fortune and soothe different ailments.
Takagiya Roho has been serving this Shibamata delicacy since its foundation in the first year of the Meiji era, 1868. Consisting of two shops dating back to the Meiji and Taisho (1912 - 1926) periods, which stand one in front of the other almost at the midpoint of Shibamata Taishakuten Sando, it makes for the perfect break on the way to the temple. Both retaining the atmosphere of the time they were constructed, Takagiya Roho’s buildings are representative of the architecture in fashion for stores in Shibamata back in the day: wooden structures, beautifully tiled, and with wide welcoming facades dripping with intricate “kanji'' characters.
The shop on the right is where you need to go in case you are planning to buy some take-out kusa dango and souvenirs, but as I wanted to sit down and slowly take in Takagiya Roho’s Meiji splendor, I headed to the left instead and stepped into the quiet tea room where “tatami” straw mat flooring and retro furniture perfectly complement the traditional exteriors. Some of my favorite seats are those where you can still catch glimpses of the old street outside, so I recommend you sit there to fully enjoy the atmosphere.
When my kusa dango and tea arrived, one bite was all I needed to remind me why these are some of the best dango in Shibamata! Exquisitely chewy and topped with plenty of sweet bean paste, they are surprisingly refreshing thanks to the subtle herbal aftertaste of the mugwort. Takagiya Roho is also particular about its ingredients: the dango are freshly made every day using “koshihikari” (a type of premium rice) grounded the same day, the yomogi is grown on the pristine Mt. Tsukuba, and the red beans from Hokkaido which are renowned for their refined sweetness.
Always striving for its customers’ satisfaction, no wonder Takagiya Roho stood the test of time! Among them, probably the most notable patron was Showa-period star Kiyoshi Atsumi, lead actor who played the role of the itinerant salesman Tora-san in the cult movie series "It's Tough Being a Man" which was released between 1969 and 1995 and set in Shibamata.
The shop can be seen multiple times throughout the movies and was a favorite of the cast to unwind after a day of filming. Commemorative photos of those days are displayed inside. Keep an eye out for them when eating your kusa dango, as they show invaluable fragments of Shibamata’s past, as well as testify the extraordinary success of the series which attracted hordes of Japanese fans to the area and without which I probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy this retro nook of Tokyo in such perfectly preserved condition in the present day!
Ishii - An Edo Period Confectionary Shop Innovating the World of Japanese Sweets
My walk along Shibamata Taishakuten Sando brought me even further back in time when I arrived at Ishii, a usual stop of mine for delectable snacks to eat on the go. This confectionery shop was founded in 1862, at the end of the Edo period, and is the oldest wooden store on the street. Despite being such a long-established shop, the majority of the sweets on offer present a sense of novelty to them.
Originally, they only sold pickles and tea cakes. It’s just in recent years that they started specializing in Japanese-style confections, when the current owner started experimenting with Western confectionery techniques to make the most out of local ingredients and quintessentially Japanese flavors.
Everytime I visit Shibamata, I can’t pass on their “dorayaki” pancake-like bread filled with sweet red beans. Although at a first glance Ishi’s dorayaki might seem the same as any other dorayaki sold in Japan, they are quite surprising. Starting with the name, appearing on the menu as “torayaki” and not “dorayaki” as a fun homage to Shibamata’s most famous fictional character Tora-san, and continuing with the cute design of a tiger on it which is also a subtle but witty reference as “tora” in Japanese can also mean “tiger.”
The sense of innovation surrounding this sweet not only comes from the interesting concept behind it, but also from the ingredients and cooking methods employed to craft the fluffiest dorayaki I’ve ever eaten. At Ishii, dorayaki are baked daily by hand on a traditional ”ichimonji hiranabe” flat copper plate. Besides the usual red bean paste filling, they serve a version where fresh cream and salt are added, giving the original recipe a refreshingly mellow taste that I love!
On display were also some of Ishii’s inviting seasonal fruit “daifuku” rice cakes stuffed with sweet bean paste and fruit: strawberries and mandarin oranges at the time of my visit. As the owner was exploring the world of traditional Japanese sweets, he realized that many of the key ingredients used are plant based and that, if he wanted to advance in his search for the perfectly balanced daifuku, he needed to understand further in depth the marvels of domestic produce - that’s when he decided to gain a certification in vegetables and fruits.
As he always selects what’s in season, the final result is a bite overflowing with freshness that aims to enhance the goodness of the fruit by pairing it with finely textured rice cake and “shiroan” white bean paste, which is rarely used in the Kanto region but has a gentler taste compared to the common red bean paste.
As in the past Shibamata was famous for rice, Ishii’s owner also wanted to create a sweet that could incorporate the beauty of this local ingredient and came up with his own version of a Western roll cake. It was so delicious that it soon became the shop’s best seller and was even featured on Japanese television multiple times! This is the power of Ishii’s adventurous spirit and creative freedom!
The “Kome Kome Roll Cake,” as the Japanese name implies, is made with rice flour. Its baking method is also very Japanese and takes inspiration from the technique of broiling eel by directly searing the surface. In this way, he can take advantage of the properties of the rice, which is crispy and savory when cooked, and maintain the cake’s fluffy texture while still ensuring a crunchy crust. Filled with cream and coated in sugar, it is an absolute joy for the palate!
Yamamototei - Unwind in Shibamata’s Taisho Splendor at this Old Villa and Tea Room
One last era is left to cover all of Shibamata’s history up to the modern time, and that’s the Taisho period. Shibamata of course has some dazzling memorabilia left untouched from those years and there I headed, concluding my stroll through the retro serenity of Shibamata Taishakuten Sando at Yamamototei.
This old wooden house with its secluded traditional garden is my go-to place whenever I feel the need for a refreshing break from the big city, as it is so carefully hidden and preserved that the turmoils of life can’t seem to sneak in to cause disturbance. Leaving behind the massive metropolis of Tokyo, I took a seat inside, waiting for Yamamototei to cast its soothing magic on me.
The splendid two-storey structure and garden come with interesting history, so visitors can spend contemplative moments while learning about another bit of Shibamata’s past. The house was built for Einosuke Yamamoto, the founder of a camera parts manufacturer, who moved to Shibamata from Asakusa after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The building was used as the family’s residence for four generations and then acquired by Katsushika Ward, where Shibamata is, and opened to the public in 1991.
Retaining its original appearance, Yamamototei is an extremely precious example of traditional Japanese architecture that was popular among the wealthy in the Taisho era, which combines the traditional “shoin-zukuri'' style (Japanese residential design where a central area is surrounded by aisles and smaller areas separated by “fusuma” sliding doors and “shoji” partitions) with Western-style elements, such as the Western-style reception room by the entrance that features marble fireplaces, stained-glass windows, and elaborate tapestry.
Yamamototei also operates as a tea room, allowing visitors to sit in the tatami room and slowly take in the peacefulness derived from the view and ambience. As I gazed upon the mantle of greenery, enveloping stone bridges and lanterns, ears caressed by the pond’s burbling lullaby, I soon started to be so at ease that I almost felt as if I was having tea at a friend’s house, without any particular rush or purpose.
The menu provides an ample choice of Japanese tea classics such as hot matcha green tea or coffee paired with seasonal sweets based on flowers and other elements representative of each month. Depending on the period of the year, limited-time drinks are also available such as cold matcha or cold “amazake,” a sweet beverage made with fermented rice.
When I visited, I couldn’t not order the most traditional of Japanese drinks, matcha. Savoring the refined, slightly bitter taste of premium green tea and the sensation of beautiful ceramic between my hands, I reveled in this simple yet luxurious experience. At the time, they also offered a special cold mix of matcha and amazake which I was curious to try, and it revealed an intriguing combination of Japanese flavors you wouldn’t usually get to taste together!
After enjoying my tea, I wandered around Yamamototei, appreciating more of its other interesting characteristics, such as the “nagayamon,” a type of gate which was seen in samurai residences in the past, the traditional storehouse which is considered to be the oldest building in the house, and the elegant tea room. All the while, I was getting superb views of the garden as I passed from one space to another.
Yamamototei uses a lot of glass doors which give a sense of openness and frame the masterpiece green space. Different from your usual Japanese garden, the main garden is exclusively embellished with evergreen plants and no flowers of any sort, creating a picture-perfect nook of flourishing nature no matter the season. For its unique features, Yamamototei’s garden has been introduced in foreign magazines specializing in Japanese gardens such as the popular “Journal of Japanese Gardening” and has been consistently ranked among the best gardens in Japan.
Shibamata Taishakuten Sando Shopping Street and all of Shibamata’s attractions mentioned in the article are within walking distance (2-3 minutes) from Shibamata Station on the Keisei Kanamachi Line.
Visit a Different Side of Tokyo in Shibamata
Immerse into different eras of Shibamata’s history while exploring its retro townscape and delicious food! This off-the-beaten-path area of Tokyo will grant you the most traditionally Japanese experience without having to leave the city!
Recommended Hotel Near Shibamata: Ukiyoan Takasago
Explore the Best of Traditional Tokyo With This Recommended Tour: Tokyo City, Meiji Shrine, Sensoji, & Shibamata Tour
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.