Written by Rob Goss Illustration by Adam Oliver
Few places in Japan have as much energy as Ameya Yokocho. Running under the elevated rail tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations in Tokyo’s east end, Ameyoko – as the locals call it – is by far the city’s liveliest market street.
It has everything from vocal vendors and bargain shopping to rough-and-ready restaurants and some of the most entertaining video arcades in town. To sum Ameyoko up in a single word: unmissable.
Working your way through the narrow, crowded street, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by both the array and density of market stalls and shops. There are weathered-looking fishmongers with their produce laid out on low tables, and next to them heavily discounted sportswear and bag shops with dishevelled piles of stock out front.
The games here range from the latest releases to ageing classics, but in many respects it’s the gamers that are the main attraction. Taito is a great place for watching Tokyoites shed their somewhat undeserved reputation for being overly reserved – don’t be surprised to see unruly high school girls battling zombie armies on the newest shoot-’em-up cabinets, or perhaps a middle-aged businessman or two bashing away their stress on a virtual drum kit.
In a food-obsessed nation like Japan, it should probably go without saying that in and around Ameyoko there are plenty of places spilling out onto the street where you can suck up a bowl of ramen or grab a cold beer and some skewers of yakitori (grilled chicken). And just as at the video arcades, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with a curious mix of neatly-dressed businessmen, labourers, students, tourists, and even families; all happy to sit down to eat at beer-crate tables as the throng brushes past. A local favourite is the tiny Minatoya – easily recognisable by the large food photos plastered over the plastic sheeting that acts as its shop front – where for as little as 500 (US$5) you can have a filling bowl of rice topped with a variety of raw fish and flavoured with a dressing of soy sauce and wasabi. Nearby, Moses San’s Kebab, which does a great hot sauce-laced chicken-filled pita, is another popular spot for a cheap snack.
Just a couple of minutes’ walk west of Ameyoko, the peaceful Ueno Park serves as the yin to Ameyoko’s yang. There are several temples and shrines located throughout the grounds, and the partly lotus-covered Shinobazu Pond in the park’s centre is perfect for a row-boat picnic. But what really sets the park apart are the four museums scattered around its edges.
You could easily devote a whole day to exploring them all, but if time is limited, then go straight to Tokyo National Museum and its stunning collection of Japanese art and artefacts, which covers everything from J?mon period relics through to contemporary pieces. If you are interested in what the working class east side of Tokyo was like before the war, you could also try the fascinating Shitamachi Museum, which houses a reconstructed 1920s tenement row and a large collection of daily items donated by local residents.
Writer Rob Goss stumbled upon Ameyoko over a decade ago, when he first moved to Tokyo. It’s still one of his favourite places. “I love the buzz about the place – the fishmongers shouting out prices in deep, gravelly voices; the constant bumping of shoulders in the crowds; the scrums of people rifling through bargain boxes; the unrelenting assault on the senses. A walk through Ameyoko is energising – it’s like knocking back a treble espresso full of sugar.”