Long ago, the Ningyo-cho area was under the surface of Tokyo Bay. It was born as Edojo Shitamachi’s central market place after large-scale land recovery, and came to be a base for kabuki dance in Edo. Japanese puppet play moved in as numerous puppeteers took up residence, giving the area its name (ningyo means puppet or doll; cho means town). Ningyo-cho remains in its original old town condition, being spared from the destruction of war that swept over the rest of Tokyo.
We begin at Exit 5, Suitengu-mae Station. Right there before us is Suitengu Shrine where we find the prayer deities for safe delivery (anzan), and Suinanyoke (literally meaning protector from difficulty with water). It is said that if the devout touch Kodakara-inu (a statue of a dog), and one of twelve markers (each representing one of twelve Chinese Zodiac signs) that corresponds to the year of the newborn-to-be, the mother and child will be protected from any complications during delivery. On our visit there, we found numerous young couples doing just that. There are also Suitengu Shrine’s protectors, supposed to ease pain during labor, and a special maternity belts are known as a “Suzuno-oh.” They are worn across the abdomen area, and are supposed to protect mothers-to-be. There are street stalls around selling maternity goods, and plenty of people browsing along.
Next we set out for Ningyo-cho, putting Suitengu Shrine at our backs. The first thing you may notice here are all the ningyo-yaki vendors and their shop signs. Hoards of people line up just to buy these treats. Ningyo-yaki are sweet handmade cakes that are molded one by one into the shapes of the Shichifuku-jin (the seven gods from an ancient Chinese myth) and are well-known souvenirs from Suitengu Shrine. Kotobukido,a building with architectural charm from the good old Japan, comes into view. Here, another kind of sweet cake, kogane-imo, seems to attract the souvenir-goers. On first glance you’d think it must be some kind of yaki-imo type cake(*1). Afterall, imo is imo, right? Wrong. No potatoes or yams here. High quality ingredients and traditional technique are used to make kogane-imo. It is made of wheat and egg wrapped around Tanba azuki beans (yellow in color) on the inside. Try a bite, and let its fresh aroma and hint of spice fill your palate. Today, we even had the chance to see some hi-gashi (cute little petal shaped cakes colorful and delicious to the mouth as well as the eyes). Though it seemed like such a shame to eat them up, we bought one anyway to show a friend. Just then, a strange old clock caught our attention. The store’s interior is pretty old fashioned.
Just in front of Amazake-yokocho is a shop that still sells geta sandals. For some reason, the very sight of them gave me an instant rush of joy. This seems like one of those streets where ancient Japan still remains — just the kind of street I know and love. Tamahide, famous for its oyako-don, is in the area. Maybe we’ll come back again sometime when we’re more prepared to line up for lunch.
Being in Amazake-yokocho was like being time warped. They named this place Amazake-yokocho, apparently because in the good old days there used to be amazake-ya (sweet sake shops) all around its main entrance. Today busy shopkeepers work the area’s many ancient shops. To our delight, a shop sign for amazake caught our attention. It turned out to be a sign for a tofu shop called Futaba. Just as We’d hoped, there was a shop where you could still get some amazake — and this was it. The ganmodoki (*2) here is supposed to be good too. They even sell soymilk. There’s a little outdoor bench where you can take a break while sipping on amazake.
After that, we saw a shop called Iwai Tsuzura shop. They make tsuzura (traditional lacquered bamboo basket-boxes), so we stopped by to take a look. Being tough, light, and well ventilated, these boxes were always a familiar sight. They were traditionally used for storing clothes. Though they are still used to store clothes (both Oriental and Western clothes alike), they are just as valued as interior decorations. Lacquer comes on three colors: black, brown, and crimson red. Back in the corner of the shop, there were some still unlacquered boxes tightly woven in the light colored wood of cut bamboo. They are the next to be coated in lacquer; the next to become such beautiful tsudzura boxes.
A little further down the way, we found shamisen (three string guitars) all lined up at shamisen shop, Bachi-ei. When we entered the shop we saw workers in the back working away at something or another. The shop master kindly answered all of our ignorant and curious questions about the various works going on there. In the Edo Era, this Nihombashi neighborhood was the economic center, and Ningyo-cho an active entertainment area. The locals here had a high cultural awareness and standard of living. It’s said that there were a high number of women shamisen players at the time. The shopkeeper and his friend, once a Sento spa innkeeper – now retired, pluck away on these instruments every Monday and Friday afternoon, pleasing all the ears of passers-by. Though we came on a Friday, we missed out on the performance, as we were told by the shopkeeper that his friend went to see a play at Meiji-za Theater. Stories and shops like these are typical here, and for the most part not heard of much outside of the old traditional towns (shitamachi). We’ll be sure take a rain check, though, to hear the shop’s shamisen some other time.
Amazake-yokocho runs to Meiji-za Theater. Meiji-za has just over 130 years’ history – the theater’s opening in 1873 marked the beginning. It’s equipped with the hardware for the latest theatrical tricks like chunori (flying on stage suspended by wires), and you can see anything from kabuki to musicals: Far Eastern, Western, and everything in between. Amazake-yokocho has regular shops as well as famous ones that gave Ningyo-cho a name in Japan. A mere jump away from Hamacho Station will put you in the ever-organized townscape outside of Meiji-za.
The Jusaburo-kan museum
The Jusaburo-kan is a museum that displays doll works of art right from the hand of Tujimura Jusaburo, as well as his studio. On the first floor are dolls and a small theater house on display. The second floor has the main exhibition room.
In Ningyo-cho there are numerous ningyo-yaki shops — named just like the town. Shigemori Eishindo, built in 1917, continues to make these treats. For the skins, they use egg and plenty of sugar, the filling: lots of rich an (azuki bean paste). Itakura-ya was built in 1907. Here, the non-azuki castella-yaki is just as popular as their azuki filled ningyo-yaki. Ningyo-cho Kameido, in Amazake-yokocho, is a popular souvenir shop for theatergoers on their way back home. Perhaps the most desired product here is the ningyo-yaki gelato. Inside this gelato ice cream lies a ningyo doll cake – a delicious combination.
The local sweets don’t stop at ningyo-yaki. To do justice to the true flavor of the beans, Yanagi-ya’s tai-yaki (cod-shaped cakes) are said to be made with nothing less than freshest azuki prepared fresh daily, just like the cakes. The store has a long line of locals and sightseers from afar all day long that never dies off. We bought a tai- yaki and tried it while walking around. Miharado Honten (the main branch) café and dolce is ancient with over 120 years of operation in the Japanese and European sweets business.
Many of the shops here have connections with Kyoto. There’s Uokyu and its kyo-kasuzuke (Kyoto style kasuzuke, or fish marinated in sake lees), and pickles at Kintame. Maybe the reason for there being so many shops from Kyoto is that in the Edo Era, goods and products from Osaka and Kyoto began to increasingly find their way into Edo. Nihombashi’s streets of shops became the central place where those goods gathered.
Those on empty tanks have a multitude of choices: Western inspired Kiraku has beef katsu (cutlets fried in breadcrumbs); Homi-tei has delicious beef stew and croquettes; there’s Al Ponte Italian Restaurant; and then there’s Imahan Ningyo-cho, famous for its sukiyaki. It’s all more than you can eat in just one day. We’re so stuffed we could pop now! So we’ll have to come back to try it all later.
So many things to see and eat, our hearts and stomachs were filled to the brim. The things we’ve seen and experienced were typical of and largely endemic to good old central Edo. Maybe next time we’ll spend a night at Royal Park Hotel. It’s conveniently connected to Tokyo City Air Terminal.
1.Yaki-imo are made of satsuma-imo or Japanese yam. Imo means potato or yam.
2.Ganmodoki is a fried tofu fritter mixed with various ingredients)