Ginza – Japan’s Premier Shopping and Dining District
In Ginza, the air seems almost scentless, like freshly minted coins. Every day, shopkeepers clean their storefront sidewalks. Immaculately scrubbed and groomed Japanese promenade in fine clothes. There’s no traipsing to the convenience store in a tracksuit here.
With designer shops like Chanel and Gucci, high-class bars and Michelin- starred restaurants, Ginza can seem impenetrable; a luxury watch behind glass. But it has something for everyone – there’s budget-friendly fashion like Zara, H&M and the world’s biggest Uniqlo, traditional family-run shops and casual pubs. On weekend and public holiday afternoons, the main roads become welcoming pedestrian zones.
Department store Wako opened 1894. Today, Wako has covetable limited edition items and stunning window displays. Near Wako are two more grand department stores, Matsuya and Mitsukoshi. Try to arrive at opening time for the fanfare of music and synchronised staff bowing. Don’t miss their decadent depachika basement food halls.
Kyukyodo began in Kyoto in 1663 and has sold stationary and incense from its Ginza branch on Chuo-dori since 1880. In front is Japan’s current highest land value, a record held for over 30 consecutive years. 32 million yen per square metre.
There are bargain vintage kimonos (Hanamura), wares from famous ceramists (Kuroda Touen), more than 2500 types of chopsticks (Ginza Natsuno), steel art katana swords and weapons (Seiyudo). Itoya (since 1904) was the first shop in the country to sell both Japanese and Western stationary. Look for the giant paperclip.
Peruse 12 levels of bridal wear (Kirarito Ginza), secondhand cameras (Ginza Katsumido) or four floors of quality children’s clothes (Ginza Sayegusa, since 1869). You can visit the flagship branches of major Japanese brands like Yamaha (music goods) and in adjacent Yurakucho, Muji (lifestyle products) and Bic Camera (electronics).
Eating in Ginza
High-end dining includes Michelin-three-star sushi temple Sukibayashi Jiro Honten and famous tempura restaurant Ten-Ichi. There’s a cosmopolitan buffet of choice – lots of French, Spanish and Italian, even Singaporean with Hainanese chicken rice.
You can visit historic places like Shiseido Parlour, a pioneer in serving treats like soda and ice-cream (opened 1902) or Café Paulista, Japan’s first western coffee shop (1911). Kimuraya was Japan’s first western-style bakery, opened 1869. Its famous creation is the anpan bun, filled with red bean paste.
Visit Rengatai, the birthplace of tonkatsu fried pork cutlet, created 1899. Or try katsu curry (tonkatsu with curry sauce), the invention of Ginza Swiss, opened 1947. The British introduced curry to Japan.
For sweets, you could try chocolate at Le Chocolat De, which uses Japanese ingredients like sansho pepper and yuzu citrus, madeleines at Henri Charpentier Ginza Maison or castella sponge cake at Bunmeido Café Ginza.
My favourite dessert was the kuzukiri from Toraya, a traditional Japanese sweet company from 1500s Kyoto. Use chopsticks to pick up ice cold kuzu arrowroot flour noodles then dip them into wasambonto mitsu sugar syrup.
Art and entertainment
Ginza has more art galleries than any other area in Japan (more than 100) and led the promotion of the Japanese contemporary art scene. Since 1889, Kabuzika Theatre has been the national home of kabuki and a space for other art forms. The first Japanese-made movies were screened here around the early 1900s.
There are more than 300 bars including live jazz havens, elegant cocktail dens and the model train themed Bar Ginza Panorama. Clink steins in the impressive faux-Bavarian Lion Beer Hall on Chuo-dori (opened 1930). Bar Lupin still lies underground in an alley (opened 1928). Bars were once clandestine operations not openly displayed.
The Yurakucho district was alive with American soldiers, cinemas, theatres, strip shows and gay bars after WWII. Today, izakaya pubs cluster around and under the rail tracks and many are open 24 hours. They’re a raucous contrast to stately Ginza. You have to shout as trains thunder overhead.
History and trends
In the early 1600s the Tokugawa shogunate placed a silver coin mint where Ginza stands today and this reclaimed marshland was set on its prosperous path. Ginza means “silver guild.”
After the great fire of 1872, western architects were invited to transform Ginza into Japan’s first brick town. Wooden buildings were removed and dirt roads paved. Gas then electric lamps replaced paper lanterns, horse-drawn carriages and trams rattled on streets.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and air raid bombings in World War II, Ginza was rebuilt again. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) people could drink sake in around 60 geisha houses or try imported sensations like wine, whisky and coffee. Ginza was Tokyo’s coolest strolling quarter by the early 1900s.
Post-WWII, black markets sold anything from old socks, turnips, pig offal to blood-stained hospital blankets. Then the Economic Miracle soared. The 1980s was the bubble era. Corporate elites splashed yen in clubs with hostesses in silk kimonos or European couture, mink toilet covers and drinks with ice cut from Alaskan glaciers.
Japan’s first McDonalds, Starbucks and Apple Store debuted in Ginza. Today, despite cutting-edge contenders like swanky suburbs Aoyama and Daikanyama, Ginza holds its clout. Clothing designer Issey Miyake only displays his full range at his Elttob Tep Ginza store. Swish shopping centre Tokyu Plaza opened 2016.
Ginza is a wild ride through over 400 years of history and continues to evolve, shedding glittering layers of skin while fascinating tradition remains underneath.
Photos and story by Audrey Foo. For more about Japan go to Bites of Oishii www.bitesofoishii.com (Oishii is Japanese for delicious!)
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