Kappabashi, Tokyo's famous kitchen supply area, is a must for anyone with an interest in cooking and eating. Here, Mario Leto gives you all the details to enjoy the best of the area.
Wooden bowls at Kappabashi - image © Mario Leto
Kappabashi, Japan’s restaurant supply store mecca, is located in Taito Ward between Ueno and Asakusa. At nearly a kilometer long, not counting the side streets, it is considered one of the world’s best in terms of the amount and variety of merchandise available. Anyone interested in getting close to Japanese culture, beyond the tourist attractions in other popular areas of the city, should definitely consider a full day to browse the shops that help make Japan’s culinary tradition the international status symbol it has become in the last half decade.
Golden Kappa statue - image © Mario Leto
Kappabashi Dougu Gai (かっぱ橋道具街), which literally means “Kappa Bridge Tool Town”, is the official name of the kitchen equipment area, but the shortened moniker “Kappabashi” is more commonly preferred by locals and tourists alike. To head off any confusion about the name, consider the following points:
- 1) There is no bridge in Kappabashi today, but there used to be when the area first took shape around 1912;
- 2) Kappabashi is less a town than a street, but translation is never perfect and you’ll understand the “town” feeling when you spend a day there;
- 3) Kappa, the mythological Japanese creature shown in the image above, actually has nothing to do with Kappabashi and was only adopted as a mascot later when the locals could no longer ignore the phonetic connection. More about Kappa in a bit.
Pottery shop - image © Mario Leto
Kappabashi is over 100 years old and boasts over 170 shops devoted to the cooking trade, from bowls, baskets and pans to uniforms, food, tables and chairs and everything in between. It can be accessed from at least three different stations—Ueno Station on the Yamanote line or Inaricho Station and Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza subway line—and has, as added benefits, the surrounding areas of Ueno park and downtown Asakusa to make a trip there not much off the beaten track.
Kitchen utensil shop - image © Mario Leto
Even if cooking and kitchens are nothing but the stuff of nightmares for you, Kappabashi is still guaranteed to delight. Remember that Japanese food stuff you like? Got it. How about that other thingy that does whatchamacallit? No problem. People watching? Oh yeah. Colors and sounds and textures and smells? Welcome to Kappabashi!
Ueno Station - image © Mario Leto
My own day trip started from Ueno Station (上野駅), the furthest station from the area at a fifteen-minute walk distance, but with the advantage of simplicity: The Yamanote line (山手線) is the first and easiest train line to come to grips with for first-time tourists in megalopolis Tokyo. You’ll want to exit the station from the Central Gate and then make an immediate left through the Asakusa Entrance. From there it’s a straight shot down Asakusa Dori (dori means “street”).
Niimi chef bust - image © Mario Leto
You’ll pass the Taito City Hall on your left early on and will arrive at your destination when you see the shop Niimi on the corner on your immediate left. You can’t miss it: It’s the shop with a huge bust of a chef on the roof. Just keep looking up. For those who prefer quick access, the Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza line is the closest and will drop you off on Kappabashi Hondori. More on that below.
Kappabashi covered walkway entrance - image © Mario Leto
Turn left at Niimi and let your journey begin. The whole area that is considered Kappabashi is basically one straight street with a covered walkway on both sides. I’ll call the side you arrive at from Ueno Station the “Ueno side”, and the other side I’ll refer to as the “Asakusa side”. This will help with navigation: You won’t get lost but you’ll lose shops you’d like to return to later in the day. After turning left at Niimi, walk the length of the Ueno side and when the covered walkway ends, about 800 plus meters down the road, cross the street and make your way back down the Asakusa side.
Pans, pans, and more pans - image © Mario Leto
When you get back to the corner with Niimi and the chef bust across the street, you will have completed your Kappabashi journey. My own journey included a couple side-street detours on the Asakusa side which were well worth the time, so all included, plan to walk around two to three kilometers on the street plus however many shop stairs you climb and aisles you squeeze yourself into.
Disposable Chopsticks - image © Mario Leto
As a tourist, almost every shop you pass will be of interest, if only for the novelty of it all as seen by a layperson. What’s the biggest pan you’ve ever seen? The largest knife? The number of chopsticks someone can cram into a plastic bag? If you are seriously looking to buy, then that’s an option too. Anyone can purchase just about anything, as long as you can either tote it away or pay for it to be shipped.
Bridge Coffee exterior - image © Mario Leto
I love to cook but my kitchen is stocked to capacity with utensils and other equipment, so when I go to Kappabashi, the perishables attract me the most. Shop attendants are generally amiable and willing to communicate about their products and sometimes even more. They are, after all, trying to make a sale. One proprietor even stood in front of his shop studying English from a language textbook. Smart move considering the number of non-Japanese tourists crawling the area.
Bridge Coffee interior - image © Mario Leto
There aren’t many places along Kappabashi to sit down and take a load off, so I recommend taking advantage of the places you do notice along the way. One of those places should be Bridge Coffee & Ice Cream, a two-floor coffee shop with a smashingly fashionable interior, which makes sense once you realize that the offices in the back and the space on the second floor are those of an architectural firm. Interesting indeed. Nobody can sit on the second floor, but the bathrooms are up there, so feel free to go on up and browse the architecture displays in the process. While enjoying an espresso, I had the opportunity to engage one of the baristas who broke into English when I didn’t understand the Japanese term kenchikuka (建築家), which means “architect”, so communication is not a problem. Check out the website—link above—for menu, hours, and contact information.
Kappa praying - image © Mario Leto
According to the official Kappabashi website, the name “Kappa” has fuzzy origins. Some attribute it to the Japanese term kappa (合羽) meaning “raincoat”, others to a local merchant in the area with the name Kappaya. Either way, the Japanese mythological creature called kappa (河童), meaning “river child”, has stolen the show to the point that statues and drawings of the creature appear everywhere in the Kappabashi area. For now, it’s fairly well-known that the creature is not the origin of the name, but a few generations down the road might just dispense with that knowledge. Generally speaking, the kappa stands upright, has lizard skin, a beak, and a flat bald spot on its head that serves as a source of power. As with many Japanese deities, the kappa’s behavior varies from region to region and runs the gamut from evil to annoying to curious to benevolent. Regardless of the locale, the kappa is commonly known as a trickster figure that resides in rivers and lakes, waiting to wrestle you to your death to suck your blood, eat your liver, and slurp your soul from your anus. Yes, you read that correctly. Children beware.
Colored baskets - image © Mario Leto
Once you have traversed the Ueno side of Kappabashi, cross the street and head back along the Asakusa side. Before doing so, however, you might want to round the corner and look for the nearest convenient store for a bathroom, a trash can, and a cheap and portable refreshment. There are few bathrooms, no trash cans, and no convenient stores along Kappabashi for the general foot-traffic tourist, so take the opportunities when they present themselves.
Propack Kappabashi storefront - image © Mario Leto
Propack Kappabashi floor guide - image © Mario Leto
One shop that nobody wants to miss is Propack Kappabashi, a six-floor culinary Disneyland with stationary, packaging, utensils, party goods, food, and more. You could easily spend a couple hours browsing this Kappabashi version of Dante’s Inferno. This shop, by the way, does have a bathroom, so make note.
Hashitou chopsticks shop - image © Mario Leto
Another shop that I recommend is a chopsticks shop called Hashitou (はし藤). It’s located on the Asakusa side of the street and has everything from finely carved pieces of art to bags of disposable chopsticks. It’s definitely worth your time whether you’re a regular chopsticks user, an occasional dabbler, or a dining masochist.
Carve your own utensils - image © Mario Leto
I was particularly smitten with a carve-your-own spoon kit and a carve-your-own chopsticks kit pictured above, partly because I like the idea of ruggedness and self-sufficiency, but mostly because having someone pay money for something that they have to make themselves is pure genius.
Kappabashi Hondori and Sky Tree - image © Mario Leto
A bit more than halfway down the Asakusa side of Kappabashi is a perpendicular side street called Kappabashi Hondori. If you don’t notice the little signs outside of every shop along this street that say “Kappa Bashi Hondori” in Latin script, then you should be able to identify it as such by the only side street that perfectly frames Sky Tree in the background. The red awnings above many of the shops is another giveaway. Why is this street important? Because this is where most of the restaurants are located and where you’ll most likely stop for lunch. On my own journey, I chose a quaint little mom-n-pop shop specializing in Japanese soba and udon noodles.
Sobadokoro Yamato - image © Mario Leto
Sobadokoro Yamato (そば処やまと) is located a couple blocks down Kappabashi Hondori on the right and is the place I chose to refresh myself with some soba noodles, some deep-fried veggies, and an ice-cold beer. If you see the curtains hanging outside the door (called noren in Japanese), then the shop is open for business, so head on inside and don’t let the traditional atmosphere and close quarters deter you. You might be put at a table with someone else, but nobody cares. Relax and enjoy your experience.
Tenzaru soba at Sobadokoro Yamato - image © Mario Leto
All the menus are in Japanese but the little old proprietor is more than willing to help out and accommodate you. If worse comes to worst, use the fake food in the window outside to indicate what you want. Oh wait. I’m sorry. Did I say “fake food”? I meant “food samples”. A sign at a food sample shop along Kappabashi street will remind you of this common faux pas.
Higashi Honganji Temple - image © Mario Leto
One other detour off the main strip worth the effort is the massive Higashi Honganji Temple (東本願寺) at the end of Kappabashi street on the Asakusa side near where the day’s journey began. Looking down the side streets as you walk along, the temple is impossible to miss, its sweeping tiled roof dominating the skyline. It is the headquarters of the Higashi Honganji Order of Buddhism and the current Supreme Primate Otani Koken is supposedly a direct descendent of the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Shinran Shonin (1173-1262). There is a temple in Kyoto with the same name and a shared history, a schism in the sects creating antagonistic factions, so be careful not to confuse the two should you desire to do some research online. If you visit Higashi Honganji, feel free to go inside and take photographs and don’t forget to grab a pamphlet with some English explanation in it. By pure chance, I happened to visit during a time of Buddhist celebration and received a complimentary rice ball and cup of tea to enjoy at my leisure.
Complimentary rice ball and tea - image © Mario Leto
My visit to Higashi Honganji coincided with a period of Buddhist celebration called Ohigan (お彼岸), which is a celebration of the vernal equinox and the possibility of reaching enlightenment. The term Ohigan means “the other shore [of the Sanzu river]”, the Sanzu river being the Japanese version of the river Styx in Greek mythology, and the other shore being a euphemism for the state of enlightenment. Anyone wishing to cross the Sanzu river must pay the ferry woman, a shinigami (death god), and so six coins are placed with the deceased upon cremation in certain Buddhist traditions. Other mythological traditions have similar stories for the journey to the land of the dead, so choose your favorite and then gape in awe at how small a world we live in.
Monster rhinoceros beetle - image © Mario Leto
Another highlight on par with the chef’s bust in terms of size and oddness is the giant rhinoceros beetle attached to the outside of a building on the Asakusa side of Kappabashi. The choice of insect itself is not surprising: Japanese children are fond of hunting and capturing these enormous insects in the wild and then keeping them as pets. For those with a little less initiative, they can also be purchased at the local hardware store. As to why that giant insect display was put on that particular building in Kappabashi is, unfortunately, not as interesting as the cautionary kappa story told earlier. The beetle belongs to the “food sample” company Iwasaki Be-I (pronounced “bee-eye”), who, according to a Japan Times news article, has about a 40% share of the sample food market in Japan. As making sample food seems quite similar to making sample anything, a museum ordered a large rhinoceros beetle from Iwasaki Be-I for a display and Iwasaki-Be-I made two, kept one, and put it on the outside of the building. End of story. If you’re interested in food samples, there is plenty to be found in Kappabashi. It can be pricey but makes for an arguably interesting souvenir.
Paper lanterns - image © Mario Leto
My own journey wasn’t as neat as I made it seem above. I walked the Ueno side of Kappabashi street and then the Asakusa side and then walked down and back and forth and here and there many times over searching for previous shops I wanted to see again for things I wanted to buy or people I wanted to talk to. Many shops are small and somewhat nondescript and therefore difficult to locate again even if you have a bearing on the area. Plus, the covered walkway puts everything in shadow which just helps to obscure defining shop features. My advice is to either take your time and do your shopping the first time around, which is rather impractical considering the number of shops and options available to you; or prepare yourself for a lot of walking, which is the more common experience.
Spices - image © Mario Leto
I have lived in Tokyo for eons and still make a biannual trip there just to browse or to pick up some obscure kitchen implement. It’s always a nice day trip for the accustomed and a great one for the first-timer. Finally, I recommend a few days in the entire area, perhaps taking in the museums at Ueno park one day, perhaps a stroll down Ameyoko-cho, the old post WWII black market, and then another day around the Sensoji Temple area. Downtown Tokyo is sure to meet the expectations of any traveller to Japan looking for a glimpse into an aged and distinct culture.
About Mario Leto
Mario Leto is assistant professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. His research and writing interests include travel, literature, and media discourse on food and dietary alternatives.
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