Upscale shops characterize Ginza, Tokyo’s ritziest district, while Yurakucho emits a more laid-back vibe.
Historically the site of a silver mint, the Ginza area has a long-standing association with money. Ginza’s clean streets are framed by towering department stores where the wealthy come to indulge in designer fashions, high-end treats and superior dining, while nearby Yurakucho serves as a playground and watering hole for businessmen after 12- to 14-hour days. Though the two districts sit side-by-side, in many ways they’re night and day.
Exploring all that glitters in Ginza
Ginza literally means “Silver Mint,” and though the silver has since been replaced with designer stores, there’s still a lot of money flowing through this upscale neighbourhood. On weekends the central thoroughfare, Chuo Street, is closed off to traffic, turning the centre of the district into a massive pedestrian mall. Ginza’s most recognizable department stores include Marronnier Gate, Tokyo Plaza Ginza—which includes tax-free shops for tourists—and chain stores such as Matsuya and Mitsukoshi. Planning to meet someone in the district? The Wako building’s clock tower serves as an iconic meet-up spot.
Sembikiya is one of Tokyo’s oldest fruit shops, selling some of the freshest, sweetest and most colourful fruit in the city. The shop is known in particular for its famed Japanese muskmelon, prized for its musky scent and melting sweetness. Japanese muskmelons have a stem that sticks up and out to each side like an antenna, and the skin of the melon is manipulated into an unusual webbed pattern, created using a special massaging process. The melons at Sembikiya are shipped from Shizuoka, a coastal region outside of Tokyo which is known for producing the best muskmelons due to the copious amounts of sunlight the area receives. Sembikiya is also the place to get one of Japan’s famous square watermelons.
Ginza’s Kabuki-za theatre is one of the best places to see a traditional Japanese kabuki show. Kabuki is an old art form, akin to opera, dating back to the 1600s. In kabuki performances actors in elaborate costumes and wigs put on dramas through song and dance. Don’t worry if you can’t understand them—the language is old Japanese, similar to Shakespearean English, and even many locals have trouble grasping the entirety of what’s being said. An audio guide can be purchased at the theatre for a small fee.
In contrast to the high-end shopping and dining so characteristic of Ginza, antenna shops offer hometown favourites from districts all over Japan. It’s where homesick Tokyo transplants go to get a taste of their roots, with souvenirs and regional delicacies available. Two of the most popular shops are the Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza and the Okinawa Washita Shop, but there are over a dozen others for various districts like Iwate and Fukushima.
Finally, at night Ginza becomes a neon wonderland, and the plethora of bars, clubs and restaurants draws crowds of people looking to indulge in Tokyo’s legendary nightlife. Star Bar fits right in among Ginza’s elite establishments. This small and cosy specialty bar has no menu. Patrons simply give the bartender an idea of what they’re looking for—perhaps light and fruity, or rich and robust—and, kings of their craft, the knowledgeable bartenders come up with something that satisfies every time. They have cocktails down to a science: even the ice is frozen slowly to reduce bubbles. A drink here can easily run ¥5,000, or $65 CAD.
Photo ©Kevin Nishijima
Coming back down to earth in Yurakucho
Just west of Ginza, Yurakucho shares some of the same traits as its upscale neighbour, but the shops and watering holes of Yurakucho are geared toward the hard-working salarymen and office ladies of Tokyo. Gādo-shita, or “under the tracks,” refers to the networks of standing bars and food stands often found lining the streets under the tracks of major stations. Yurakucho’s gādo-shita has a festival-like atmosphere. On weeknights, tired workers let down their hair, loosen their ties and succumb to the siren call of vendors coming from the flashy, bright stands stretching out from Yurakucho Station. Here the beers and snacks are cheap and flowing, and though the crowded, tiny shops might seem downright grungy compared to the pristine establishments of Ginza, the atmosphere serves to help people relax. Yurakucho’s gādo- shita is the place to go for Japanese bar classics like ramen, gyoza (dumplings), Japanese-style fried chicken and Chinese and Korean fare.
Possibly the most visited section of Yurakucho’s gādo-shita is Yakitori Alley, a stretch of yakitori stands just to the south of the station. It’s fun to go from stall to stall, sampling skewers of grilled meat and green onion to find the best grill. The wafting scent of grilling meat sits perfectly in the lantern-lit alleys, in harmony with the boisterous laughter of relaxed office workers unwinding after a hard day’s work.
Another of Yurakucho’s highlights is the Tokyo International Forum, lauded for its stunning architecture. The curved structure mimics the inside of a ship and is made mostly of glass, giving it a beautiful, airy feel. Concerts, exhibitions and more are hosted at the Tokyo International Forum. Shopping in Yurakucho consists largely of the Itocia department store and plaza. Yurakucho is also home to a massive eight-floor Bic Camera shop—a ubiquitous electronics shop in Tokyo.
Whether you’re dazzled by the high life of Ginza or more comfortable among the down-to-earth dives of Yurakucho, these two neighbouring districts are distinctly Tokyo.
Eats and treats, Tokyo-style
For great food and souvenirs, you can’t ask for a better place than Ginza. The department stores of Ginza are ideal places to find the perfect gift, and the high-quality restaurants promise excellent dining no matter how simple the fare.
Tsubaki Cookies: These homemade gourmet cookies can only be found at Shiseido Parlour. They feature intricately crafted designs of tsubaki flowers (camellias in English) and are made of the finest butter, flour and eggs.
Famous meat croquettes
Food & Souvenirs Photo ©Shiseido Parlour