Ameya-yokochō @ Ueno

Around the railway arches of Yamate Line & Keihin Tōhoku Line in Ueno area always reminded me a film, Blade Runner. Do you remember the first scene in which Harrison Ford appeared? It rained incessantly and the shop sign & neon blurred through a thick PVC curtain while he slurped a bowl of noodle in a nonchalant manner…

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The area around the arches and their vicinity is known as Ameya-yokochō (アメヤ横丁) or more affectionately Ame-yoko (アメ横), and one of the best crowd-pullers in Tokyo.
The quarter is occupied by multitudinous shops and stalls which trade in almost everything except automobiles – however, their parts are available – and most of the items on sale are markdown which attract bargain hunters from not only its neighbourhood but also the outside of Tokyo…

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While Tokyo and the rest of Japan keep on being gentrified, Ameyoko retains coarseness and directness which makes the area exciting and irresistible.
The most renowned alley is along the railway arches with numerous fishmongers trading in cases of fresh sashimi to bags of dried bonito shavings.
With their distinctively loud and hoarse shout goes like ‘Hey guys, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap, CHEAP!’, barkers do their best to attract the attention of passers- by…

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Unlike their counterparts in Osaka, folks in Tokyo in general, they don’t normally haggle prices when they shop. However in Ameyoko, they are encouraged to ask for a better bargain while negotiating the price and the scene is fun to participate. After a brisk yet friendly exchange, a vendor normally relents, saying ‘Alright guvner, you are the boss!’ Then, he quickly wraps up whatever he has sold, hands it over to the triumphant customer and moves on to the next passer-by.

There are two possible explanations how Ameyoko gained its name and notoriety.
By the large-scale bombing by the Allies in the spring of 1945, the area around the present Ameyoko transformed to smouldering wasteland. Once the ash settled, small temporary stalls started to sprout and the area quickly grew to be a large black market. Ueno Station nearby was a gateway to Northern Japan and train cars full of people arrived to the area, scrambling for whatever available to buy in order to survive during the general shortage of goods in post-war Japan. As the black market proliferated uncontrollably, it attracted all sort of vices, such as extortions and illegal prostitutions by Yakuza, daylight shootings and brawls also became an everyday norm. In order to clean up the area and make it safer, a desperate local authorities begged a local entrepreneur, Kondō Hirokichi (近藤広吉), for a solution. Hirokichi organised a market, Kondō Market, with a capacity for 80 shops and vetted its candidates rigorously in order to stump out any dubious dealing. This market was the beginning of the present Ameya-yokochō.

A Japanese word for hard candy/boiled sweet is “Ame”(飴=アメ). After the war, the shortage of sugar, refined or brown, carried on, making the people craving for sweet treats. However, artificial sweetener, saccharin, was introduced to Japan around the end of 1947 and the stalls selling candies using it surged into the market. The number of stalls selling sweets snowballed to more than 300 and the area was gradually known as Ameya-yokochō – Candy seller alley.

Screamind shop signs, advertising cut price chocolate…

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A bags of broken chocolate was on sale for ¥1000. Two for the price of one.

A majority of people, including me, believe that Ameyoko earned its name because it traded in goods from the USA after the war. As a teenager, I remember heaps of the U.S military surplus from the Vietnam War being strewn on the shop floors. Not only M-65 field jackets in cotton but also canteens, rucksacks, caps, helmets, jungle boots, ponchos, t-shirts, gas masks, etc, you name it, were found in numerous shops.

The tradition of selling American fashion still lives on…

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In my late teens, I was in love with anything American and the sights of well known brands from USA excited me to no end…

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It was before the era of the internet shopping and Ameyoko was the only place we could get hold of exotic brand like Red Wing or O’Neill.
Another joy of visiting Ameyoko was exploring narrow passages sprawling like veins around the market. With friends, I walked along the alleyways for all afternoon, hunting for lipsticks or eye shadows of foreign brands such as Estée Lauder and Revlon.

A timeless scene of the alleyway shop…

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While the rest of Tokyo keeps on evolving and gaining new identities by shedding off legacies, Ameyoko gains and retains a unique position in Japanese people’s psyche…

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It’s crowded. It’s loud. It’s slightly seedy. But it’s also nostalgic and very real.
I would never want Ameyoko to smarten up EVER…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

8 thoughts on “Ameya-yokochō @ Ueno

  1. I love Ameyoko!!! I actually went to the market there to get crabs on New Year’s Eve in 2006 because I heard that’s when people really negotiate. I was very proud of myself for haggling (who dares in Tokyo to do that?) and paid ¥3000 for the one crab. When I brought it back to the dormitory to my 管理人 she wasn’t too impressed with my haggling cos I should have paid less.

    You’re right! I won’t want it to smarten up either! I love the way Ameyoko is.

    • Oh how brave you were! I have no idea how I can do a verbal duel against a guy with a towel as a headband. I guess they will never sell it if they don’t make money out of it. Probably my mum would know how much I should pay.
      I love Ameyoko too because it is full of energy and surprises 😄

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