Better Know a Neighborhood: Ginza (Tokyo)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in Japan and one of my favorite places to “feel” the holiday spirit is in the Ginza. Tokyo’s former silver minting neighborhood is now an unabashed temple to commercialism and yet I never tire of exploring the brick-lined back streets here, stumbling over Michelin-starred sushi joints, century-old pastry shops and hidden shrines. An afternoon in Ginza can do a number on the wallet but the following sights are totally free.

Just one of many tantalizing bakeries on the main drag of Chuo-dori, Kimuraya (which recently celebrated its 140th birthday) once served pastries to the Emperor Meiji. Though it was supposedly the Emperor himself who requested the sakura (cherry blossom) flavored bread on offer there, the shop is better known for its anpan, sweet rolls filled with azuki paste and a half dozen other flavors. If the sweets here taste a tad richer than normal, chalk it up to the use of natural yeast culled from the nation’s sake production.

Inside Kimuraya Bakery
Inside Kimuraya Bakery

Need a time check on your Ginza stroll? Just reference the clock tower of the Wako Department Store. Sitting at the bustling intersection of Ginza 4-chome (the busiest in the city, even topping Shibuya crossing), Wako’s stately stone building is a popular meeting place for Ginza shoppers. The clock above, best seen from the opposite corner, once belonged to the Hattori store which used to occupy these premises.It strikes the hour and – thanks to a new satellite-linked GPS system installed in 2004 – its time is accurate to within 1/10000 of a second. The Wako building not only survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and teh bombing raids of WWII, it was also used briefly by the occupying forces as a headquarters in the postwar months. If you’re walking by Wako on the second Saturday of any month around 3pm, keep your eyes peeled for the colorfully-clad Kimono de Ginza Club. Open to anyone who enjoys wearing traditional Japanese clothing, the group sponsors outings to nearby shrines, temples and tea spots.

Inari shrines are not uncommon in Japan, but it’s not often you find them hidden in alleys no more than four feet wide. Ginza’s commercial building craze forced neighborhood preservationists to think outside the box, which is why – if you’re eagle-eyed – you’ll catch this dash of old culture just off Chuo-dori, near one of Ginza’s only remaining bathhouses.

An inari shrine hidden in a Ginza alley
An inari shrine hidden in a Ginza alley

There’s so much more to Ginza  – one of the nation’s oldest brewpubs, a backstreet full of kimono shops, and one of Japan’s most famous tempura restaurants, just to name a few. Want a blueprint for the perfect afternoon in the neighborhood? Just drop me a line and I’ll work up the ideal Ginza intinerary for you.

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