Known by locals for its mom-and-pop shops and retro nostalgia, Sunamachi Ginza is a small shopping district nestled within bustling Tokyo. Without a local guide, it could easily be overlooked, which would be a shame for lovers of street food, because it is a fantastic spot for yakiniku, tempura, taiyaki, and more! Contrasting starkly with the trendy streets of Harajuku and high-class, polished Omotesando, Sunamachi is a modest and unassuming area with hidden culinary treasures at affordable prices, and a truly local atmosphere.
On a chilly afternoon, with a kairo (hand warmer) blazing in my pocket, I set off to explore the food scene in this modest and nostalgic part of Tokyo. Our group met up with the lovely Sunamachi Street Food Tour guide, Hiro, at Kinshicho Station, and took a bus together to the little-known shopping district. Wandering through the streets, it felt like we had stepped back in time. With shops bursting with second-hand clothing and homeware, such as yutanpo hot water bottles (such a blessing to have in the wintertime), Sunamachi is truly old school.
Soon, we discovered that for homestyle cooking Sunamachi can’t be beaten. Hiro brought us to a cute mom-and-pop shop frying up a wide variety of tempura, from shrimp to renkon (lotus root). The first item on the menu was kakiage, a common style of tempura where different shredded vegetables are mixed together with the batter and fried. The kakiage is saturated in a savory and sweet sauce, and is perfect on it’s own for a snack or paired with a bowl of rice. It’s not a fussy kind of dish and it’s a good way to use up leftover veggies, making it a staple of home cooking in Japan.
Our next stop was a taiyaki shop, for this fish-shaped Japanese sweet treat! The first thing we noticed was the huge, friendly smile from the shopkeeper, clearly someone who clearly loves what he does. His good vibes are contagious; perhaps that’s the secret ingredient to delicious taiyaki. This shop is extremely popular, with many regular customers, especially the older folks who often stop by for a chat to go with their snack.
Taiyaki is made of a pancake or waffle-like batter, and traditionally has a filling of sweet red beans, though custard is another popular flavor. This taiyaki shop is particularly unique, as it also makes taiyaki crisps with extra batter.
Somewhat like a fortune cookie, we munched on these crispy crackers while watching the shopkeeper at work. Between the friendly atmosphere, complimentary taiyaki crisps, and hot-off-the-griddle taiyaki, it’s no wonder this shop has so many dedicated regulars!
Next, Hiro brought us to an awesome store for miso-lovers, with a whole wall of flavors to try. Miso is a fermented ingredient made from soybeans, malted rice, and salt. The most important factors for taste are the ratios of ingredients, the variety of malted rice, and the aging time.
The shop sells a huge variety of miso pastes, with the time of fermentation ranging from 2 months to 3 years. There is also a really handy card above each one, listing the best food pairings. Hiro also gave us some fantastic tips about the best kind of miso pairings and even a recipe for a savory spread! Her tip about miso storage changed the game for me, since I had been storing miso paste in the fridge all this time, which led to darker and darker miso over several months.
Next, Hiro led us to a little oden shop with a growing line outside. Oden is a popular winter food in Japan, a dish that is simmered for a long time on very low heat, to retain the aroma of the ingredients. A very nutritious and filling option, oden consists of different types of fish cakes, tofu, fried eggs, and vegetables like daikon, in a hot and comforting broth.
One of the best things about oden is that you can pick and choose your favorite ingredients from the huge array of options. The spicy fish cake (pictured above) was definitely a favorite of mine. It was so savory and tender, with enough heat to warm me up despite the cold.
One of our last food stops on the tour was a yakiniku, grilled meat skewer, store, where we could watch as the two shopkeepers deftly flipped yakitori over the flame. With a huge line forming outside, it was clearly a popular spot for cheap and filling street food. Then, Hiro surprised us by pulling out some cups and cracking open a bottle of sake. While enjoying our yakiniku, we could also taste some sweet, smooth sake.
Sunamachi Ginza, where the pace of life is slower and there are friendly faces at every corner, is an area I had never heard of before going on this food tour, but it’s a neighborhood I would love to go back and visit again. For delicious street food and home-style cooking at affordable prices, it’s like paradise, and having a fantastic guide like Hiro to give insight into the food culture and history of the area made the experience all the more valuable. There really is nothing like exploring a new area and sharing steaming hot street food, sake, and conversation with other foodies on a blustery winter day.
Want to discover classic street food and Japanese-style home cooking in old-school Sunamachi Ginza? Book your Sunamachi Street Food Tour now!
Rika is a sourdough enthusiast, amateur film photographer, and pun-lover, born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. As a carb-based lifeform, she is always on the lookout for tasty bakeries in the Tokyo area. She currently lives in Yokohama.