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Business trends

Japan's traditional wholesale streets attract independent tourists

Seasoned travelers seek out authentic experiences as visitor numbers grow

Kappa-bashi Street sells everything needed to open a restaurant, from food samples to menu boards.

TOKYO -- Kappa-bashi shopping street in eastern Tokyo is filled with shops selling everything you need to open a restaurant -- from knives and pans in all shapes and sizes, to menu boards and food samples made of wax.

The shops are open to everyone, but were traditionally used for wholesale purchases. Restaurant owners come from all over the country, and even from overseas, to buy their goods. In recent years, it has increasingly become a major draw for tourists.

In a recent ranking by tourist information website Live Japan Perfect Guide, Kappa-bashi was the second most searched-for place in Tokyo, with other shopping streets Ameyoko and Yanaka Ginza also featuring in the top 10. These are all areas considered to be more local, compared with classic sightseeing destinations such as Tsukiji fish market and Sensoji Temple which featured more strongly in the previous year’s ranking.

The popularity of shopping streets is a sign of the broadening of interests and possibilities for Japan's increasing number of tourists. A growing portion are repeat visitors, with more than 80% booking independently rather than through guided tours, according to Yasuhiro Tsuboi, the head of inbound business at Japanese travel agency JTB, meaning they are not confined to visiting the more obvious tourist attractions.

Located near the downtown area of Asakusa, Kappa-bashi has attracted dealers since the early 20th century. The street flourished after World War II in an era of rapid economic growth. Shops sold goods for new restaurants and shops that were built in neighboring areas. Sweets manufacturers were also concentrated nearby.

As wholesale shops are essentially for business customers, areas where they are grouped are not generally promoted to tourists. Of the roughly 145 companies that are part of the Promotion Association for Tokyo Kappa-bashi Shopping Street, 60% are retailers, with the remainder wholesale only, or in other business such as construction.

“Our policy is that we do not specifically cater for tourists,” emphasized Hiroshi Sano from the association, although some shops sell goods targeted at foreign visitors. “We sell good quality products,” Sano added, and these are also of interest to tourists. The street does provide maps and apps, but only in Japanese.

Nonetheless, the word is out about Kappa-bashi. "It is famous," said British tourist Simon Butler. "It's in all the books.” His friend who works in Japan took him around to visit. According to them, the area is known for the variety of its products and its cheap prices.

Asia Kostka, who works as a chef in London, bought several things in Kappa-bashi including a knife holder, tongs and a mixer, which she said was hard to find elsewhere. She bought a cabbage slicer for less than half the price it would have been in the U.K., she said. The street “has everything you need to cook great meal.” 

Even with the increase in visitors, wholesale streets are managing to maintain their local atmosphere because they continue to provide goods to local and long-term customers. “You can still feel the history, and people enjoy walking around the area rather than buying goods,” JTB’s Tsuboi pointed out.

Not too far from Kappa-bashi, another wholesale street, Nippori Fabric Town, is also a popular site among tourists. Little known even for ordinary Japanese people, it has more than 80 shops selling fabric, buttons and other haberdashery materials.

Nippori Fabric Town in Tokyo sells fabrics and other haberdashery items.

In the early 1900s, textile recycling businesses moved to Nippori from Asakusa, which was being redeveloped. The area eventually started selling textiles to retailers all over Japan.

Similar such wholesale streets in Japan did not survive as more people were buying ready-made clothes in department stores, but Nippori withstood the change by serving designers and individual visitors with handicraft hobbies.

Tourists increased due to the area's convenient railway access to Narita airport and the depreciating yen in recent years. As with Kappa-bashi, they have learned about the place through word of mouth.

“I like Japanese cotton, and [there are] many choices,” said a Malay tourist who first read about Nippori online.

One textile shop in particular, Mihamathat or Mihama, has become famous among Burmese people via word of mouth. It originally sold textiles used for Japanese sleeping mats, duvets and kimono.

“Everyone knows about this place in Myanmar,” said a Burmese student studying in Japan, who visited Mihama to buy souvenirs. She said that the fabrics she bought would be used to make lungi, a national costume of Myanmar.

To the west of Japan in the city of Kyoto is Nishiki market, which sells groceries to chefs and the general public. Often called the “kitchen of Kyoto", fish sellers are said to have operated there for about 1,200 years, due to its rich groundwater.

Kappa-bashi was the second most searched-for place in Tokyo

The site is so popular among tourists that some local customers and shops complain of the influx. Tourists come in large numbers, but do not make large purchases because many shops serve perishable fresh ingredients.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), there are about 13,000 shopping streets in the country, including those that sell everyday goods and food.

In a survey carried out by METI in 2016, 52.3% of respondents from shopping streets said that the number of foreign tourists had increased in the previous three years. Popular shopping streets tend to be located near other tourist destinations, often in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka.

While there are some negative views to the rise in tourism, such as at Nishiki market, 29% of those survey said consumption at their shops had increased over the previous three years. On the other hand, only 7.6% had undertaken measures to foster tourism, indicating there is room for growth for shopping streets suffering from competition from online sales and shopping malls.

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