Ameyoko is the shopping district between the JR Ueno and Okachimachi stations. Ameyoko means Candy Alley in Japanese and the official name of the street is Ameyoko Shotengai Rengokai. The Ameyoko Center Building was completed in 1982. Over 400 shops form the Ameyoko market where you can buy a wide variety of things like Japanese food products, shoes, and branded goods. Ameyoko is especially busy during the last days of December, when about 500,000 people come here to shop in preparation for New Year.
The Ameyoko shopping street runs along and partially underneath the elevated railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations. It is a symbol of the Ueno area’s rebirth after World War II, during which the neighborhood had been devastated by heavy aerial bombing. The firebombing carried out by U.S. forces in the closing months of the Pacific War reduced much of central and eastern Tokyo to ashes, shattering the city’s commercial system, which was squeezed further by economic controls imposed by the Allied Occupation after the end of the war in August 1945. Food and other necessities were rationed to deal with the general shortage of goods that continued into the immediate postwar period. The rationing system, alongside factors including a lack of work opportunities, tenuous government control, and the ravaged state of the economy in general, led to the rise of black markets. Mainly located near the busiest railway stations, these markets dealt in everything from rice and vegetables to military-issue sunglasses and leather jackets procured from the Occupation’s stockpiles.
Ueno, the gateway to northern Japan, was one of the train stations next to which a black market sprang up. Located just south of the station, the market included a few stalls selling hard candy (ame in Japanese). Sugar was regulated by the Occupation authorities, so those with a craving for something sweet had to resort to various substitutes. One option was candy made from sweet potatoes, another was popsicles. Ueno’s black-market dealers sold both varieties to travelers waiting for their trains at Ueno Station, and demand exceeded all expectations. Merchants of the Tohoku region (northeastern Japan) would pack their bags with goods, take the train to Ueno to sell them, and use the money they earned to buy all the candy they could carry—which they would then sell at a three- or fourfold profit back in Tohoku. The Ueno black market soon had hundreds of candy shops, which inspired the nickname Ameya Yokocho (“Candy Store Alley”). Shortened to Ameyoko, the market was controlled by Japanese ex-soldiers formerly stationed in mainland Asia, who established a local merchants’ association in 1949.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 brought about a sudden demand for supplies and equipment, fueling the Japanese economy and causing a new influx of American goods. Supplies meant for the U.S. troops stationed in the Far East were soon being diverted and traded as contraband on the streets of Tokyo. Shops selling all-American merchandise such as Hershey’s chocolate, Zippo lighters, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and blue jeans, alongside military-issue essentials including soap and razors, opened up near Okachimachi station, south of the Ueno market. The trade in all things American led people to call the cluster of shops America Yokocho (“America Alley”). These shops eventually merged with the neighboring candy alley, and the two “Ameyokos” became one.
The merchants of Ameyoko adapted to changes in tastes and demand over the decades that followed. They later abandoned candy in favor of canned goods, then moved into fresh fish and exotic novelties. The Ameyoko of today is a hodgepodge of shops dealing in everything from seafood and fruit to cosmetics and chocolate. This reflects the street’s history of always providing a space for merchants supplying whatever the people of Tokyo have an appetite for.
The Ameyoko shopping street, which runs along and partially underneath the elevated railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations, comprises about 390 stores dealing in everything from seafood and fruit to cosmetics and chocolate. These shops line the 600-meter thoroughfare and the numerous alleys that branch out from the main street, and often display their products in eye-catching ways under awnings out front. While some of the shops are general stores, most of them focus on a specific product, such as sunglasses, jeans, belts, or even surplus military gear. This specialization has its roots in the early history of Ameyoko, when the street hosted many merchants dealing in merchandise procured from the U.S. military, which occupied Japan from 1945 until 1952.
Ameyoko is also distinguished by its old-school business practices. Most shops take only cash, allow price bargaining, and would much rather give customers an extra item or two than provide change. Just about every shop at Ameyoko depends on a core group of regular customers, carefully cultivated over many years, so shop staff rarely feel the need to attract everyone who passes by. When a first-time customer does show some interest, though, the merchants are usually eager to chat face to face and suggest deals on the spot. Shopping around is also recommended, as the competition among Ameyoko stores is fierce and merchants are constantly trying to undercut each other.
While far from the prettiest-looking shopping street in Tokyo, Ameyoko is a down-to-earth, welcoming spot brimming with energy that reverberates especially during the days just before New Year’s. At year-end, shoppers from all over Tokyo descend on Ameyoko to procure holiday delicacies and revel in the festive atmosphere, in a tradition that goes back to the mid-1970s.
What to See at Ameyoko
Ameyoko is one of Tokyo’s greatest street markets, where you can dig for finds, buy an entire picnic meal, or just observe energetic merchants in action. First-time visitors may want to start by walking the length of the 600-meter shopping street, which runs along the railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations and is lined with shops and stalls dealing in fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, chocolate and other snacks, cosmetics, clothing, and much more.
Particularly interesting stores facing the main street or located just off it include Nakata Shoten, Americaya, and Okuma Shokai. Nakata Shoten is one of the longest-standing businesses here: it was founded in the 1950s, when many Ameyoko merchants specialized in merchandise procured from the U.S. military, and still trades mainly in surplus military gear such as boots, jackets, and bags. Americaya, as the name gives away, sells wear and gear associated with the U.S.A., although today many of the blue jeans for which the shop is famous are of the artisanal Japanese variety. Okuma Shokai, another store with well over half a century of history, specializes in sukajan—the “souvenir jackets” embroidered with stereotyped symbols of Japanese culture and first worn by American soldiers stationed in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, after World War II.
Directly underneath the tracks is the indoor Ueno Center Mall, also part of Ameyoko and home to dozens of small shops selling souvenirs, clothes, cameras, shoes, belts, perfume, and more. Another indoor destination is the Ameyoko Center Building, a triangular structure near the Ueno side entrance to Ameyoko. The Center Building’s basement houses a variety of grocery stores, including several selling Chinese and Southeast Asian foodstuffs, while the upper floors are occupied mainly by clothing and hobby shops.
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