Kappabashi: Where the super chefs go shopping
Most tourists know Kappabashi -- if they’ve heard of it at all -- as a place to buy joke souvenirs like plastic sushi or superhero-themed rice crackers. But local chefs and restaurateurs daily rely on this food-supply wholesale district for their sashimi knives, signboards and everything in between.
In other words, it’s the culinary lifeblood of a city whose restaurants brandish more Michelin stars than Paris and London combined.
Meet the Jumbo Cook
Take exit number 3 out of Tawaracho Station and walk west along Asakusa Dori for a few minutes, then look up -- you’ll have arrived in Kappabashi when you see the giant chef's head atop a store called Niimi.
Appropriately dubbed “Jumbo Cook,” the 11-meter-tall, 10-ton sculpture greets visitors to the neighborhood in more than a figurative sense, as the main Kappabashi Dougu shopping street runs north from this landmark.
Niimi itself is a two-floor emporium stocking all manner of professional gear, from saucepans and hand-crafted knives to sake decanters and accessories for waitstaff.
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Next up: lacquerware. One block north of Niimi, Tanaka satisfies the cravings of souvenir hunters and culinary pros alike.
The shop sources its utensils, serving trays and bento boxes (as well as more esoteric fare like soba-flour rolling pins) from Japan’s leading producers and regions, including Echizen, Yamanaka, Wajima and Aizu.
The soup bowls festooned with seasonal flowers -- there are 12 varieties, one for each month -- make particularly classy birthday gifts. Many items are under ¥1,000, making it a much better deal than the likes of Ginza.
Sharpens you up
There are several professional knife shops in Kappabashi, but Kamata, which lies two blocks up the street from Tanaka, stands out by dint of its English-speaking staff and the badass grinding wheels lurking just inside the entrance.
That’s not to say the selection of artisanal blades is dull -- the shop stocks two dozen kinds of sashimi knives alone, from such well-regarded domestic manufacturers as Misono (starting around ¥11,000). Personalized engraving is free.
A more offbeat venue is Kappabashi Soshoku, just across the large intersection that divides the south part of the neighborhood from the north.
Head here for the signature aka-chochin lanterns that hang outside traditional Japanese bars and restaurants. Collapsible and light, they make funky souvenirs and are available for as little as ¥3,000.
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Diagonally across the intersection, Union answers a nettling question: Where do the owners of Tokyo’s famed kissaten (coffee shops) stock up on their impressive kitchen gear?
This cluttered store sells vacuum brewers, drip coffee machines, hand mills, electric grinders, teakettles and even brandy casks in all sizes and price ranges.
Of course, you’ll need to serve the drinks on something, and Union has got you covered with porcelain from such well-regarded manufacturers as Okura.
Head back south on Kappabashi Dougu, take a left at the second intersection, and you’ll come upon a pair of robots guarding the entrance to Nakao Kitchen Museum.
Like Niima, this four-story showcase stocks everything you’d need to get a restaurant up and running, from ladles and soy sauce dispensers to rice steamers and tako-yaki grills.
Of particular appeal to food-loving day-trippers is the book corner, filled with illustrated works from leading Japanese chefs like Kumagai Kihachi.
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A sweet ending to a tour of Kappabashi awaits at Majimaya, which specializes in baking and confectionery gear.
Sure, the cookie cutters, whisks, saucepans, steamer baskets and the rest of the hardware are much the same as you’d find in shops back home.
But not so the yaki-in -- cast-iron stamps for emblazoning the tops of breads, cakes and cookies. Pre-made varieties sell for about ¥2,500, or you can order a personalized design for a cool ¥38,000.