My first experience of Tateishi (立石) was with my then three-year-old daughter Mei permanently attached to one of my hands. We were accompanying my wife on a week long business trip. My job was to keep this small person fed, hydrated and entertained during the daytime. Fortunately, in Tokyo there is no shortage of choices in these regards, though as it was the hot and humid days of August, I needed to make sure we could move easily from shady spot to shady spot. Climate controlled shopping centers and department stores were an option, but I didn’t really want these to be her first impression of the city. Besides, we have more than enough of those in China, which we use when smog forces us indoors. In a bit of a selfish decision that would allow me to do some location scouting for future photowalks, I put together a list of covered shōtengai I hadn’t yet visited and looked for ones a reasonable distance from our hotel. I figured the arcades would allow us to stay out of direct sun and not have to constantly worry about auto traffic.
I knew of two arcades in Tateishi, a subdivision of Katsushika Ward, deep in Tokyo’s northeast Shitamachi area. I assumed we would just come up for an hour or two to take a look at those, then move on to something else. We arrived after a late breakfast and ended up staying clear through to early evening. Whenever we passed a store that caught her interest, she would have to stop to take a look and stay for at least five minutes. Double that if there was a shop cat. This was her first time in a non-English or Chinese speaking environment. When vendors would try to speak with her, she had to figure out the logistics of relying on her father’s terrible translating ability. Many shops, a handful of snacks and at least a couple of ice creams later, we realized it was time to head back into the center so that we could meet mom for dinner.
We’d already had a very good time, but as we prepared to leave, I noticed the hum. A good urban commons has a hum or buzz, which becomes more pronounced as it transitions from quieter hours to its busy time. There’s the audible one, the din of voices, footsteps, pushcarts and bicycles (the passing trains and railroad crossing chime adds another layer here). There’s also the intangible energy that grows as people fill the space. Locals heading out to eat, or shop for last minute groceries to take home, and the first tranche of commuters from the Keisei Oshiage Line, descend on the cluster of arcades and open air shōtengai around Keisei-Tateishi Station as lights flick on and shopfront displays are replenished. Mei and I watched the sun set over the Arakawa from the train as she nodded to sleep, and I knew I’d have to return here for a deeper look.
A few months after that, I was back in Tokyo for my annual fall field study. I originally planned a full day for Tateishi, in order to observe the different phases of a weekday. I didn’t realize Lee Chapman had also recently come across this area, and this is where he planned to take me when we met up for a walk across a slice of Shitamachi. Since I was already here, I figured I would just to stick around and shoot the late afternoon and evening after we parted. This article picks up where that previous one ended, as I return to Tateishi from Aoto.
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There is evidence suggesting human activity here as early as the Kofun period (250-538 AD). The name Tateishi (standing stone) first appeared in 1398. It references a stone brought to the area, believed to have originally been intended for use as a sign post on the Tōkaidō during the Nara and Heian periods. Locals worshiped the stone as the embodiment of Inari during the Edo period (1600-1868), which is why it has henceforth been referred to with the honorific –sama suffix. The stone still exists, though little material remains and it is enshrined behind a stone fence and torii.
Keisei-Tateishi Station opened in 1912, when it was part of the original Keisei Main Line at the beginning of operation of the Keisei Electric Railway. It’s now part of the Keisei Oshiage Line, a spur. Industrialization brought a large number of small-scale factories, particularly toy manufacturing, which remains a prominent industry cluster in this part of the city to this day. Takara Tomy maintains its headquarters in Tateishi.
The area around the station was destroyed in a 1945 February air raid during World War II. Out of the rapid rebuilding after the war emerged the black market that would evolve into Nakamise, one of the two covered shōtengai. Though Tateishi has been generally left out of the waves of redevelopment and modernization that changed many parts of Tokyo, factories have been gradually replaced by residential and commercial blocks from the 1980s on. Redevelopment intentions for the rail line and area around the station will continue this trend.
Though you feel that you are in an outer orbit of Tokyo, Tateishi is actually well connected transit-wise. Thanks to mutual through service between the Keisei Oshiage Line and Toei Subway Asakusa Line, linked since 1960, you can reach Asakusa in 10 to 15 minutes. You can also take a train one stop in the other direction, change to a limited express at Aoto, and arrive at Narita International Aiport in a little over an hour.
I haven’t been able to dig up an official announcement, but from the multiple mentions I collected in my reading, I learned of two key parts of the anticipated redevelopment, expected to begin in 2017 or 2018. The rail line would be elevated between Aoto and Yotsugi stations, eliminating the grade level crossings, including the one here. There is also supposedly a commercial development planned for the north side of Keisei-Tateishi Station (left side in above image) that would displace existing merchants. This all sounds plausible, but as my information is second hand, take it with a grain of salt.
I imagine the arguments for the changes, especially the rail line, echo similar redevelopment elsewhere. Eliminating crossings reduces emissions from idling cars and the chance of train-car collisions. Often, if there is space, the right-of-way left by moving the tracks is converted to a road to improve firetruck access. But as we’ve seen in places like Shimokitazawa, this also involves ripping out pieces of unique urban commons that grew by accretion and cannot be easily replaced. More through auto traffic also means more chance of pedestrian accidents.
From this perch in the over-track station building, I can see how close the train, buildings and people nestle together. Any kind of change, even a good or necessary one, would alter the dynamics of this relationship.
Emerging from the south exit, I find the interface between the station and neighborhood to be very engaging.
The dominant feature is the entrance to the Tateishi Eki-dōri Shōtenkai (立石駅通り商店会), the more modern of the two arcades. (It uses the more common shōtengai (商店街) to refer to the physical space in signage.) This draws the eye directly to the main backbone through the space on the south side.
Next to the stairway is Aichi-ya (愛知屋), which sells croquettes and cutlets. It doesn’t stand out much during the daytime, but the light emanating from it after sunset gives the appearance of a lantern marking the path. Nakamise, which we’ll come to in a moment, is beyond, around the side of the station.
Red trains are the Keisei local service, which stops at the station, as do the Toei subway trains. Steel and silver Keisei trains are faster services that pass through.
After trains clear the crossing and the bells stop, I hear and see a different kind of indicator: cases full of clinking bottles of alcohol on their delivery route to izakaya in the shōtengai around the station. I wasn’t aware prior to my visit, but Tateishi is known in this part of the city as a hub for ‘B-class gourmet’ (B級グルメ)—low cost and casual but well made foods.
At Aichi-ya, patrons generally don’t stop just to place and take away an order. There is almost always some sort of conversation involved in the process.
The north entrance to the Tateishi Nakamise Domosekai (立石仲見世共盛会) is very photogenic, though it is upstaged precisely at the moment I reach it by the golden sun on the horizon. As a side note, I’ve had a record of not so good luck with weather on my Tokyo photowalks, encountering overcast skies on many of my visits. As a result, I get pretty excited by the chance to shoot in good light, even more so with a magic moment like this.
Shops began to cluster in this area shortly after the end of the war. In 1946, the first formal collective, Tateishi Market Shōtenkai (立石マーケット商店会), was established. This became the contemporary Kyōdō Kumiai Tateishi Nakamise Domoseikai (協同組合 立石仲見世共盛会) in 1954. The arcade roof was built in 1960.
Nakamise vendors almost exclusively sell foodstuffs. Raw ingredients are more active during the early part of the day. Prepared foods appear late morning and continue sales into the evening as commuters pass through. Sit down (and stand up) izakaya and cafes begin serving food for lunch, get busy at dinner time, then keep the party going until late night.
I love this light.
The Ito Yokado in Tateishi was the first branch of the chain opened in Katsushika Ward. I’ve seen this arrangement many times in my walks, a large grocery located near or directly inside a shōtengai, which seems at first an unintuitive pairing. For a period of time, many blamed supermarkets for the decline of neighborhood shopping streets. But I think a traditional shōtengai is smart to realize that it is unlikely to be a one-stop shop for anyone in this day and age. By co-locating, they do not force customers to choose between a trip to the arcade or a trip to the grocery store.
Social lubricant delivery continues at a brisk pace. It’s getting closer to dinner time.
Uchida (宇ち多゛) is the most often mentioned of all the restaurants here. This izakaya specializes in motsuyaki—grilled animal guts and organs. The food may seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but Uchida is such a revered name in this part of town that there is a perpetual line, even at noon. This side is the exit. Diners flow in from the queue on the other side of the shop, in a spur of the arcade.
At the time of my visit, this popular shop was still called Oden Nimōsaku (おでん二毛作). It was a bar, but staff would take your order for oden (simmered small dishes) from the next door shop and bring it to your table. Now, Nimōsaku is in its own space a short walk from Nakamise, and the neighboring stalls in the arcade are both called Maruchu Kamaboko-ten (丸忠かまぼこ店). There seems to be some shared blood between them, as the new Nimōsaku still serves similar oden dishes, and the new Maruchu still has an extensive alcohol menu. As best I can tell, Nimōsaku is for when you want to enjoy nice wines with a few paired snacks, while Maruchu is where you go when you’re really into oden, but you can get a nice shōchū to wash it down. This is the kind of thing that made me wish I lived in Tokyo, so that I’d have the opportunity to go back and ask around until I got to the bottom of the story.
Any kind of gyoza you want
Many vendors sell sōzai—prepared side dishes that people take home to diversify a meal.
More of that golden light, deeper orange now, cuts down one of the intersecting streets and crosses through the arcade.
These look like traditional fluorescent lights. But according to the Nakamise website, the main illumination in the arcade was converted to LED in 2013. Perhaps these are light strips designed to fit into existing fluorescent tube fixtures. Another question to add to my list.
Nakamise deposits patrons into the Tateishi Ōdōri Shōtenkai (立石大通り商店会), an association of vendors with shops on either side of arterial Okudo Kaidō (奥戸街道).
Nothing unusual to report about this shōtengai, but that orange light is something great.
Where Nakamise is almost all independent vendors, Eki-dōri has quite a few chains. It’s a general mix of sit-down and take away food, dry goods and entertainment.
This was Mei’s favorite shop during our visit. We went in for the toys, but found a huge orange tabby cat minding the counter as if it was prepared to ring up your order.
I’ve seen this chain izakaya popping up in many of my shōtengai walks the past few years. They all look exactly the same, but better than no izakaya, I suppose.
Just in case you want to step back in time a few decades, you can always slip into one of the intersecting streets that link Eki-dōri and Nakamise.
Between the frequently passing trains and this junction being the central hub connecting the shōtengai on the north and south sides of the tracks, the north entrance to Eki-dōri and the grade crossing is a high energy focal point. When you remove grade crossings you gain some benefits, but you also lose some of this character.
The warm light filtering through the display cases at Aichi-ya greets arrivals.
The smiles are great too.
Nakamise isn’t neglected, but the reality of over 50 years of wear on the building is apparent in the full sun of day. However at night, with the benefit of bounced and filtered light, it’s kind of elegant.
There’s that Tateishi hum.
In the Nakamise spur, Sakaezushi (栄寿司) is another noted food stop. The no stools, standing shop has been making sushi since 1958.
This is the Uchida queue. Not pictured, behind my back is Mitsuwa (ミツワ), another popular motsuyaki shop. These handful are by no means the only B-class gourmet options, just the ones most often mentioned in reviews and on social media. In fact, from reading local bloggers’ accounts, the typical way to do Tateishi is to hop from shop to shop, sampling a little bit from each one, cycling around and around until you can’t take any more. Friendly staff will often ask we’re you’ve been so far and where you plan to go next. Enthusiasts with the time and interest arrive for lunch and don’t leave until the last shop closes.
Eki-dōri continues on the north side of tracks, where it is an open air shōtengai, not an arcade.
It doesn’t quite have the same presence as the Eki-dōri arcade, and doesn’t preserve the same Showa feel as the area around Nakamise, but it’s still fairly active in the evening.
There is a center point in the cluster of streets on the north side of Tateishi. Continuing north from Eki-dōri you enter Kuyakusho-dōri Shōtenkai (区役所通り商店会). The Katsushika ward office is a little further away in this direction, hence the shōtengai name.
East takes you to the Tateishi Nishimachi Shōei-kai (立石西町商栄会).
To the west is the Tateishi Suzuran-dōri Shōtenkai (立石すずらん通り商店会), which wraps around to the south and returns to the station. The north side of Tateishi is quieter than the south, but still there are many options for dining and daily needs for people who live in this direction.
ABURI is a popular bar near the rail crossing. The shop only seats a few people, but during good weather, the crowd just expands into the street as needed.
To the east of the crossing on the north side of the tracks is the area suspected to be most at risk of disappearing should redevelopment go forward.
Tucked into two narrow lanes, half street, half building, is Nonbe Yokochō (呑んべ横丁)—drunk or drunkard alley. There is another Nonbe Yokochō in Shibuya which, like Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokochō and Golden Gai, has been cleaned up a bit and increasingly caters to the needs of the many tourists who visit. Tateishi’s Nonbe is no such creature. The building, if one could even call it that, began life as the Tateishi Department Store in 1955. It’s very raw and a total firetrap, but it’s an interesting firetrap. Lee took me here during the daytime, when you might mistake the derelict structure as an abandoned building. It’s more inviting at night, as the glow from the shop windows and globe lights lining the lanes give it a warm if slightly eerie atmosphere. You can find many of the same kinds of offerings as in Nakamise, like motsuyaki, yakitori, oden, etc., just in even more intimate surroundings. These shops are often run by a single proprietor/chef, and each stall is so small you’re essentially sitting in a kitchen.
It’s really a wonder that this thing is still standing, though I suppose the element of danger adds flavor to the experience.
With Nakamise on one side and Nonbe on the other, you can experience two different flavors of time and dimension displacement. The train station in between is an anchor back to the present and reality.
It’s time for me to leave, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time I visit or write about Tateishi. Given what I’ve learned, a think a marathon food and drink roundup is a good next step. Sometimes research is a real chore.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 3. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.