To spend a few hours wandering the Tokyo neighborhood of Kappabashi, not far from Asakusa, is not just a fun shopping experience, it is also a lesson in how many different kitchen toys exist in the world. This neighborhood, and especially its main drag, is jammed with shops that sell everything imaginable for the kitchen, whether it’s a home kitchen or a professional one. It makes sense that a city as obsessed with good food as Tokyo would be home to one of the largest shopping districts for kitchen implements in the world.
The breadth of items available in the more than 170 shops in the area is astounding. There is everything imaginable, and a few things one could never imagine (unless, perhaps, you are a professionally trained chef).
The principal shopping street of Kappabashi, a strip less than a kilometer long, is just a few dozen meters from Tawaramachi station on the Ginza subway line. Its entry is marked by a gigantic bust of a chef atop the Niimi Building on the corner, home of a shop selling dishes.
Cookware and Utensils
How many different sizes and shapes of cookware are there in the world? Kappabashi may be the place to find out. Here you will find high quality Western-style pots and pans, as well as Morroccan tajines and Chinese woks and bamboo steaming baskets. If it is needed to cook any type of cuisine, odds are you will find it in a shop at Kappabashi.
Let’s not forget about bakeware. One shop even specializes in cookie cutters.
Not only cookware, but also the utensils used in preparing ingredients and cooking them are sold at Kappabashi. Who knew wire whisks and wooden rice paddles came in so many sizes? The same goes for spatulas and slotted spoons.
There are shops specializing in coffee-making equipment that put the early days of Starbucks to shame. So many different pieces of equipment for roasting, grinding, filtering and serving the perfect cup of coffee.
Japan’s knives are well known for the fine sharpness of their blades. Hey! They didn’t produce swords all those centuries for nothing.
At any one of the several specialist knife stores in Kappabashi you will be able to try out knives, perhaps select the handle you like best and have it attached to your preferred blade, and even have your name etched onto the knife. The only challenge is selecting which knife to buy. Be prepared to describe the uses to which you intend to put the knife so that the clerk can guide you in your selection.
Several shops also offer knife-sharpening services. After all, it is important to keep a chef’s tools in top condition.
Dishes of all Sorts
Japan is justifiably famous for its porcelain dishes but at Kappabashi, Japanese porcelains are not the only dishes available. You can also find dishes produced in a number of other countries in bulk sets perfect for restaurants, or sold singly. Not just porcelains, but also stoneware and wooden, glass and even crystal dishes. Japanese food is famously served on dishes the shape and color of which compliment the food itself. At Kappabashi you will find dishes to use for serving every kind of food.
There are also shops that specialize in coffee and tea cups and saucers or mugs, doubtless the favorite haunts of coffee shop proprietors. Japanese style tea cups, without handles, used for serving green tea feature in different shops.
Needless to say, implements for eating are also available. In addition to silverware, there are entire shops selling nothing but varieties of chopsticks.
Other items used by restaurants, everything from menus to tablecloths to toothpicks, are sold somewhere in Kappabashi.
Wax food models were introduced in Japan in the early days of restaurant dining to enable potential diners to understand what they might eat inside the establishment. While less necessary now than nearly a century ago, they remain popular and can be a great boon to non-Japanese travelers who may be unable to decipher a menu. Needless to say, these are also sold at Kappabashi. You can acquire your own permanent bowl of noodles or even a plate of spaghetti, a fork-full of noodles suspended above it. More practical souvenirs may be the fridge magnet and key chain versions of wax food models.
Modern food models are no longer made of wax (they are made of a more durable, and malleable, plastic). But at one shop, Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya, visitors can still have the experience of making their own wax food models. These 40 minute workshops cost 2,500 yen and are offered daily at 11:00, 11:30, 14:00, 14:30, 15:00, 15:30, 16:00 and 16:30. Each session can accommodate up to six participants. It’s a good idea to book ahead, but walk-ins are also accepted if there is space.
The experience begins with a subtitled video explaining the process, so that even if you don’t speak Japanese you learn what to do. Then you are taken into the workshop to don an apron and gloves and get to work. The techniques used to produce the crispy fried coating to tempura and bright green lettuce leaves are both surprising and fun.
Where does the name come from?
Kappabashi literally means “kappa bridge”, but the word kappa has two meanings and both figure in the derivation of the name, depending on which legend you prefer. Notwithstanding the modern associations of Kappabashi with kitchens, cooking and eating, these things do not figure in either story.
One kind of kappa is a waterproof cloak worn as a raincoat. Traditionally kappa were made of layered straw. There is a legend that the kappa of samurai retainers of a feudal lord from Shikoku whose Edo (former name for Tokyo) residence was in the area were often hung out to dry on a canal bridge nearby. While that’s an interesting tale, the second one is more intriguing as it involves the other meaning of kappa, a kind of supernatural water sprite that can be friendly or malicious depending on how they are treated by humans.
According to the second legend, about 180 years ago a local merchant known as Taro Kappakawa decided to dig canals through this low-lying area to improve drainage after rains and protect the rice fields from flooding. Kappakawa’s act was a selfless one and he largely worked alone and at his own expense. The kappa who lived in the nearby Sumida River were touched by Kappakawa’s devotion and decided to help him, working secretly at night to advance his progress. The legend goes on to say that anyone who happened to see the kappa at their clandestine nighttime labors would enjoy enjoy good luck and prosperity.
These origins are recounted on a signboard in a little pocket park on the west side of the street about halfway down, which also contains a popular golden statue of a kappa holding a fish. Curiously the statue purports to be of Taro Kappakawa. Does the legend say that he later became a kappa himself, perhaps?
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today