From Japanese knives to utensils for sushi and ramen, this Tokyo neighbourhood is a treasure trove for chefs and tourists

Komatsuya is jammed floor-to-ceiling with beautiful – but delicate – pottery.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A deep bowl with a stunning, hazy blue glaze has caught my eye but, as I set foot into the mildly chaotic interior of the shop, the proprietor rushes forward, his arms outstretched in anything but a greeting.

Seeing my reaction, he quickly reassures me that I am indeed welcome - but then points at my shoulder bag wave an airy hand at his stock and gives me an awkward smile.

Komatsuya is jammed floor-to-ceiling with beautiful - but delicate - pottery. The shelves are weighed down with thimble-sized sake mugs and decorated pots for green tea, while the floor is awash in rectangular plates for fish dishes, shallow bowls for soy sauce, deeper ones for ramen, rice bowls, serving dishes and countless others.

Breakages in this business must be a constant source of concern.

Very carefully, I slip my bag off my shoulder and make sure I'm extremely careful where I place feet that are larger than those of the average Japanese customer in Kappabashi - more commonly known as Tokyo's Kitchen Town.

A short distance from the Asakusa district, famous among visitors for its photogenic Sensoji Temple and stores selling tourist trinkets, is a district that offers an entirely different experience. And a glimpse into what happens behind the scenes in Tokyo's countless bars and restaurants.

Kappabashi Dougugai Street runs as straight as an arrow for nearly 1km (1,100 yards) north of Tawaramachi Station, on Tokyo Metro's Ginza Line.

The main street and the offshoots are home to more than 170 stores that stock everything that anyone setting themselves up in the food business needs. And for visitors seeking a souvenir with the flavour of Tokyo, it is a warren of possibilities.

The selection of kitchenware and utensils on display is mind-boggling.

Kitchenware spills out of a Kappabashi store.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At one store, a stack of square frying pans - perfect for rolled omelettes - compete for space on the pavement with coffee grinders, braziers for the kitchen of a yakitori restaurant, and a display of cake tins.

A neighbouring shop apparently specialises in ironware for the kitchen, with works of all sizes suspended from the ceiling, a stack of ramen noodle strainers nested into each other, and mixing bowls, steel ladles, tongs and biscuit cutters in the shapes of animals or geometric designs.

Elsewhere can be found garlic crushers and ice cube trays, long-handled chopsticks used by chefs, doormats emblazoned with "welcome" in either English or Japanese, rolling pins and neon signs, weighing scales, leather-topped bar stools, wind chimes and waiters' aprons.

Tokuzo displays dozens of specialist cooking knives, with different finishes to their blades and handles of rosewood, sandalwood or walnut. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In the window of one shop is a clock with different types of sushi instead of numbers on its face.

While the stack-'em-high emporiums of equipment are amazing to behold, Kappabashi is where the experts come to shop - so it is also home to the specialist stores.

For 400 years, the artisans at Tokuzo Knives have been forging blades, with each knife designed for a specific task. The yanagiba, for example, is a blade specifically for slicing fish, while the mukimono is put to work on vegetables and the honesuki is for removing the bones from chicken.

The knives displayed on the walls have a variety of finishes to their blades and handles of rosewood, sandalwood or walnut. While each of these knives is a work of art, top-of-the-range examples come with a price tag to match.

A little further along is Nishiyama Shikki, which has been dealing solely in traditional lacquerware for the table since 1916.

Bento lunch boxes come in black lacquer with flowers and leave picked out in gold, silver or red; others with fireworks, traditional images of pine needles or geometric designs. Bowls for miso soup are simpler but attractive in their own right, as are serving trays, mugs and chopsticks.

Across the road, Kappabashi Soushoku dominates a corner with its display of signs. Outsize red lanterns bear the characters for sushi, yakitori and okonomiyaki. Neon signs stand alongside more traditional chalkboards. There are door signs for "push" and "pull", restrooms, parking and exit.

Kappabashi Soushoku in Kappabashi.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Kappabashi earned a reputation for being the shopping place for kitchen supplies around 1910, although stores were in the district for several years before that.

The name is believed to have derived from either the raincoats - known in Japanese as kappa - that used to be hung on nearby bridges to dry, or from a local merchant called Kihachi Kappaya, who paid for a water management scheme in the neighbourhood.

Whatever the origin of the name, locals have adopted a type of mythical river sprite known as kappa as their mascot, and images of the mischievous, bald characters can be found throughout the neighbourhood. A gold statue of a kappa holding a staff stands in a small park at Kappabashi Crossing.

Close by is a store that sells only brushes and brooms - of all sizes and for everything from sweeping the floor to tawashi pot scrubbers.

Union solely stocks items to fit out the perfect coffee shop, including a huge traditional grinder in the window. Alongside is a showroom filled with the latest cookers, freezers and dishwashers needed in a commercial-scale kitchen.

Another store deals solely in paper products, from napkins to party hats and throwaway plates, and another specialises in the noren split curtains that hang over the door of a restaurant or bar with its name on them.

Tokyo Biken is a blaze of colourful plastic food for restaurant displays.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Although many of the items available in Kappabashi would make wonderful souvenirs, a couple of shops tend to do the most business with tourists.

The windows of Tokyo Biken are a blaze of colourful - and convincingly realistic - plastic food. There are succulent steaks, fresh sushi, tall ice cream sundaes and fruit and vegetables of every description. These are all painstakingly produced replicas designed to be placed in restaurant windows to entice diners inside.

A slice of pizza looks good enough to eat, as does a pan of paella and a bowl of noodles. Realistic-looking froth tops a pint of beer frosted on the outside. While most visitors might not require a full four-course meal in moulded plastic, Tokyo Biken has branched out and produces hundreds of keyrings - each with a different food item attached, from a miniature slice of cake to a deep-fried prawn.

Feast your eyes.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.