Tsukishima – The Little Village in the Big City

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You know how it is; you go to certain town city on a pretty regular basis. However you find yourself getting stuck into a rut of going to the same places each time – favourite parts of town, the regular bars, the usual restaurants. That’s kind of how I felt about Tokyo, so yesterday afternoon a took a stroll through Tsukishima, a small district of Tokyo close to Tokyo Bay, Odaiba and the famous fish market.

Despite its close proximity to central Tokyo it is very much a residential district, with houses, apartments, a supermarket, lots of shops, koban (police box) on the street corner and all the other little things that make you feel like you are part of a neighbourhood where people live their lives; not just their 9am-5pm working lives (or 9pm to 5am partying lives!) as you feel they in many districts of Tokyo.

The reason most visitors come to Tsukishima (99% Japanese, this place does not register on the foreign tourist radar) is to sample monjayaki (or just ‘monja’), one of Tokyo’s most famous culinary specialities. To give you an idea of monja’s standing in the gastronomic leagues, going out of your way to sample a specific monja is like touring the pubs of Britain to find the best pork scratchings. However the food itself is only a small part of the experience. Monja is a cook-it-yourself meal, so groups of people gather round low tables each with a hot plate in its middle. The small of cooking wafts through the air, mixed with hearty conversation and laughter from the diners, facilitated by the mugs of beer used to wash down the meal.

Now just one of these restaurants makes for a fun experience, but Tsukishima has a whole street of them. Dozens of monja restaurants line both sides and small side alleys like rabbit warrens hide even more monja places, many of them no more than a kitchen itself and a couple of tables. The main street is even closed off to traffic allowing a wonderfully festive atmosphere to prevail. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the type of people milling around the streets.

Whereas many nightlife districts of Tokyo mean wave after wave of dark-suited salarymen, the fact that Tsukishima is a residential neighbourhood means that all manner of people are out on the streets and rubbing shoulders in the tiny restaurants; children, grandparents, students, families, friends etc. For anyone who thinks they have seen it all in Tokyo, or dismisses Tokyo as a soul-less business machine, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Tsukishima, preferably in the early evening, just as the sun is going down and the restaurant lanterns are lighting up – its monja time!

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