There’s a butcher shop at an open-air market in Bangkok that is invariably fronted by a whole pig’s head wearing sunglasses–and when we lived in Thailand, it was imperative that I get to visit it on each and every one of our weekly shopping trips (this was before I realized it must be a different pig each time. The horror, the horror). Now, maybe you love Japan for the freakishly proportionate musk melons (42,000yen a pop?), the apples and nashi cradled in individual foam sleeves, the bags-within-bags-within-bags packaging; that is, precisely for its less…imaginative displays of the merchandise. But if you find yourself bored with all that pristine goodness and broke on top of it, with a hankering for the raucous atmosphere of an outdoor shopping arcade, Ameya-Yokocho is your best bet.
Creeping for half a mile alongside the raised tracks of the Yamanote Line between Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station, Ameya-yokocho was candy central in the postwar era (hence “ame”, or candy), and then a black market for imported American goods (the name is also supposedly derived from Ame, for American).
These days the market has dispensed with the trench coats and Red Hots (I’ve never been to a black market, ok) but has instead got itself a website where bargain hunters can browse restaurants by category, e.g. okonomiyaki and monja places, French and Italian cuisine, or the catch-all “Asia” restaurants, or else search for specific goods…Running shoes, perfumes, watches, toys, shaved ices and lychees and kebabs, pickled snakes in a jar and other appetizing accoutrements of traditional Chinese medicine? Check. No pig’s heads as far as I could tell, but you can’t have everything.
My advice is to dispense with the website and spend an afternoon browsing the market in person. Chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for, and plenty that you didn’t think you were looking for besides.
With the overflowing bargain bins, Adidas sneakers in the 999yen to 3,499yen, and lunches in the 500yen to 600yen range, Ameya-yokocho is a long skinny slice of cheapo heaven; but you should also be looking out for those specialty goods, such as dried beans and nuts, that aren’t readily available in many supermarkets–not at any price you want to pay, anyway–plus, of course, international foodie imports. You’ll find plenty more in the way of specialty stores, from the army surplus store that stocks everything from army-issue canteens to Bundeswehr patches to the candy store that sells massive 1,000yen mystery bags.
And a final note–on haggling. It might be tempting to try for an extra-cheap deal via your preferred method of haggling (the ‘I don’t want your stuffed armadillo anyway, walking away now’ fakeout, the yelling and fist-shaking, the flashing your shoulder holster or whatnot), but most sources seem to advise against it. However, if you must, here are some tips on how to haggle in Japan. “Please give me a discount” is “benkyo shite kudasai”, and asking for an offer on bulk purchases might have some success.
Note: buying in bulk doesn’t mean buying two bottles of water instead of one. God, you’re cheap!