Underground Shopping Streets

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yu Hiroi

    Main guest

    Yu Hiroi is an associate professor in the University of Tokyo’s graduate school department of engineering. An expert on urban disaster mitigation, Hiroi is also a member of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s underground shopping street safety measure committee. He conducts research on risk management in order to identify the best ways to deal with issues that may arise from disasters such as earthquakes or fires, including how to minimize damage and help stranded commuters reach safety. Hiroi has authored several publications analyzing different facets of urban safety.

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September 11, 2018

Underground Shopping Streets

*You will leave the NHK website.

In Japan, the area surrounding many major train stations may seem busy at street level alone—but, as it turns out, that's only half the story. Underneath your feet is an entire alternate universe of shopping, dining and other human activity taking place in vast, labyrinthine underground shopping streets. This time on Japanology Plus, we journey underground to discover the history, structure and uses of these streets.

To see a prime example of Japan's underground shopping streets, host Peter Barakan visits Umeda, Osaka, where several major train lines converge. In Japan, such areas are more than likely to be the home of an underground shopping street, and Umeda is no exception. In fact, opened in 1963, it's one of the earliest major streets. Peter Barakan descends underground to meet expert guest Yu Hiroi, who, in his research about disaster mitigation, has become well-versed in these shopping streets.

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Peter Barakan and Yu Hiroi do some underground roving.

For their meeting location, Hiroi chooses a specific landmark—a fountain containing a piece of unique art. He explains that meeting places like these are essential in underground shopping streets, as none of the traditional above-ground landmarks, like famous buildings or even the position of the sun, are available.

Umeda's shopping street is certainly not unique in this regard. One of the most iconic meeting places in Tokyo Station's large subterranean shopping area, for example, is the Gin no Suzu, or Silver Bell. The first iteration of the bell was reportedly created in 1968 by a station employee out of bamboo and paper as—you guessed it—an easy-to-find meeting spot. Now on its fourth iteration (and no longer made from bamboo), the bell, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, continues to help people find each other today.

Like the shopping street Peter Barakan and Yu Hiroi visit in Osaka, Tokyo Station's underground shopping space is also split into multiple sections all with their own atmosphere. What's more, each is catered toward a different theme or subset of consumers: there are specific sections for merchandise dedicated to Japan's cute characters, others for ramen and other eats, and even a section with services that appeal specifically to Japanese businesspeople heading to and from work. This section, on the Yaesu side of the station, includes shops that specialize in business attire, massages and even fine liquors!

The aforementioned piece of Tokyo Station shopping street is, at over 70,000 square meters, one of Japan's largest individual sections—only Osaka's Crysta Nagahori, at over 80,000 square meters, is larger. The smallest? According to one study, the shopping street at Shiyakusho Station in Nagoya, central Japan. It has exactly two shops—both pharmacies—and an ATM in its 21 square-meter space. That feels even smaller when you consider that some underground shopping streets can reach over 100,000 square meters when you put all their separate sections together.

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Another example of a hard-to-miss landmark.

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Speaking of small underground shopping streets: on Plus One, Matt Alt visits one in Asakusa that is the oldest still being used in Japan.

But where and why did this whole underground shopping street phenomenon get its start? As expert guest Hiroi mentions, the precursor to the modern version was Tokyo's first "subway store," which popped up in the 1930s between Ueno and Asakusa stations. It's been reported that the initial reason this store was created was to help relieve the huge financial burden involved in creating the subway line in the first place. The store, which operated under the motto "the best products at the cheapest prices," sold items like daily necessities, foodstuffs and even toys. It was a success and was even popular enough to inspire a chain of similar locations that, for a time, served as major rivals to Japan's large department stores.

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Underground shopping offers many advantages, including steady temperatures.

There just seems to be something about Japan and shopping streets. As loyal Japanology Plus viewers will recall, an earlier edition covered the above-ground version, shotengai. Japanese speakers will note that underground shopping streets—chikagai—share the same final character, gai, which can also be read machi. Machi may translate as street, but it can also mean "city" or "district." In other words, shopping streets—both those above and below ground—can have the feel of a city or community. With all the different types of shopping and services they offer, it does practically feel like you could make one your home.

*You will leave the NHK website.