While much of Tokyo is turning into new landscapes of luxury malls and glossy condominiums, there are a few places that still offer the sights and smells of Asia. One of the best is the Ameyoko market at Ueno, with its noisy jumble of stalls and stacks of merchandise, its distinctively voiced barkers and hawkers, and its teeming crowds of international shoppers.
Thai and Filipina girls buying shoes, Russian sailors eating doner kebabs from the friendly Iranian take-out, and Saitama schoolgirls buying brand knockoffs - Ameyoko is just one more stop on the ageless Silk Road. Just for a moment, you could believe you were in any one of the numerous night bazaars all over Asia. (Legend has it that Ameyoko derives from "american alley" or "candy alley" and dates back to the turmoil following World War II when Ueno thrived as a black market for imported goods.)
On weekends, it seems the entire Asian population of Tokyo and environs converges on Ameyoko Center Market, the supermarket for all your exotic far-eastern needs. Specialist shops, butchers and fishmongers offer a wide range of Asian favorites that may be difficult to find at your local supermarket.
There are about five large fishmongers in the complex, selling everything from skinned frogs to live turtles. The range of weird-looking shellfish and colorful fish is an eye-opener and a nose-closer. The butchers have whole pig's heads, small chickens for "samgettan" soup, and all those bits of the cow that are so beloved by Korean restaurants: a pile of Achilles tendons, slices of lung (apparently very good with miso), trays of tripe and stomach lining to add volume to spicy stews.
The supermarket area has several shops specializing in spices, herbs and condiments from most of Asia. One store offers a range of chilli powders in different strengths and colors - from the mild-looking orange Sri Lankan pepper to the fiery red Korean (although of course looks can be deceiving). Big packs of cumin seeds, cinammon sticks, and all your curry spice needs go for a song. They also have fresh herbs in plastic bags at a fraction of usual supermarket prices. For the lazy gourmet, there are pre-prepared sauce packs for Malaysian beef rendang, Thai chicken with basil, Indian dal curry, etc. - even tasty-looking retort packs from Bombay and Bangkok.
So, for a taste and smell of Asia without getting on a plane, take the JR to Ueno Ameyoko Center Market. On weekends you won't hear much Japanese amongst the babble of Tagalog, Thai, Bahasa Indonesian, Hindi, Cantonese, Farsi, etc.
by Richard Jeffery