Kappabashi-dori’s Kitchen Mecca


The longer I live in Japan, the more convinced I become that there’s nothing you can’t get in Tokyo. Need anything electronic? Akihabara is your haven. Want some cool, counterculture hippie clothes? Kichijoji’s your best bet. Just want to goggle at some of the trendiest (and sometimes most bizarre) street fashion in the world? Go to Harajuku and prepare to feel like you’re ten years and twenty trends behind.

And if you’re looking to stock your kitchen? Look no further than Kappabashi-dori (合羽橋鶏) near Ueno and Asakusa. If you’re looking for some obscure kitchen tool and can’t find it in Tokyo’s Kitchen Town, then, frankly, you’re probably just not looking hard enough.

Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one...or you're feeding an army.
Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one…or you’re feeding an army.

合羽橋 (kappabashi) means “kappa bridge” in English, and there are a few theories as to the origin of the name, both of which deal with the history of the local area. One of them comes from fisherman drying their raincoats (or kappa) off of a nearby bridge when the weather allowed it. Alternatively, the name could have come from a merchant named Kihachi Kappaya, who started a ditch-building project to divert water from the flooding Mikane River. (At least, that’s what I think that’s what this site says. No promises regarding the accuracy of my translation.)

A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.
A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.

Now, though, the official mascot of the street is a different sort of kappa: the Japanese water demon that’s like a long-legged turtle with a bowl on its head. Naturally, the ones adorning Kappbashi-dori are adorable, but the kappa in Japanese legend are decidedly less so.

Keep your eyes peeled, and you'll see kappa everywhere.
Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll see kappa everywhere.

...though this particular kappa was a bit more scandalous than the others.
…though this particular kappa was a bit more scandalous than the others.

Just look for the giant chef’s head, and you’ll find shop after shop proffering everything from pots and pans in every size imaginable to flashing neon signs to plastic food samples that restaurants display in their windows like a visual menu. Some of the shops, like those selling chopstick stands and cookie cutters in every shape possible, look like a hoarder’s dream. If Ariel in The Little Mermaid had been an aspiring cook, her grotto probably would have looked something like Kappabashi-dori. (She’d have ended up with more dinglehoppers than she’d have known what to do with, that’s for sure.)

I wasn't kidding about the chef's head.
I wasn’t kidding about the chef’s head.

There was a time not too long ago that I would have groaned at the prospect of spending any time perusing kitchenware shops. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be completely useless in the kitchen. I could make pancakes, spaghetti (barely), scrambled eggs, toaster oven pizza, and…yeah, that’s about it. My talents in the kitchen started and ended with popping frozen stuff in the oven and taking it out when the timer buzzed.

Times have changed, though, and so have I. Now I love spending time in the kitchen, whether I’m cooking for my friends on our weekly Game of Thrones viewing parties, baking up cupcakes for my English Club, or just trying out some new recipe that I would’ve found completely daunting two years ago. I’ve realized that getting comfortable in the kitchen (Misogynists: make a joke about this and I will cheerfully brain you with a frying pan.) has been a real challenge for me, and the progress that I’ve made is something of which I’m really quite proud. It’s a good thing I don’t leave nearer to Tokyo…or else Kitchen Town would be sucking more money out of my wallet than I’d care to imagine.

Japanese restaurants are known for displaying plastic mockups of their dishes in their windows.
Japanese restaurants are known for displaying plastic mockups of their dishes in their windows.
And some of those models originate here.
And some of those models originate here.
Wooden and lacquered tableware.
Wooden tableware.

Kappabashi-dori has become a sort of offbeat tourist destination in Tokyo, but it’s first and foremost a shopping mecca for restaurateurs and chefs – amateur and pro alike – looking to stock up their kitchen. Not only is the selection almost intimidating in its vastness, but you can usually find whatever you’re looking for at a price that’s dirt-cheap in comparison to prices on Amazon or one of the other Japanese home stores, like Nittori or Homac.

The last time I was in Tokyo, I decided that my kitchen needed a few extra gadgets and gizmos, so I headed to Kappabashi-dori to search for some things that I either couldn’t find in Aomori or were too expensive for my liking on Amazon.

Cookie cutters
Cookie cutters

It was like falling down the rabbit hole. I went on a Sunday, when a good chunk of the shops are closed, and I can’t imagine what it would be like during the week, when everything’s open. I started off taking a peek in every shop, but after working through only six stores in thirty minutes, I realized I would have been there all day. When all was said and done, I made it out with everything on my list: a crème brûlée torch, cannoli molds, a madeleine pan, silicon doughnut molds, and a pizza stone. And all for a fraction of what it would have cost me had I done my shopping online.

Chopstick rests!
Chopstick rests!
And even more.
And even more.

But have I actually used any of those things? Well, that pizza stone has proven to be worth its weight in gold, and the torch steps in nicely for the broiler that my oven is lacking. My proudest moment, though, was this past weekend when I decided impulsively to try my hand at madeleines. (I blame David Lebovitz, whose Instagram pictures make me drool daily. His book, The Sweet Life in Paris, was actually what caused me to buy the pan in the first place.)

My madeleines! Lacking a perfect scalloped edge...but they tasted just fine.
My madeleines! Lacking a perfect scalloped edge…but they tasted just as buttery and rich as I could have hoped.

For a first attempt, I’d say my madeleines turned out pretty well…not nearly as pretty as any you’d find in a bakery (I was talking to a friend from home via Skype while baking them, and let me tell you that I never thought I’d find myself swearing in frustration and screeching, “My madeleines are sticking to the pan!”) but if we’re going simply on taste, I’m counting the venture as a success.

I'd say that a new dish tested is a sign of a successful Kappabashi-dori trip.
I’d say that a new dish tested is a sign of a successful Kappabashi-dori trip.

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