As you exit the subway in Ningyocho, a town once home to doll makers and puppeteers, the smell of something sweet lures you to the shop next door. This is Itakuraya. A bakery whose doors opened in 1907, has been family-run ever since, and over the years has earned a name for itself through loyalty to only one type of sweet.
Here they make something called ningyoyaki, a pocket-sized sponge cake so soft (especially when served hot off the grill) that it melts in your mouth as the smooth, sweet red bean paste inside cleanses your palate from a hearty lunch.
Itakuraya’s dedication to their craft is part of the charm and is what keeps customers coming back. Long-time customers know they can rely on the shop’s good quality and family-friendly service. Each time you stop at Itakuraya for dessert, it feels like coming home. (You can “come home” with us on our Made In Tokyo tour, which stops at Itakuraya for a taste of these treats!)
The shop itself is quite traditional looking without giving away its age and has a real humble, homey feeling to it. Perhaps it’s because the current owner, Fujii Yoshimi and his son, Yoshito, greet everyone who walks in with a heart-warming smile and genial irrashaimase (‘welcome, please come in’ in Japanese). For them, the prime morning hour of 4am is when their day officially starts. First priority is preparing the batter and bean paste, quickly followed by the first baking shift at 5am. Throughout the day, they split shifts until they reach their target number of cakes made (usually somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 cakes).
After graduating from middle school, Yoshito started helping his father out at the shop, and as of 2017, he has been working full time alongside his father for seven years. As it is a family business, it was only natural that Yoshito be a perfect fit to transition into the ningyoyaki world.
Though he admits it can be tough work sometimes, especially during the unrelenting humid summers when he has to sit before the heat from the grill for hours on end, he enjoys his work and the craftsmanship of it all. “Ningyoyaki is something I can make with my own two hands and give it directly to customers,” says Yoshito. Seeing his own work handed off to customers and building interaction is the greatest reward for him.
Watch to see the treasures you can find on a Made In tour in Tokyo!
As for how they’ve managed to successfully stay in business for so long, he humbly answers that he thinks they owe their success to how hard they work and the loyalty to their craft. From a customer’s standpoint, the success of Ningyoyaki in general is due in part to the fact that Ningyocho is the birthplace of this charming Japanese sweet — and Itakuraya’s prime location next to a subway entrance doesn’t hurt either. When you buy something made and sold locally, it makes for a good souvenir. However, the family and staff will tell you that because they make these cakes fresh every day, they need to be eaten within three days’ time. So if you’re looking to take some back home with you as a present, best to buy on your last day in town.
There’s no doubt that the Fujii family is on a mission to introduce Japanese food culture through Ningyoyaki and sweet red bean paste, a staple in traditional Japanese sweets typically served alongside green tea. And with all the success they’ve had up until now, it’s safe to say they’ll be in business for generations to come.
Be sure to stop in during your time in Tokyo to try ningyoyaki as a snack or to buy as a gift. Itakuraya is open seven days a week from 9am until they run out of the day’s inventory. Or you could just try some on our Made In Japan: Cultural Curiosities Tour!
Address: Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi Ningyocho 2-4-2
Explore hidden shops that sell traditional items not commonly found in modern-day Japan, and see a side of the city far from the bright lights of downtown.