My guide to used watch shopping under the train tracks near Ueno station, in Tokyo’s original post-war black market, Ameyoko.
In the aftermath of the second world war, black markets flourished in Tokyo as a means for citizens to supplement the inadequate rations supplied by the government. One of the largest black markets sprouted up around the train tracks of the Yamanote line near Ueno station, the major terminus for passenger services between Tokyo and the north of the country. The area between Ueno station, in the north, and Okachimachi station, in the south, became known as Ameya-Yokochō (Ameya alley), usually shortened to Ameyoko, according to the typical Japanese habit of abbreviating a term by taking a few syllables from its component words (for example, ‘digital camera’ is deji-kame).
The Ameyoko area contains innumerable clothes shops, music shops, grocers, restaurants, pachinko parlours, salons, fortune tellers, touts and, of course, used luxury shops, including several shops specialising in used and vintage watches. Unlike other places, where the typical combination is luxury watches and luxury handbags, here there are several shops which sell luxury watches and used camera equipment (think vintage Leica lenses, Nikon camera bodies, etc). Knowing that many watch enthusiasts are also keen photographers, I expect that this combination will suit many people well.
Here is a rundown of my selection of the best shops. Compared to Nakano Broadway, a little more legwork is required to reach them, but the effort is well worth it.
Unprepossessing from the outside, this smallish watch and camera shop is always jam-packed full of interesting watches and is my pick as the best shop in the area.
Approximately equal weight is given to Japanese brands (especially Seiko and its sub-brands, such as Grand Seiko, King Seiko and Credor) and Swiss brands.
Another huge point in the shop’s favour is its staff. The sales associate who helped me was friendly, knowledgeable about the shop’s huge inventory and spoke flawless English. There was zero sales pressure and unlimited patience for this inquisitive foreigner. Both my wife and I have experienced this superlative service each time we’ve perused this shop over the years. In fact, my wife purchased my very first luxury watch (a vintage Rolex Datejust) from Mizutani back in 2014. Given the obsession sparked by that wonderful gift, I often wonder whether my wife questions the wisdom of her generousity.
On my latest visit, I tried on four watches in the shop. The first was this Anderson Geneve ‘Christopher Columbus’ worldtime, in 35mm platinum case, limited edition of 500.
I was also allowed to manipulate the watch, to check how it functioned. The crown at 2 o’clock sets the local time, which is displayed simultaneously on the hands and at 12 o’clock on the inner-rotating 24 hour scale (with night in black and day in white). Once you have set the time, you use the crown at 4 o’clock to rotate the outer-rotating disc until the city representing your current location is at 12 o’clock (the cities disc rotates freely, rather than in fixed increments like, for example, the Patek World Time). Then you can read the time in all the cities indicated on the dial. While I loved the aesthetic of this piece, I had hoped for a bit more mechanical complexity in its operation.
The second watch I tried on was this seventies Universal Geneve White Shadow Automatic (with microtor movement, just serviced by the shop), in almost NOS condition.
The third watch I tried was a rare sixties IWC in white gold with blue dial.
It was not quite love with this one. While I liked the dial, and the size was quite contemporary (approximately 37mm), the watch was offered on a generic steel pin buckle, the original having been lost to the vagaries of time. Also, I had forgotten just how light vintage gold watches can be. If I am going to pay the premium for a precious metal, the added heft on the wrist is part of the experience.
The last watch I tried was this manual wind Credor (Seiko’s high-end sub-brand), in a voluptuous rectangular ‘tank’ case (18k white gold).
The sales associate informed me that it contained the thinnest mechanical movement ever made by Seiko. It was certainly tres chic, but I am simply not in the market for a watch with no date that I need to wind every day.
Of course, those four watches do not begin to scratch the surface of what was on offer. The shop was packed with too many treasures to explore in a single visit.
While Mizutani does not carry the real high-end modern stuff, almost any watch collector will find something there that will entice them to open their wallets. Highly recommended.
The shop is generally open from 10am to 6pm. It has no scheduled holidays, but is often closed on Sundays.
Watch and camera place, focusing on modern and vintage watches from the holy trinity brands, Patek Phillipe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. The signage is in kanji, only, so look out for this shopfront.
They always have an excellent stock at fair prices. When I last visited, they had a beguiling Vacheron Constantin Saltarello 43041/000G, in white gold, at a very reasonable price.
My score reflects that the staff (exclusively, it appears, older gentlemen) do not always go out of their way to make customers feel welcome. When I asked (in Japanese) whether I was able to take pictures of the watches, I was curtly told (in English, by a gentleman who gave every indication of despising that language) that I could not. During my time in the store, I felt a little like an intruder in a private club and, accordingly, decided against trying anything on.
Having said that, no one can deny that they have the product right. Which ultimately is more important than the ‘feels’.
The next shop down the road from Syukou. Another watch and camera place. The highlight for me was a Ulysse Nardin Marine Acqua Perpetual (for the man who needs a dive watch with perpetual calendar).
Slightly more welcoming than Syukou (though hardly warm), but with less interesting inventory, giving the edge to Syukou in the cranky-old-man-run watch and camera places.
Quark (not rated)
Rolex, Rolex, Rolex. Did I mention Rolex? Mono-brand shop, also with a branch in Ginza, selling new, used and vintage. Clear focus on sports models. Of no real interest to me, but I know plenty of people go ga-ga over Submariners, Daytonas and GMT Masters (under the influence of the mighty Italian collectors’ scene). It might be a great selection, it might be average, I’m not sure so I can’t rate it.
Satin Doll (8/10)
Directly under the viaduct carrying the Yamanote Line (the busiest railway line in the world) is the Ameyoko Plaza covered shopping arcade. Satin Doll occupies three locations in the Ameyoko Plaza: (i) the main branch, selling exclusively Rolex, (ii) a sub-branch selling Tudor (very fitting) and (iii) a sub-branch selling everything else (and, for good measure, just a little more Rolex).
While I am not a Rolex guy (apart from my Date Just – everybody is allowed a few contradictions), I do respect this shop. It has all sorts of obscure Rolex models, including a large selection of the red-haired stepchild of the Rolex range, the Cellini (they had a great price on a gorgeous Cellini dual time). I have to give it 8/10, with the caveat that the ‘everything else’ selection is pretty meagre.
Cloud Cafe (5/10)
A little shop in the Ameyoko Plaza which specialises in servicing rather than retail sales. Still, it had a decent selection when I last stopped by, including a good range of vintage IWC and Omega.
That used luxury behemoth of bags and watches, Daikokuya, has two branches in the area. Both should be on the itinerary. What they lack in class (their core business appears to be hawking LV to the Chinese), they make up for in range and pricing. Nothing really caught my eye on my 2018 visit, though they did have a nice Breguet Transatlantique Type XX in titanium that I would have tried on had I not sworn off chronographs.
And this quartz Credor was a lot of solid 18k gold for the money.
In my 2019 visit, I was immediately drawn to this Rolex Explorer I, ref. 14270, in what appeared to be almost unworn condition. If it had been polished, the job had been done so well that even inspection from a few centimeters away didn’t reveal the fact. My 14270 is probably the watch I regret selling the most – I have missed it almost since the day it left me.
I also liked this Grand Seiko Quartz GMT (SBGN007). I have for a long time been hoping that Seiko would add complications to the 9F quartz line, preferably, a calendar and/or dual time function. I partially got my wish with this one, which is one of the 25th anniversary limited edition models (1200 pieces). The star at 6 o’clock indicates that the accuracy of the watch has been fine-tuned beyond the already-exceptional Seiko 9F standard (+- 10 seconds per year) to a special standard of +- 5 seconds per year. With this kind of accuracy, the GMT complication makes a lot of sense because it enables independent quick adjustment of the hour hand for daylight savings and travel across time zones, without needing to stop the movement. With a battery life of about 3 years, this opens up the possibility of never readjusting the watch for the entire lifetime of the battery. Very impressive, and represents Seiko finally matching a feature that the Citizen ‘Chronomaster’ HAQ watches have had for years (independently adjustable hour hands).
Finally, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The watch industry is often brazenly transparent in inventing cross-branded ‘collaborations’ to help shift a few more watches, but this one left me utterly bewildered. After all, what collaboration would make less sense, from a brand identity perspective, than ‘CHRONOSWISS X GERMAN PLAYBOY’? Yet it happened, in a limited edition of 45 pieces to ‘celebrate’ the 45th anniversary of the publication of German Playboy, and Daikokuya had the proof (number 41/45). Apparently, each watch features (on the caseback) a different playmate, in negligee rather than nude, for the soft core porn aficionado to ogle at their leisure.
The other ‘Bag and Watch’ shops (all 3/10)
The casual watch enthusiast should stop at Daikokuya and call it a day (I would suggest a visit to the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park). The true watch obsessives (you know who you are), can continue dragging along their bored significant others (and complaining children) to the many ‘used luxury’ stores littered through the Ueno district. Usually, these have signs indicating that they trade in watches and designer handbags, hence the ‘Bag and Watch’ moniker. I give Daikokuya and Ippukishi honorary exceptions because they have better stuff than their brethren.
The selections at these places are almost always disappointing (usually, all they will have are Rolex, Omega and Cartier, at the typical market prices for those brands, plus a mountain of fashion watches fit only for the rubbish). However, they do sometimes have one or two watches from interesting brands (for example, Ulysse Nardin or Girard Perregaux) and they are the most likely venues for a bargain on such watches (which I suspect they do not really care about or understand).
In that way, they tantalise and torment you, because there is always ‘one more’ to check out. I once saw an AP Royal Oak 14790 for an amazing price at a Bag and Watch (of course, at a time when I wasn’t in the market to buy), and ever since I have been compelled to check every such shop I might see. Bag and Watch ‘completionism’ is an illness. I have been known to spend an entire day systematically scouring every street in a neighbourhood, like a deranged Pokemon Go player hunting for pikachu.
I don’t advocate that course, but something more sensible – enter the shops that you come across on your travels. Here are some that I came across on my last trip to Ueno (the pictures will give you some guidance as to the type of shops to look out for).
ReMarket. Pushy sales staff, but one good watch (a Girard Perregaux) at a great price.
Brand729. Advertised a ‘clearance sale’ that appeared to have been very effective. They had about three watches, total, in stock (including a Gerald Genta Minnie Mouse ladies watch in gold – for some reason, I like the Genta Disney watches, though I would never buy one).
Aria. Absolutely typical, no-nonsense, zero-class Bag and Watch. Had a Cartier Solotempo for a good price.
Gold Plaza. See Aria, multiply comments by two.
I hope this equips you for a trip to Ueno. If you want to make a full day of it, I would recommend checking out Ueno Park before or after going to the watch places mentioned in this article. It contains several of Japan’s best museums, including the National Museum of Western Art and the Tokyo National Museum (the largest and most important museum in Japan). It is also a famous hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot, if you are in Tokyo when the cherry trees are in bloom (usually late-March/early-April).
In the next installment of this series, we will be checking out the other centre of the Bag and Watch scene – Shinjuku.