Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 26, 2012

Life in Old Tokyo - Shitamachi Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

On the bank of Shinobazu Pond, below Ueno Park, we encounter the Shitamachi Museum, which is quite popular among foreign visitors. It is indeed a friendly place, providing an atmospheric evocation of ‘downtown’ Tokyo (called ‘shitamachi’ in Japanese) in the Ueno and Asakusa wards in the 1920s, before this bustling area was largely destroyed by the earthquake of 1923.

Shitamachi Museum
[Shitamachi Museum, Ueno, Tokyo. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

On the first floor one finds reproductions of some shitamachi buildings from the Meiji and Taisho eras. To the right stands the shop of a manufacturer and wholesaler of cloth straps (hanao) for geta clogs, a commodity that has disappeared from daily life. Until the 1930s geta were the main footwear in Japan.

The craftsman lived and worked with his family and trainees in a modest shop like this, with no flashy signs but only a door curtain (noren) and simple signboard. Note the colorful straps for geta for women hanging on the wall. Under the ceiling hangs a yojin-kago, a bamboo basket with a shouldering pole that could be used to salvage valuables in case of a sudden fire.

To the left is a roji, a narrow passageway with a row of tenement houses (nagaya), of which two units have been reproduced. These are long, narrow dwellings with one roof over several units and only separated by thin wooden walls. Privacy was an unknown commodity. The first house is a shop selling colorful candy and toys (a dagashiya). Such shops, often run by widows, were popular with the children of the neighborhood.

The second house is the workshop of a copper smith (dokoya). Kettles and pots and pans were all made from copper plate. The narrow workspace is next to the living area. Note the nagahibachi, the long hibachi in the living room, where a copper kettle with water for tea could be kept hot.

The evening sake is waiting here for the smith to finish work.

The second floor of the museum has a small space for changing thematic exhibitions, as well as more displays about Shitamachi in the rest of the room. There is a copy of a cafe room, and the entrance to a public bathhouse. Displays with photos, ukiyo-e prints, picture postcards and other materials show the history of shitamachi and its pastimes, from late Edo through the modernization of Meiji, and finally the disasters of the 1923 earthquake and the wartime bombings which destroyed shitamachi culture. There are also many nostalgic items of daily use on display.
Tel: 03-3823-7451

Hours: 9:30-16:30 (enter by 16:00). CL Mon (next day if NH), NY, between exhibitions.

Access: 5-min walk from the Shinobazu exit from JR Ueno St and Ueno St on the Ginza and Hibiya lines; 3-min walk from Keisei Ueno St.