A few weekends ago, Mika and I ventured to Tokyo to sate our Mexican cravings. We figured we should at least try to do something in Tokyo aside from stuffing our faces, so among other wanderings, we went to the Shitamachi Museum in Ueno.
Shitamachi is a great bargain if you’re there at the same time as a volunteer English speaking guide. A Japanese woman led Mika and I around the first floor of the museum, explaining each exhibit to us. I’m not entirely positive if she was feeling nice because we’re foreign girls, or if she does this for all foreigners. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a friendly English speaking guide, the museum does have paper pamphlets in Englis at each display, explaining what you’re looking at.
The museum features displays of houses, shops, a rickshaw, and artifacts from early 20th century (Edo period) Shitamachi (the name for that particular neighborhood in Tokyo). Between the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the air raids during World War II, this area was nearly completely devastated, and so the architecture is all from the post-war period or later. There is a recreated shop of a Hanao maker (hanao are the cloth straps on traditional Japanese footwear, such as geta and zori. There’s a recreated dagashi-ya, a shop which sells toys, games, candies, and snacks. Traditionally, there was a dagashi-ya in each neighborhood, and some of the traditional toys sold there include begoma (spinning tops), menko (illustrated rectangular or round trading cards), ohajiki (flattened round glass pieces), kites, and penny candy.
There was a recreation of a tenement building, which were long, one story, multi-residential buildings. Each unit was about 2.7 meters wide, 3.6 meters deep, and about 10 sq. meters total, including the entryway and kitchen. The main tatami room was used as a living room and a bedroom; futons would be taken out at night for sleeping. The kitchen in these houses was constructed low to the ground, so that most cooking and washing was done in a seated or crouched position. Ouch. Apartments were separated by paper-thin (literally) walls, so it was important to not be loud and obnoxious, especially considering that the well and outdoor spaces were shared.
There’s also a reconstructed coppersmith’s workshop (doko-yo), alleyway (roji), and a very mini (thin dollhouse sized) model of a shrine, where you could have your fortune told by drawing a stick out of a box. You have to shake the box first, and there’s only a very small hole for the sticks to fall out, so whichever stick you get is deigned by a decent portion of chance.
It’s a very cool exhibit, similar to the Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Public Museum, though much smaller. Many of the shops and apartments you can take off your shoes and enter and poke around.
The second floors has exhibits of toys, household items, furniture, and documents preserving the Edo period Shitamachi culture.
The Skinny If You Want To Visit:
300 yen for adults, 100 yen for high school kids or younger. (This includes all of the English pamphlets and your fortune).
Located near the JR Line Ueno Station on the southeast side of Ueno Park, near Shinobazu ave. Open from 9:30-4:30; closed Mondays, holidays, and Dec 29- Jan 1.