Tokyo

Museums in Tokyo: Shitamachi Museum

Shitamachi Museum is a museum that is dedicated to the lifestyle of people in Shitamachi, a district in edo (now Tokyo) that has a rich history as an entertainment district, where the common people lived. The museum was built to preserve the old culture from the Edo period that’s being forgotten over time (thanks to the emergence of the bustling city that is Tokyo) — the museum does so by reconstructing shitamachi homes to let visitors to get a feel of the lifestyle of the people in the early from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Shitamachi is an area in Edo, the lowlands where the common folks i.e. sellers, artisans and merchants lived. Because of their living environment, the common folks in shitamachi has “a unique disposition and way of life”. The culture of shitamachi influenced the culture of Edo, just as it influences the culture of the people living in Tokyo today.

Though it sounded interesting, so I was looking forward to this one. Since almost everything at the museum included a hands-on experience (where we get to enter the houses and touch the items, many of them which were used by the people living in shitamachi once upon a time), we ended up having most fun there, in our museum-hopping journey.

The lifestyle of the Edo-ite

On the first floor of the museum were reconstructed buildings — a tenement house of a common folk, a coppersmith’s workshop and a wholesaling shop. Outside the buildings, we saw the communal pump-well and wooden logs for cooking.

An elder museum volunteer greeted us and enthusiastically explained the segments of the house in English.

1. The shitamachi sweet shop and house

Since the population density was really high, nagaya houses (long building with a single roof and internal walls separating it into separate household units — imagine rumah panjang with dividers) were built in the area — imagine super small houses being built side by side, sharing a roof, with only a wall to separate them. The alleys between these houses were very narrow.

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We took off our shoes and entered the shitamachi house. It’s a shitamachi house that was rebuilt — if looked so real that at first I thought the house was preserved for 250 years and that the museum was only built around it lol. If there were nobody around, we could totally main masak-masak.

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The front part of this house acts as candy store. It’s where the house owners make some living.

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Just beside the store, is the kitchen. This is where the people prepare food back then… on the floor. Shown are the utensil they used for cooking and storage for water.

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Inside, is the living area of the house. The only area inside the house in fact. That’s their living area, their dining are and their bedroom. About 100 square feet for the whole family, can you imagine! Claustrophobics would’ve wept.

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Outside the house, are shared facilities, like a communal well.

The people living in shitamachi were living in a collective society and at the museum, we could see how the environment has shaped the shitamachi culture. Here’s what we observed:

  • The people lived so close to each other with only a thin wall separating them and because of this, the people living in the houses were aware of their surroundings and were careful not to make noise and be a burden to their neighbors — which may explain why the neighborhoods in Tokyo are so quiet.
  • There was no electricity, so charcoal was used for heating. Considering the the fact that nagaya houses are made of wood, it’s very prone to burning and the fact that the houses are built side by side, it’s very prone to spreading. Hence, the people were very mindful of how they use burn charcoal and try their best not to cause problems to their neighbors.
  • Outdoor spaces near the shitamachi were shared. For example, water was drawn from the common well. The women back then did their laundry there and chat there as they did their daily work. There’s always this sense of togetherness. When in shitamachi, no one was alone — everybody is part of the community.

These characteristics are still apparent in the lives of the Japanese today.

2. The coppersmith’s workshop

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3. The merchant’s store and his ride

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Exhibition of materials in the life of an Edo-ite

The second floor consists several sections that contain displays of things related to the shitamachi culture that are no longer used today.

Like old Japanese toys, some of which you may be familiar with:

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We tried all of them!

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There were a lot of more sections with maps and photographs showing how the landscape of Tokyo has changed over the decades after the great earthquake and war and displays of things from the1900s, like cameras, books and clothes. All of the displays had didactic texts explaining its origins and use.

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Why you should go to the museum

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It’s a worthwhile museum to visit! Although it’s a super small museum (it’s as big as a house), you’ll get to learn a lot about the history of the common folks in Tokyo, at the same time experiencing their lifestyle inside the recreation of the shitamachi living environment. We’ve had a lot of fun trying things out and learning about the shitamachi culture. We also learned a lot about the massive destruction caused by The Great Kanto Earthquake and war fires, which led to the reconstruction and modernization that led to the birth of Tokyo.

In different sections, the museum provides a practical guide explaining what we were seeing. There was also an English-speaking ojisan to guide visitors, should they require any clarification.

I would totally return!

Getting there

Opening hours: 9:30AM to 4:30PM (closed on Mondays)

Admission fee: ¥300 (free with the Tokyo Museum Grutto Pass)

Shitamachi Museum is reachable from several stations, with the nearest being Keisei Ueno Station. You could also stop at Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station to reach the museum and take a 5-minute walk to reach it.

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2 Comments

  • Avatar
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    Nadia
    October 21, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    Assalammualaikum Mia,
    Could you recommend me the best (cheapest ^_^) airlines to go to Japan other than Air Asia & based on your experience?Thanks Mia..

    • Avatar
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      Miasuraya
      October 22, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      Salam Nadia, I’ve been on JAL (best service!), Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines flights to Tokyo. You can get a ticket at a good rate when they go on sale or you can try getting cheap tickets from the airlines by reading this: http://bit.ly/1tcAXJF

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