Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Shitamachi Museum: Tokyo Nostalgia Part 1

Narrow Shitamachi alleyway in the museum
Shitamachi alleyway
On the edge of the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park is a tiny but delightful museum - the Shitamachi (下町) Museum. Shitamachi - literally "under town"  - refers to the physically lower lands east of the Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace) where the common people, such as artisans and merchants, lived. This area contrasted with the higher land west of the castle where the upper-classes resided, known as the Yamanote area (now the name of Tokyo's famous train loop). However, Shitamachi is less a fixed geographical area and more a culture and lifestyle, a slice of nostalgia from the "good old days" of the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1989) eras. The opening of the museum in 1980 marked the start of a "Shitamachi boom" (in movies for example) which continues to this day, a yearning for a "real" or "authentic" Japan with warm community bonds and people who are "honest, forthright, and reliable" (Buckley, p. 529).

A colourful Dagashiya neighbourhood sweet and toy store in the museum
A colourful Dagashiya sweet and toy store
A ¥300 entry fee gains you access to the two floors of the museum - and a free English guide to show you around if you like! The exhibits are very interactive and you can walk through an alleyway, a coppersmith's shop, a merchant's house, a living room, a bathhouse, a kitchen, and a sweet shop (dagashi-ya =駄菓子屋) - pictured left - all the while picking up and touching objects that were in use at the time. The upper floor is even more hands-on with a toy area where you can play with traditional Japanese omocha such as the kendama (cup-and-ball game) and korinto gēmu (bagatelle). When I visited, there was a large group of elementary school students enjoying the toys - pictured above right in their white hats!