The Shitamachi Museum of Ueno Park, Japan

I had heard that Ueno Park could get crowded, but “crowded” didn’t begin to describe it. It strongly resembled a state fair, complete with rock bands and every sort of food on a stick being served from tents. There were walkers, joggers, families out for a stroll and anime costumed cosplayers crowding the trails. Along the edges of the walkways and poised with the lotus covered pond for a backdrop were musicians, poets and performers desperate for an audience. A mime in a suit did a solitary drama involving a chair. A man dressed in a red kimono and matching umbrella, tall wooden geta sandals and the stark white, purple and gold dusted face paint of a kabuki actor balanced on a box, slowly gliding from pose to pose. He would stand on one foot, the other kicked far to the side and the umbrella reaching skyward. Then, he would curl downward until crouched and hidden under the paper shelter of the umbrella.

We were first amused, then rapidly dazed and disoriented with the sensory overload. Obviously Ueno Park on a Saturday was not our thing! Extricating ourselves from the crowds of people frantic to see the new baby panda at the zoo, we managed to make our way to the Shinobazu Pond. I stopped to take pictures of the lotus and Bentendo (a temple hall dedicated to the goddess of fortune, wealth, music and knowledge). Dad barreled onward, determined to escape the insanity.

And so it was that if we hadn’t looked the right way we would have missed an adorable little museum tucked into a corner on the southern end of the pond: The Shitamachi Museum of Ueno Park.

The outside of the museum

The literal meaning of “shitamachi” is “under town”. It referred to the merchant, trade and artisan quarters of old Edo and Tokyo. At first glance, Tokyo appears overrun with bright lights and skyscrapers, the whole of the city has become like Shinjuku and Akihabara, a fluorescently lit billboard. But in the area around Ueno Park the old town lives and thrives. The museum shows examples of life from the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and up through the Showa (1926-1989) Eras.

We went in, past the cheerful red lanterns and paid our fee. We were in luck, the woman at the desk informed us: an English tour had just started and we could join them! So we scrambled to catch up with the blue jacketed guide and the small group of tourists.

Downstairs was a display of life during the Taisho Era (1912-1926) in the row houses characteristic of the Shitamachi neighborhoods. Amazingly, all of the items on display are genuine antiques, donated by people and families who grew up in these neighborhoods.

Our first “stop” was the house of a sandal maker. An affluent home, it had two stories (with a cabinet built into stairs!), tatami flowers and such luxuries as clocks and fine furniture.

From there we visited the row houses, starting with the all-important well on the end of the block. A focal point of row house life, residents would come for water, to gossip and do laundry.

After the well, the guide led us into the narrow alley and tiny rooms of the row house. Each house in the line was a single room or pair of rooms, with a tatami floor, tidy storage closet and everything a family would need tucked into cubbies on the walls or under the floor. We saw the home of a candy and toy seller and another of a coppersmith with a hard packed clay floor in the workroom to prevent fires.

We ended at the small neighborhood shrine with tiny, delicate statues of foxes decorating the alter. Foxes are the sign of an Inari Shrine, the god of fortune, business and the protectors of the harvest. Fitting for an artisan and merchant neighborhood!

Upstairs took us into the more modern era. While still old, these rooms and displays showed photos and posters from the neighborhoods as well as a 1960’s style household. Mementos and posters of emergency drills and instructions from World War II vied with photos of the rebuilding of the city. The room displays held the traditional tatami floor but the goods of modern life: power, water, a TV and rice pot. One corner even had a display of traditional games and tiny figurines depicting the festivals!

We ended our exploration back at the tiny gift shop by the entrance on the first floor. There, the guide staff was happy to give us directions for exploring the real Shitamachi area around Ueno: Yanaka, Nezo and Nippori! (That will be a story for another day.)

Want to visit? Here’s the information:

Shitamachi Museum

Address: Japan, 〒110-0007 Tokyo, Taitō, 上野公園2−1

Closed Mondays, otherwise open 9:30-16:30 (but entry ends at 16:00)

Admission: 300 yen

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