Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shitamachi, Tokyo low town

While the hills of the Yamanote (山手) area were housing the Japanese noblemen during the Edo era (16th to 18th century), the plain in the north of Tokyo (東京) was the heart of the plebeian city. Shitamachi (下町), literally “low town” was originally used to designate Nihonbashi (日本橋), Ginza (銀座) and Ueno (上野), but the word now refers to all neighborhoods north of a Shinjuku (新宿) – Ginza (銀座) line. Other cities in Japan also imported the name to designate similarly working class areas. Only a few minutes walk from a subway station is enough to leave trendy and noisy modern Tokyo and dive into those delightful quiet and outmoded area, a perfect cure to the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.
Shitamachi does not offer spectacular tourist sights, but untouched islands of traditional Japanese town with their chaos of small houses often decorated with a few flowerpots. Shops are often as out of fashion as their aging owners. Between the houses, some warehouses and cottage industries are still open for business. The population is usually quite old: most young people overlook those areas as they do not offer all the facilities of modern life despite a far better location than most residential suburbs. A walk in those areas offers a rare glimpse of postwar Japan, a frugal era where the country was not the economic powerhouse it is today. The small size of the houses and cheap layout of the stores is a good reminder of the frugal life of the postwar generation now in retirement. The most pleasant is to walk randomly in the streets. A compass can come in handy to follow a given direction and find back, after a few minutes walk, a major avenue.
An interesting walk starts in Iidabashi (飯田橋). While our goal is to visit the « low city », we will first walk uphill on Kagurazaka street (神楽坂); a quite trendy area in Tokyo, with some kind of French touch. If you feel in adventurous mood, the nearby alleys are certainly worth a visit. After two left turns, we will take on our right the “Waseda Dori” (早稲田通り) avenue, walk in front of the Kagurazaka subway station and continue for around half an hour in this quiet area of Tokyo. Just after the Waseda subway station, we will reach the campus of the most famous Japanese private university: Waseda Daigaku (早稲田大学). It has an excellent academic level, but, just like for American universities, it is also possible for the sons of the rich and famous to enter if they follow the expensive private lessons offered by the university from primary school. At the Nishi-Waseda (西早稲田) crossing, we will turn right and head north to our first objective: the final station of the streetcar Arakawa line (荒川線). This being a post in my blog, you were probably expecting some kind of railway to pop-up and you were right.

This venerable line is one of the two survivors of the streetcars of Tokyo (the other is the Setagaya line). It goes through many low-key areas that are not well deserved by other public transport means. You will need 50 minutes to ride the 13 kilometers of the line going north-westward to the Minowabashi (三ノ輪橋) terminal. This is an excellent way to discover areas that are not mentioned in any tourist guide. On the way, you may want to stop at Otsuka (大塚), and from there visit Sugamo (巣鴨), the shopping center of elderly people, just a train station away. The Rikugien park (六義園) is worth a short stop, as is the surprising Kyu-Furukawa-Teien (旧古河庭園), a surprising upper-class mansion in this otherwise working class neighbourhood. It is worth riding the streetcar up to the terminal station, which has an interesting architecture. Nearby covered streets have a feeling of small-town Japan. Let’s hope this streetcar, who is in competition with the more modern « Fukutoshin » (副都心) and « Nippori – Tonari Liner » (日暮里舎人ライナー) transit systems opened recently will not be retired. Minowabashi is also close to the famous “slum” of Sanya (山谷), which is not a recommended place to go for a walk. Eldery and poor daily workers, almost exclusively males, often working on construction sites, are living there. Contrary to the working class but socially integrated inhabitants of Shitamachi, they may not appreciate your visit.
After a ride on the subway, we are back in Ueno (上野), the most « working class » of the major urban centers in Tokyo. It used to be the arrival station for immigrants from poor areas in the Tohoku region (North East of Japan). It is famous for its park, which contains, in addition to the very nice National Museum, a small Shitamchi Museum. It is close to the south-eastern end of the Ueno pond, just nearby the Keisei (京成) train terminal. From Ueno, it is very pleasant to walk to Yanaka (谷中). To reach it, we will go back to the far end of the Uneo Park, and turn left on the street crossing the park just in front the National Museum. This street goes to the Yanaka cemetery, crossing through one of the quiestest areas in town. It is easy then to reach the Nippori station, and enjoy the small shops of the “Yanaka Ginza” street.
From Ueno, it is only a short trip to Kappabashi (合羽橋). This is a cluster of kitchen ustensil shops, the ideal place to find original or rare kitchen wares. Most shops were built decades ago and are worth a visit even if you do not wish to buy anything. The nearby area has been urbanized for a long time, but is still very “working class”.
Other neighbourhoods are also worth a random walk in the streets. Hongo (本郷) is a quiet oasis just behind the Tokyo Dome. It is also close to Tokyo University campus, that can be reached by a pleasant walk northward. The area east of the campus, just across Hongo-Dori avenue is well preserved, and there are still 3 storeys wooden appartments there, including the famous Hongo-Kan (本郷館, just nearby the address Hongo 6-20本郷6丁目20). Nezu (根津) is also worth a visit. The commercial street follows a small valley and will lead you directly to Nishi-Nippori (西日暮里).
While this is a little bit off-track, the Edo-Tokyo museum is also interesting. The building has a shape that reminds of a dinosaur or some star wars vehicules, but its exhibitions on urban life in the city centuries agowill pleasantly complete a walk in Shitamachi.
Practical Information

The areas presented in this story are certainly worth more than a day of visit.

Shitamachi Museum (下町風俗資料館): 2-1 Ueno Koen, Tokyo, 〒110-0007
台東区上野公園2番1号, : Y300, open every day except Monday and on the new Year, Tel : +81 3 3823 7451, Japanese site. Just nearby Uneo station (JR Yamanote et subway Hibiya (日比谷線) & Ginza (銀座線) lines)

Edo-Tokyo Museum (江戸東京博物館): 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0015, Tel 03-3626-9974, open every day except Monday from 9.30am to 5.30pm et up to 7.30pm on saturday. Entrance fee : Y600. Volonteer guides propose interesting guided visits, and speak a variety of languages. Access by JR Sobu line (総武線) et par subway Oedo line (大江戸線), Ryogoku station (両国), English site.

Toden Arakawasen (都電荒川線) Flat fare : Y160, departures from Waseda (早稲田) or Minowabashi (三ノ輪橋) from 6am to around 11pm, one train every 5 or 6 minutes on peak hours, japanese site. Access to Minowabashi by the Hibiya subway line (日比谷線), Minowa (三ノ輪) station.

Rikugien Park (六義園): Bunkyo-ku, Hon-Komagome, Rokuchome 〒113-0021文京区本駒込六丁目, Open from 9am à 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm), closed between December 29th and January 1st., Entrance fee : Y300. japanese site.Close to JR Yamanote Sugamo and Komagome station, the latter also reachable by the subway Nanboku line.

Kyu-FurukawaTeien Park (旧古河庭園): Nishigahara Ichome, kita-ku, Tokyo 〒114-0024北区西ヶ原一丁目Open from 9am à 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm), closed between December 29th and January 1st., entrance fee : Y150. Japanese site. Close to Komagome and Nishigaoka stations (subway Nanboku line).

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