The Shinjuku Historical Museum: a nicely arranged museum with interesting exhibits of Tokyo’s past

If you’re stuck in Tokyo on a rainy day, how about visiting a museum and learning about the history of Shinjuku? It might sound boring, but Shinjuku city has done an excellent job of creating an interesting museum even for those who can’t read Japanese. Only few areas may be taken in photo – the rest you will have to discover with your own eyes.

Shinjuku Dori Avenue as it looked two centuries ago


Check out a scale model of Tokyo in the Edo Period

Shortly after you enter the museum (don’t forget to ask for the green English guidebook) and breeze through the prehistory section with rather brief English descriptions of the displays, you’ll come across a very large scale model of a portion of the “Koshu Kaido” during the Edo era. “Koshu” is the old name for Yamanashi prefecture, “Edo” is the old name for Tokyo and “Kaido” means highway, so basically it was the highway connecting Tokyo with the West of the country. The portion represented used to be called “Naito Shinjuku” (the land belonged to the Naito family) and was the part that went through Shinjuku city down Shinjuku dori avenue, alongside Shinjuku Gyoen. This used be a “Shukuba” or post station where people could rent a room for the night inside one of the “Nagaya” or row houses that lined the highway. The Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan is modeled on such a “Nagaya”. If you look up you can see a painted scene during cherry blossom season.

I am big fan of scale models be it a city, a building or a mountain, and Japan has a lot of them. This is among one of the best I’ve seen. It will give you an idea of what Tokyo looked like about 200 years ago, during the Edo era. If you like scale models, I would also recommend visiting the Edo-Tokyo museum in Ryogoku as they have another scale model of the start of the Koshu Kaido on the Nihombashi Bridge. Towards the end of the exposition you’ll find replicas of the interiors of the “Shinjuku-za Moulin Rouge” theater (a place for office workers to see plays and shows unlike its French counterpart), and the Mitsukoshi department store, both from the Showa era. Neither exists anymore.

“Naito Shinjuku” from above
The Scale model in its entirety

Explore the interior of houses from the past

Another thing I find fun to do is to explore real size replicas of buildings, trains, etc…The Shinjuku museum has some good offerings in that respect. As you walk through the museum, it’s possible to check out a re-creation of Araiya, a famous confectionery store from the Edo period (the black coating is for fire protection), a “shiden” or showa era tram, which ran along Shinjuku dori avenue until 1972 (you can climb into it for a closer look), the family house of an ordinary “salaryman” or office worker, from the Showa period with kitchen, living room and western-style reception room (music on the radio from the time starts playing when you step inside). Incidentally, the aforementioned Edo-Tokyo museum has an open-air museum in Koganei park, if you want to see more real-size replicas of Japanese historical buildings.

In addition to those replicas, I also enjoyed seeing some of Tokyo’s wooden aqueducts that were on display in the small room behind the tram. The wooden aqueducts were fitted inside stone ones, that can be seen poking through the ground just outside the window. The Tamagawa “Josui”, or Aqueduct, ran south of the Shinjuku post station (as can be seen on the scale model) and brought water from the Tama river in West Tokyo, to the center of Edo city.

The “Araiya” confectionery shop from the Edo period
The author checking out an Edo period tatami room

Compare photos of past and present day Tokyo

Living in Tokyo, I am fascinated by how quickly the urban landscape is changing. It seems that every month a building is torn down and another goes up. Photos of Tokyo from the past will help you realise how much this city has changed over the years and the Shinjuku museum has a nice collection of photos taken at different time periods, showing more or less the same part of Shinjuku, like the West exit of Shinjuku station, the Yotsuya-Mitsuke bridge near Yotsuya station or Kagurazaka street. Believe it or not, but at one time Tokyo was pretty much a horizontal city with few buildings having more than one or two storeys.

Unfortunately most pictures have descriptions in Japanese only. Even the dates are based on the Japanese calendar, which uses the year of the reign of the emperor at the time. So here is a very quick guide to converting dates. Most photographs date from the Showa 昭和 period starting in 1926 which is Showa 1 so just that add 25 to the year to get the actual year. For example Showa 52 is 1977. Next came the Heisei 平成 period started in 1989 which is Heisei 1 so just add 88. From Heisei 13 and onwards it is easier just to subtract 12. For example this year is Heisei 30 which is 2018. A good one to remember since from next year it will roll back to 1 with a new emperor. Before Showa was the short Taisho 大正 period, from 1912 to 1926, and before that was the Meiji 明治 period which started in 1868 (the end of the Tokugawa shogunate). However there are few photos from those periods.

Here are few more displays that I thought were interesting:
– Maps and paintings of Shinjuku in the Edo period (opposite the confectionery store). One curious thing about them is that place names (in Chinese characters) are in the direction of the entrance gate. Because of that, some of the names are upside down, which led me to believe at first that the map was the wrong way up!
– Wooden entrance tokens for Shinjuku Gyoen from 1915. Quite a thing to carry around and a far cry from the magnetic cards of today.
– Manuscripts of famous writers such as Natsume Soseki, who used to live in Shinjuku and the half Irish half Greek Lafcadio Hearn (Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo), who moved to Japan in 1890 and lived in Shinjuku till his death in 1904. A copy of his English book “Kokoro” is on display.
– The clothes and numerous contents of the pockets of a gentleman between the two world wars. I was surprised to see a face mask, albeit one made of leather.
– An interactive display where by pressing buttons you can see the daily activities and associated expenses of a student, a salaryman, a housewife, a rich wife and a movie director in the Showa period. Total daily expenses ranged from 64 sen (one sen is a hundredth of a yen) to 14 yen.

By the way, when you leave the museum, check out that triangular metallic monument in front. It’s actually a sundial – can you tell how much time you spent in the museum?

A tram car from the early Showa Period

You might also like

AUTHOR

Tadaima Japan Editorial Team

Tadaima Japan Editorial Team

Tadaima Japan Editorial Team

Facebook Twitter

Information

Address Tokyo, Shinjuku ward, Saneicho, 22
Hours 9:30AM - 5PM (last entry)
Price 300 Yen
Close 2nd and 4th Mondays of the month (or Tuesday if the Monday falls on a National Holiday), Year-end holidays 12/29-1/3
Access Less than 10 minutes on foot from Yotsuya-sanchome station and 10 minutes from Yotsuya station
Phone 03-3359-2131
Language Japanese
English
Website https://www.regasu-shinjuku.or.jp/rekihaku/