Traditional old towns in a large, modern city
You might imagine Tokyo to be a modern city with many skyscrapers. Some people would say there are very few traditional Japanese style architectural structures and districts in contrast to Kyoto and Nara. However, go forward from the crowded city centres and you will find the daily-life of locals in old Shitamachi districts.
Shitamachi (下町) is a general term for small downtown areas that take you back in history to the Edo period (1603-1868). Merchants and working class people started settling theses areas during the Edo era. Generations of people have been living there since ancient times and as a result, Shitamachi locals have strong connections to their past. For example, local residents have strong friendships with the town’s greengrocers, fishmongers, bartenders, and restaurant staff. They have cooperated and preserved age-old events such as local festivals and firework displays for centuries. Therefore, many Japanese say that Shitamachi possesses a nostalgic and quaint atmosphere.
A Variety of Shitamachi areas in Tokyo
Every Shitamachi area has a different atmosphere and taste, owing to their historical and cultural backgrounds. Let’s take a look at some Shitamachi areas in Tokyo.
Most Shitamachi areas are located in the Eastern part of downtown Tokyo. These places are relatively lower above the sea level than the western parts of downtown Tokyo, thus using the prefix “Shita” (下), sometimes meaning a low position in the Japanese language.
Asakusa is one of the most famous tourist attractions of Shitamachi in Tokyo. Rice trading merchants and lower class Samurai worked the surrounding areas of the town during Edo period. They went to Asakusa because of the many places for leisure such as Kabuki theatres and the popular red-light district called, Yoshiwara. The beautiful and energetic atmosphere still remains today.
Go across the Sumida River, a 25 min walk from Asakusa, and you’ll find Honjo (the other Shitamachi) around the Tokyo Sky Tree tower. The Honjo area was planned and developed as a more, fire resistant town by the Edo government after a large fire that claimed more than 100,000 victims. Following WWⅡ, many family-run factories started their business. The Tachibana kira-kira shopping street, where local family-run food shops are gathered, has been a vital market for the people to operate their businesses in Honjo.
Ningyo-cho near the Tokyo station (a 30 min walk) is also a Shitamachi. You might not believe that a Shitamachi exists in such a busy city centre. However, during the beginning of the Edo period many attractions raging from performance stages to red-lights districts were located in this area, because it was close to the central castle (the imperial palace). Visitors can find indications of age old stage performers who had lived and worked in this town.