Tokyo Fire Museum – Learn about Tokyo’s Past through its History of Fighting Fire

The Fire Museum, or “Shobo Hakubutsukan”消防博物館, located on the intersection above the Yotsuya san-chome station, is Japan’s only museum entirely dedicated to firefighting. Established in 1992, within the Yotsuya fire station building, it is a modern museum with many well-made exhibits spread over 4 floors and the basement. Entry to the museum is free and will also give you access to the observatory on the 10th floor.

2018-09-27   Arakicho, Visit: Museums, Araki-Cho, Tokyo,


A good place to visit for history buffs

One thing I didn’t expect when planning to visit the Fire museum was, that it would have two entire floors dedicated to the history of firefighting in Tokyo in the Edo and Meiji periods, roughly spanning from the 17th to the 19th century. From the name alone, I had initially imagined that the museum consisted solely of displays about modern firefighters. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out to be an excellent way to learn about the history of the city as seen through its efforts in combating fire. Old Tokyo, or Edo as it was called, was once one of the largest cities in the world, and the majority of the buildings were made of wood, making it extremely vulnerable to fire. If you have travelled a bit in Japan you will have realised that many temples, shrines and even castles are actually replicas, the originals having been lost to fire. Consequently, fire fighting was an important part of everyday life.

On the 5th floor, I discovered a large scale model of a neighbourhood of Edo period Tokyo. On the very left, you’ll notice a dynamic scene showing a fire that had just been contained, but not before destroying an entire row of houses. Moving around clockwise, I encountered several more scale models of old lookout towers and a fire brigade procession. I was glad to see that most displays had short English explanations. Because of this, my visit took longer than I had expected – nearly two hours! The other main exhibit on the 5th floor was the impressive and photogenic collection of fire brigade standards – each neighborhood had its own personalised one. These enabled a fire brigade to take credit for extinguishing a fire. Interestingly, the shape of the standards are connected to the area they are from. For example, Yotsuya has the shape of a square and a valley since the name literally means 4 valleys.

I then proceeded to the 4th floor which holds displays of the evolution of firefighting in the second part of the 19th century or Meiji period, after Japan opened up to the world. In between some more well-made scale models, I was surprised to see a full size horse-drawn carriage and a motorcycle used for fighting fires, both painted a vivid red. If you appreciate such displays, then don’t forget to drop by the basement before you end your visit. There you can check out huge fire trucks and beautiful old cars converted for fire-fighting use. The museum shop is also in the  basement and sells small toy versions of the fire trucks. One more display worth checking out on the 4th floor are paintings and photographs showing scenes of the majors fires that broke out in Tokyo throughout its history. It made me realise how fires have reshaped this city many times throughout the ages. If you want to learn more, the museum rents out audio guides in various languages.

A scale model of a fire-fighting scene during the Edo period
The collection of Edo Period fire brigade markers

Interactive displays for those with kids in tow

After I had finished with the 4th floor, I descended to the floor below dedicated to the modern fire service. This floor has many interactive displays and was another reason I spent nearly two hours in the museum. There are too many to list here but the main ones are:

  • A screen that will overlay various uniforms over your video image (waving your hands will allow you to rotate the uniforms).
  • A game where you need to put out a number of fires using a small remote controlled car.
  • A game where you use a real hose to put out a virtual fire (projected onto a screen).
  • An immersive experience where you can sit inside a retired fire helicopter while video of fire-fighting scenes from the air displayed in the front part.

Another fun thing to do when the weather is good, is to go out onto the terrace on the 5th floor. There is another retired fire helicopter on display which you can sit inside, and imagine yourself flying above Shinjuku while fiddling with the various knobs and controls. If the weather is rainy or windy, this space is closed for safety reasons. Back on the 3rd floor, don’t forget to take some time to check out the more serious displays related to fire prevention. If you are interested in this topic, then make sure to also visit the excellent disaster prevention center in Kinshicho.

One drawback of a museum with many interactive displays is, that depending on the day and time, you can get throngs of children. The fire museum is no exception and is particularly popular as an outing for school children. Just minutes after I had finished checking out the outdoor helicopter, the space got invaded by a mob of elementary school children. In order to enjoy the museum in peace and quiet, I would recommend getting there when it opens at 9h30. Another good time is from noon since the kids usually have their lunch break around then. If you like museums with interactive displays, I’d also recommend the science museum in kita no maru koen, next to the budokan, and the National museum of emerging science and innovation (or Miraikan) in Odaiba.

The outside fire helicopter
the exhibition of classic “fire” cars on the B1 floor

Hands down the best view in Yotsuya!

If you happen to go the museum first thing in the morning and if the sky is clear, then the first thing you should do is to head up to the observatory on the 10th floor. This was another surprise for me since I thought I knew about all the free of charge observatories in the Tokyo area. I had also been looking for a good place where one could see Mt Fuji from nearby the Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan. Admittedly, it is only on the 10th floor, but I could see Mt Fuji, the Tokyo Sky Tree and the skyscrapers of West Shinjuku. Looking out the window in the elevator hall, I could just about make out the mountains of the Nikko National Park to the north.

You can also simply go up to the observatory if you don’t have the time or the inclination to visit the museum. You only need to get a badge from the basement or the first floor and return it after you leave. Just remember that, like most museums, it is closed on Mondays (or Tuesday, if Monday is a national holiday). Another thing about the observatory is that it has a number of tables where you can sit and eat your own lunch box or bento. The museum doesn’t sell any food but there are a number of drink vending machines on the 10th floor. Just make sure not to eat there between noon and 1pm like I tried to do, since every table was fully occupied by those previously encountered elementary school children enjoying their homemade bentos!

A display made for a temporary exhibition on the 6th floor
The author pretending to pilot a fire helicopter

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website that includes the place information:
http://tadaimajp.com/2018/03/fire_museum/

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AUTHOR

David

David

Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.

Information

Address 3-10 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku
Hours 9h30am to 5pm
Price Free
Close Mondays (or Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday
Access Direct access via the basement from exit 2 of Yotsuya san-chome station on the Marunouchi line. 10 minutes on foot from the JR Yotsuya station.
Phone 03-3353-9119
Language English
Website http://www.tfd.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/index.html