The Taito-Ku Shitamachi Museum: Reliving the History of Ueno

The Ueno district of Tokyo is often overlooked despite being home to several major attractions including a vast park, an array of amazing museums, and a nationally famous zoo. Located on the northern edge of Tokyo proper, Ueno is often overshadowed by popular nearby tourist attractions such as Sensoji in Asakusa and Tokyo Skytree in Oshiage.

That being said, the more time I spend in Ueno, the more I have come to appreciate the area’s charms, and more importantly, its historical significance. If you are planning to explore Ueno, visiting the zoo and the Tokyo National Museum are a given and have been well documented on several websites.

History buffs, however, should make a beeline to the easily overlooked Taito-ku Shitamachi Museum, a fascinating, hands-on experience showcasing over 100 years of local history.

2019-04-12   Visit: Museums, Tokyo,


Shitamachi: It’s all in a name

A shitamachi merchant home/storefront

Before we explore the Shitamachi Museum, it’s important to understand exactly what “shitamachi” means. Shitamachi is the combination of the kanji characters for “shita” (down) and “machi” (town). Therefore, you’ll often see this phrase translated as “downtown.”

This, however, is where things get a little tricky. The Japanese interpretation of “downtown” is a literal one: a low-lying part of a city. In the case of Tokyo, the shitamachi area includes districts south east of the Imperial Palace (formerly Edo Castle), and was historically occupied by merchants and artisans. This is a stark contrast to the western definition of “downtown” which usually equates to the center or business district of a city.

Therefore the Shitamachi Museum is dedicated to depicting what life was like for common Tokyo residents through the Meiji (1868 – 1912), Taisho (1912 – 1926), and early Showa (1926 – 1989) eras.

A brief yet valuable experience

A shitamachi alleyway that depicts life during the Taisho Era (1912 – 1926). A “mom-and-pop” candy store is on the right. If you take your shoes off, you can enter and interact with most of the museum’s exhibits.

Compared to the grandiosity of the other museums of Ueno, the Shitamachi museum is small and easy to miss. If you don’t keep an eye out for its traditional design, you are likely to walk right past it.

Admission to the museum will cost you 300 yen—a reasonable fee considering the free, detail-oriented English-language tours that come with it. If you have time to spare and are a stickler for detail, I recommend taking the tour. The explanations that the staff provide go far beyond merely translating exhibit signs. As you travel through the museum, you’ll pick up minute details on language, clothing, artifacts, and historic incidents that defined the various eras covered by the museum.

Even if you are in a hurry, the museum is still worth the price of entry. This is especially true if you are staying in the Ueno area and would like to know more about the historic sites that surround you. Most exhibits have brief English explanations. The larger exhibits on the first floor even have full-sized information sheets that you can pick up and take with you.

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the nearby Shinobazu Pond was circled by a horse racing track…
Shinobazu pond in 2019 (located just outside of the Shitamachi Museum). The horse racing course is long gone, but now you can take a leisurely stroll along the same route around the pond.

The second-floor exhibits include classic toys, historic photographs, and other aspects of shitamachi life. Several of these exhibits lack detailed English explanations, but if you have any questions, just ask a friendly staff member—they are more than happy to help you find your answer.

Looking south toward what we now know as the southern entrance to Ueno Park. This picture, which can be viewed on the second floor of the Shitamachi Museum, was taken during the six-year reconstruction period following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.
The same area depicted in the previous photo, but from street-level in 2019. The vantage point from the previous picture is now obscured by fencing.

An elective course in Tokyo history

The Asakusa Ryounkaku—an iconic symbol of old Tokyo. Fifty-two meters in height, it was the tallest building in Japan at the time of its completion (1890). It’s also famous for housing Japan’s first elevator. Tragically, the Asakusa Ryounkaku was destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and was never reconstructed.

For travelers lodging in the Ueno area, the Shitamachi Museum is well worth a visit, even if it is overshadowed by the Sumida Ward’s similarly themed Edo-Tokyo Museum. If the Edo-Tokyo Museum is Tokyo History 101, than think of the Shitamachi Museum as an enjoyable elective.

Locals and long-term residents will appreciate the opportunity to take a deep dive into the history of yet another fascinating part of the city we call home. As someone fascinated with Japanese history, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring photographs from Ueno’s early days—images depicting everything from hanami parties in the park to the completion of Tokyo’s first subway route (Ueno to Asakusa via the Ginza Line).

My experience at this museum added a layer of context to my daily life. Surprisingly, shitamachi-style homes still exist (albeit with some necessary modifications), sprinkled among the arguably non-descript modern buildings of Tokyo’s neighborhoods. The next time I spot one while out on a walk or jog, it will be that much easier to imagine what Tokyo was like so long ago.

The museum’s timeline concludes with memorabilia from the1964 Tokyo Olympics.

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AUTHOR

Anthony

Anthony

Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.

Information

Address 2-1 Uenokoen,
Taito City,
Tokyo 110-0007
Hours 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Price 300 yen (adults)
100 yen (elementary, junior high, and high school students)
Close Mondays (except national holidays)
Year-end and New Year holidays
Access Five-minute walk from Ueno Station
(JR and Keisei Lines; Tokyo Metro Ginza and Hibiya Lines)
Phone +81-3-3823-7451
Language Japanese
English
Website http://www.taitocity.net/zaidan/english/shitamachi/