Shitamachi: It’s all in a name
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
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.
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.
An elective course in Tokyo history
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.