- A historic international effort
- Tragedy and new beginnings
- Modern times
- What to see and do
- Perfect for fans of trains and history
A historic international effort
Japan’s first railway line, connecting Tokyo to Yokohama, opened on October 14, 1872, reducing a 10-hour walking journey down to a trip that lasted less than an hour. What was at the time known as Shimbashi Station (more on the name later) was erected less than a year earlier, in December 1871, at the line’s zero-mile point in Tokyo’s Shiodome district.
Although Old Shimbashi Station was designed by the American architect R.P. Bridgens, it was British engineering and technology, under the stewardship of Edmund Morel, that drove the successful completion of Japan’s first train line.
Tragedy and new beginnings
Japan’s railway boom ushered in the country’s rapid Meiji-era modernization, and the distinctly western architecture of Old Shimbashi Station served as a harbinger of what was to come—particularly the modernization of the nearby Ginza district. As Tokyo’s railway network grew, the passenger terminal functions of Old Shimbashi Station were transferred to nearby Tokyo Station when it opened in 1914. With this change, Old Shimbashi Station was also stripped of its name and became the Shiodome Freight Terminal. Nearby Karasumori Station became the present-day Shimbashi Station, a major hub presently serviced by four JR train lines, two subway lines, and the automated Yurikamome Line.
In 1923, the Shiodome Freight Terminal (Old Shimbashi Station) was destroyed in a fire sparked by the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake. Eventually, post-earthquake renovation work led to the demolition of the station platform and structures that had survived the fire.
Despite this tragedy, the reborn Shiodome Freight Terminal remained in use until 1986. As the area underwent a massive urban redevelopment project, portions of the original pre-quake station platforms and foundations were unearthed during archaeological excavations in 1991.
The Japanese government designated these remains as a historic site on December 10, 1996, and in 2003, a replica of Old Shimbashi Station was faithfully reconstructed on the spot where it all began. To make it a little easier to trace the history of these historic train stations, check out this annotated map.
The present incarnation of Old Shimbashi Station is now home to a small museum where visitors can view the original Meiji-era artifacts and preserved portions of the original 1871 Old Shimbashi Station structure that were discovered during the archaeological excavation. Oddly, most of the building is actually occupied by a branch of the popular Ginza Lion Beer Hall chain, which betrays the historic atmosphere almost as much as the towering skyscrapers that surround the diminutive station.
What to see and do
Since the museum is so small, it’s easy to drop in for a quick visit if you’re in the neighborhood and have 30 minutes to an hour to spare. All of the permanent exhibits, both inside and outside the museum, are presented in English and Japanese. The second floor of the museum hosts temporary exhibitions which may only be in Japanese. Even if this is the case, don’t overlook the interactive video display. The English-language videos are a great crash course on railway history and Tokyo’s Ginza district.
You’re free to take pictures outside of the museum, but unfortunately, no photography of any kind is allowed inside. Fortunately, admission is free.
Perfect for fans of trains and history
Although Old Shimbashi Station represents such a significant era of Japanese history, the museum’s small size and niche focus prevent me from recommending it as a “must see” Tokyo travel destination. However, a passing interest in the subject matter is enough to enjoy a brief respite from the bustling streets of Ginza and Shimbashi.
That being said, if you’re fascinated by trains, Japanese history, or ideally, a combination of both, you should make it a point to visit the local treasure that is Old Shimbashi Station.