On my previous trips to Japan, I’ve come to know the Tōkyō of soaring skyscrapers, of popular culture, of old stereotypes and unstoppable evolution. Now I’m setting out to discover a different, grittier side of the city: the Tōkyō of the backstreets and low-rise neighbourhoods, of old houses and quiet alleyways, of hidden shrines and labyrinthine graveyards.
Welcome to the Shitamachi.
First part of two. To read the second part, click here.
Sunday, 02 October 2016.
After morning Mass at a Catholic church in the Chiyoda area, I checked out of my hotel and took a Ginza Line train to Ueno Station, where I left my luggage in a coin locker near the underground Keisei platforms. Freed from the unwanted burden, I reemerged at street level and walked a short distance to Shinobazu-no-ike (不忍池), the famous lotus-filled pond at the southern end of Ueno Park (上野公園, Ueno-kōen).
I’d been to Ueno Park countless times before – in fact, it was the opening attraction of my very first trip to Japan, back in 2009. That said, I’d only ever seen the central and eastern sections of this sprawling public space; its western flank was as yet (mostly) unexplored territory.
My first target was Benten-dō (弁天堂), a small island temple in the middle of the pond. Viewed from a distance, the green-roofed building barely stood out from beyond the tall, thick stands of lotus plants floating on the water…
…so I walked over to the bridge on the eastern side of Shinobazu-no-ike and crossed onto the island for a closer look.
Afterwards, I retraced my steps to the south-eastern corner of the pond, where I waited a few minutes until the doors of this building opened at 9:30 AM.
It might not look like much on the outside, but the Shitamachi Museum (下町風俗資料館, Shitamachi Fūzoku Shiryōkan) is a great launchpad for any exploration of Tōkyō’s Shitamachi: the traditional working-class districts extending roughly to the north and east of the Imperial Palace. More than a mere geographical concept, the term “Shitamachi” (下町, literally “low town” or “under town”) has some deep and richly layered connotations that are far beyond the scope of this travel post to discuss – the related Wikipedia article is one place to start learning.
My favourite part of the museum was a life-sized recreation of a Shitamachi neighbourhood as it would have appeared in the Taishō Era (1912-1926). This simpler, coarser side of the Japanese capital is something that doesn’t always feature in popular conceptions of the city, and it’s an excellent complement to the similarly recreated townscape (albeit from much further back in time) at the Fukagawa Edo Museum.
After leaving the museum, I walked to the nearby southern entrance of Ueno Park and began making my way north. I’d followed this same path before, but only as a means to an end: that is, in order to reach the cluster of museums on the other side of the park. Now, for the first time, I began to pay close attention to the shrines and temples lining the route.
At the top of the slope on my right loomed Kiyomizu Kannon-dō (清水観音堂). Like its more famous and much larger namesake in distant Kyōto, this temple features a balcony that juts out over the edge of the hill on which it stands.
A little further on, I came across the entrance to the Hanazono Inari Shrine (花園稲荷神社, Hanazono Inari-jinja). The succession of vermilion torii lining the path to the shrine was reminiscent of another Kyōto landmark, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Near the intersection where the path widens into a broad promenade leading to the museum quarter, I made a sharp left turn and followed a narrow side street. This was the entrance to the Ueno Tōshō-gū (上野東照宮), a small but lavishly endowed shrine dedicated to the memory of Tokugawa Ieyasu. As with the other landmarks we’ve seen thus far on this walk, Ueno Tōshō-gū is a miniature cousin of another, more famous attraction located elsewhere in Japan.
Off to one side of the path leading to Ueno Tōshō-gū’s main hall stands a granite monument, featuring a small eternal flame enclosed within a protective cover. Even if I’d chosen not to read the information plaque installed nearby, the paper cranes draped on either side of the lamp would have offered a vital clue.
The tiny spark kept alive within that dove-shaped reliquary ultimately descends from two flames: one taken from the ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, and another kindled using the friction of damaged roof tiles salvaged from Nagasaki.
Towering over Ueno Tōshō-gū is an Edo-period pagoda, one of the last surviving remnants of Kan’ei-ji (寛永寺). Founded in the 17th century, the once-powerful temple formerly encompassed much of the area of present-day Ueno Park and beyond, but was almost completely destroyed in 1868 during the Boshin War.
In the next post, our walk takes us deeper into Tōkyō’s Shitamachi, offering a glimpse at a side of the Japanese capital that’s as far removed from its popular image as one could possibly imagine.