The Edo-Tokyo Museum: A Taste of the Old Town

The Exterior of the Edo-Tokyo Museum

First of all, a quick note: Thanks to all of those to stopped by to read my post on the John Lennon Museum last week. Much to my delight, it was featured on “Freshly Pressed” on the WordPress home page, which introduced me to a number of new readers and interesting new blogs. Glad to have you here!

Oddly enough, I’m posting about another museum today! Two weekends ago, I made my first-ever trip to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I was quite excited about the excursion, given my rather limited Tokyo museum experience, and I was definitely not disappointed. The museum is conveniently located right next to Ryogoku Station and the Ryogoku Kokugikan, which allowed us to catch a glimpse of some passing sumo wrestlers on their way to this month’s tournament. The building housing the museum (pictured above) was itself fairly amazing—one of my friends thinks that it looks like a robotic frog, while I think it looks like something out of Star Wars. Either way, it’s really impressive. The plaza you see is actually the third floor of the building—the permanent exhibits are housed in the structure above, while the lobby, shops, and some of the special exhibits are located below.

The museum focuses on providing a look at “old” Tokyo, which is quite a treat. In some ways, sightseeing in Tokyo can be profoundly ahistorical. All of the soaring skyscrapers and dense urban structures become even more impressive when you think about the fact that so much of the city was destroyed during the fire bombings of World War II.

Tokyo, After the Fire Bombing

The photo above shows the industrial section of Tokyo near the Sumida River after the highly destructive March 10, 1945 bout of firebombing. In any case, most of the city you see today is new. And most of the bits that look old are actually reconstructions (with a few exceptions). There are a few small sections where you can still walk around historic Tokyo, but in general, it’s difficult to get a sense for how things used to feel. So, the Edo-Tokyo Museum gives you a bit of a window in the past, as divided into two “zones”. The “Edo” zone focused mostly on life under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), while the “Tokyo” zone began with the Meiji period (1868-1912), working its way through the Taisho period (1912-1926), the early Showa years, and Occupation-era Japan. It seems that the majority of exhibits were weighted toward the earlier periods, however.

In my opinion, the best thing about the museum was its use of scale, and its incredibly engaging layout. The whole building was dimly lit for the preservation of its historic holdings, which lent it a somewhat mysterious atmosphere (and made it somewhat difficult to photograph). Upon entering the permanent exhibition, you walked across a life-size replica of the famous Nihonbashi, which allowed you to look down at another batch of fabulous life-size reconstructions below. Visitors looking to the left of the bridge saw the Nakamura-za Kabuki Theater (below), one of Edo Japan’s three major kabuki houses, as it looked in 1809. (Muza-chan has a fun post about the reconstruction, the actual theater, and kabuki here.)

Nakamura-za, Edo-Tokyo Museum

There was also a reconstruction of the Choya Newspaper Publishing Company building from Meiji-era Ginza:

Choya Newspaper Publishing Company, Edo-Tokyo Museum

I was particularly struck by a scaled down replica of the Ryounkaku (below), a tower also known as the “Twelve Stories,’” which was designed by British engineer William Burton and completed in 1890. Apparently, it was a symbol of Asakusa and a very popular attraction until it collapsed in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. About 60 meters tall, the building was an octagon of brick up to the 10th floor. The 11th and 12th were constructed of wood and equipped with telescopes for viewing the city. Visitors could relax at a lounge or purchase imported goods at shops inside the tower. The Ryounkaku boasted Japan’s first elevator (designed by one of the founders of Toshiba), which ran up to the eighth floor, but it was shut down “for safety reasons.” Having spent a fair amount of time wandering around present-day Asakusa, it’s fun to imagine the district as it was then, with this as its symbol and one of its tallest buildings. (Wikipedia has a couple of good illustrations of what the tower looked like before and after the earthquake.)

The Ryounkaku, Edo-Tokyo Museum

There were also a number of small scale models of period residences, public buildings, etc. They varied in size. Some were small, others towered overhead—still others were set underneath a floor of transparent glass so that you could see into the buildings from above. Some were even automated—they would open up to reveal a scene inside, sometimes with little human figures ballroom dancing to music. There was enough variety to hold one’s interest for a surprisingly long time. The small-scale model below is the Denkikan (“Electric Hall”) movie theater, which was initially an exhibition booth for new electrical gadgets. In 1903, it became the first permanent movie theater in Japan. This model depicts the theater as it looked when the Italian movie “Antony and Cleopatra” was shown in 1914.

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There were also quite a few objects that you could climb in or on. Museum visitors struggled to lift standards carried by old-time fire brigades or to shoulder a traditional yoke used to carry buckets of water (both remarkably heavy). My favorite was probably this “darma bicycle” (similar to a penny-farthing). It was a bit scary being up that high, even with the bicycle bolted to the ground—I can’t imagine riding one of these things around the uneven streets of Meiji Tokyo!

Besides the models, there was a ton of other really great and interesting stuff—way too many things for me to tell you about here. Some of my favorites included pottery, woodblock prints, suits of armor, old-timey agricultural equipment, scales, documents (including the Japanese copy of the Instrument of Surrender), road signs, vintage cars, early Sony radios, period clothing… So much great stuff! Just to give you a little taste, here’s one of the exhibits on woodblock printing:

Wood Block Prints, Edo-Tokyo Museum

I also enjoyed these fashion plates from the Taisho period:

Fashion Plates, Edo-Tokyo Museum

And I love vintage posters, so I really liked this advertisement for the Tokyo subway (which actually began operation in 1927—can you imagine?):

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Anyway, this is a fabulous museum—I definitely recommend a visit, whether you’re new to Japan or know a ton about its history and culture. Or if you’re just looking for somewhere indoors to sightsee until the Tokyo weather warms up. :) If you added the special exhibits to your itinerary, you could spend a leisurely day wandering around—the museum is open until 7:30 on Saturdays, which makes it convenient to those getting a late start to the day. Seriously, there’s just so much great stuff to see. Anyway, it’s inspired me to put the museum’s sister institution, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum on my list of places to visit; the latter exhibits a number of historic buildings that were relocated there in order to preserve Tokyo’s architectural history. But that will probably have to wait until the spring. ;)

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