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The Historic Neighborhood of Fukagawa

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Across the Sumida River from Nihonbashi, Fukagawa is one of Tokyo’s original fifteen wards. We spent a day wandering around its uncrowded streets, allowing the district to surprise us with an excellent museum, a tranquil garden and, for lunch, a delicious bowl of the neighborhood specialty, Fukugawa Meshi.

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Fukugawa is home to a few of Tokyo’s most acclaimed sumo stables. In fact, after emerging from the metro, the very first person we saw was a sumo wrestler, clad in a robe and large enough to blot out the sun. Like starstruck schoolgirls, we followed him at a discrete distance, watching as he went into a 7-11 to flip through comics. It’s not that I expect sumo wrestlers to constantly be eating or practicing, but it was somehow amusing to see this massive guy being so normal, just going about his day.

Kiyosumi

Next, we paid a small fee to enter the Kiyosumi Gardens, a 20-acre park with a circular path that leads along a pond, past a tea house, and through thousands of trees. The garden was created in the eighteenth century, and purchased in 1878 by Iwasaki Yataro, founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who intended to use it as a place of rest for his employees. Opened to the public in 1932, Kiyosumi is one of the more beautiful gardens we visited in Tokyo, thanks largely to an almost total lack of other tourists.

Kiyosumi

After leaving the garden, we walked a few blocks to the west and came upon the Fukagawa Edo Folk Museum. We weren’t sure what to expect here, but certainly not what we found: a full-scale reconstruction of Edo-era Fukagawa. This museum was a real surprise. Around eight houses have been built, some in cut-away to better show off the interiors, and others in their entirety. You’re allowed to remove your shoes and enter all of the buildings, both the residences and the stores. You can walk down by the canal (Fukagawa was an important port of Edo), look up at the fire tower, peer into the outdoor toilet shared by the entire neighborhood and see the roving soba vendor.

The museum is very permissive, allowing and even encouraging photographs, and visitors are free to handle any of the artifacts which are laying around. But the best part might be the dedicated volunteer staff, many of whom speak English, and all of whom are eager to answer questions you might have. The woman following us around was even answering questions we didn’t have.

By the time we finished in the museum, we were famished and set out to find lunch. While puzzling over the Japanese-only menu of a nearby restaurant, a group of older men clad in hiking gear stormed past us and into the door. The last one in line looked back and rubbed his belly as if to say, “yummy yummy”… and that’s as good a recommendation as you’re likely to get. We went up to the third floor, removed our shoes, sat down and dug into the neighborhood specialty: Fukagawa Meshi, a rice dish topped with a rich miso-based broth of clams and green onions.

Fukagawa doesn’t see a lot of foreign tourism, perhaps because it’s on the wrong side of the Sumida River. But this historic neighborhood is still quite central, easy to reach, and worth at least half a day. Probably more.

Locations on our Map: Kiyosumi Gardens | Edo Folk Museum | Meshi Restaurant

Our Apartment In Tokyo Was Very Close To This Neighborhood

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June 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm Comments (2)

A Trip to Kawagoe

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An hour to the northwest of Tokyo, Kawagoe is one of the more popular excursions from the capital. It’s known as “Little Edo” because it retains the distinctive kura-zukuri buildings which once lined the streets of the capital. We spent a day seeing the city’s sights.

Kawagoe

After taking the train to Kawagoe Station, we had to walk for twenty minutes to reach the historic center of town. At first, Kawagoe felt like any other Tokyo neighborhood: big buildings, pachinko halls, cellphone stores, and tons of people. But upon reaching the historic zone, the atmosphere changed dramatically. It might be overdoing things to say that we had been swept into the past, but certainly we were no longer in the modern day.

The kura-zukuri style of construction prominent during the final years of Edo is still evident in Kawagoe, and only in Kawagoe. Heavy warehouses of layered clay and plaster atop a wooden frame, and capped with thick tile roofs, these buildings were designed to withstand the constant fires which so plagued the capital. They’re definitely sturdy; I’m surprised more haven’t survived. We got a good look at how they’re built during a visit to the Museum of Kura-zukuri, found inside one of the kura on the main street of Chuo-dori.

We would enter quite a few kura during our day in Kawagoe. One houses the Kameya Sweets Shop, while another sells goods in a setting straight out of Edo, with the vendor and her wares standing on elevated tatami mats. This is Osawa Family House, which was built in 1792 and is the oldest kura-zukuri remaining in Japan. And then there’s the Yamazaki Art Museum. The exhibits are small, and won’t take much of your time, but the museum is worth visiting just to see the inside of the old warehouse.

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Although these kura-zukuri are easily Kawagoe’s most well-known feature, the city’s most emblematic structure is the old wooden bell tower in the center of town. The three-story Toki-no-kane was originally built in 1644 and is still rung four times a day.

By lunch, we had worked up a mighty appetite, and sat down at Kotobukian, where the specialty is green-tea soba. Each of us were served a wobbling tower of five stacked bowls, each filled with soba noodles and accompanied with a different condiment. This was a lot of food, but the noodles went down surprisingly fast and gave us the energy we’d need during the second half of a long day in Kawagoe…

Locations on our Map: Kawagoe Station | Museum of Kura-zukuri | Yamazaki Art Museum | Toki-no-kane Bell Tower | Kotobukian

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May 28, 2014 at 1:24 am Comments (3)

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

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After noticing the white hulk of the Edo-Tokyo Museum from atop the SkyTree, we wondered how even the world’s biggest city could justify such a monstrous history museum. But when exhibits include full-scale reconstructions of theaters, houses and even a publishing house, the extra room comes in handy.

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We had recently briefed ourselves on Tokyo’s history, and felt prepared for the museum, which is adjacent to the National Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku. The saga of how an insignificant fishing village evolved into the megacity of Tokyo is a fascinating one, and the museum doesn’t skip any of it. If you’re the kind of person who feels compelled to read every scrap of information you come across, prepare for a long day in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

From the days of Edo and its samurai, shoguns and daimyos, through the rapid modernization of the Meiji Era, the city’s dizzying expansion, the catastrophes of fire, earthquake and war, and up into the modern day, the museum is absolutely comprehensive. For newbies like us, it was exceptionally instructive, but even those most knowledgeable about the city would surely learn something new.

You enter the museum by crossing a wooden replica of the original Nihombashi Bridge, which marked the Zero-Mile of Tokyo and was once the center of the city life. Beyond that are dioramas which replicate life in Edo. Like everything else in this museum, they’re big. Let’s just say binoculars are included so that you can take in all the detail. Further on, you can peer inside life-size replicas of eighteenth-century homes, and even a full-scale reconstruction of the Choya Newspaper Publishing Company’s headquarters.

The museum continues through the days of the Meiji Empire, the industrial revolution, and into the modern era. It was all fascinating, but I became fatigued somewhere around 1930. However, I wasn’t too tired to overlook one strange omission. Throughout the museum, there had been excellent English translations of every exhibit. Up until a particular story from World War II…

After bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan floated 9000 weaponized balloons over the Pacific Ocean, into the USA and Canada. One of the balloons succeeded in its deadly mission, killing five children and a pregnant woman in Oregon. This early form of terrorism is a captivating piece of history, which I hadn’t yet known about, but it was almost the only exhibit in the museum which lacked an explanatory panel in English.

Despite that “oversight,” we enjoyed our time in the museum, and came away with a much deeper understanding of Tokyo. It’s big and time-consuming, but for those looking to learn about the city’s history, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is the place to go.

Location on our Map
Edo-Tokyo Museum – Website

Great Hotels In Tokyo

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March 24, 2014 at 7:42 am Comments (0)

A Concise History of Tokyo

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Old Tokyo Photo

Unlike many of the places we’ve visited, Tokyo doesn’t have a history which stretches far into the past. In fact, before the close of the nineteenth century, Tokyo didn’t even exist; it was known instead as Edo. But the rapid ascension from village to “World’s Biggest City” has been as catastrophic as it has been meteoric. Growing pains are always the hardest for those who mature too quickly.

3000 BC Humanity arrives late to the Kantô Plain. At this point, the Egyptians had already established a civilization around the Nile.
628 AD Fishermen brothers discover a Buddhist icon in the waters of the Sumida River, and the Sensō-ji Temple is established in what would eventually become Tokyo.
12th Century Clan leader Edo Shigenaga establishes his castle on the shore, bequeathing the town his name.
1590 Shortly before establishing the shogunate which would rule Japan for 268 years, Tokugawa Ieyasu chooses Edo as his home, irrevocably changing the destiny of the heretofore unimportant fishing village.
1657 Rumored to have started with the burning of a cursed kimono, the great Meireki Fire burns most of Edo to the ground and kills over 100,000 people.
1707 Covering Edo in volcanic ash, but no lava, Mount Fuji erupts. It’s since lain dormant for over 300 years, but remains an active volcano.
1853 Commodore Matthew Perry (not the guy from Friends) lands in Edo Bay and forces a previously isolationist Japan to open its borders to American capitalism, under threat of war.
1868 The era of the Japanese Shogun comes to an end with the rise of the Meiji Empire. Edo is renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital,” and the emperor moves into the city’s Imperial Palace
1923 Striking at noon, when the stoves of the city were ablaze for lunch, the Great Kantō Earthquake ignites fires across Tokyo, destroying most of its housing and killing a significant percentage of its populace. Oh yeah, and sets off a tsunami.
1945 The Pacific War isn’t a rousing success for Japan. In its waning stages, the USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then fire-bombs Tokyo to within an inch of its life. Debates can (and have) been waged on whether the American submission technique was a necessary evil, but what can’t be questioned is its horrible toll on innocent Japanese life.
1964 Japan’s postwar healing comes full-circle with Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics. The games are a source of pride for Japanese citizens, and Tokyo’s infrastructure is rapidly modernized. It’s a much-needed success story in this city which has known so much tragedy.
1995 Ten members of the fanatical Aum Shinrikyo cult unleash a sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. Thirteen die and thousands are injured in the worst assault on Japan since World War II.
2011 The completion of the Tokyo SkyTree brings the world’s tallest tower to the world’s biggest city, and solidifies Tokyo’s place in the architectural vanguard. Days before the tower reaches its final height, the Tōhoku earthquake ravages Japan.
2014 and Beyond It takes a single glance at the cranes and construction around Tokyo to understand that Japan’s capital isn’t done growing yet. The Olympics are slated to return in 2020, which will give the world an excuse to turn its attention towards its largest city. As though another excuse were needed.

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March 21, 2014 at 6:47 am Comment (1)
The Historic Neighborhood of Fukagawa Across the Sumida River from Nihonbashi, Fukagawa is one of Tokyo's original fifteen wards. We spent a day wandering around its uncrowded streets, allowing the district to surprise us with an excellent museum, a tranquil garden and, for lunch, a delicious bowl of the neighborhood specialty, Fukugawa Meshi.
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