“As for yesterday, it has vanished along with all that was in it.”
Delving into a book, whether it be fictional of factual, and delving into a museum are very much two sides of the same coin for me. They both embody escapism from this plane of existence and both fire my mind by exposing it to new vistas. The human brain metabolises and catabolises knowledge in much the same way as the body absorbs the nutrients we consume. The challenge gifted to each if us when we encounter new stimuli are essential and without such lethargy and stagnation can plague each of us. This said, many museums score poorly when compared to their rival, the engrossing experience that is reading a book. However, the much over-looked gem of the Fukagawa Edo Museum goes a good way to redressing this imbalance.
Why go here?
When I was growing up, my impressions of the land of the Rising Sun were forged in the crucible of movies, anime, games, manga, books and art: I watched the old Godzilla movies alongside the classic movies made by Akira Kurosawa. I enjoyed the animations of Studio Ghibli and other famous works such as AKIRA, Ghost in the Shell, Gatchaman, Vampire Hunter D and later Evangelion. I played the Final Fantasy games and delved into the world of the Ninjas in Tenchu. I read books about old Japanese myths but also I loved the works of Yukio Mishima and was very much taken by the short stories featuring the character Inspector Hanshichi set in the Meiji period. With regards to art, the books of woodblock prints from the Edo period, that my father owned, very much influenced my appreciation of art, as did the comic style of manga I was also reading at the time.
The Japan I found upon my arrival is a different beast from the impression I had formed before coming. Japan has been forged anew and fundamentally differently in the war and post-war “fire” of America’s occupation. When I first arrived, I constantly found myself searching to find the Japan of old that I still held in my mind’s eye.
You can find beautiful glimpses of old Japan in the castles, shrines and temples that cover the country as a whole and especially in such places as Kyoto. There is also much to enjoy in Shitamachi in Tokyo too but again, although these hearken back to the world that was, there still was something missing for me. I wanted to feel and touch the Japan of old I had created in my imagination.
Museums around the country have great selections of the real artifacts I longed to see but they felt sterile and out of context. I wanted to feel and explore the house of the everyday man during the Tokugawa shogunate. I wanted to walk the streets and experience the sights and sounds. I wanted to lose myself in another world free of a pane of glass dividing us. Luckily eventually I found something that really scratched this itch and that place was the Fukugawa Edo Museum.
What’s it all about?
This museum first opened its doors back in 1986, a full seven years before its more famous cousin the Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku. Both focus on the 400 year Edo period and have recreated buildings and artifacts from that time to not only see but also interact with.
The Edo-Tokyo tries to cover both this period and beyond with broader strokes in my opinion, but the Fukugawa Edo Museum limits its focus and is arguably the more immersive and engaging for this very reason. Its aim is to recreate, in wonderful detail, the streets, shops, stalls, and homes of people who lived in the Fukugawa Sagacho part of the city of Edo during the Tokugawa shogunate.
The Fukugawa portion of the old capital city of Edo is named after its founder, Fukagawa Hachirozaemon. It was a fishing district on the Sumida River fed by the famous Ara River and as such had a strong merchant presence to take advantage of the natural harvest from those waters that the hard-working fishermen were catching.
The Great Fire of Meireki on March 2nd 1657, tragically killed over 100’000 people and destroyed 60% of the city, but it also played a crucial part in increasing the status of Fukugawa: After the three day inferno had been quelled, the shogunate moved a number of prominent Buddhist Temples in and around the locale. This brought in both money and prestige. Not too long after, the area was additionally expanded by reclaiming land near the Eitai Bridge, initially built in 1695 but then rebuilt again in the twentieth century. 1695 is also the year that the town became known as Fukugawa-Sagacho. This is the start of the period that you will see represented in the museum. During this time the area became an important cog in the wheels of grain production, storage and distribution and the granaries of Sagacho were ever a hive of activity for the grain trade.
What you get, is what you see (and hear and touch)
Initially you will head into a small introductory exhibition of items, photographs and pictures that serve to simply introduce the period that the rest of the museum represents.
The main exhibition hall of the museum houses a life-size display of a number of roads, houses, both inside and out, merchant’s shops, a gate, the river side and a domineering guard tower. Everything is fully interactive and they have gone into fantastic detail: Clothes, stalls, wares and warehouses, plants, animals, toilets, food, cutlery, sound effects, music and lighting have all been reproduced and woven into an absorbing experience.
Initially you are faced with the merchant’s street that leads to the recreated riverside. Parallel to the merchant’s street are more shops and lodgings but running perpendicular are fisherman’s houses, a warehouse and residences for the more well-to-do types. This is overlooked by an impressive watch tower that is flanked by food stalls, a stage and a place to make tea.
Now, it could be easy to whip through the whole thing but there are a number of guides around and I would definitely grab one of these to make sense of it all. They all seem to speak English (to varying levels) and carry files with them detailing what is what. If you speak Japanese you can additionally pump them for further more detailed information. I would recommend beginning with a guide but after you have been shown around and had everything explained then I would spend a good deal of time exploring at your own pace and really delving into the experience and soaking up the ambience. It is also worth spending some time here as the sights and sounds change as it cycles through a day from dawn to dusk, night and back to dawn again.
What you find in the houses and around also changes during the year with seasonally appropriate displays of items and foods changing from month to month.
I will not go into a blow-by-blow account of all I saw but highlights for me were the poking around in the fishermen’s houses, seeing all the items in the vegetable and rice shops, gawking at the urinating dog and nosy cat, going into a warehouse, trying on the traditional raincoats and just having a good nosey in people’s houses.
They additionally have a small theatre similar to the one they had during the Edo period and there are performances of music, plays, etc here.
There is a side area that has some items to have a play with and some real artifacts as well as a lecture theatre to show short documentaries and have lectures and presentations, but to be honest the main hall is where it is at.
The way out is lined by a series of wood-block prints. It could be quite easy to zoom past these too but I urge you to spend a little extra time to have a good look.
The exhibition hall is open from 9:30am to 5:00pm with the last admission as 4:30pm. They are on holiday on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month so please be aware of this. If you are unsure please give them a call at 03-3630-8625. As with most museums in Japan it is not open during the New Year’s holiday.
The museum is in Tokyo so is an ideal way to spend a morning or an afternoon and still have time to do other things.
The easiest way to get there is by train. The nearest train station is Kiyosumi-shirakawa on the Toei Oedo line / Tokyo Metro Hanzomon line and part of the Tokyo subway system. From the station it is about a three minute walk: Head out of the station and head toward the large Kiyosumi Garden which will be on your right as you walk down the main road. The second turning on your left will lead you to the museum and it is adequately signposted.
Enjoy your trip to the past!
Oh! One more thing, if you are fortunate enough to go in late September then you will see that the whole locale is filled with scarecrows. This is a yearly thing and there are some excellent and quirky fellows to be found. Have fun!