1. The main geographical division: Shitamachi versus Yamanote, or east versus west
A generally accepted classification takes everything east of the Imperial Palace as Shitamachi, everything west as Yamanote. The often cited source for this is the Kokushi Daijiten, the Great Dictionary of National History.
2. Definition based on characteristics that are connected to the image of Shitamachi
The characteristics that are often recurring are:
- lots of small alleyways
- many small workshops
- many flowerpots in the street next to the house (not on a windowsill)
- many stray cats
- absence of fences
- curly shape of the streets
The Snake road (hebimichi) in Nezu that has many of the Shitamachi characteristics: small alleyway, workshops, flowerpots and absence of fences, all in one curly road.
One Japanese blog has made the following listing of areas that agree with these characteristics:
|Location in the city||Area name||Alley-ways||Work-shops||Flower-pots||Stray-cats||No fences||Curly streets|
|Within the city centre||Nihonbashi, Kanda, Ginza, Shiba||yes||yes|
|Within the 23 wards||Ueno, Asakusa, Iriya, Honjo, Fukugawa, Yanesen||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Within the centre core areas||Kishimoto, Koushima, Senju, Kameido, Tsukishima||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Within the suburbs||Nishiarai, Tastsuishi, Shibamata, Koiwa, Kasai||yes||yes||yes||yes|
However, depending on the blog post or article, other representative areas pop up: Kyobashi, Kudatani, Mukojima, Ryogoku
3. Areas generally identified as Shitamachi by magazine articles, blogs and guidebooks
The last couple of years have seen a large number of articles on Shitamachi, both in English and Japanese, that outline the best Shitamachi spots. These can actually be quickly summarized into the following areas:
- Asakusa: considered to be the capital of Shitamachi culture, with on the other side of the Sumida river the lesser known but more authentic Mukojima
- Yanesen: an area consisting of Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi. This area well preserved the pre-World War II lifestyle and buildings as it has not been bombed during World War II.
- Ueno and the area stretching towards Asakusa such as Shitaya/Iriya
- Ningyocho and at the other side of the Sumida river: Fukagawa
The definition of Shitamachi also varies depending on the historical period. This is less important for when you are trying to visit and experience Shitamachi as it exists right now, but is interesting to know that the terminology has evolved over time. At the Shitamachi museum (first floor, in Japanese) there are various information panels about how this evolved.
Ready to start exploring old Tokyo? Use some of the maps I have prepared.
The Himalaya Cedar tree in Yanaka, a tree with a history.