Shitamachi/Old Tokyo

Tokyo is a modern city, most closely linked with new technology, hypermodern facilities and shiny skyscrapers. Like every city, Tokyo also has a highly interesting past and the people who have lived here, who made the city big, have a distinct culture. Unfortunately, earthquakes, fires, World War II and above all the Japanese preference for all things new have destroyed many of the old places and sights. However, in this vast city, many interesting spots still remain through which you can experience the old atmosphere of this metropolis.

This site mainly deals with Shitamachi, a specific term that literally means lower city and is associated with the common people’s culture before the second World War. However, its location and its meaning are far from clear. Even if you ask a someone who was born and raised in Tokyo the answer may be different.
In recent years, Shitamachi became more popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists who are looking for Tokyo’s old town as it exists in many Asian and European cities. However, in Tokyo this kind of old city centre does not really exist as old fragments are scattered throughout the city. The core in Tokyo is the Imperial Palace and its surrounding areas, but as Tokyo has been the scene of various calamities, only a limited number of pockets of history can still be found. So where can you find these areas? Where can you find Shitamachi?

 

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.

Literally, Shitamachi means lower city, as opposed to Yamanote which means higher city (literally: mountain hand). The quick explanation is that the “lower city” was the area for lower class people in a low lying area that was prone to flooding, while the “higher city” was in the more hilly part of town where the rich and powerful had their residence. This classification is true, however, as time went by these areas moved as certain neighbourhoods gentrified and the city expanded. The main issue with the general geographical classification is: how far east do you go, how far south and how far north? For that we also need to take into account the old borders of Tokyo as Tokyo used to be smaller than it is now. Have a look at my Where is Old Tokyo article for an overview of geographical borders.

 

2. Definition based on characteristics that are connected to the image of Shitamachi

The term Shitamachi also has a cultural connotation, so an area would be called Shitamachi if it satisfies a certain set of characteristics.

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

did the hebimichi in nezu, shitamachi style
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 cityArea nameAlley-waysWork-shopsFlower-potsStray-catsNo fencesCurly streets
Within the city centreNihonbashi, Kanda, Ginza, Shibayesyes
Within the 23 wardsUeno, Asakusa, Iriya, Honjo, Fukugawa, Yanesenyesyesyesyesyesyes
Within the centre core areasKishimoto, Koushima, Senju, Kameido, Tsukishimayesyesyesyesyes
Within the suburbsNishiarai, Tastsuishi, Shibamata, Koiwa, Kasaiyesyesyesyes

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.

coverhirayama
The Himalaya Cedar tree in Yanaka, a tree with a history.