Over the centuries, Tokyo has experienced its fair share of hardships: in the beginning fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters including an eruption of Mt Fuji did their best to flatten the city; then came the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake; followed by repeated bombing during World War II, and afterwards a period of unregulated urban development brought to an end by the collapse of the bubble economy…yeesh.
All of this and more made Tokyo what it is today, and provides some stellar material for an enormous museum about the history of the city – currently in the eccentric form of the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
From the outside it looks like an enormous space ship modeled after a luxury cruise ship, but is actually based on a traditional Edo storehouse built in the kurazukuri style (which was a way for fed-up Tokyoites to finally make their buildings fire-resistant). Coming in on the Chuo Line to Ryogoku where the museum is located you can see the building hovering over the train tracks about to beam up all of the sumo wrestlers at the Kokugikan sumo stadium next door.
Inside the museum is just as impressive with a vast display of items spread over two open floors, dominated by a life-size replica of the Nihombashi Bridge that you cross over when you enter the museum. There are more than 2,500 items on display; from old maps and swords to meticulously detailed dioramas, as well as large-scale, interactive models showing what daily life was like during the Edo period plus a full reconstruction of the Nakamura-za Theater – one of the three main kabuki theatres of Edo.
The museum’s recently renovated permanent exhibition is divided into three main zones: the Edo Zone, the Tokyo Zone and the Comprehensive History Zone, taking you from the beginnings of Tokyo through the centuries up till the present day. There’s decent English labeling in each zone and an engaging mixture of fragile relics behind glass, full-size models of houses which you can walk through and ‘Please touch’ interactive displays that all bring the city’s past to life.
For a mere 600yen (free for kids), you can check out some traditional toilet time at the reconstructed Edo toilets, take a photo sitting on a replica penny farthing, see a typical reconstructed room from a post-war apartment and learn how contemporary Tokyo was formed from the 1960s to 2010 through a collection of everyday objects – they even have a fossilized Windows 95 box on display to make you feel really old.
The museum offers free guided tours led by volunteers of the permanent exhibition area. Depending on the day, the languages available are Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, French, German and Spanish and tours last approximately 2 hours. You can reserve on the day (from 10.00 to 15.00) or in advance by calling the museum at least two weeks before you plan to visit. You can also pick up a free audio guide (with a refundable deposit) at the General Information counter on the 1st or 3rd floors.
Special exhibitions on Japanese and international subjects take place throughout the year. For June until July 20th there’s an exhibition on NHK Historical Drama ‘Hana Moyu’ while early next year Leonardo Da Vinci will be in the spotlight (details are yet to be announced). The museum also runs different events mostly in Japanese including hands-on workshops and lectures on the history and culture of Edo-Tokyo. The Edo-Tokyo Museum also has a sister museum in the West of the city called the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum which preserves and exhibits important historic buildings.
The Edo-Tokyo museum is in the Ryogoku district of Tokyo along the Sumida River, right next to the national sumo stadium which also has a museum (the aptly named Sumo museum) and if you’re here during the tournament season, you can combine the two for a double whammy of Edo culture. Ryogoku is also where you can find many of Tokyo’s sumo stables if you want to check out a morning training session. Nearby there’s lots of restaurants proffering ‘chanko-nabe’ (sumo wrestlers’ hotpot) as well as a host of izakaya, and the Tokyo Skytree is within easy-ish walking distance. Enjoy!
The Edo-Tokyo Museum is open 9:30 to 17:30 Tuesday to Friday, and 9:30 to 19:30 on Saturdays. The museum is closed on Mondays except when there is a national holiday, in which case it’s closed on the following Tuesday instead.
For tickets, the counter is outside the museum on the ground floor to the left before the red escalator to enter the exhibition. For more information, check the website or call +81 (03) 3626 9974.