We’ve seen hundreds of Museums – seriously – hundreds. So if we love a museum – you have to realize we’re comparing it to some of the best in the world.
And the Edo-Tokyo Museum literally blew our socks off. This is an amazing museum, no matter what your age, your language, your interest level. It is simply stunning.
From the outside, you are already impressed. The first two floors of the massive structure are just the ticket hall, an auditorium, the shops, restaurants, and a special exhibit space. You take an elevator to the 3rd floor – and you are on a massive open air terrace – with the rest of the museum hanging 3 floors above you, supported by just 3 massive pillars.
To reach the permanent exhibit space, you can either take the boring elevator up, or ride an open air escalator up 3 floors to the beginning of the museum proper on the 6th floor.
The interior is simply breath-taking. Directly ahead of you is a vast open space – crossed by a massive wooden bridge 25 meters long. This is a full size model of the original Nipponbashi bridge, but 1/2 the original length. The bridge crosses over the open space – over a full size Noh Theatre on one side and a scaled version of Tokyo from about the thirties to fifties on the other. There are full size rickshaws, bicycles, and similar objects for kids to climb on and be photographed on.
Once across the bridge, there are 3 scale miniatures of sections of Tokyo during the Edo Period. All are done in absolute detail, with incredible precision. Impressive without the explanation, but we had asked for one of the Free (our favourite price point) English guides, and she walked us thru the most interesting parts of the models. I’ve already mentioned the detail – but with her explanation, it was easy to see even more. The rocks holding the roofs down for example, or the tenement housing hidden off the main streets and paid for as an act of charity by the wealthy were just two of the interesting sites to see.
They provide binoculars to help kids (or adults with fading vision) get a closer look at the going ons. The section highlighted is near the famous bridge – which during the Edo Period was a fish market.
Drawings from the period – of which there are lots and lots – spend oodles of time detailing the life of the commoner folk since drawing pictures of the higher court officials including the Shogun and the Imperial Princesses was a crime ending in beheading. So there is ample source material to choose from when doing detailed studies of common life, and the designers of the museum have gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible.
Another section of the museum is devoted to life in the aforementioned tenements – fascinating. There’s information on the omnipresent fire-brigades – a necessity in Tokyo of the period. The fireman were all tattooed- done so that they could be identified if they were killed in the line of duty. And they carried tall poles with horse hide strips that could be spun to keep sparks off the head fire fighters. They had small water buckets – but the primary way of fighting fires was simply to pull down the houses – carefully in the direction that would not incite more flames.
Another section was full of period correct street vendors. That was where we learned that sushi was 5 times larger in those days – and that 2 pieces of sushi was an entire meal. We also learned that almost all Japanese in those days were Buddhist’s – and thus vegan with the exception of fish. The lack of calcium in the diet for over 250 years goes a long way towards explaining the small size and the hunched backs we’ve seen here in Tokyo. Our guide explained that the Meiji Government recognized the problem, and changing the average diet was for them and the Governments after them an important priority.
A small section was devoted to the Noh Theatre – where our guide explained the logic behind the white painted faces. In the days of candle light, it was hard to see faces distinctly – and the Geisha relied on their faces to entertain. So painting them white made them stand out in a room – and the white faces of the actors performed a similar function on the stages of the time.
One more tidbit I want to share before signing off. There was an interactive display with a pole and two buckets for kids and adults to try lifting. Our guide asked us what we thought was inside the buckets. We suggested water – but she said – no – something much much more valuable – human waste. Yup, it turns out that in Edo times, human waste – particularly the waste from wealthy people was used as top quality fertilizer, and the farmers paid dearly for the privilege of taking your waste from your home. So folks would race home if they had to go – keeping the streets clean and putting money in their pockets. Who knew?
So – if you take a day off from shopping in Tokyo and want to do something really informative and interesting – check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I think you’ll thank me for the suggestion.
Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler