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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Shibamata - traditional Japan minutes from Tokyo


Shibamata, Tokyo

Tora-san is the main character, played by Kyoshi Atsumi, of what was Japan’s longest running movie series, Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (“Men Have it Tough, You Know”). Otoko wa Tsurai Yo ran from 1969 to 1995, and most movies in the series were written and directed by Yoji Yamada.

Shibamata, Tokyo

The Tora-san character was a heart-of-gold, traveling salesman who in every single episode fell for a woman who, invariably, ditched him for some reason. It is no doubt the sense of eternally deferred pleasure and ongoing hope and grit, while maintaining a warm humanity, that appealed to Japanese audiences and made Tora-san, way and above, modern Japan’s most beloved fictional character.


In Otoko wa Tsurai Yo, Tora-san is a native of a small town called Shibamata that is part of Tokyo’s Katsushika ward, on the very north-eastern edge of Tokyo.

Shibamata is worth a visit even if you know nothing about Tora-san or have no interest in Ototo wa Tsurai Yo – and of course even more so if you do. Unlike most parts of Tokyo, the look of Shibamata has been carefully preserved to maintain something of its pre-war appearance. From the antique-looking station, to the town square with its bronze statue of Tora-san, to the old-style shopping street lined with stalls selling traditional snacks, drinks and trinkets, everything is designed – most effectively – to give you the feel of early-industrial Japan.


Shibamata is equally famous for its temples dedicated to the Shichi-fukujin (The Seven Gods of Good Luck). The most famous is Taishakuten, which is the one that the aforementioned old-style shopping street takes you too from the railway station. A few minutes’ walk beyond it is the Edo River, flanked by playing fields, and with an old-style boat that plies the river, more for the pleasure of the ride than anything else, as there is nothing of real interest on the other side.

The other temples scattered around the area are worth visiting for their variety—if you’re into temples. There is also a Tora-san Museum, in a most uninspired setting, but of interest in terms of its content for fans of this virtual God of Lucklessness.

More than anything else, Shibamata is worth a visit just to get a taste of another Tokyo: one that has not been bulldozed in the name of convenience, and that maintains corners of refreshing unkemptness and rural charm. Shibamata is about 50 minutes from Shinjuku by train.

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