Shibamata: Where history and movies collide in suburban Tokyo
Take it from the expert: Kit Nagamura, author and “The Backstreet Stories” columnist for the Japan Times, has a few words of advice for the urban adventurer in Tokyo.
“All you need for a successful exploit are sunglasses, Band-Aids, sunscreen, a camera, a travel card, a phrasebook and ¥3,000 (US$38),” she says.
“The fear factor of going off the grid and wandering into the wrong neighborhood is zero and no matter where you are in Tokyo you can usually get home in a cab on that ¥3,000.”
Of the myriad places she’s explored, one of Nagamura’s favorite spots in Tokyo is Shibamata -- a curio of a town that mixes history and fiction into one heady brew.
This small Edo-period town on the northeastern edge of Tokyo was made famous by Tora-san -- the main character in the long-running movie series called “Otoko wa Tsurai yo” (“It’s tough being a man”).
Around 50 films were made here between 1968 and 1996. Tora-san's bronze statue is the first thing you see when you exit Shibamata Station.
Walk past the statue and make your way to the large gate; the starting point for your day. Once through the gate you will find yourself on Shibamata Taishakuten Sando, the central shopping street in town.
The small shops and restaurants have the old Edo feel and you find you’re never sure if they’re real or just part of an old movie set.
Stop in at Uguisuan Yabuchu Soba halfway down the block on the right-hand side for handmade soba with tempura (¥1,500) and the best peanut brittle ever.
If omiyage is your thing, pick up some local kusadango, the ubiquitous green rice sweets served with tea.
Other iconic purchases in Shibamata are hand-printed fabrics and coasters featuring Japanese family crests and the key-chain toy Kin no Unko -- a pile of golden poop that brings good luck if you’re of a mind to drop it in your pocket.
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History in spades
At the end of the road you’ll arrive at the entrance to Taishakuten, a Nichiren Buddhist temple dating back to 1629. Visiting the temple is free but the best part is viewing the 10 Zelkova-wood carved panels depicting scenes from the lotus sutra.
To see these carvings and the Suikeien Garden, walk around to the back of the temple and pay the ¥400 cover fee.
Leaving the temple grounds, make a left out of the gate and follow the signs for
Yamamoto-tei. This museum-home (¥100) of a wealthy businessman from the Taisho era is both Western and Japanese in design.
Visitors can enjoy a cup of green tea and traditional sweets (¥400) while viewing the Japanese garden. From here, follow the signs to the Tora-san Museum (¥500).
Here you’ll find the Kurumaya set used in the Tora-san movies, a display of popular walkways of the 1950s and a multi-screen presentation showing scenes from the Tora-san movies.
Back to nature
You can also rent bikes here and ride to the beautiful Mizumoto Park. Come in cherry blossom season to see the park’s 550 sakura trees stretched out in full bloom over a four-kilometer stretch. You’ll also find the largest concentration of Japanese irises in Tokyo.
If biking isn’t your thing, follow the signs for Yagiri no Watashi, the last man-powered riverboat, operating since the beginning of the 17th century (¥100).
Once on the other side, you’ll find nothing but rice paddies and farmland in which to roam -- bring your picnic with you, as there are few places for refreshment.
Walking back to the station, with the Tokyo Skytree visible on the horizon, you’ll be reminded that your day trip back in time was no illusion -- Shibamata remains one of the most unusual spots to spend a few hours away from the capital.
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For more information, try the official tourist website.
First published in October 2011, this guide was updated in October 2012.