Edo-Tokyo Museum: Life & times of citizens of Tokyo on display

by Hayden Murphy
Stripes Japan

Tokyo is one of the world's great cities, and with 38 million people in its metro area, also the world's largest. Not surprisingly, it's also a city with a fascinating history, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum is here to show it all to you.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is located in Tokyo's Ryogoku area on city's east side.

The Chuo local train line (the yellow one) and the Oedo Subway Line both make stops right next to the museum. Don't worry about finding the museum once you arrive, as its architecture is undoubtedly distinctive. In a truly 'Tokyo' move, the permanent exhibition section of the museum is housed in a facility suspended multiple stories above ground by four massive pillars, with a huge open-air plaza underneath.

You can purchase your ticket at either the ticket stalls in the plaza (the 3rd floor) or at the main entrance on 1st floor inside the platform underneath the plaza, where the museum shop and special exhibition area are also located. Tickets are 600 Yen for adults, with discounts for seniors and children. Be sure to ask for an English audio guide when you buy your ticket!

These iPod-like devices have a huge number of English audio recordings explaining the various exhibits and are a must for anyone looking to get the most out of their visit. You'll need to make a 1000 yen security deposit when you borrow one, but the deposit will be fully refunded once you return the device. (Note: the guide only covers the Permanent Exhibition, the various Special Exhibitions may or may not have much English information)

Once you have your ticket and audio guide, take the elevator or escalator up to the 6th floor. After passing through the turnstile you'll cross a life-size replica of the medieval Nihonbashi Bridge, with life-size replicas of a theater down on the 5th floor to your left, and of a newspaper office down to your right. True to its name, the Edo-Tokyo Museum covers the history of both Edo and Tokyo (Edo being Tokyo's name until 1868), with both periods getting equal space. There are a few small exhibits and displays on the opposite side of the bridge that give Edo's backstory and explain the early history of the city, but the real meat of the museum is down on the 5th floor.

The museum focuses heavily on the experience of daily life for ordinary Tokyo citizens throughout history. Little attention is given to grand politics and high art, but rather to what it was like to be one of the millions of Average Joe's (or Average Ichiro's) who have lived in Edo/Tokyo over the last 400 years. Along with an overview of the city's history, you find any number of amusing little facts- such as how in medieval Edo 'night soil' collected from the city's latrines was quite valuable as fertilizer for farmers from nearby villages, or how in booming postwar Tokyo the TV, washing machine, and refrigerator became known as the 'Three Sacred Treasures' (a play on the name of the Imperial family's three most important relics).

There is also a strong focus on the logistics, infrastructure, and changing nature of the city. Tokyo has altered its appearance many times, from fire-ridden castle town, to a Gilded Age mix of modern opulence and industrial slums, to a futuristic mega-city- with more than a few disasters and recoveries in-between. I bet you didn't know that in 1868 Tokyo was so deserted that the government briefly considered clearing large areas of abandoned residences for mulberry fields, or that around the start of the 20th century the now 'retro' and 'quaint' Asakusa area had Japan's first permanent movie theater and could give modern Shinjuku and Roppongi a run for their money when it came to wild nightlife. All this information gives the visitor a much wider understanding of Tokyo, making the Edo-Tokyo Museum and must-see for anyone wanting to get to know one of the world's most intriguing cities.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is open every day except Monday, unless Monday is a national holiday, in which case it will close Tuesday. Operating hours are 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. Saturdays).

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