Visit Edo-Tokyo Open Air Archtectural Museum

Photos by Dave Krigbaum
Photos by Dave Krigbaum

Visit Edo-Tokyo Open Air Archtectural Museum

by Dave Krigbaum
www.wayfarerdaves.com

Tokyo is a place constantly in change. Buildings rise and fall, little is sacred, but if you want to see a little bit of that Old Tokyo that’s mostly escaped us and learn about the great city’s past in a fun day out, visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.

Only about an hour by car or train from Yokota Air Base, the museum calls Koganei Park home.  And while most museums are full of artifacts, the focus at open air museums like this one are the buildings themselves.

Visiting an open-air museum is a different way to learn about history than a traditional museum because you trade the “big picture” overview of history for history at eye-level and see how the times shaped the way people lived and worked.

Edo was the Shogun’s seat of power before it became Tokyo, Japan’s new capital, in the 1870s.This park’s 25 buildings tell stories of that transitional time and the formative years of the city as it rose from the feudal era to the early space age.

The park is organized into three areas according to function. To the west is a farming community that shares Edo’s rural roots. The west/central area is made of homes from the modest to the mansions of the well-to-do and the east is a compact shopping district that corresponds to city life with businesses and public facilities tightly fit together; a far cry from the farmer’s homes in the west and suburban center.

Behind the building

The buildings here should be appreciated on two levels:

First, as representatives of their period’s architecture and the second, for their stories. Every place I entered wasn’t just an example of a type but was once someone’s home or livelihood and each one had a personal story to share. This is enhanced by the interiors as each location is fully furnished providing a peak into what life might have been like in that particular building or home.

These stories were across the board from the mundane lives of salarymen, artisans and farmers to the history-making and I never knew what to expect. The most surprising story came from the first place we entered, the dignified, traditional-feeling mansion of Takahashi Korekiyo. Though it had everything one might expect from an upper-class home, this went beyond being just another nice house. Takahashi was a former prime minister and later finance minister when this home became the tragic site of his assassination in 1936. Takahashi was killed during the Feb. 26 Incident, when army troops led by self-righteous officers occupied Tokyo to “purge” the government. (I don’t always go looking for assassination sites; I just kind of gravitate to them intuitively.)

That was just the first story and I had 24 more to go, though none quite as dramatic. The other houses showed off different classes of living and despite being used to seeing Japanese versions of Western architecture it was still unexpected to find an American Midwestern family house that my best friend said, inside and out, was almost identical to the one his great-grandparents owned in Illinois.It was in a little lot next to a creative wartimehome designed to conserve rationed construction material.

Shopping street replica

Edo-Tokyo’s east side shopping street is well-rounded with a dozen small businesses like a cosmetics shop, general store, and stationary store and some old-fashioned arts like an oil-paper umbrella maker packed in on a recreated city street ending at a lavish public bathhouse, another relic consigned mostly to the past with the advent of indoor plumbing.

It was my favorite part of the visit because every shop was so varied, and it felt like it could have been a neighborhood before relocation. I loved going inside each one to see how it was appointed, like the general store with barrels of beans and displayed fresh goods, as it would have been before World War II. The post-war soy sauce/liquor shop a few doors down had old beer advertisements, its shelves loaded with bottles and a cash register sitting on an ice-cooled ‘fridge.’ My wife was quick to explain that if you brought your own bottle it could be filled straight from the soy sauce barrel at a more reasonable price. (Sometimes I wonder if the town she grew up in was stuck in the 1950s…)

Around here we came across a back alley neighborhood behind the main street with a working water pump, though drinking the water is discouraged. Water pumps are another old city feature that’s gone the way of gas lamps so it’s a thoughtful touch to add one there and also by the western farms.

This area is also partly the product of a particular historic event – the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent fires laid waste to much of the city and the post-quake shops here have fronts sheathed in copper to make them more fire-resistant. It’s an odd feature rarely seen today or outside of Tokyo even in that era but emphasizes the point in history they came from. The sign maker’s copper front also has some minor bomb damage from the 1945 Tokyo air raids linking it to that event as well.

Old-style farming community

We visited the farming community last because it’s the most basic if you’ve ever seen an Edo-era home. The era’s architecture was utilitarian and if you’ve seen one Edo-era farmer’s house from the Kanto Plain, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Worth seeing if you haven’t already been to other more rural open-air museums or architectural parks but if pressed for time it’s the least unique.

Other park features

An easy-to-miss artifact worth looking out for is the small cannon near the visitor center. In the Meiji-era (1868-1912) this was fired off every day at noon to mark the time. I’d heard of the cannon and was happy to find physical evidence that the story was true. Sadly, it no longer fires off at noon the way God and Emperor Meiji intended.

All around the park knowledgeable English-speaking staff members were on hand to add to the stories on the signs and in the handouts. Edo-Tokyo Tatemono doesn’t have a guide book for sale; instead each page of the guide book is given away for free inside every building. Visit them all and build your own!

There are a few food options inside the park, one is a café with sweets and drinks served in an elegant dining room and the other is an udonrestaurant for those wanting a quick meal. Both were enjoyable in their own ways. A vendor beside the stationary 1960s tram in the shopping area also sold old-fashioned sweets and drinks like ramune. Other than these, the open-air museum is inside a larger city park so there are no nearby restaurants and your best alternate option is to bring your own food if you plan on staying all day.

This visit can be followed up or preceded by a trip to the other Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida City to learn more about Edo’s evolution to Tokyo. It’s one of the most fun and engaging museums I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world.

When you’re done checking out the architecture at the museum, Koganei Park also has its own black steam engine train with a passenger car. You’ve already made the trip to the open-air museum, so this train is worth a stop as well.

Getting there
Hours: Tuesday – Sundays 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Closed Mondays
Cost: 400 yen per adult; high school and junior high students – 200 yen; children under junior high – free.
Address: 3-7-1 Sakuracho, Koganei-shi, Tokyo (inside Koganei Park) 184-0005
Info: 042-388-3300 (by phone) or https://www.tatemonoen.jp/english/

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