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Finding Tokyo of yesteryear: The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

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By Vicki L Beyer

It has often been observed that megalopolis Tokyo has had two chances to re-organize itself -- after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and after the WWII fire bombings -- and it squandered both. Yet anyone who has spent any extended time in Tokyo, or visited more than once, knows that the city is constantly changing itself. Buildings are often destroyed to make way for something newer and more modern. So much so that many fine examples of Tokyo's older architecture that somehow managed to survive the earlier catastrophes fall to the wrecking ball.

Fortunately, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum has rescued a number of wonderful examples of 19th and 20th century houses and commercial structures and arranged them on spacious, leafy grounds so that visitors can stroll the grounds and enter the buildings themselves for an up-close-and-personal look.

The museum is situated in a wooded corner of Koganei Park, the second largest park in metropolitan Tokyo. The park was created in 1940 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Chrysanthemum Throne; the Kokaden Palace that was also built for those celebrations now serves as the visitor center for the museum.

The museum is divided into three "zones."

The West Zone is comprised predominately of residences. There are a number that are in unique Western styles, built in the years following the Great Kanto Earthquake, as well as a three-story house of European design with a striking red mansard roof that dates to before 1910. The Musashino Sabo Cafe operates on the ground floor of this house, offering the opportunity to relax and soak up the Meiji-era atmosphere over a nice cup of tea.

Also in the West Zone are a number of traditional Japanese-style thatch-roofed houses from the mid-19th century, as well as a couple of houses referred to as "modern" Japanese architecture that have layouts more in keeping with traditional Japanese homes, but also boast western features. The expansive home of Hachiroemon Mitsui, last head of the Mitsui zaibatsu conglomerate, and the bungalow-esque home of architect Kunio Mayekawa are particularly noteworthy examples.

The star of the Center Zone is the 1902 home of politician, Korekiyo Takahashi (1854-1936), together with gardens designed to emulate those that surrounded the house in its original location in Akasaka. Takahashi, a Christian who served as prime minister of Japan in 1921-22 and was an influential policy maker to the end, was assassinated in this house during the failed military coup of February 26, 1936.

Also in the Center Zone are structures built in the 1920s: the weekend retreat of a leading Taisho period businessman, a traditional tea arbor, and the gate to the Date family complex that once stood in Shirokane.

The East Zone could be regarded as the business district, as the principal feature is "Shitamachi-naka Dori", a street lined with shops and other commercial establishments, including a kitchenware store, a flower shop, a stationery store, an umbrella maker, a soy sauce shop and an inn. Many of the shops are stocked to give them the appearance of the period in which they were built, largely the late 1920s and early 1930s. Several, although wooden, are covered with copper plates that have oxidized to a beautiful shade of jade green.

Halfway up the street is "rest house" built in the style of an old warehouse. On the second floor is "Kura", a restaurant that serves handmade noodles for which the Musashino area (now western Tokyo) is renowned.

At the end of Shitamachi-naka Dori is a traditional bathhouse dating to 1929. The spacious interior gleams with white tiles but also has painted tile decorations and an enormous back wall that features an enormous landscape dominated by Mt Fuji. Although the traditional separation between men's and women's baths has been maintained, visitors are free to wander through both. Next door to the bathhouse is a small tailoring shop, furnished with cloth, garments and blocking boards, while on the other side of the bathhouse is a bar that was built in 1856. The layout resembles that of modern "sunaku" bars, with customers seated on one side of the bar while the bartender stands and serves from the other; there is also an adjacent private room. The establishment is decked out with bottles, dishes and other accoutrements suitable to an early 20th century drinkery.

On the periphery of the East Zone is the mid-19th century farmhouse of a "village head man", complete with many features that connote the prosperity of the family, and a 1920s cosmetics shop that once produced its own face creams and perfumes.

Finally, the East Zone boasts two "public service" structures. The first is the top section of a fire watchtower from Ueno, complete with traditional Japanese bell for raising the alarm. The second is a police box (koban) that once stood near Mansei Bridge in Kanda. A brick structure is thought to have been built in the first decade of the 20th century; the tiny built-in desk and compact overnight facilities are surprising.

Sprinkled throughout the grounds are other items that don't fall under the definition of "architectural", but are nonetheless historically significant. The first of these the visitor sees, upon emerging from the visitor center, is the cannon that formerly sat on the Imperial Palace grounds and was fired everyday at noon for time synchronization purposes -- a practice commenced in 1871, probably at the suggestion of the British. There are also stupas, milestones, and other stone figures. A vintage streetcar and an old bus also contribute to the historical atmosphere.

Visitors can wander in and out of the houses at will (shoes off in most cases). Many have been outfitted with wheelchair ramps and even elevators to improve accessibility. Volunteers staff most buildings and are ready to tell stories and answer questions. Most volunteers are of retirement age but they love to try to speak English to foreign visitors.

Opening hours: April-September: 9:30 am to 5:30 pm October-March: 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Closed Mondays (except public holidays)

Admission: Adults: 400 yen University Students: 320 yen High School and Jr. High School Students: 200 yen Primary Students and below: free

How to get there: Koganei Park and the Architectural Museum are about 1.5 milometers from Hana-Koganei station on the Seibu Shinjuku line or about 2 kilometers from Musashi-Koganei station on the JR Chuo line.

From Hana-Koganei station, take the Seibu bus bound for Musashi-Koganei station and get off at "Koganei-koen Nishi-guchi". From Musashi-Koganei station, take the Kanto bus bound for Mitaka station and get off at "Edo-Tokyo Tatemono-en mae".

If travelling by car, use the parking lot for Koganei Park. Tell the attendants you're going to the Architectural Museum and they'll guide you to the appropriate section of the lot.

© Japan Today

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7 Comments
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Wow, thanks JT. Will definitely go here.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Bit out of the way but well worth a visit.

Lots of stuff to explore like old toys that kids can try out, one location was also the inspiration for the dispensary in 'Spirited away'.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Wow I didn't know about this place. Thanks

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I heartily recommend it. And the surrounding park is quite pleasant.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Well worth a visit. I've been 2 or 3 times and always recommend my visitors go there. Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off though, as you'll be doing a lot of it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Wonderful place. And looks like they have continued adding new buildings; don't remember the tea room, for example. Will have to go again some time.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

That's on my list of places for next year... thanks JT

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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