A view of 19th century building reproductions across the pond at Hamarikyu Gardens. Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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History and modern developments: A walk in Shimbashi

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By Vicki L Beyer

In the plaza outside Shimbashi Station sits an old train locomotive -- indeed the plaza is known as "Steam Locomotive (SL) Square". There is particular symbolism to this location, as this was the terminus of the original train line running from Yokohama's port to the city of Tokyo (Japan's first passenger train line), opening in 1871. This Shimbashi area is full of similar historical tidbits and interesting sights. Join me for a few hours on a walk to explore some of them.

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Steam Locomotive Plaza outside Shimbashi Station Photo: VICKI L BEYER

It turns out that SL Square and its back story are, in fact, slightly misrepresentative. The original rail terminus is actually some 400 meters to the east. It was relocated to the site of current Shimbashi Station after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the 1871 station building. Tokyo Station, opened in 1914, had already robbed the station of its status as the rail terminus, and the area had become a rail yard for freight trains, making it a simple decision to relocate passengers services to the current Shimbashi Station.

Begin from SL Square. If you're there just before lunch, you can hear the locomotive's whistle blown (daily at 12 noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.), although it's probably better to start your day a bit earlier in order to see everything on this walk. The rabbit warren of narrow streets beyond contain bars and restaurants that have been a popular area for workers to spend time with colleagues at the end of the day for as long as the train has come through here. But you're headed in the opposite direction for now (see map).

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Old Shimbashi Station Photo: VICKI L BEYER

From SL Square it's about a five-minute walk to Old Shimbashi Station. This is a reconstruction of the impressive 1871 building, one of Tokyo's earliest Western-style buildings. Inside is a Ginza Lion restaurant, a free gallery relating to railways, and a basement exhibition on the 1991 excavation of the original station site leading to the building of this reproduction. The gallery currently has an exhibit on toy and model trains from Japan, Europe and the U.S. (through Oct 14). The gallery also offers six rail history-related videos, some with English. Many of the videos including fascinating vintage footage.

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The train platform of Old Shimbashi Station Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Behind the station building is a bit of the old train platform and rail line, as well as the stone marker indicating "Mile Zero" for train travelers. This spot held that privilege from 1881 to 1914, when Tokyo Station was opened and became the new Mile Zero.

There are lots of other lunch choices in the adjacent buildings, all part of the redevelopment of the old freight yards into the Shiodome office district. It's quite a transformation!

Next door to Old Shimbashi Station is the Panasonic Building. Start your visit on the 4th floor at the Panasonic Shiodome Museum of Art, Rouault Gallery (admission: 1,000 yen). The current exhibit (through Sept 23) is Meissen dishes and figurines, particularly featuring animals. Most are 19th century works, often covered with "snowballs" of flowers, gaudy by today's standards, but impressive when you consider the amount of work required to produce them.

On the first floor of the Panasonic Building you will find the Tokyo Renovation Museum, an exhibition on how a basic Japanese "mansion" can be gutted and reconfigured to accommodate modern lifestyles. Four different models are provided, in miniature and also life-size. It's interesting to observe the options and how they are assembled.

Keep heading downward. The two basement levels house "Panasonic Living" showrooms of various home interior fixtures and fittings. So many options!

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Advertising from the first half of the 20th century at The Ad Museum Photo: VICKI L BEYER

At the B2 level, leave through a door that seems to lead to a parking lot and bear to the left to emerge into an underground plaza that will lead you into the Dentsu Building across the street. Dentsu is the world's largest advertising agency, so it makes sense that this is the home of The Ad Museum Tokyo, a fascinating gallery featuring advertising from the 1860s through the present. How tastes and appeals have changed over the years! Or has the advertising in fact molded our tastes and perceptions over the years? Various interactive displays allow visitors to take a deeper look and decide for themselves.

The next stop on your walk, Hamarikyu Gardens, takes you back to the days before advertising was a thing--the Edo Period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa clan ruled as shoguns. The Tokugawa shoguns are responsible for turning the little fishing village of Edo into the major city of Tokyo. Old Edo was built in a swampy area affected by tides. Creating channels to reclaim land and control water flow was one of many engineering projects undertaken by the Tokugawas. This area's name, Shiodome, means "stop the tide", an indication of the kind of engineering work undertaken here.

The Tokugawas weren't all about work. Most Tokugawa men also loved to hunt. At Hamarikyu Gardens they could kill two birds with one stone, both figuratively and literally. This area, near the Sumida River, was developed with a central pond and other waterways to control tidal flow and maximize useable land inland from here, but was left relatively natural to attract birds, particularly ducks, to provide hunting quarry.

Hamarikyu Gardens was opened as a public park by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1946. It's a pleasant spot to stroll, enjoying the greenery, ponds, and waterways. An English brochure is available at the entrance (admission 300 yen) with a map of the garden's walkways to help you plan your route. Through Sept 16, visitors can also borrow a Japanese paper umbrella to create atmosphere and keep off the hot summer sun.

Before entering Hamarikyu, it's important to consider what you want to do next. One option is to catch a boat up or down the river from the park's boat landing. In that case, check the timetable posted outside the garden gate and plan your route moving counterclockwise around the garden (unless time is short). The recommended time to explore the garden is 60-90 minutes.

Alternatively, move clockwise around the garden to be best positioned to exit the garden and move on.

For a spot that is largely landfill, the garden is remarkably textured, with a number of tree-covered hillocks, including one regarded as a miniature Mt Fuji.

There is a very nice tea house on an island in the garden's main pond, accessible via pretty little footbridges. On the north side of this pond are reproductions of some of the buildings that stood in the garden in the mid-19th century -- mostly staging areas for the hunt. It's a rare opportunity to learn the mechanics of hunting in that time period.

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The Nittele Big Clock Photo: VICKI L BEYER

If you're not catching the boat, plan to exit the garden via the Nakanogomon gate. If you can leave by 2:40 p.m., you'll be in for a treat at your next destination, the Nittele Big Clock. This clock, also called the Ghibli Clock, was designed by Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki and is said to have been inspired his feature film "Howl's Moving Castle." Built on the outside of the Nihon Television (aka "Nittele", hence the clock's name) Building, the clock is 10 meters tall and 18 meters wide, made up of intricate balconies, figures and moving parts. It chimes every hour, but for about three minutes before 12 noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily the chiming is accompanied by a performance of the clock's various figures and moving parts, many of which open to reveal items not otherwise visible. On Saturdays and Sundays there is also a 10 a.m. "performance".

From here it's just a short walk back to Shimbashi Station or an even shorter walk to Shiodome Station on the Yurikamome line, from which you can travel to Odaiba for the rest of your afternoon.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in and experiencing Japan. Visit her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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Omedeto Miyazaki Sensei - the clock looks great!

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Good article. Never knew that Shimbashi was so interesting.

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