People around the world tend to think of Japanese culture as very monolithic and homogenous. But the truth is that Japan’s modern identity is a complex mix of the country’s two old cultural heritages: yamanote and shitamachi.
They were born around the 17th century when the Japanese government moved to Tokyo and the city’s population divided into two. On the one side, you had the powerful clergy and the rich feudal lords who resided in Tokyo’s more affluent, mountainous regions known as yamanote (“mountain hands”). Then you had the blue-collar city dwellers like tradesmen, merchants, and prostitutes, who stayed closer to Tokyo’s inner-city area, which, together with its distinct culture, came to be known as shitamachi (“under town”).
Today, yamanote and shitamachi are seen as equally important elements of contemporary Japan. But there is no contest as to which of the two is seen as more fun. When you think of good and cheap street food, rows and rows of local shops, restaurants, bars etc., and people just being their authentic, unrestrained, jolly selves, you are thinking of shitamachi Japan. That’s why tourists flock by the thousands every year to places like Asakusa’s Nakamise Shopping Street or the historic areas around the Sumida River. That’s where shitamachi was born, after all. But it’s not really there anymore.
Although Asakusa and the Sumida River are beautiful places to visit, over the years, they became too famous. This unfortunately doesn’t let you fully experience that authentic “underground” atmosphere that once made the areas so well-loved. For that, you would need to head on up to Shibamata, a neighborhood in northeastern Tokyo and the home of Tora-san —the living, though fictional, embodiment of shitamachi.
Torajiro Kuruma, known as Tora-san and played by Atsumi Kiyoshi, was the main protagonist of 48 movies in the “Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo” film series, which translates to “It’s tough being a man.” The premise —as summarized by the title —might be debatable, but it was true in the case of Tora-san, a lovable vagabond who traveled all around the country selling his knickknacks and toys before his big mouth or drunken behavior forced him to head on back home. For all his faults and tramp-like appearance, Tora-san was always fun, optimistic, and just larger than life. He wasn’t sophisticated, but deep down he had a good heart, and that’s what shitamachi is ultimately all about. It’s no surprise then that the character was written as a native of Shibamata.
“Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo” has been a huge hit in Japan, but it’s not very well-known abroad, making Shibamata something of a local, hidden treasure. The area severely lacks foreign tourists, which has allowed it to remain mostly unchanged from when the first Tora-san movie came out in 1969. Meaning the neighborhood you can visit today is still one that Atsumi Kiyoshi’s character would find very familiar.
For example, one of the places that the character adored was the Shibamata Taishakkuten temple, still located at the end of the neighborhood’s main shopping street. It’s where Tora-san liked to go and unwind after another trip where he met colorful people, fell in love, said or did something stupid, and then returned home to tell everyone about it. He especially enjoyed the temple’s woodcarvings depicting scenes from sacred Buddhist texts that he may not have fully understood, but which he knew he liked. It was the same with the serene Suikei-en garden at the back of the temple. Even the road leading up to Taishakuten hasn’t really changed that much, as it has retained its yesteryear charm what with its little shops and stalls still using wooden signboards and selling traditional food and crafts. Only now, many of them naturally feature Tora-san’s likeness.
If you wish to continue retracing Tora-san’s steps, you can head down to the famous Yagiri-no-Watashi boat crossing.
Connecting Shibamata and Matsudo (Chiba Prefecture) across the Edo River, the Yagiri-no-Watashi is a ferry famous for its appearance in the Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo films and the fact that it’s been operating, in different forms, for more than 400 years. It can take a maximum of 30 passengers, and takes about 10 minutes to cross the river, none of which will be disturbed by the sound of the motor because the ferry doesn’t use one. It’s entirely manpowered. It’s also hard to find, doesn’t connect to anything important on the other side, and is occasionally closed without prior notice. So, why do people use it? Because Tora-san used it.
But also, the Yagiri-no-Watashi crossing really lets you capture the feeling of how life in a shitamachi area used to be—slow, not without its difficulties, but also more communal and down to earth. You can see how that would appeal to people all around Japan. But not just Japan, as “Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo” does have its fans abroad. Most notably in Helmut Zilk, the mayor of Vienna between 1984 and 1994, who loved the series so much that he actually had his city’s Floridsdorf district sign a friendship pact with Katsushika Ward, where Shibamata is located. Today, there is even a 3,000m2 park in Floridsdorf bearing the name “Tora-San-Park.”
What seems to draw people to Tora-san, and really just the shitamachi culture in general, is that they are familiar and honest. There is of course nothing wrong with Japan’s more sophisticated and highbrow cultural contributions like traditional paintings, theater etc., and if that’s what you’re after, there are many places around the country where you can experience it. But if you’re looking for a more down to earth and jovial piece of Japan, then Shibamata and its shitamachi soul seem like just the place for you. If you ever have the chance, check it out and say “Hi” to the Tora-san statue located just outside Shibamata Station.