“Watakushi, umare mo sodachi mo Katsushika, Shibamata desu…” In western society this line wouldn’t mean much but in Japan it’s well known as being the opening line for one of Japans longest running movie series: Otoko wa tsurai yo – also known as the Tora-san series.
The line translates to “I was born and raised in Shibamata, Katsushika” and is the intro to the main character Torajirō Kuruma (Tora-san) – a travelling sales man and lovable tramp. Tora-San travels around Japan falling in love repeatedly with various madonnas. But he always comes back to his roots in Tokyo to visit his family in Shibamata.
Gary has a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the Tora-San film series. He binge watches the episodes every weekend, pretty much ever since we first travelled to Japan. So when we visited Japan for the second time, we simply had to incorporate a day-trip to Shibamata into our two-week itinerary.
WHY YOU NEED TO VISIT SHIBAMATA IF YOU ARE STAYING IN TOKYO
Shibamata (柴又) is a neighborhood on the eastern end of Tokyo, not far from the Edogawa River – the natural border between Tokyo and the Chiba Prefecture.
Visiting Shibamata is like stepping back in time. The entire neighbourhood seems to have escaped the modernisation of Tokyo that took place over the 20th century. You would be forgiven for thinking that you have somehow time-travelled back to the Edo period as you walk down the main street just off the railway station.
While other parts of Tokyo are filled with skyscraper offices and high-rise apartment blocks, Shibamata has retained all its small wooden fronted shop/homes that rise to only a second floor and no higher.
With its main street running all the way down to the local grand temple, which has its back to the Edogawa River, it’s easy to imagine Samurai or royal retainers perusing the shops in days of old. A picture perfect location that gives no wonder to why it was used as the home for Tora-san.
HOW TO GET TO SHIBAMATA
You can get to Shibamata either from Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station. In both cases the train journey will take 35 minutes.
And there are actually two different stations in Shibamata itself. Which one you pick depends on the type of experience you want to have.
If you have enough time, then I would suggest you get off at Shin-Shibamata. The walk along the Edogawa River is quite interesting and picturesque.
If you are short for time, then get off at Shibamata Station. It has a more direct access to the neighbourhood and will also give you more of a Tora-San experience.
THINGS TO DO IN SHIBAMATA
PAY YOUR RESPECT TO THE BRONZE TORA-SAN STATUE
As soon as you leave Shibamata Station, you are hit with references to the Tora-San film series. Right beside the gates to the station is a statue of Shibamatas favourite son.
Made in 1999 by Shinmeikai, a local merchants association that collected funds from the locals, the statue is positioned where Tora-san was known to arrive or depart Shibamata when using the trains.
The larger than life statue sees the man, suitcase in hand, looking back over his shoulder as if to say goodbye (and see you soon) to the neighbourhood he always returns to.
In recent years a second statue was added of Sakura, the sister of Tora-san, and it’s not hard to imagine she’s seeing her brother off after he’s been jilted by love again.
STROLL ALONG TAISAHAKUTEN-SANDO
Behind the statue of Sakura is the entrance to Taishakuten-Sando, perhaps one of the most picturesque streets in Tokyo.
As mentioned before, this street with its wooden fronted shops leads directly up to Shibamata Taishakuten Temple. Here are a couple of the main sights, you don’t want to miss on your way down the main street of Shibamata.
STREET FOOD SOLD ON TAISAHAKUTEN-SANDO
It is particularly well known for the street food that is sold here.
The local cuisine of Shibamata includes:
- salted rice cracker,
- grilled eel
- and a dumpling known as kusa dango
One could get lost for hours just passing from shop to shop trying the different flavours of food. It’s most definitely a must-visit for world foodies.
There is one shop in particular that serves kusa dango, called Takagiya Shinise. In fact, this shop is the model for the shop owned by Tora-sans family in the Tora-san film series. So if you are a film buff, with a penchant for Tora-San, then you definitely want to visit Takagiya Shinise taste the sweets made in the films by Tora-sans aunt and uncle.
THE ROBOT SWEET SHOP
Half way down the Taishakuten-Sando you will come across a somewhat unusual sight. Right where the main street bends to the right, is a rather unique shop.
You will know immediately what I am talking about, as soon as you spot a rather large robot looming over you! This robot stands in front of the local toy and candy shop/museum.
The shop/museum itself sells some very unusual candies and toys. Some of these are beyond your wildest imagination. But then that’s perhaps no surprise. Japan always has some interesting ideas and the content of this sop is no exception.
You will find construction kits with moulds to make your own candy and robot cats that poop chocolate. There are also plenty of flavours that you have probably never heard of.
There really is something for everyone here. And if you do not want to buy anything for yourself then head to the back where there are some vintage arcade machines. Or you can pop upstairs to have a look at the shops vintage toys.
VISIT SHIBAMATA TAISHAKUTEN TEMPLE A MASTERPIECE OF WOODWORKING
At the very end of the main street, you will find the Shibamata Taishakuten Temple – a stunning temple that remains the main focal point of the neighbourhood. This Buddhist temple was founded in 1629 and dedicated to Taishakuten.
The temples large carved Nitenmon Gate can be seen from a great distance and is awe inspiring when see up close.
Completely surrounded by a wall, this enclosure with its wooden walk ways and beautiful carvings gives a real feeling of tranquillity. The temples carvings include the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac and the life and teachings of Buddha.
With Shibamata being slightly off the beaten track this temple is one of the quieter temples of Tokyo, but it’s also one of the capital’s most stunning examples of temple architecture.
The Shibamata Taishakuten Temple features a lot in the Tora-san series, as the main character visits the local high priest frequently for advice.
POP INTO THE KATSUSHIKANSHIBAMATA TORA-SAN MUSEUM
Because Tora-san is such a big part of Shibamata’s culture, it is only fitting that the town has a museum dedicated to the film series.
The Katsushika Shibamata Tora-San Museum is Just a few blocks away from the temple. The museum has a comprehensive collection of all things Tora-san.
As you approach the museum you will see a statue of Tora-San hanging above the door fixing the sign for the museum to the entrance.
For 500 yen you get access to the history of the film series, the original costumes, the scripts of the Tora-San film series and the biographies of all the “Madonnas”. You even get to stand in the set of the family shop, which was moved to this location from the Shochiku Ofuna Studio.
So, who is this Tora-san that I keep mentioning?
Well, Otoko wa tsurai yo was a series of 48 films, starring Kiyoshi Atsumi. The series started in 1969 with a 2 a year release and ended in 1995 with the death of the main actor. The name of the series actually translates to “It’s Tough Being A Man” and chronicles the life of Torajirō Kuruma who ran away from home in his teens and became a traveling sales man.
Each film usually follows the same formula. Tora-san visits a new location in Japan and meets a “Madonna” (a woman that he falls in love with). Geberally, things don’t go so smoothly, Due to some circumstance. Either Tora-San misreads the situation or of he drinks too much. He then usually gets jilted by the Madonna and moves on.
During the course of the film Tora-san always heads back to Shibamata to visit his family home. Here comedy and calamity over several days or weeks causes a falling out and Tora-San ends up storming off. By the end of each film Tora-san is usually back on the road and heading off to his next adventure.
Because each film is set in a different location throughout Japan, it’s a great series to watch to explore the vastly varied landscapes of Japan. And when Tora-san returns home you get to watch a Japanese family interact with itself in a community they obviously love. There’s a reason why Shibamata was chosen as the home of the Tora family and when you visit the place you eill probably wish you could call it home too.
The museum is definitely worth a visit if you have any interest in Japanese cinema as Tora-san is up there with Godzilla as one of the longest running Japanese film series.
HAVE A TEA CEREMONY AT YAMAMOTO-TEI
It is possible to get a combined ticket, that will give you access to both the Tora-san museum and entry into Yamamoto-tei, an ancient Japanese house directly across the road from the museum.
The house’s interior has a mixture of both Japanese and Western architecture that gives it a very unique style.
The Yamamoto-tei museum also features a stunning Japanese garden. When you are within the walls, time seems to crawl to a halt, as you sit in the it’s peace and quiet.
You can even enjoy a traditional green tea as you gaze into the garden. This place is a great break from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
WALK ALONG THE EDOGAWA RIVER
And finally, as I previously mentioned, if yoy arrived from Shin-Shibamata then walk back to the station along the Edogawa River.
The river runs perpendicular to the main street of Shibamata and along the back of the temple. A large bank runs along the river. And when you climb up to its peak, you’ll see it suddenly drops down to a flood plain, which is covered in baseball fields and golf courses.
If you walk just a little further down to the river then you will soon encounter a pleasant surprise. Shibamata is home to one of the oldest river crossing ferry services in Tokyo. It’s a small boat that holds two or three people and it is punted by a single chap. For 100 yen he will take you from one side to the other. The ferry is protected by the same regulation that preserve the local temple.
It’s a nice way to end the day before you jump back on the train and head back to the metropolis that is Tokyo.
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT SHIBAMATA
Shibamata may be a bit of the beaten track and not as lively as the rest of Tokyo, but I honestly believe that it shouldn’t be missed.
With its preserved streets – in a city that seems to have replaced most of its historic buildings with shiny new one –and its history in Japanese cinema, Shibamata is deeply part of the culture and history of Japan.
Just like the town itself, the long running film series Tora-san shouldn’t just disappear to history but be kept alive and remembered.
So why not take a day to pay a visit to that lovable tramp and see why he always came back home to Shibamata.