A shitamachi is a traditional downtown Japanese neighborhood. The word conjures up images of bustling merchant areas with a strong sense of community, narrow streets, and traditional wooden buildings. One of the best places to get a sense of what a shitamachi must have been like is the neighborhood of Shibamata in Tokyo. It’s a little on the touristy side, but the friendly vendors, interesting old buildings, traditional foods, and odd little temples make it an excellent place to spend an afternoon.
Shibamata is most famous for being the home of Tora-san, a popular movie character in the Otoko wa Tsurai Yo series of movies. The main attractions are the atmospheric shopping street and its temples dedicated to the Shichifukujin (The Seven Gods of Good Fortune). Coming out of the station, you’ll see a statue of Tora-san.
You might want to look for a little tourist information office that’s on your right if your back is to the station, just past the Tora-san statue. They have some useful English pamphlets and maps that will help you get to the Shichifuku-jin temples. Follow the crowds and you’ll find yourself on the main shopping street.
At the end of the shopping street is Taishakuten temple, the most famous of the Shichifukujin temples in the area. It’s known for it’s exquisite woodwork. If you’d like to see more of the woodwork, check out Philbert Ono’s great photoguide.jp site. There’s an interesting explanation of the woodcarvings on the Japan Navigator blog.
Another interesting temple in the neighborhood is Ryokan-ji. To get there, turn right when you exit Taishakuten and walk to the big road. Turn left and you’ll see another temple called Shinsho-in on the right side. Turn right at the next big intersection. You’ll go past a big water or garbage treatment plant, and then you’ll come to Ryokan-ji on the left side.
Ryokan-ji is dedicated to the god Hotei.
There are also lots of jizo statues there. There are a bunch more temples in the area, but you’ll need the map to find them as they’re pretty spread out. There is also a Tora-san museum.