Where is Shitamachi?
Or, what is Shitamachi?
‘Shitamachi’ is the traditional, informal name for an area that nowadays we can roughly locate in the north-east of central Tokyo, extending outwards from the Imperial Palace, formerly the site of Edo Castle. Many well-known landmarks are found in this area and nearby, such as the ‘Thunder Gate’ of Sensoji temple, Tokyo Skytree, Akihabara electric town, the Tsukiji fish market, kabuki theatres, and of course Tokyo station and the aforementioned Imperial Palace grounds.
The name dates from the era of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), when Tokyo was called Edo, and divided into regions based on the residents’ occupation and social class. Shitamachi was the ‘low city’, in both senses: literally low-lying, making the land less desirable, and therefore allocated to the lower classes, largely artisans and merchants. These were the townspeople of old Edo, born and raised in the city, unlike the transient samurai and their lords.
Over time the name came to be associated with class more than geography, culture more than class, and nowadays perhaps even atmosphere more than culture. Both Japanese people and visitors from abroad come to Shitamachi in the hope of finding ‘old Tokyo’: charming, authentic neighbourhoods characterised by narrow, winding streets, cosy residences, small workshops, potted plants lining the road, and an abundance of stray cats — or ‘communal pet cats’, to give a more accurate description. In this delightful setting, the area’s traditions of arts and crafts, entertainment, dining, and shopping continue to the present day.
Put simply, Shitamachi is easy to feel, but hard to draw on a map. It’s the Tokyo that Tokyoites know. If it looks like skyscrapers and department stores from the outside, from the inside Tokyo is your favourite taiyaki stand, petting cats in the neighbourhood shrine, and discovering a specialty bookshop hidden around a corner that you’ve walked past a hundred times.
Where is Shitamachi? You’ll know it when you get there. In all its richness of history, culture, and local flavour, let our guides show you the Tokyo you came to see.