Finding quiet and culture in Shibuya

Shibuya, with its iconic “scramble” intersection, shopping, and entertainment, has become a symbol of modern Tokyo.  It’s insanely busy and very crowded, especially with teenagers and young adults.  The below photos were taken at a relatively quiet time of day.

Yet Shibuya is also home to a fair bit of traditional culture, particularly in the form of museums and galleries.  These bastions of history and art make a pleasant respite from Shibuya’s usual madness at any time, but for the next couple of months special exhibits provide yet another reason to visit.  Here’s a suggested day of quiet culture, with just a taste of Shibuya’s busy-ness to keep you grounded.

Begin from Shibuya station and follow the map below.  The first stop is the Shoto Museum of Art, where there is a special exhibition entitled “The Life of Japanese Women in Ukiyo-e” until May 26, 2019.  The easiest way to get there is to take the Inokashira Line for one stop to Shinsen.  As a special bonus, the walkway from JR Shibuya station over the road to the Inokashira line wickets provides a great view of Shibuya Crossing.

The museum is just a five minute walk from the west exit of Shinsen station, through a pleasant residential suburb.  It is housed in an imposing 1980s building with an intriguing atrium piercing its core.


The exhibit is housed in three galleries, arranged both thematically and chronologically.  Alas, photography is prohibited.

The exhibit includes both the promised ukiyo-e, a form of woodblock print particularly popular in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), and other artifacts starting, dramatically, with a stunning 19th century purple kimono, intricately embroidered–including with gold thread–with patterns of falcons and waterfalls.  Don’t miss the black and white spotted dog embroidered into the bottom center!


The exhibit has 10 themes.  In the first gallery are framed prints, scrolls and books on the themes of lives across the four classes of Tokugawa society, artistic accomplishments, admiration of women on display, kimono, make-up, and recreation.  Glass cases in the center of the room contain cosmetic cases, the various items used in tooth blackening, and a number of combs and hairpins.  Also related to hairdressing was a case with wigs in four traditional hairstyles as well as a pictorial display of the steps involved in producing the torobin-maru hairstyle.

The second gallery begins with prints relating to labor and working.  Women in the Tokugawa Period worked hard in a variety of jobs.  Next comes a section on marriage and family, including even a 19th century letter of divorce.  Finally, there is a section on education of girls.

The third gallery contains erotic prints on the theme of “Love Affairs and the Enjoyment of Them,” and is only open to visitors over the age of 18.  Indeed, some of the depictions are quite graphic!  In addition to single sheet prints, there are a number of picture books, games and scrolls.

Although there is not a great amount of English in signage of the exhibit, the titles and ages of the pieces are all in English, making it possible to know what you’re looking at.

Hours:  Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm (8 pm on Fridays); when Mondays are a public holiday, open on Monday and closed on Tuesday.
Admission:  Adults – JPY1,000; University Students – JPY800; High school students and patrons over 60 – JPY500.

The second museum, the Toguri Museum of Art, is a pleasant 10 minute walk through more of this up-market residential neighborhood.  On the way, take the time to stroll through Nabeshima Shoto Park, a small park on land that was once part of the estate of the Kishu branch of the Tokugawa shoguns.  While one end of the park is just a children’s playground, the remainder is centered on a pretty little pond featuring a small island and sporting its very own waterwheel/millhouse.

The exhibit at the Toguri Museum of Art through June 20, 2019, is entitled “Exploring the Ceramics of Saga and Nagasaki“.

The Toguri, as a museum dedicated to preserving the heritage of Japanese porcelains, regularly exhibits dishes and other ceramics made in Kyushu during the Tokugawa Period (here’s my review of another of their exhibits).  This exhibit is the first one in 30 years that has included items produced in what is now Nagasaki Prefecture.  The areas of Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures featured in this exhibit were together in an administrative district known as Hizen during the Tokugawa Period.

The exhibit is quite large, comprising 95 items produced in Hizen across five centuries.  It is arranged in chronological order, beginning with 16th century earthenware pieces, then 17th century porcelains, et cetera moving toward the present.

At the same time, the pieces are arranged to feature various kilns and pottery villages.  Fortunately, there are relatively detailed English explanations to make these distinctions easier to understand and appreciate.  For example, there was an excellent explanation of the history of Imari and its popularity due to its use of vibrant colors on a white base.

The last gallery includes pieces produced in the 20th and even the 21st centuries that reflect the long traditions of Hizen porcelains as well as modern tastes and sensibilities.

Hours:  Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm (8 pm on Fridays); also open on Mondays that are public holidays and on the 4th Monday of the month (“Free Talk” day when visitors may converse while viewing the exhibit).
Admission:  Adults – JPY1,000; Students – JPY700; Children – JPY400.   Click here for a discount coupon.

Finishing at the Toguri, walk in the direction of Shibuya station and head up “Franklin Street” onto Dogenzaka.  This area is a lively rabbit warren of little streets dominated by eateries and love hotels.  I daresay any type of food you care to eat is available somewhere here.

Whenever I walk on Dogenzaka I cannot help but recall Shusaku Endo’s 1959 novel Wonderful Fool (O-baka-san).  Shortly after his arrival in Japan, the hapless hero, Gaston Bonaparte, finds himself on Dogenzaka and is impressed at the consideration of Japanese in offering a hotel room for just a 2 hour “rest”.  Needless to say, the receptionist is surprised when he attempts to check in without a companion.

As you wander through the streets in this area you’ll notice that love hotel pricing has become more varied since the 1950s, with rates posted for stays ranging from 1 hour to 4 hours to overnight.  Some even offer free wifi.  Given the usual purpose of love hotels, one has to ask “why?”.

Even just a short stroll in this area provides a taste the busy-ness that Shibuya is so famous for.  But after the serenity of the museums, you may find yourself feeling sensory overload.  Never fear, there is a suitable respite to be found at Lion.  Just down a lane from Chiyoda Inari Shrine, Lion is a “coffee shop” dedicated to dazzling patrons with its sound system.

Since 1926 Lion has been playing classical music for customers as they sip hot or cold drinks and maybe nibble on a bit of cake.  There is a strict no-talking rule–you get only music and refreshments here, seated either on the ground floor, where you can admire the enormous hi-fi speakers and the music collection, or on a mezzanine floor that provides the feel of being in a theatre.  The building and its furnishings probably also date to 1926, but it is a calming musical escape from the hustle and bustle of the city where you can reflect on the “culture” of Shibuya.

© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer
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