There aren’t that many neighborhoods of Tokyo that bring to mind the image of a single person as much as the Shibamata neighborhood. The working-class folk from Adachi, Sumida, Edogawa, and Arakawa go so far as to refer to this area in Tokyo’s extreme northeast as “downtown” – their own status in the eyes of most Tokyoites presumably forgotten when Shibamata is discussed.
It was in this area that the most famous Japanese movie series to ever hit the silver screen was born. Indeed, such was (and is) the popularity of the lead actor in the movie – Kiyoshi Atsumi – that there are still folks turning up to view his fictional hometown, long after the actor himself died.
On par with the famed Hachiko statue in Shibuya, a statue representing a canny likeness of Tora-san – Atsumi’s character in 49 movies spanning nearly three decades from the 60s to the mid-1990’s – is perhaps the main draw. You can find Tora-san’s statue just outside Shibamata Station on the Keisei Kanamachi Line. The first Tora-san movie appeared in August 1969 with the simple title “It’s Tough Being a Man” (Otoko wa tsurai yo) and is still the most famous of the successive 48 titles. In December 1995 a final movie centered on the life of the traveling salesman titled “Tora’s Tropical Fever” (Otoko wa tsurai yo: Torajiro haibisukasu no hana tokubetsuhen*) was released.
Kiyoshi Atsumi, the male lead in the movie over time “became” Tora-san with many Japanese not easily recalling the name of the actual actor. In fact, Kiyoshi Atsumi was itself a stage name. The name bestowed on him at birth in the spring of 1928 was Yasuo Tadokoro.
Over the years, wherever he found himself, be it domestic or international destinations, he would always head back to the family sweet shop in Shibamata unannounced, and even today dango snacks his family supposedly sold remain a popular local souvenir for visitors to the area and locals alike.
Women starring alongside Atsumi would routinely fall in love with his character, and would inevitably follow him back to Tokyo where trouble would ensue. The lead actor would time and again find himself in a befuddled state as he tried to express himself by putting into words his feelings for the lady at hand. Generally Tora-san would then fail in this quest, confusion always the winner, as the movie’s credits ran.
There is, however, more to Shibamata than Tora-san, as incredulous as this may sound to his most ardent fans.
The resident Narihira Santosen Temple, a brief 15-minute or so stroll from the station area, is one of the area’s other claims to fame. The temple is home to a famous bound Jizo dating to the Edo era (1603-1867), and is an oft-crowded tourist attraction at New Year when many make a pilgrimage of sorts to seek the protection of resident Buddhist deities. The street leading to the temple grounds from the station is not unlike other temple approaches in Japan, although perhaps somewhat longer than most.
As you might expect, the street is lined with old restaurants serving traditional snacks, lunches, and beverages. The wares on offer include wannabe-lemonade drink ramune and kakigori, crushed ice topped with a variety of flavors. A little more surprising, perhaps, is the dagashiya, an old style toy-cum-sweetshop for kids, making this one temple approach worth making the trip to see, whether you plan to visit the temple or not.
Small offshoots of larger sects of Buddhism have their own mini-temples crammed between buildings or alongside roads throughout the area, so it is not unheard of to be strolling around inhaling incense. Zen Buddhism is another religious activity in the area with at least one facility nearby offering to educate beginners in this form of self-discipline.
If Zen is not your thing though, just wander around and breathe in the smell of Tokyo of yesteryear – starting, and finishing in front of the main station in a small square where the statue of a gentleman in a crumpled suit clutching a rectangular suitcase stands.
* Kiyoshi Atsumi died a year prior to the release of the final movie at age 68.
Story by Mark Buckton
From J SELECT Magazine, February 2010