Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back in Time--and Potty Humor--at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During last month's trip to Japan, I spent a day at the Edo-Tokyo Museum researching an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery and learning oodles of fascinating facts about Japan's modern capital during the Edo period.

The massive Edo-Tokyo Museum

For those who don't know, Tokyo was formerly known as Edo--and Japanese historians use the term "Edo Period" to refer to the period between 1603 and 1868 (the start of the Meiji Period) when Edo was the capital of Japan and ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Edo-Tokyo museum is split in two: one side deals with the city's history during the Edo Period, the other with the more modern Meiji period. Regrettably, I spent all day on the Edo side this trip--though that means I'll get to explore the Meiji half of the museum another trip.

Visitors enter the museum through a series of escalators that take you to the building's sixth floor - where the exhibits start.
Up and up and up to enter ... and then you walk down through the exhibits.

You emerge on the upper level of a cavernous room near a full-sized replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge

Medieval Japanese bridges were built for traffic.

The bridge was once the primary entrance into Edo--and visitors walk across it to access the museum's other exhibits.

Not for those who fear heights.

On one side of the bridge, visitors look down on a full-sized replica of a seventeenth century Kabuki theater:

Nakamura-Za Kabuki Theater

On the other, a reconstructed building from Meiji-era Tokyo:

Sadly, I didn't get to this half of the museum this trip.

The opposite side of the bridge holds a treasure trove of engaging and interactive exhibits, including dioramas showing life in Edo Period Japan.

Detail of a diorama showing the Nihonbashi Bridge 

Many of the exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to experience life in "old Edo."

This palanquin was used by samurai who could not or chose not to ride horses.
Nightsoil buckets - visitors can lift the yoke and experience the weight - though not the smell.

For a writer, the blend of original artifacts and reconstructed buildings was a gold mine--though anyone with an interest in history (or Japan) would find it equally fascinating.

Original Edo-era coins, on display.

I particularly liked the exhibits that reconstructed one of the connected row houses (munewari nagaya) where Edo's commoners lived during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Carpenter's one-room home in an Edo row house.

The houses consisted of multiple, connected one-room dwellings, each of which was home to a single family. The landlord who owned the building usually lived elsewhere (in a larger, multi-room home) so the people who shared the tenements were not necessarily (and often, not) related.

Nagaya did not have indoor plumbing, so the residents used a common well, garbage bin, and latrine placed at the rear of the block.

Replica of the communal well at a nagaya.

As a writer, I photograph everything--and I was particularly interested in documenting the nagaya display for my books, including the latrine, which was the first full-sized model of a Japanese city latrine that I'd seen.

Japanese potty - the stalls are squat toilets. The open space on the end contains a urinal.

Medieval Japanese urinal. That's a thing you know about now.

(Full disclosure: My friends and I have a running joke that I must be a six year-old boy at heart, because every book I write ends up with a latrine in it somewhere. Six or forty-six, I admit to an odd fascination with potties of every type and era.)

While I was photographing the latrine, an elderly Japanese man walked up next to me and started laughing. When I lowered my camera, he pointed and said (quite loudly) in English: "YOU LIKE TOILET!"

"I am an American novelist," I responded (in Japanese), "I am writing a book--"

"About Edo toilet!" He finished, in English, with a giant grin and two thumbs up.

"And ninjas!" I added.

He found this absolutely hilarious.

I can't say that I blame him.

Given that I was the only non-Japanese person I saw in the museum all day, my fascination with the toilet probably gave him all kinds of only partially-inaccurate opinions of Americans, women, and novelists.

I have no regrets. In fact, it put a perfect capper (or should I say, crapper) on the day.


  1. What a wonderful story, Susan! So many of these little gems come home with us from these trips.

    1. Thank you - and they really do! Adventures are always right around the corner, if you're open to them.

  2. Susan, how jealous am I. Oh, I wish I could visit replicas of what my characters saw. In fact, I now want to visit replicas of what your characters saw! You inspire me. I want to write a blog about how we historical novelists remind our readers that they are time traveling.

    1. I actually thought, while I was there, that I wished you were there with me because you would LOVE it. When you come to Japan with me, we'll go for sure. (Among many other things!)

    2. I ALWAYS wish I were there when you are there. Name the day!

    3. Check your calendar for 2018 and we'll talk at the end of the year :)

    4. But let's look at later in the year - November/December 2018 - summer is too hot and humid, and the foliage is spectacular in mid to late November.

  3. Tee Hee. There is a universal truth about folk finding bodily functions funny..

    1. Indeed - and in Japan, there are even less inhibitions about it than we have here. One of the best-selling educational books for kids right now is "Unko Sensei" - literally "Professor Poop" - and the books teach kids to read using sentences that all involve poop. It's right by the register in every Japanese bookstore.

    2. There's a universal truth about bodily functions, period.

    3. Umm... is it considered universal when only roughly 50% of people experience it...???

    4. I bought the American translation of that book for my grandchildren!

  4. Now, after your prior descriptions of a ninja's home, complete with secret doors, hidden passageways, trap doors, and spying lofts, this post has me wondering exactly what a ninja toilet would be like...

  5. I promise, an upcoming book will answer that question. :)

  6. You've got me holding my breath for your next book, Susan. Literally.

  7. South Korea has a combination theme park and museum called Poopoo Land, all about, well poop. One traveler says he "literally followed little pictures of the pop emjoi on the floor and the sounds of farts into "Poo Poo Land". Ummmmm. I guess you had to be there, not that I'm likely to be.

    1. No, Tim, you're unlikely to go there, as one only goes there when one writes shitty books...

  8. This thread has me laughing out loud, and the cat is wondering what's so funny.