“Otoko wa tsurai yo!” (男はつらいよ; It’s hard being a man)! These famous words, now part of Japanese folklore, are synonymous with the lovable movie character, Tora-san (寅さん).
Ahh, poor Tora-san… that traveling salesman whose comical exploits cause his family endless problems. The poor guy whose romances never work out the way they should. Yet with his old brown suitcase, brown suit, and blue collarless shirt, Tora-san has become a legend. His forty-eight movies (all of which have similar plots) have made him and Shibamata (柴又), the town the movies were filmed in, a household name.
Shibamata, on the banks of the Edogawa (江戸川), can be reached using the small, privately run Keisei Kanamachi Line (京成金町線). Most people access it from Keisei-Takasago Station (京成高砂駅), which connects to the Keisei Main, Narita Sky Access, and Hokuso lines (北総線). I took the train from Keisei-Ueno (京成上野) and a one-day Keisei pass (500 yen) gave me unlimited access along the route to Shibamata.
On leaving Shibamata Station, you are welcomed by a statue of the lovable traveler himself. With his smiling face and kindly expression, it depicts one of the classic endings to most Tora-san movies; Tora-san, after failing to get the girl of his dreams or find success in his life, leaves Shibamata to try his luck in another town. He says farewell to his sister, Sakura, with these parting words – “I’m hitting the road”. Plans are now underway to build a statue of Sakura to keep Tora-san company.
The 200-meter-long Taishakuten Sando leading up to the Shibamata Temple gives visitors an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Tora-san, buy souvenirs and sample exquisite food, the most famous being Kusa Dango (草団子; mugwort and rice dumplings).
You can visit Takagiya (高木屋) (Japanese only), the store featured in the films, and try their delicious snacks, or sample products from the other dango shops in the street. Many owners can be seen through large shop windows preparing their products; the sight is a thrill – the taste, even better! You can also sample crackers (senbei; せんべい), Japanese dishes and sake here.
Tora-san was a good man, though a little hot-tempered and sometimes got drunk. While the street will not get you hot-tempered, it might encourage you to eat and drink as you soak up its atmosphere – so be warned!
The Shibamata Taishakuten Daikyoji Temple has a long history (more than 380 years) and is popular with worshippers as well as Tora-san fans. The Shibamata Taishakuten, formally known as Kyoei-zan Daikyoji (経栄山題経寺), is a truly beautiful Buddhist temple. Founded in 1629, it is one of the centers of Buddhist prayer and tradition.
Taishakuten is originally a Brahman God from India, and you will notice elements of classical Indian Buddhist architecture throughout the temple.
The temple has a Japanese garden at the back, and the wooden carvings that surround the outer walls are a photographer’s dream. The carving panels portray stories from the Lotus Sutra (Medicine-King), one of the classics texts of Buddhist scripture. The carvings and garden can be viewed at a reasonable price, but you can explore the other buildings for free. Tora-san often visited the Shibamata Taishakuten and its vista can be seen in many of his films.
Visitors can access the temple’s interior sanctums and there is even a series of walkways between buildings to enjoy. In 1996, the temple was designated one of the 100 great soundscapes of Japan and in 2009, it was named one of the 100 landscapes of Japan. You can’t get a more glowing testament than that!
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The Tora-san museum is located to the south of the temple. It is well presented, with interactive displays and life-size film sets for people to explore, including the “original” family dango sweet shop where many of Tora-san’s stories take place. The museum also has a virtual train people can ride. Sitting inside a carriage, visitors “travel” the Japanese countryside while through the windows, excerpts from the films are shown.
One missing feature in the museum is the history of the actor who played Tora-san, the late Kiyoshi Atsumi (渥美清). This is unfortunate, as his life was an interesting one. Atsumi grew up in downtown Ueno (上野). A minor ‘thug’ during the hardships of post-war Japan, he joined a traveling theater, did stand-up comedy in a strip bar in Asakusa (浅草) and was discovered after acting in Nomura’s famous film, Haikei Tenno Heika Sama (拝啓天皇陛下様; Greetings, Mr Emperor).
He went on to star as Tora-san, thanks to his loveable, but not-so-handsome face… and the rest is movie history. The director of the Tora-san movies, Yoji Yamada (山田洋次), does have a section devoted to him, which covers all his films, including his award-winning Samurai trilogy (Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor).
The Tora-san women, who give each movie its special quality, are not forgotten. Known as ‘Madonnas’, they help make the Tora-san formula work.
What is the formula? Well, it starts with Tora-san creating some comical disaster, affecting either his family or livelihood. During this stage, he meets a woman who he falls madly in love with, only to find his affections rejected (due in part to his looks and insecure lifestyle). He then retreats to his home in Shibamata for help and advice. The film ends with Tora-san bidding farewell to his sister and boarding a train from Shibamata to continue his quest for love and wealth in a new town.
Interestingly, Chieko Baisho (倍賞千恵子), who played Tora-san’s sister, was a popular singer in the 1960s, and is now a famous voice actress. She is the voice of Sophie in the Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle.
The Tora-san museum is well worth the 500 yen ticket price. However, the majority of signage is in Japanese, which is a shame for tourists who can’t speak the language, as it would be nice to understand more about the history and watch some of Tora-san’s classic exploits with English subtitles.
In the past, the Yagiri-no-Watashi was just one of many man-powered ferries used to carry passengers and goods. Now, it is the only active one remaining in Tokyo.
A hidden gem, you can see it by walking towards Edogawa and up the hill. A hand-written sign indicates the price (200 yen); there is no timetable. Just watch for the man as he rows across the river and back again. Both the river and ferry are featured in Tora-san films.
The Yagiri-no-Watashi has also been immortalized in books, including the famous ‘Nogiku no Haka’ (野菊の墓; Grave of Wild Chrysanthemum) and in a 1980s song. The ride across the river is a must; sit back and relax as it transports you to a quieter, slower and more peaceful time.
While not a prominent feature in the Tora-san movies, the Shibamata Hachiman Shrine is still a very special place. Located close to the train station, it is worth a look-see.
Well-presented with an awe of stillness (in contrast to the more active Taishakuten Daikyoji), the shrine was built on top of the ancient Shibamata Village. The shrine dates back to 721, but the current structure was built in 1633. Popular during festival season, the shrine is a wonderful final stop on any Shibamata tour.
“I’m hitting the road, Sakura.”
Boarding the train home, it is easy to understand why Tora-san continually came back to Shibamata. There is a lot to be said for the simple life and a quiet innocence that is now so hard to find.
Shibamata makes for a wonderful day trip, with its Edo temples, riverways, and Showa (昭和) spirit. The ghost of Tora-san is truly alive in this traditional part of Tokyo. As my small, two-carriage train snakes its way back to modern Tokyo, and images of travel, unrequited love, family and dango start to fill my head… those famous words come back to haunt me, “Otoko wa tsurai yo!” (It’s hard being a man)!
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