Travelling back in time
Shibamata, an old neighbourhood on Tokyo’s eastern border, is famous for being the hometown of Tora-san, the hero of Japan’s longest running movie series, It’s Tough Being a Man. And while the series’ lead actor, Kiyoshi Atsumi, died in 1996 – after completing 48 movies over 26 years – visitors still flock here year-round to walk in the footsteps of this goofy, yet endearing, travelling salesman. Even for those who don’t know the films, exploring this Old Tokyo district is a treat for any history buff.
Home among the dumplings
The series chronicled the life of the comical Tora-san, a man with a good heart who would often say the wrong thing at the wrong time. In every episode, Tora-san would travel to a different town – or even a different country – selling toys and souvenirs at local festivals, having plenty of misadventures along the way. However, he would always return home with a spring in his step, excited to tell stories about his travels to his family and neighbours.
In his iconic beige suit, he would exit Shibamata Station and make his way down Taishakuten Street to his home above the Japanese sweet store, Toraya, known for their soft rice dumplings. The street was always vibrant and packed with customers visiting the area’s fresh fish restaurants, rice cracker stalls, soba noodle shops and pickled foods stores, many of which are still in business today. When the neighbouring shopkeepers would spot him walking through the crowd, their faces would light up and they would welcome him back as though he was their own son.
Unlucky in love
Despite his happy-go-lucky nature, life was not always grand for Tora-san. In addition to family troubles, he was notorious for being unlucky in love. On each of the 48 trips he went on throughout the series, he would meet and fall hard for a beautiful local girl. Sadly, he would always find a way to mess it up, and would end up alone once again. But he never lost hope. After all, this was all part of what’s tough about being a man. After each failed romance, his heart would always lead him back home to the lively streets of Shibamata.
Searching for peace
In the series, Tora-san would often wander throughout town. One of his favourite haunts was Shibamata Taishakuten Temple at the end of the main shopping street, where he would go to find some peace and quiet. Like all visitors to this extraordinary place of worship, Tora-san was transfixed by the intricate woodcarvings that depict stories from Buddhist scriptures. For many, studying the detailed images is like reading a good book: your mind gets absorbed in the story and your troubles fade away. The 10 carved panels were added to this ancient temple – relatively recently – in the 1920s.
Goodbye, for now
Hidden behind the temple is a beautiful Japanese garden, Suikei-en. While carp swim freely in a pond surrounded by pine trees, visitors can enjoy this serene corner of Old Tokyo as Tora-san once did. Continuing in his steps, they can ride the man-powered Yakiri-no-watashi ferry at the banks of the Edo River. With no motor, the boat silently drifts across the still waters, transporting people back and forth the old-fashioned way.
Like Tora-san, movie buffs must leave Shibamata once again for another adventure. However, the Tora-san Museum – a few minutes’ walk from the Shibamata Taishakuten Temple – is a tribute to the life of this adored Japanese hero and a final stop for any dedicated fans.