If you visit Tokyo and are interested in history, chances are you'll hear about the big, fancy, well-publicized Edo-Tokyo Museum, where you can see re-created buildings and objects from the long history of Tokyo when it was called Edo. It's a cool place and pretty centrally located, and I recommend it.
But if you like that sort of thing and don't mind heading off the beaten path, there's a much older and I think more charming place to go.
While not in a touristy neighborhood, the Fukagawa Edo Museum is not at all hard to get to, just a three minute walk up a cute old shopping street from a metro station. Inside the main entrance is an introductory exhibition, but that's not what you're here for. Go down to the lower level and you'll find yourself overlooking a full-size re-creation of part of an Edo town, complete with animated cat meowing on the roof.
I am a total sucker for this sort of thing. Build a bunch of old-looking buildings and put them inside another building and I just cannot resist it. I especially loved the fact that along with the expected shops and homes, they include the nitty-gritty like a garbage pit, an outhouse…
and a dog peeing on the fire watchtower.
There's a little bit of everything that a city needs to get along. In background of the above picture, there's a fake bit of the Sumida river, with a line of shipping-related businesses facing it. There's a classic white-walled storehouse and a tiny inari shrine. There's plenty of fodder for my own particular historical obsessions. Along with the various fake animals, there are a number of food-related businesses like a dried fish and fish oil shop and this noodle seller's cart:
This museum is the sort of out-of-the-way place where I'd assume I'd have to stumble around with my limited Japanese, mostly guessing at what I was looking at. So I was quite surprised to be approached by an older man in an Edo-style jacket who offered to guide me around. His English was pretty much perfect and rather than just ramble at me, he knew how to try to engage visitors in interesting ways like asking if I could guess what something was.
I was glad he was there, because I learned some interesting things. For instance, here's what people did in the Edo period without closets: that short room-divider in the corner is where the futon is put away in the daytime:
My guide insisted on taking a photo of me, which I usually resist, but he went along with my desire for the picture to be somewhat silly. Really people, you should not pet a peeing dog.
There are a few other things to do in this neighborhood once you've made your way here. You'll enjoy the area if you are a fan of shabby Showa relics like these buildings opposite the museum's outdoor plaza, which seem to me to belong in a museum themselves:
The street on which you'll find the museum is nice, an old shopping road lined with small businesses. The most interesting one was an old toy and candy shop, where a guy was sitting out front wearing Edo-period costume and demonstrating a toy. I was so surprised by this that unfortunately I just stood there gaping at him without taking a picture. (Damn, I hate it when I get so caught up in experiencing the actual moment that I forget it's a fantastic photo op.)
There's also another major attraction right next to the metro station, the Kiyosumi Garden. It was nice, but to be honest I went so many gardens that I can't sort one out from another, and by this point I was more interested in gawking at people having their wedding photos taken than looking at plants.
There's also more to do nearby if you're better organized about your research than I was – check out this article from the Japan Times for some interesting things that I missed.
Fukagawa Edo Museum
Koto, Tokyo Prefecture 135-0021