Last month I recommended the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park — a place where both children and adults can learn about earthquake safety in an enjoyable way. Maintaining that theme, this month we move to the other side of town to the Fire Museum in Shinjuku.
Located next to an operating fire station, this museum is dedicated to the people, machines and science involved in fire prevention. While likely to appeal to toddlers and tots who aspire to slide down the pole one day, I believe the museum’s free entry, engaging displays and central location make it a nice stop for groups of any age. The front desk offers audio guides in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, and while they are nice for details and the broad sweep of history, families can enjoy most exhibits with or without them.
You’ll first notice the massive fire engines on the underground floor near the entrance. If you’re short on time, head directly to these since they are what your kids will want to see anyway. But if you have an hour or two to spare, proceed directly to the elevator and work your way down. The 10th floor doesn’t offer much in the way of exhibits, but the view can be great on a clear day when Mount Fuji is visible. The main purpose for this floor, however, is to serve as a rest area. There is no food for sale, but if you pack lunches like we do, then the tables, vending machines and view make this a great place for lunch or a snack.
Next, on the sixth and seventh floors you’ll find a library, a video room and some displays. I’ll admit that we spent very little time there because the fifth floor is where the real action begins. That’s where you find clothing, tools and equipment used by firemen during the Edo Period (1603-1867), as well as a massive diorama of a village. Using sound, lights and some motorized parts, the diorama shows how such a village would respond to a blaze in the centuries before fire engines and water pressure. My favorite display, however, is directly behind the diorama. Here there are dozens of matoi, the large, elaborate black-and-white signs that Edo Period firemen used to wave from rooftops to warn locals and signal other firefighting teams. Seen together, their clean lines and bold shapes could easily be mistaken for an installation at a contemporary-art gallery.
To the right of all this is a door to a fifth-floor roof space. Here you’ll find a helicopter — one that you and your kids can actually sit in. This is not always open to the public, and when it is, there can be a small line, so investigate soon after you arrive if you’re concerned about missing the cutoff time.
Now, on to the fourth floor for more firefighting images, clothing and equipment — including an old red motorcycle and a horse-drawn steam-powered water pump. This floor is dedicated to the modernization of firefighting in Japan. How long you spend here depends on how much you want to read or listen to firefighting history. The advances in equipment and the role of firefighters in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 can be fascinating to some, but young ones will likely gawk at the big red machines for a few minutes and then be ready to move on.
They may find what they’re looking for on the third floor, where firefighting’s modern age is on display. Movies and anime play a role here, and if the chopper on the fifth floor is closed for some reason, then you can always jump in the cockpit of the one here. There’s also a fire engine you can climb into, and for kids who want to play dress-up, this floor provides firemen’s clothing for both kids and adults to try on.
Now it’s time for the main attraction: the fire engines. From the first floor you can see them below: massive crimson contraptions from a variety of eras. The oldest — first used in Tokyo in 1917 — looks more like a prop from the set of “Chitty-Bang-Bang” than an actual life-saving device. It’s a shame that kids can’t climb on this beast, but I understand: After serving the city for decades, these trucks deserve at least some peace and quiet in their retirement.
The main entrance to the museum is on B1, where there is a direct access to the Yotsuya 3-Chome Metro Station. You can enter and exit from the sidewalk as well — which works if you’re coming and going from other warm indoor places nearby, such as Shinjuku Gyoen’s Greenhouse five or six blocks away. The Tokyo Toy Museum, which was mentioned last month, is a mere 10-minute stroller push.
Tokyo Fire Museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday unless a national holiday For more information, vist www.tfd.metro.tokyo.jp/ts/museum.html