Revealing maze of Tokyo’s backstreets

Published in Hong Kong a while back for an American Express member magazine but with such interest in Japan I feel this piece still resonates. Discussing museums down Tokyo’s backstreets relives the intricate layout of the place, its devotion to craft and how easy it was (and still is) to get lost, which, of course, is part of the streets’ charm though totally frustrating at the time. Then, as now, Japanese passers-by help you find your way, and get to know the neighbourhood better than you had originally anticipated. This article was later reworked for Off Duty, distributed to US service staff, showing that similar topics can be adapted to suit completely different audiences.

Revealing maze of Tokyo’s backstreets

By Deborah SIngerman

Even the postmen get lost around Tokyo’s backstreets. An anachronism in modern Japan, the streets do not follow any logical pattern The numbering system, the interplay of street area and side street, is the result of historical accident. Houses were built in no particular order and numbers one, two three and so on followed likewise. As streets emerged, this led to strange inconsistencies and it is not unusual to find street 23 coming directly after street 14.

The Japanese merely shake their heads, shie away from giving directions by street number and go for landmarks instead, the third street past the post office, or turn left at the Sobu department store. But the backstreets have to be charted if you are to savour the atmosphere of one of the largest, most densely populated capitals in the world. For Tokyo, as do all cities, only starts to live off the main roads, away from the thoroughfares lined with traffic and fogged in fumes

It is fitting that these peaceful byways should house some of Tokyo’s finest museums, not the awe-inspiring Nationals that dominate sections of the city’s main park at Ueno, but small, independent museums that offer specialist exhibits for people wanting to capture segments of Japanese history. Tokyo boasts some 40 museums, ranging in size, location and appeal. Sports fans may gravitate to the Sumo and Sword museums. Art historians have a choice of more than 10 museums, scientists have three and seekers of the off-beat can try the Tobacco and Salt, Paper and NHK Broadcasting museums.

If possible, it is best to visit a museum with a Japanese friend or guide as the curators, for want of desire or time or both, have declined to translate most to the information on the exhibit’s labels. Although many of the museums provide English-language brochures, this will not compensate the earnest museum –hunter for the lack of detailed reference material. Nevertheless, if you are interested in atmosphere and general impressions, it is as valuable to go to a museum (or two) as to a tea ceremony, kabuki show or sushi bar.

It is hard to pinpoint the factors that make a museum memorable. The exhibitions are the obvious guideline, but the building itself, the setting and the means of finding it all come into play. For all these reasons I will never forget the Kite Museum located on the first floor of a low-rise office block in the business district, Nihombashi.  Armed with only the address – a fatal error as already mentioned – I had found the place thanks to a subway guard who, noticing my bemused expression in the station, offered to telephone the museum himself. In true Japanese style, he not only took down the directions, but led me to my destination, an inoffensive building, staff canteen on the first floor, to the left of Tokyo department store.

The display. 300 kites (takos) at any one time out of a collection of some 3,000, changes three times a year. Fierce red Balinese bats swoop realistically while modern Perspex kites from West Germany, Spanish eagles, American polystyrene models and English star-shaped kites hang down from the ceiling. A cabinet holds more intricate varieties from Asia, such as Thai and Sri Lankan paper women and Chinese headdresses.

But most of the kites packed together in the sitting-room sized museum are Japanese. Made between the 1930s and 1980s, they draw heavily from kabuki and battle scenes. Lurid colours vie for attention, decorative armour splattered purple, red, yellow, and samurai warriors glare ferociously. Japanese kite artists obviously thrived on the freedom to experiment with geometric patterning and the example from Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, is a work of controlled psychedelia.

Easier on the visitor’s nerves are the three-dimensional kites, such as the Japanese made paper boat, and the smaller hand-sized kites, shaped as butterflies, sumo wrestlers and others. Four kites, about a millimetre square, placed underneath a magnifying glass, also impress for their craftsmanship.

To put the importance of kite-flying to the Japanese in perspective, there are pictures of kite outings, with courtesans sedately bypassing the melee, or, as in one beautiful painting, a 19th century gathering, kites swirling in the air, kimonos fluttering on the ground.

For a close examination of Japanese life, the Folk Crafts Museum is hard to beat. Founded in 1936 by Soetsu Yanagi, the man noted for opening the eyes of the Japanese and the rest of the world to the country’s folk crafts, the museum is suggestive of a Japanese farmhouse. Spacious and secluded, it says much for the Komaba district that you do not immediately note the gravel path and overhanging trees that mark the Nippon Mingei-kan. Komaba, a quiet suburb in West Tokyo housing the famous Tokyo University, is several steps from the city of flashing neon and rabbit-warren accommodation. The house across the street from the museum in fact, often used by Yanagi-san himself, is a majestic construction, noted for its roof made of stone slabs that reportedly weigh three and a half tons.

The museum’s floors are polished wood and you are not allowed to wear you own shoes, slippers being provided instead. (Japanese footwear etiquette is a law unto itself.) Folk crafts mean “people’s art” and the products exhibited in the museum are those of unknown craftsmen not renowned artists. As the brochure states quaintly, “the craftsmen did not attempt to create the products with their free imagination; instead they followed faithfully and blindly, the traditional way of making which was the crystallised golden rule set up by their ancestors’ experience and wisdom acquired over generations.”

This is a place for committed followers of natural beauty and the brochure continues in mystical, philosophical terms, referring to the calm enchantment gained from surveying simple, functional works, for the crafts were made for everyday use and not for artistic perusal.

Most of the exhibits date from the pre-industrial era, when Japan rested contentedly in isolation unaware of the outside world that later was to interest her. Folk crafts flourished during the Edo period (1603-1866) when some of the finest ceramic ware, heavy bowls, sake bottles and patterned plates emerged. These are displayed as are a multitude of wooden articles, including tiny cabinets for hair pieces and jewellery. The items are enhanced by their surrounding rooms decked out in rustic simplicity with solid wooden tables and chairs.

The Transportation Museum began life in 1921 as a railroad museum at the north exit of Tokyo main station. It transferred to its present location 15 years later, an appropriate place at a busy interchange, where subway station and Japanese National Railway (JNR) lines cross in a proliferation of entrances and exists. This gives the museum an unexpected authenticity as the trains that rumble in and out of the nearly Kanda station reverberate in the museum itself. Another nicety relates to the building which is made up in part of the red brick arches that once supported the elevated railway tracks.

Although the museum charts the history of all forms of transportation in Japan, automobiles through to aeroplanes, it is the trains that excite the most curiosity. JNR is one of the largest government subsidised rail systems in the world and despite a long-running deficit is a microcosm of the swift Japanese development that took the rest of the world aback. The first train in Japan began service in 1872 (Engine Number One which pulled it between Tokyo and Yokohama is on display) and the network grew up fast in all directions, geographically and technologically.

A model railway, the envy of even the most desultory rail enthusiast, shows a cross-section of the present system with trains running at different speeds from the slowest, the futsu (local) to the fastest, the shinkansen (bullet). Although the museum’s treats are its gleaming originals, a lot of thought has gone into the models, the backbone provided by a study of the train’s parts, couplings, wheels, lamps, and the extras that comprise a full railway network, such as bridges and tunnels. In case this sounds dull and academic, you will be pleased to know that most of the models move at the touch of a push-button. A subdivision on train compartments through the ages also offers the chance to participate. There were plenty of tired parents taking a rest in the early 20th century high-backed carriages while their energetic offspring ran in and out of subway doors, so realistic they even opened and closed pneumatically.

The marine, automobile and aeronautic sections likewise combine models and originals, the first Tokyo city bus and a superb 1930 Franklin car being outstanding examples), but they lack the depth and vitality of their railroad counterpart. It almost seems out of keeping that the one lingering image as you leave the museum should be of the searchlight placed at the centre of the hall. It belongs to the Tairadale Lighthouse and conjures up heart-rending memories of storms and ships sending out distress signals as vessels like the Aomori-Hakodate railway/car ferry must have done before they sank in the mid-1940s.

Sailors and would-be sailors do not lose out on the museum round however. In 1974 the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Federation opened the Museum of Maritime Science in a building shaped like a 60,000-ton luxury liner. Located at the corner of a 200,000 square metre Sea Park, it is regarded by many as the Port off Tokyo’s new symbol.

It certainly comes as a revelation after a bus journey that takes you through the industrial underside of Tokyo. The freeways were packed with trucks thundering raucously and making a mockery of the high-pitched breathy voice, Japanese females at their politest, announcing each bus stop. The turn into kita-koen (north ark) was as welcome as one into a temple-filled backstreet and bypassing the park itself, a wonderworld of pools, lighthouses and expedition ships, I wandered into yet another scenario. The museum, one of the most up-to-date I have ever seen, offers an insight into all aspects of maritime life from underwater oil exploration and shipbuilding, to the future of ships, displaying models which use electro-magnetic propulsion and a nuclear=powered d merchant ship.

Although the visuals are dynamic, multi-layered displays giving the illusion that the vessels, papyrus boats to oil tankers, are actually sailing, the dearth of English-language explanations is frustrating. Here, more than anywhere else, I felt a stranger, this time in a subterranean impasse. Still the museum, which in the right hands could be a marvellous instructive mechanism, is not lost on non-Japanese speakers, if only for the simulated bridge, complete with navigation equipment and sea traffic, controls systems and the mast-shaped observation tower that commands a spectacular view of Tokyo Bay. From 70 metres up even this city, a hodgepodge at ground level, takes on a recognisable form with the skyscrapers of Shinjuku and the cherished peak of Mt Fuji in the distance.

Perhaps the environs of a building really come into their own where the structure is an art gallery. Certain expectations of beauty, culture, originality, arise at the thought of visiting a gallery. They have to be nurtured, directly or indirectly by the gallery’s surrounds. My look at a sample of Tokyo’s museums ends with two galleries at either end of the art spectrum, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, which houses a collection of 2,000 ukiyo-e woodblock prints and the Striped House Museum, exhibiting modern art.

The Ota lies at the end of a bushy path off the main road that runs between two of Tokyo’s fashionable districts, Shibuya and Harajuku. The latter especially distinguished by its trendy boutiques and Sunday afternoon teenagers dance parade, is far removed from the Ota’ traditional tranquillity. The contrast pleases rather than jars. You immediately appreciate the museum as a haven from crowds and urban chic. You walk around in slippers, there is a small rock garden in the centre and the only way to get a close view of the silk-backed hangings is by kneeling down on tatami mats.

The collection of the late Ota Seizo, a philanthropic businessman, is in magnificent condition. Exhibitions change once a month and the 18th and 19th century woodblock masters are all represented, Kiyonobu. Toyokuni, Harunobu, Hokusai and Hiroshige.It was his prints, selections from The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 100 Famous Stations of the Tokaido, 100 Famous Spots of Edo, 36 Views of Fuji and other studies of a Japan rich in geisha, kabuki actors and treasured landscapes that transfixed me one long, languorous afternoon.

The Striped House Museum, on the other hand, is an exciting architectural achievement in brown and beige. It slips into its habitat, Roppongi, with ease. This pub and disco centre, best known for churning energy all night every night, tones down at the edges letting the backstreets flicker with rose-pink coffee houses and antique shops.

The museum, a spangled affair that would catch even the most critical eye, captures the area’s subdued elegance giving it a youthful sense of fun. It is a versatile space. The white-striped interior is centred by an imposing silver tube and cork-stepped inner core from which visitors can see the exhibits on all sides. The lighting, spotlights and fluorescent tubes that span out like the sun’s rays, also takes the multi-sided effect into account. Black leather armchairs, marble-topped tables and a small bookshop are provided for visitors who want to stay with the exhibits longer than most.

The owner, a photographer and graphic artist whose studio lies above the museum, wanted to open a space especially for contemporary art. He had studied in Paris for a year in the late 1960s and grew to enjoy this type pf gallery. It took him and his wife more than a decade to realise his dream, but for the past three years they have shown works by Japanese and international artists, each December being reserved for women artists.

As for the stripes, Tsukahara-san took that idea from a church he saw in Prague during a trip through Europe. That, like so many other things, was also down a backstreet