JAPANESE SWORDS – ART’S CUTTING EDGE

I suppose weaponry connoisseurs might see the beauty in weapons. I didn’t consider such beauty – or indeed was even interested in swords – until I visited the Japanese Sword Museum in central Tokyo. I included the visit in our Japan itinerary for MJ, my husband. I’m so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it and recommend that it is on everyone’s must see list for Tokyo.

Exquisite, graceful, a supreme art form? Japanese swords are all of that. The beauty of the best of them and their mountings will take your breath away – and I don’t mean in a murderous sword slashing way, though many no doubt have achieved that in the past in the hands of a master swordsman in battles.

Historically, Japanese swords have always been considered as objects of worship, symbols of authority and works of art. The richer and more influential an owner was, the more elaborate a sword and its mountings would be. Today, they are regarded as cultural assets, reflecting more than one thousand years of history.

This is a small, rather intimate museum, but it provides the opportunity to view ancient swords up to a thousand years old, some expertly restored to original condition, others fragile and whittled away with age. There also are exhibits of other Samurai artefacts such as sword mountings, clothing and documents.

A Samurai sword cabinet

Museum activities include gallery talks and monthly Japanese sword appreciation meetings.

My photos are not the best. You can photograph some items at the museum, but I was mindful of other people at the museum and also concerned not to use a flash as some of the ancient swords are in a fragile condition. A feeling of reverence overcomes you as you move through the exhibit.

These swords were in danger of being lost forever when, shortly after the end of WW2, Occupation Forces wanted to confiscate all Japanese Swords.

A group, Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) – the Society for the preservation of Japanese Art Swords – supported by the Government, was founded in the late 1940’s to save, restore and preserve swords of historical and artistic significance.

From the Kofun period – 3rd to 7th century

The group oversees the Sword Museum as part of its mission to identify and preserve swords of historical and artistic value. It also promotes the development of sword forging and polishing techniques, as well as koshirae making – the ornate sword mountings – as intangible cultural assets.

The small museum changed location in 2018, and is now housed in a modern and unique building in Sumida, a short train ride from the Tokyo CBD. It’s ideally located for tourists, as it is within walking distance of several other attractions of interest such as Tokyo’s Sumo Stadium and the Great Kanto Earthquake museum. We found it very easy to get to, a 15 minute train journey from Tokyo station to JR Ryogoku Station, including one easy change en route.

The building looks solid, constructed from reinforced concrete – sharp edges married with shapely curves. Strangely appealing. Strangely reflective of swords themselves. Although, this is clearly my runaway imagination as the building apparently follows the site lines of an Auditorium previously on this site, adding a vaulted roof that houses the main exhibition gallery on the third level.

The Museum overlooks Kyu-Yasuda gardens

MJ and I nearly missed the main gallery because as you emerge on the third floor from the elevator or stairs, the automatic sliding doors into the exhibition area are not apparent. It looks like a solid decorative wall. So we went through another door leading to an outdoor balcony giving a view over the Kyu-Yasuda garden, next to the Museum. Kyu-Yasuda garden was part of an upper class 18th century Samurai estate. It’s now a beautiful public park that still retains much of its original character and is a worthwhile visit in itself.

As I returned from the viewing balcony, a few people emerged from the exhibition, with the ‘blind’ door sliding open just as I was passing. It reminded me of a Samurai home escape hatch – not always apparent. A man who came into the museum just ahead of us missed the door opening as he disappeared back down the stairwell. I wonder about him. Did he think that the shop, the tiny ground floor exhibit, and the viewing platform was all there was to the museum? Until that door opened as I passed, I thought the same.

A Jinbaor (armour surcoat worn over armour by a high ranking samurai in the Edo period – 17th-19th century

Inside the display area was a remarkable collection of swords – some dating back a thousand years! The exhibition changes from time to time, so it’s worthwhile checking the museum website for opening times etc.

https://www.touken.or.jp/english/

I’ve seen recent trip advisor reviews that suggested the swords in the exhibition weren’t explained for english speaking visitors. I’m puzzled by this as there were notices with some English, and hey – google translator people – you can read most Japanese signage with one on your smart phone. Even an old duck like me knows how to do that. I also saw a review that said only modern swords were on display. Were we in the same place? I saw some quite old ones. This is a small museum, and ancient swords are on exhibit elsewhere in Japan. But for a tourist, this one was easy to get to from the CBD, and is walking distance to other attractions such as the Sumida River, the Sumo stadium, and other museums. I also liked that it wasn’t crowded with other visitors.

The Museum brochure

We found the Museum staff very helpful and friendly, and they provided each of us with an excellent brochure in English and Japanese. The brochure detailed some of the important sword exhibits and provided a history of the Museum.

The entry reception on the ground floor includes a lovely little shop that has some inexpensive and unique souvenirs that I did not see elsewhere in Japan. I bought several presents for family, and for myself, a box of small metal food spears shaped like swords to add to my food platters! On guard! That piece of cheese and pickle is mine!

Also on the ground floor, a small exhibition of swords includes a hands on display where you can feel the weight of a genuine ancient sword yourself. Some serious power lifting required before you even wield one! I will never watch a sword fight on film again without an appreciation of the muscle power involved in using one!

Entry to the museum costs 1000 yen – about $11 Australian. We thought it was worth the price. There is a cafe, but it didn’t seem to be operating when we visited. My suggestion is buy some take-way food, pack a tasty roll or a picnic and eat it in the adjoining park or alongside the Sumida River, just a few minutes walk away. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants around the nearby railway Ryogoku JR station. Note: The museum is closed on Mondays, New year holidays and Exhibition Changing days.

The adjoining Kyu-Yasuda gardens

Access is via the JR Sobu Line – the Museum is a 7 minute walk from the West Exit of the JR Ryogoku Station. You can cross the road to the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium and walk along a lane alongside it to the back – from there it’s fairly easy to find your way to the park, and walk through that to the Museum. On the Toei Subway Oedo Line it’s a 5 minute walk from theA1 Exit of Ryogoku station. There is also the Toei Bus or Sumida City circulation bus (southern route) – a one minute walk from Kyu Yasudateien-Doaikinenbyoin bus stop. In future blogs, I’ll detail some of the other attractions close to the Museum. Together, they combine for a lovely day’s outing in central Tokyo.

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