Following our late night activities and the long journey back to our hotel, we had a long lie in on the 1st of January before deciding what to do with what remained of the day. The options were not great as a lot of attractions were shut – the people who work there deserve holidays too. We had two museums we wanted to visit, both in the same area of the city, but one of them – the Ninja Trick House – was closed on New Years Day. However the other one, the Samurai Museum was open.
Both museums were in the Shinjuku district, which is probably Tokyo’s biggest business district, with the largest concentration of large buildings and skyscrapers. Indeed, when we arrived at the station we had no idea where to go – usually you just walk towards the biggest concentration of lights and people, but there were lights and people all around us. I hadn’t been to Shinjuku before – I have been attending an improv workshop at a nearby station but never been into the main part of the district – so it was just as new for me as for Janna.
We knew we wanted to be on the east side of the station so we started skirting around the building next to us. It was a big department store, but it too was closed for the holiday, so there were no short cuts through it. We passed tall, very new looking buildings – in fact Shinjuku has recently undergone a lot of development which is still going on, with a few venues for the Olympics being build here.
For a while we were just wandering around blind. The leaflet I had picked up at the tourist office had a map, but the writing on it was very small and difficult to read. One of the landmarks it told us to look out for was “Godzilla head” and another was “King Kong.” We wandered down a “main” looking boulevard with many restaurants and then, looking to my left I spotted Godzilla. His claw was resting on top of a Toho cinema building and his familiar reptilian face was staring angrily over the top.
We walked towards the cinema and had our bearings on the map but I still wasn’t entirely sure of our orientation. I followed my best guess and we turned right. We started becoming increasingly aware that the nature of the buildings we were walking through was a bit different now – there seemed to be a lot more bars, adult clubs and “special” services I don’t even want to guess at. It turns out we had wandered into Kabukicho, which to all intents and purposes is Tokyo’s primary “red light” district.
It was still mid-afternoon and there were still plenty of other tourists walking round so we weren’t too alarmed, particularly when we ran into King Kong, hanging off another building promoting some sort of music venue, I think. A couple of streets further on we found our destination – the Samurai Museum. It was well labelled, but the samurai figure outside the door was the big giveaway.
We popped in to find a bunch of people sitting in the reception area and a small line at the cash desk. Listening in, they were buying tickets for 6:45 that evening, because the tours were fully booked up to then. We had a choice to make, did we want to come back in 3 hours, or write off the museum and find some other attraction to visit? And if we came back, what would we do in the meantime?
We reached a consensus that we really wanted to see the museum so we bought the tickets for that evening. I had half a mind to hop on a train the short distance to Shibuya, another business district not so far away (the other end of Yoyogi Park, basically) and visit the famous “Scramble Crossing” where we nearly went for New Year’s Eve. But Janna wanted to do a little shopping, or at least look at a few of the shops. Being New Year there were quite a few sales on and some good bargains to be had – but it also meant all the shops were very busy.
Even in the middle of Kabukicho, there is room for the spiritual world, and we stumbled across a temple, or at least the decorated pathway to a temple, festooned with lights, and proving a popular background for tourist photographs. From there, though, it was shops all the way. I can’t remember the order we looked at them all but there was Uni-Qlo, Zara, H&M, probably some others. And Janna did make some purchases for herself and her family.
As it got dark we found interesting festive light displays – lucky cats welcoming us into 2020. In the end we spent so long dawdling in shops that we had to hurry back to the museum so we wouldn’t lose our slot – assuming we could remember how to get there! Luckily we made it – just – in time, and the museum had a secure area where we could leave our shopping.
We joined an eclectic tour group consisting of an Italian mother and daughter, a couple of Dutch, and a group of young American men. Our host was very personable and knowledgeable and delighted to have an opportunity to show off his Italian. The first corridor had 4 sets of Samurai armour and he explained a little about the Samurai period which lasted from the 1400s to 1868, and was subdivided into other periods depending on the ruling Shogun family. He showed us the difference between the functional armour of the regular fighting Samurai, and the more ceremonial armour of the daimyos and Shoguns themselves, who rarely had to engage in physical combat.
Upstairs we had to remove our shoes, and we were shown several rooms featuring Samurai weapons. Most Samurai had three swords – the long katana was used for fighting, the short tanto was only used for ritual suicide, and the mid-length blade was a spare if something happened to his katana. We heard the story of the Mongol invasion of Japan – the Mongols would always defeat the Samurai because the Samurai code required them to introduce themselves before they foughts, while the Mongols were more of a “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of culture. However the invasion ultimately failed because of a typhoon that sunk the entire Mongol fleet, not once, but on two separate occasions when they sought to invade.
The Samurai also used bows and arrows – there was an authentic original quiver, which was more like a box than the Western tube style. And we learned about the icons and tokens that decorated their helmets – usually to denote allegiance or family. They looked very ornate and splendid, but were usually made out of light wood. They ranged from animals, insects and symbols to Sanskrit writing.
Most of the exhibits were authentic – some were clearly marked as replicas, such as the armour of particular Shoguns. The Shoguns fell – and the Samurai period ended – when the Americans arrived with a warship and demanded the country open up to foreign trade after 300 years of isolation. There was a power struggle between the Emperor who believed Japan needed to modernise, and the Shogun whose instinct was to resist foreign interference. But eventually the Shogun realised that if he continued on his intended course, Japan would be irrevocably weakened and the foreign powers would take over anyway. At least if he conceded, there was a chance the Emperor could retain control and protect Japan’s sovereignty. One of his aides who loyally supported the Shogun to the end is known as “The Last Samurai” and has his own display in the museum.
After the tour the real fun part was dressing up in Samurai and kimono gear and getting our photos taken. The armour wasn’t that heavy but the sword felt like it might be difficult to wield and swing without proper training. The tour group following ours had kids in it, and the museum of course had kid-sized outfits so they could also dress up like Samurai. In fact it is relatively common for Japanese children to have their own set of Samurai armour as there is a particular holiday where all the boys dress as Samurai and all the girls as traditional Japanese women.
We enjoyed the museum and would definitely recommend it as a tourist activity, but maybe it’s better to buy tickets in advance. It is a shame we couldn’t see the Ninja Trick House as well, they are quite close to each other and I’m sure a lot of tourists do both attractions in the same afternoon.
We finished our day in Shinjuku with a meal in an Italian restaurant (I know – we tried finding something more authentically Japanese but by that stage we were both more interested in filling our stomachs than experimenting!).