Sunday, August 16, 2020

A Night At The (Medieval Japanese) Museum

--Susan, every other Sunday

I've blogged before about Magome, a preserved post-town on the old Nakasendo ("middle mountain route") travel road, which served as a major travel artery between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) during the 17th century. A haven for hikers and historians alike, Magome manages to retain its sleepy, late-feudal period character without tipping into "tourist trap." I attribute this mainly to the fact that Japanese people love history (especially their own, although most history is popular here) and the fact that the town and its people are proud of their place in that history, and its traditions, and does its best to preserve them. (Its location high in the mountains, in a place that's still relatively isolated, doesn't hurt.)


It's difficult to pick a favorite thing about Magome--I love pretty much every thing about it. However, one place I visit every time I go is the Magome Waki Honjin Museum.

Honjin is the Japanese word for a special group of traditional inns along Japan's travel roads that existed to serve the needs of high-ranking samurai (typically daimyō, senior officials, and members of the Imperial family).  Every post town had a honjin, and samurai would send word ahead to reserve a room for the night when passing through. If the honjin was full, high-ranking travelers would stay at the nearby waki-honjin - basically, the "standby honjin" which existed primarily to act as overflow when the travel road was busy. (Lower ranking samurai, and commoners, stayed at the other inns--of which there were many. The post towns existed to offer food and lodging to travelers on these roads, and to cater to their needs.)

Today, Magome's former waki honjin has been converted into a museum, containing artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the town served as an important stop on the Nakasendo. (For travelers heading north, it was the last night before beginning a multi-day trek through the steep, rugged mountains that run down the center of Honshu, Japan's largest island.)

Here is a taste of the fascinating exhibits this lovely little museum has on display:

Incense Burner Clock

The incense clock, ready for lighting

The various implements used to prepare the incense clock.

A cup that allowed a samurai to drink without dismounting from his horse.

Maps of the various sections of the Nakasendo. Beautiful and useful,

Traditional hair combs. The Kiso Valley (north of Magome) was famous for artisanal combs.

Mirror and makeup brushes, 17th century. Look carefully, you can see my reflection.

Wooden fire pump, 17th century. A game-changing device in a country like Japan.
(As a side note, this exhibit actually inspired an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery novel.)

Married women often blackened their teeth (a beauty regimen I'm glad has gone out of style).
This bowl was used for that purpose. The implements were rested on the crossbar.

As a historian and a person who loves to learn, I adore small local museums like this one. In addition to being interesting in and of themselves, they do a great job of preserving pieces of history and culture that might not always make it into larger national museums. With fewer pieces to curate (and usually fewer political interests to appease) they can display not only the "highly significant" finds, but also more mundane, yet no less interesting, objects that people actually used in their daily lives.

Are you a fan of small museums? What's the best, or most memorable, one you've ever visited? 


  1. I love all the waki places you take us to, Susan. xx

  2. There are so many wonderful small museums - I keep stumbling over them when I'm in London. They're often only a room or two, but fascinating.