A Metalsmith’s Guide to Tokyo, Japan

Nothing is simple in Tokyo—not the language, not the culture, not the geography. Even getting information is a major task and everything takes longer than you think it will. So the essential point to remember when you come to Tokyo is that you can’t take in everything but only the tiniest fraction of its riches. By the same token, this guide only scratches the surface of public places and associations that can be starting points.

Sword, Collection: Sword Museum

Overall, Tokyo is a depressingly ugly city. It’s tangled, disordered, overwhelmingly concrete and claustrophobicly crowded. To see its beauty, you must look not at the whole but at the details. See it on foot, so that you can discover the tiny doorstep patches of gardens and savor the serene geometry of walls. Japan remains a nation of walls and fences, and with those go gates. Not only are there traditional wooden gates but also a surprising number of handsome contemporary metal gates, holding their own among the mass-stamped prefabs. The neighborhoods of several of the museums described below are ideal for random walking.

Ewer for Holy Water
Silvery bronze, Heian Period (794-1185), Japan
Collection: Moa Museum of Art

All you need are good walking shoes and a big, detailed map of the city that shows not only the wards (ku) but the names of neighborhoods and, most essentially, the chome (cho-may) and block numbers. You can’t get anywhere without this information, because only a dozen or so major streets in Tokyo have names, and landmarks by which you may get your bearings are few once you leave the central part of town. Also, be forewarned that taxi drivers don’t know where anything is, except for major hotels, and that you must be prepared to give them directions, and that probably less than one percent of them speaks English. Buy a map (at hotels, the Tokyo City Air Terminal or one of the international bookstores) that includes kanji (Chinese characters) as well as English, and if you get a cooperative cabbie you might get somewhere. But the fast, clean, safe and well-marked subway system, plus your own two feet, are the best methods of transportation in Tokyo.

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JAPAN SWORD MUSEUM. This quintessentially Japanese metal art is enshrined in its own museum, in an imposing contemporary building in a slightly rundown neighborhood at 25-10 Yoyogi 4-chome, Shibuya-ku. Take the Odakyu train line to the Sangubashi station. A map to the museum, in English, hangs on the outside wall of the station. On view are sword blades, guards, hilts, examples of samurai armor, helmets, arm guards and a few other oddities. English identification is provided, and you will be given an explanatory handout in English. If, on your way out, you stopegaxx to look at the books and magazines in the entry, your attention will be pointed to a few in English, and you’ll be encouraged to sit down with a complimentary cup of green tea to leaf through the materials.

NIHON MINKA-EN. On the same Odakyu train line but out in the suburbs is a collection of 21 traditional Japanese buildings, including a shrine and a kabuki stage, brought from all over Japan and grouped like a village. The houses are furnished with tools and furniture appropriate to their date and original locale. Of particular interest are the hearths with a variety of hanging kettles and metal-lined tree stumps used as hibachis. The Minka-En is located at 7-1-1 Masugata, Tama-ku, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture. It is about a 15-minute walk from the south exit of Mukogaoka-yuen station: follow the monorail track to a big intersection with a traffic light where the monorail turns left. Continue straight ahead to the park. A leaflet in English is provided.

Three bronze containers

JAPAN FOLK CRAFTS MUSEUM. (Nippon Mingeikan). The Mingeikan’s metals collection is small, but the museum shouldn’t be missed because of its superlative general collection of the arts of “the people” made by anonymous craftsmen (rather than the precious objects of the rich which make up the collections of most museums of crafts or decorative arts), and because of its beautiful traditional building. It is located at 3-33 Komaba 4-chome, Meguro-ku, in a neighborhood good for exploring. Use the Komaba-Todaimae station on the Inogashira Line. Metals in the collection date back to the beginning of the 16th century, and include a battlefield rice cooker, country water kettles, candle scissors, brass candlestand, locks and keys, iron vases, ash rakes and Buddhist ceremonial implements.

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GOTOH MUSEUM. This museum’s permanent collection is not on display, so chance determines whether you can see metals at any given time, but special exhibitions sometimes focus on metals alone, such as a recent one on sword blades. Information is in Japanese only. The museum is located at 9-25 Kaminoge 3-chome, Setagaya-ku, in another good neighborhood for poking about, and out the back door of the museum is a steep hillside garden with walking paths and much religious and garden statuary, which is worth seeing. Exit at Kaminoge station on the Oimachi Line.

NEZU MUSEUM. The Nezu concentrates on special exhibitions, with only a small regular display of the permanent collection, including some large Chinese bronzes, but if you’re lucky you might see something like the recent “Metal Works as Tea Untensils” focusing on Edo Period brass and iron kettles, braziers, gongs, jars, tea caddies, ewers, vases, candlestands, tobacco sets and incense burners. Its garden is bigger and even better than the Gotoh Museum’s, including a small pond and teahouse. The museum is located at 6-5-36 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, not far from the Omote-Sando station on the Chiyoda, Ginza and Hanzomon subway lines.

OKURA SHUKOKAN. This is one you can get to by taxi because it’s located on the grounds of the Hotel Okura (and just across the street from the American Embassy), which every cabbie knows. At 10-3 Toranomon 2-chome, it’s closest to Kamiyacho station on the Hibiya Subway Line or Toranomon station on the Ginza Line. The collection includes some precious metalwork, Buddhist bells, lanterns and small metalcrafts; Japanese swords; sculptures such as gold and copper Buddhist figurines from Southeast Asia and other locations; and archaeological items such as Chinese copper including bowls and other daily living utensils. Except for the swords, many of the items were damaged when the museum lost much of its collection in the fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but there’s still plenty to see.

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Three bronze containers

FURNITURE MUSEUM. The museum is located on the second floor of the JFC (Japan Furniture Center) Building.at 10 Harumi 3-chome, Chuo-ku. A taxi can get you to Harumi Yubinkyoku (post office) nearby, which is advisable because the museum is a substantial hike from the nearest subway station, Tsukiji on the Hibiya Line. Japanese furniture is made of wood, but metal is a significant part, used for locks, pulls, carrying handles, hinges, jamb plates, latches, pins, staples, knobs and extras such as corner braces and even family crests. Often metal is more prominent than wood on the front of tansu (chests) and other traditional pieces, and the metal is treated in a variety of interesting ways. Labeling is in Japanese only, and the informational leaflet has only three paragraphs of platitudes in English, but for 2,000 yen you can buy the museum’s Japanese Antique Chests, a paperbound book, which has about 20 interesting pages of English at the back. You will also find an expensive hardbound book in English on Japanese traditional furniture, published by Kodansha International in 1986.

IDEMITSU MUSEUM OF ARTS. The Idemitsu is best known for its ceramics collection (especially Japanese Karatsu), but it also owns Chinese bronzes and Japanese swords. The museum’s Middle Eastern Culture Center includes many metalworks, such as Sassanian silverwork and bronzes from Luristan and Iran. A few pieces are always on display in the main exhibition rooms, but the remainder are available only in special exhibitions. The Idemitsu is centrally located, in the business district between the Ginza and the Imperial Palace, at 1-1 Marunouchi 3-chome, Chiyodaku, close to the Hibiya station on the Chiyoda, Hibiya or Marunouchi subway lines.

Three bronze containers. Collection: Crafts Annex, National Museum of Modern Art

CRAFTS ANNEX, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. The Tokyo modern museum has collected contemporary crafts since its inception but in the 50s sent them to the Kyoto modern museum. The permanent collection of about 800 objects (150 of them metal) has been acquired since 1963 and is housed in a historic Meiji Era building that was opened as the museum’s craft annex in 1977. Part of the permanent collection is always on view, with the selection of objects changing three or four times a year. Special exhibitions have included “Contemporary Vessels” and “Contemporary Jewelry.”

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As opposed to the other museums in this guide, the emphasis here is contemporary, although there are two aspects to contemporary. One is “new tendencies,” that is, nontraditional objects in the common craft materials. The other is traditional forms created with contemporary artistic sensibility. This is the category of potter Shoji Hamada and other craftsmen who have been designated “living national treasures” because of the new life they have brought to traditional techniques.

The metals collection includes incense containers, ornaments, tea kettles, boxes, jewelry and “okimono.” There is no specific translation of okimono in English; it falls between the Western categories of sculpture and crafts, a division which was not natural to Japanese esthetics until the introduction of these Western concepts during the Meiji Era. Okimono could be described as small sculpture or as nonfunctional crafts. (Maybe this term should be adopted in the US for all the crafts-that-are-not-crafts).

The museum is located at 1 Kitanomaru Koen, Chiyoda-ku. Take the Tozai Line to Takebashi station and walk into the park, past the Modern Museum itself and then past the National Archives to reach the Crafts Annex.

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TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM. This is a huge complex of buildings at the north end of Ueno Park covering about 100,000 square meters of ground. The collection, equally vast, includes about 100,000 objects of Japanese and other Eastern cultures. In the collection are metalworks registered by the Japanese government as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. There are some 15,500 metalworks and 3,200 swords. Japanese, Chinese and Korean objects predominate, but there are also Southeast Asian and Egyptian artifacts. Types include Buddhist sculptures, ritual objects, secular (functional) objects, arms and armor and swords. They are divided between a main building (Japanese), a Gallery Of Eastern Antiquities (non-Japanese), and an archaeological (pre-history) building.

Yet another building houses treasures from the Horyuji temple complex at Nara, which includes gilt bronze statues and bronze mirrors. Unlike the rest of the museum, this building is open on Thursdays only. In addition, the Research and Information Center includes 100,000 Japanese, Chinese and Western books, plus museum catalogs and scholarly research files. An English-language guide to using the center is in preparation.

A small handbook to the museum complex is for sale in the main building and the catalog for a 1983 exhibition of Japanese (historic) metalwork is still available. Allow at least a day to look around. Also in Ueno Park is a city-owned museum that shows contemporary art (the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum), the National Museum of Western Art, a science museum, zoo and concert hall.

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Mingei-kan, Folk Art Museum, Tokyo

SHITAMACHI MUSEUM. At the southwest corner of Ueno Park is a museum dedicated to the lives of the working class of the Shitamachi neighborhood of Tokyo. Shitamachi literally translates as “downtown” but “lower town” might give more of the flavor. The museum includes life-size models of a shop front, a tenament house, a school and a coppersmith’s workshop. Displays include carpenters’ tools, jeweler’s tools, many everyday metal objects such as cigarette cases, pipes and hair ornaments and architectural fittings such as door pulls, keyplates and gas lamps. The time frame is 19th and early 20th century. Many of the displays can be entered or touched.

MOA MUSEUM. This museum is located over an hour south of Tokyo by train, in the resort town of Atami (26-2 Momoyama-cho, Atami) at the base of the Izu Peninsula. In the summer, the beaches are the attractions, and in the winter, the hot springs. The museum is new and is set into the hillside above the town. After a tortuous 10-minute bus ride you debark at the entrance and ride a series of escalators through exquisite light-shows to reach the main exhibition rooms. The metals collection is small, including mainly Buddhist ritual utensils and Buddhist sculptures, but the objects are on permanent display, and, coupled with a spectacular island and ocean view from an exceptionally beautiful modern museum, they justify the excursion. Not far away is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, a huge outdoor museum of contemporary sculpture that also shouldn’t be missed.

Sculpture Museums. In addition to these examples of museums that collect metalcrafts are number of museums that show contemporary sculpture in metal as well as other materials. Besides Hakone, the National Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of Western Art should be noted. The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Museum also often show sculpture, and most of the prefectures of Japan (roughly equivalent to U.S. states) have their own museums which include sculpture displays. But it would take years to see them all.

Jewelry. Ear, neck and wrist jewelry are not native to Japan except for the Ainu, the aboriginal tribe confined to the north, who wore large bead necklaces. Obi decorations might be worn with kimono, and elaborate hair ornaments were standard (but metal was less common than some other materials), but these objects are not included in museums as far as I know. Few galleries specialize in contemporary jewelry. However, the many big department stores always have handcraft sections, and while ceramics and lacquerware predominate there are often displays of contemporary work including jewelry. Isetan, Matsuya (Ginza), Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, Seibu, Tokyu, Odakyu and Parco (in about that order) are recommended.

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Studio M2 at 2-93 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi (tel. 045-662-3823) always shows contemporary work by several artists. There is a range of prices and many special things in this shop.

Mikinoto has a gallery in Tokyo at 4-5-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, that shows more avant-garde work than the one in New York City.

ASSOCIATIONS AND MAGAZINES

Japan Craft Design Association
21-13 Sendagaya 1-chome
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151
Functional work, all media

Japan Jewellery Designers Association
1-5-13 Horidome-cho, Nihombashi
Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103

The Japan Art Crafts Association
9-13 Ueno-koen
Taito-ku, Tokyo
Mainly traditional works in traditional techniques

Verband der Metallbildner Japan
Ginza 7th Av. Heights No. 604
7-8-77 Ginza
Chuo-ku, Tokyo
An association of metalsmiths and sculptors, yearly exhibition

Four Seasons of Jewelry
Jewelry Journal Co. Ltd.
Kitano Bldg. 24-77, Hongo 3-chome
Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113
6 issues per year, sea mail $60

The editor of this magazine, Noriko Takagi, is willing to provide information on upcoming shows or arrangements for studio visits. Write her well in advance, as the person who answers the English letters comes in only once a week.

Jewel
Rene Publishing Company
Hamada Bldg. 2-38 lchigaya-tamachi
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Design and Shopping. A visit to the Axis Building, 5-17-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, is a must for anyone interested in the latest trends in product design. The building includes many levels of stores, such as the Ohshima Hardward Shop; Design Matrix (a design boutique); Living Motif (like Conran’s), a showroom of the Japanese designer Uchido and a store called Bushy, which specializes in “Urushi” lacquerware. Axis also publishes a design magazine (which after October will be translated into English. It is available through Gallery 91, 91 Grand St., New York, NY 10013 for $15 a copy.)

Another design-oriented place is the Spiral Building, located in Aoyama. Designed by architect Maki Fumihiko, this spectacular new building includes exhibition space and a video performance center as well as a floor of design stores. The focus of the building is still evolving at this writing.

Laforet, located in Harajuku, Tokyo’s fashion center, is a building full of fashion boutiques, which sell copies as well as originals.

Also not to be missed is Tokyo’s Shitamachi (Downtown), the shopping district, which is the original part of the city. Here is also located the Asakusa Kogeikan, a museum featuring a collection of traditional craftwork from the old city of Edo. (A book on “Shitamachi” is available from Kinokuni-ya Book Store, 10 West 49th St., New York, NY 10019. Another useful book is Tokyo Access by Richard Saul Wurman, published by Access Press and available in the travel sections of most large book stores.)

By Janet Koplos
Metalsmith Magazine - 1987 Spring
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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