Shinjuku’s Samurai Museum: 800 Years of Evolution

Grigoris Miliaresis

OK, so here are a couple of things I need to say about myself so you’ll have the context of what you’re about to read: (a) I’m a complete geek when it comes to things that have to do with Japanese martial arts. After several decades of starvation in the only European country with no Japanese Studies department in any of its academic institutions, I haven’t yet gotten over the fact that I live in a country where there are literally thousands of places where you can see actual samurai armor and weapons, and I’ll gladly fuss over this katana blade or that kabuto helmet. (b) I love the kind of small museums that Tokyo is full of—big museums are great of course, but small ones feel much more personal and allow for a better (and usually deeper) understanding of their subject.

That being said, I think that the new Samurai Museum in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho area is certainly worth a visit; whether it’s worth the 1,800 yen ticket is a different story, but I’ll get to that in a moment. For starters, it’s good to keep in mind that this isn’t like the Sword Museum in Yoyogi with an organization behind it and aiming for people who are more geek than me (i.e. sword collectors, historians, etc.). It’s been created for the regular, non-Japanese tourist who doesn’t really know much about the samurai and would like to see and learn something more, especially not in the context of a huge museum like the National in Ueno. And in that, it does quite a decent job.

One of the coolest things to do in Tokyo! Dress up as a samurai, learn how to use a katana, and photograph the whole experience. click here for details
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I know that Kabukicho sounds like a weird location for such an establishment; let’s face it, love hotels and host/hostess bars are not exactly the place you’d expect a museum dedicated to warriors from Japan’s glorious past. But like the museum’s owner pointed out, there are many hotels in the broader Shinjuku area and shopping (and Robot Restaurant) aside, there isn’t much to actually do in Shinjuku if you are a non-Japanese tourist. So you need to go past a huge hotel with a multiplex and a life-size Godzilla behind it and a few love hotels—so what? The museum closes at 21:00 and despite its notoriety among the Japanese, Kabukicho isn’t actually dangerous anyway so, yes, why not Kabukicho?

The museum has two areas: the ground level with the gift shop, the reception desk and an array of yoroi sets of armor, mostly from the Muromachi (1336-1573) and Edo (1600-1868) periods very beautifully arranged; and the first floor (or “second floor” in Japanese) with six smaller areas (specializing in the Kamakura period, swords and other bladed weapons, kabuto helmets, yoroi armor, matchlock guns and the passage to the modern era). The museum creators have taken spacial care to make the rooms as, well, Japanese as possible with tatami mats, paper screens, very atmospheric lighting, music, etc., and some of the exhibits are indeed very interesting even for someone who is somewhat familiar with the subject.

Not that it is an easy subject to tackle. What we call “samurai” today incorporates about 800 years of history  over very different social, political and even martial conditions: the bushi from the aristocratic families of the early 12th century who actually went to war, bow in hand, didn’t have much in common with to the thousands of peasants-reluctantly-turned-soldiers of the 16th century who owned just a helmet and a spear, or the administrators of the Edo period we know from Kurosawa’s films who hadn’t seen battle action for decades or even centuries. Much to the Samurai Museum’s credit, there is quite enough work done in the direction of clearing at least some basic misconceptions.

For example, I’m pretty sure that most visitors will be surprised to find out how important firearms were for the samurai who actually went to war (the Samurai Museum has some wonderful pieces in that area). Or that the sword was not “the soul of the samurai”—the bow and arrow was, at least until the Tokugawa forced the provincial feudal lords to stop fighting and created a military state that remained (relatively) peaceful for over 250 years. Even though the actual number of exhibits isn’t that big, it’s enough to illustrate some of the main points of the history of Japan’s fighting class. As I wrote earlier, it is not meant to exhaust the subject but to give an idea of how those people looked and what they used to, well, kill each other.

I mentioned in the beginning that there is of course the question of whether the 1,800 yen ticket is worth the price, especially considering that the average museum entrance fee in Tokyo is around 1,000 yen. I’d say the answer is “yes”, especially if you want to ease yourself into the whole samurai thing: some (but not all!) of the exhibits in the bigger museums might be more worthy from a historian’s/collector’s perspective, but the presentation in the Samurai Museum is much more friendly to the casual visitor and especially to the one from abroad. (From what the museum people told us, 60% of their visitors are Westerners, 35% are Asians and only 5% are Japanese.) Add a couple of extras like the free sword drawing demonstrations starting this week and held four times a day (at 14:00, 15:00, 16:00 and 17:00), the calligraphy lessons (for a rather reasonable fee) and the opportunity to get your picture taken in helmet, armour and yielding a sword for free and you can see that it is certainly a fun way to spend a couple of hours! Fancier official photo-shoots are also available for an additional cost!

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Filed under: Things to do
Tags: Featured, Japan, Martial Arts, Museum, Samurai
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Name: Samurai Museum
Pricing info: 1,500 yen (Adult) | 750 yen (12 & under) | Free (3 and under)
Address: Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Kabukicho 2-25-6
Location(s): Shinjuku,
Access: Shinjuku Station (East Exit)
Phone: 03-6457-6411 03-6457-6411
Business hours: 10:30-21:00 (Last entry 20:30)
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2 Responses to “Shinjuku’s Samurai Museum: 800 Years of Evolution”

  1. Avatar

    kabukicho is a hell hole and you know it

    • Avatar
      CheapoGreg December 15, 2015

      Hell holes can be interesting too. Not a place to hang out if you’re drunk but it’s an interesting glimpse of the under belly. And I’m not denying there are some very unsavory establishments there.

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