Edo-Tokyo Museum


Tokyo Subway Map

Judith and I are on our own after 10 days of being baby-ied around Tokyo by son Eli, who in turn knows enough Japanese to make jokes with the cabbies. He’s lived there for his junior year abroad and he’s on break from school. Sons Noah & Eli plus Judith have made our party a fun-fest. Searching for a Daruma kite (Daruma—fall down 7 times get up 8—the patron saint of stick-with-it, baby) gets you poking around into many layers of surprise. We want to buy some plastic restaurant display Sushi and so, we enter a region of block after block of hardware stores. The fake sushi was way too expensive but it got us to see the sites of real Tokyo. Going on meanders like this gets you off the tourist track, and getting lost is the best strategy for discovering a place. But Judith and I want to visit the famous Edo-Tokyo Museum which the Japanese parents of Eli’s school mates say is a must-see, the young’ns not so much. We’d had a laugh-a-minute riot singing an evening of Elvis Karaoke four stories down in a private bar in the Ginza with the parents. These bars in warrens, below the street level, function as living rooms for the well-off; living spaces being so tiny.

So we split up for the day. Eli says the museum is an easy one to find and so many people speak English eagerly wanting the practice. Did we just descend six layers of bustle to find ourselves standing in front of a push-button lighted map? Yikes! Where are we? No clue. Rebecca Solnit’s The Art of Getting Lost is certainly no help but a good read. A helpful soul points to the Sumo Arena. Well, let’s have a look at that! Who cares? Everything we are seeing is new to us anyway.

We walk up out of the underground into a bright breezy-chilly spring, just past cherry blossom time, Sakura, the last pinkness disappearing into clusters of chartreuse. Two blocks walk and the Edo-Tokyo Museum is right next door to the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall with its capacious auditorium dwarfed in turn by the colossus of the Museum. It is there like a toy monster machine morphed into a giant, from one thing to another dominating like the battlecruiser in space from StarWars; a massive shape made even larger by its context nestled into a commercial neighborhood, standing on four colossal legs. The Museum hovers like a monster concrete flyswatter over a plaza into which a baseball diamond could be tucked into a corner, with plenty of room for a homerun fence. From a distance the Leviathon, hovering on its legs looks like it could cartoon-animate itself into a Manga comic book monster, tromping out blind vengeance on a hapless twenty-first century Tokyo.
As we climb up the steps to the plaza we’re hit by a wind that has weight. The plaza has become a natural wind tunnel. Now, under the mass, five stories above, all illusion of lithe robotic slo-mo ambling dissolves into the threat of a simple crushing drop. We’re all doomed, except “we” is just Judith and me on this entire endless plain. The image of human annihilation with a couple of soul survivors becomes the libretto.
The museum on it’s four stout legs hovers over the empty plaza in what is supposed to stand for, to quote architecturally, the design of a traditional rice storage house. For so long, rice was a monetary equivalent, the semiotics of Japanese wealth, brought to now from an antique time when money was measured in a standardized cube of rice called a masu. Sake is still served in these smooth crafted, dovetail jointed boxes. What’s the origin of the word yen? Google gives me a JRR Tolkein website that defines a yen as an elvish term for a year of time. Time is money? Onward…
Money culture gassed up the engine that drove the most accelerated transition any culture has ever made, from a hand-made, feudal, craft-barter culture to industrial monetary culture in less than one generation. These folks can move fast when they get onto something and they do it “all together now, all together now, all together now.” Rice, of course, was the feudal unit of trade before Perry’s black ships and the Imperial Restoration of the Emperor brought money culture to Samurai Japan, so, as a history museum explaining that very period, it is appropriate that the building itself symbolizes a rice barn, visible wealth. This shift was made easier by constructing the industrial banking and transportation edifice of modern business birthed in the rigorous scaffold of peace enforced by the Shogun. Shoguns were top-dog in the Confucian social order. The merchants and bankers had been the lowest rung under farmers and craftsmen, all in a tough regime where social classes were not allowed to intermarry. That turned on its head during the “Enlightenment”, what the interpretative signs call the period when money moved in; the top dogs were now the former lowest merchant clans from the beginning of the Shogunate. The Mitsubishi three diamonds, the Sumitomo Corporation all-powerful.
                              Mitsubishi — Sumitomo
Inside the hull of the museum, it’s as empty feeling as a gargantuan seatless theatre, dark on dark with far-away dioramas pin-point lighted. Up close the exhibits do hold the magic of the sensibility.  Here’s the facade of a glossy fancy-house of a noble, a Daiymo, reproduced 1/30 size in neat perfect detail, a cross-section of the Nihombashi bridge arcs into the darkness of the black on black interior and nary a window. There are cutaway recreations of living spaces, from a traditional 19th-Century family house with models of mom&pop welcoming in a new baby, on to a WWII room with taped up windows including helmets and gas masks hanging on the walls. (the tape job remarkable for its precision and uniformity itself becoming a decorative touch) There is the life-size entrance to a Kabuki theatre all done in blameless blond woodwork, a basket weave of perfect cuts fit without seams. The marquee announcing plays and stars are flat panels of the same blond wood painted in big-brush black calligraphy. Everything to make up the facade is done by hands more like a machine than flesh.
Here’s a diorama of a woodblock print shop that really grabs my attention. Prints are hanging on the line to dry.

Woodblock printing explicated—”progressives”

There are the progressives lined up to make a whole image. Pieces of a whole, each according to its color. Several uniform boards are laid out, in the succession of their printing, carved out below the surface, leaving a little island of carved pattern, sticking up like a flat-top mesa, stained from the ink. The black block has thin cut lines for outlining and parallel waves of hair, it’s the most intricate. Parts of the kimono has patterns of Ginko leaves, little leaves strewn across its own red island. There’s green checkerboard for the Obi, yellow hairdo ornaments and clogs, fourteen puzzle pieces all fitting together to make a whole image. You can see just how the print was realized. It all fascinates, the quintessence of the Japanese sense of things is everywhere, a distillation of what I find so magnetic. But the undertone is a calamity; this is all nice but really there is nothing after all the carefully laid-out exhibits, themselves carrying the core of Japan, but nothing, nothing but the black cold of interstellar space, inside a cloud of black velvet. Some horror is lurking in the dark. something is terribly wrong. The whole cavern of the museum is largely space and for all the embarrassment of riches—this space signs to the 21st Century Tokyo sensibility, where the average apartment in the city is 12 by 15 feet, that this is wealth made tangible. We feel emotionally shut out and only want to flee, back into the wind of the day.
Japan was a reactionary, conservative culture by nature, in fact, the whole country closed down for more than 250 years, shut out from foreigners. Were a fisherman lost at sea and landed in any other country they could be jailed on their return. A strong pull to uniformity. A famous aphorism states, “A nail sticking up needs to be pounded down.”  That said, the pervading power is one of absorption and perfection. They absorbed Chinese writing in the 700’s and made it into a dancing kind of painting that sang as well. Strokes of ink, the marks left flags flying on the page, each denoting a whole countryside of meaning. All movements, suggesting meaning inside the meaning of the words themselves. Japan absorbed the auto, late into the 20th Century, and, behold, the reliable compact car, transport that worked and held its value, now its hybrids. Japan absorbs and perfects, and anyone who thinks the function of absorption is somehow less essential than the innovative endlessly growing, the prime function of the land we inhabit, where the new equals virtue, doesn’t understand balance. The adapt/perfect model got Japan into the game quickly and with a typhoon force, business practices adapted from the west fit the old underclass trading companies like a glove. Mitsui and Sumitomo, backwater trading companies in the early days of the Shogunate, recently joined to create the biggest bank in the world. The enlightenment period gave a concentrated thrust to the effort of Japan’s multinationals to dominate the streamlined manufacturing and banking systems powered by cheap Asian labor and speedy computer-driven markets. A great rolling wash of capital coupled with the three-card monte of hide and seek offshore banking left a lot of available & taxable cash. Artwork and museum buildings were tax-deductible. Van Gogh’s Iris painting selling for 75 mil. and the tax-advantaged boondoggle constructions like the Edo-Tokyo made to look like ancient money with truckloads of new money, big money. Of course, all that big money went away, a bubble burst because all that money was borrowed against real estate whose value at the peak equaled one-fifth of the planet’s real estate value. Paper value, balloon value—pop.
Out!! We’re the tiniest bit out-of-school giddy, to be free of that oppressive space into a twilight and right there is the train we looked for a few hours ago. Hop on the JR and we’re on time to meet Noah and a Japanese pal at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya station.
(Hachiko, the dog who met his dead master at the train every day and kept coming every evening for seven years a monument to the revered sense of loyalty.) This is great place to meet and a terrible place to meet. Everyone knows right where it is and then again, its everybody. A dense crowd of on-the-look-outs. We manage to hookup after a lot of jostling. We go out to Shimonkiestawa, a student section full of cheap eats and nifty little shops. We eat a pile of fried up cabbage and cheese and shrimp on a flatbread. Great food we can make this at home easy. Into a late evening bustle of the storefronts, a kimono shop, one of the very few used clothing joints (the Japanese are creeped out wearing the clothes of the dead) where we buy some nice things and everything is twenty bucks. This shop’ll be a trendsetter. Judith gets a shibori dyed jacket that is so nice the man behind us in line at the airport check-in comments on it. The street is a real cacophony of shops and music and bustle and then at the edge of the commercial area, we stop at hole-in-the-wall toy store to look at some simple handcrafted things from another time. The guy making them is sitting closed in by his tools and material surrounding his workbench, everything is lined up and at the ready. a quarter round window makes both a display case and a soft entryway. The only place to stand is outside the shop on the sidewalk. His fingers move in that rhythm of a craftsman, fast then very slow to make the cut then fast to assess then another slow cut. This is not a bit of chaos inside the calm, but THE calm center of Japan itself. The history museum we’ve seen is alive right here and right now.

Trying to get lost.

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