My favorite museum in Japan: The Takayama Showa Kan

By Mark Frauenfelder

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(In July, I went on a family vacation to Japan. Here are my posts about the trip: The Ghibli Museum | Watermelons in the shape of cubes, hearts, and pyramids | What happened to the Burgie Beer UFO of Melrose Avenue? | Shopping in Harajuku | A visit to Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto Japan | Nara Deer Park near Kyoto.)

I felt like I was in a giant thrift store bursting with Japanese products from the the mid 20th century. No guards were stationed in the many rooms crammed with household goods, educational equipment, tools, and other cultural artifacts. No items, as far as I could tell, were nailed down. This place would be a shoplifter's paradise (and a liability insurance abuser's motherlode) in the United States, but we were in Japan, where they don't seem to worry as much about that kind of thing.

The place is called the Showa Kan (Showa refers to the time period, 1926-1989, and Kan means hall). It's a privately run museum in Takayama, a beautiful city in the Chūbu region of central Japan. My wife, two daughters, and I spent a couple of pleasant hours wandering through the rooms here, which were decorated like businesses and institutions from the period. There was a doctor's office, a classroom, an appliance store, a bicycle repair shop, a living room, a bedroom, a barber shop, and so on.

Many more photos and remarks after the jump. (You can click any photo to embiggen it.)


The display in the front window facing the street drew us toward the museum. I don't consider myself a collector of things (too much clutter!) but I would like to have that motorized bike and some of those figurines.

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Before entering the museum proper (admission is ¥500 for adults, and ¥300 for kids), you walk past these cool-looking old cars. I'm not sure why Mickey Mouse is driving that three-wheeled pickup truck.

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Signs with happy faces on them are an old advertising trick, and one that I approve of.

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This hallway made to look like post WWII Japan, complete with a brothel on the second floor.

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In this simulacrum of an appliance store, products separated by decades happily sit beside one another.

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Too bad the washing machine in the middle can't wash itself!

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Mod lamps.

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Despite the missing ear, this dog keeps a cheerful expression.

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The less said about this guy's engorged, long, stiff nose, the better.

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Motorized bikes and a bike repair shop.

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A semi-westernized, semi-depressing Japanese living room.

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The next three photos remind me of Coop's collection.

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My daughter is trying to play a non-working arcade game. I wish it worked, because it looks like fun! UPDATE: It's a Bally Spinner arcade game from 1962. Here's a video. (Thanks, Darryl!)

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My daughter really wanted to sit on this toy JR train and take it for a spin around the museum. I didn't allow it, but I didn't blame her for wanting to. I recall reading that someone infamously sat on Rauschenberg's stuffed goat when it was on display and damaged it.

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You can find character statuettes like this in front of stores in Japan today. They are about three-feet tall. I'm not sure what their function is other than to lure customers.

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This creepy doll is a far cry from the kawaii look associated with contemporary Japanese characters.

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Slightly less creepy doll inside a very creepy wooden child containment device that looks like something the Pilgrims would have made to teach their babies about the misery of Hell. How long would those beads on a wire keep toddlers occupied before they went out of their mind?

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Bring back tin containers for food packaging! (Here's why.)

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Missing BOTH ears and still as happy as can be!

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This doctor's office could be used as a set for a scary movie.

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The food goes into slot A, and moves its way down and out. An Alan Watts quote comes to mind:

[L]iving organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new tubes, which also put things in at one end and let them out at the other. At the input end they even develop ganglia of nerves called brains, with eyes and ears, so that they can more easily scrounge around for things to swallow. As and when they get enough to eat, they use up their surplus energy by wiggling in complicated patterns, making all sorts of noises by blowing air in and out of the input hole, and gathering together in groups to fight with other groups. In time, the tubes grow such an abundance of attached appliances that they are hardly recognizable as mere tubes, and they manage to do this in a staggering variety of forms. There is a vague rule not to eat tubes of your own form, but in general there is serious competition as to who is going to be the top type of tube. All this seems marvelously futile, and yet, when you begin to think about it, it begins to be more marvelous than futile. Indeed, it seems extremely odd.

Truer words were never spoken!

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Another look at the interior of a tube.

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Tube malfunction!

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Joseph and the liver of many colors.

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Making a new tube.

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A red eye is an unhappy eye.

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If I had to pick an eye disease based on the models alone, I think I'd pick the one on the lower right. How about you?

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The kawaii is starting to kick in.

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A classroom planetarium.

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This looks like a machine to demonstrate bell curves and standard deviations. People who know more than I do about statistics (and that would be just about everyone) can explain the real purpose of this. Maybe it's a pachinko machine for Zen Buddhists.

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Magnetic poles, electrical current, a rotor. What is it?

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A classroom orrery.

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As an early lesson in environmentalism, here's a model of a sea creature that bit into a can of expanding foam sealant that had been carelessly tossed overboard by a callous merchant marine.

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Before you scroll down to the next photo, take a look at the long glass tube with a liquid-filled bulb at the bottom and try to guess what it is used for.

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A fly catcher!

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Thank you for making it this far. If you ever find yourself in Takayama, Japan, I strongly encourage you to visit the Showa Kan.

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Published 1:26 pm Wed, Aug 18, 2010

About the Author

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects


22 Responses to “My favorite museum in Japan: The Takayama Showa Kan”

  1. BritSwedeGuy says:

    Wow, my girlfriend would want to put everything into our already cluttered flat – thanks for sharing that with us!

  2. Kercules says:

    Great pics! Love the Watts quote too, one of my favorites.

  3. Anonymous says:

    that pachinko thing says kakuritsu jikken-ki, probability experiment machine.

    the rotor one below it says mo-ta- genri setsumei-ki, motor principle explanation machine. it’s a basic electric motor.

    this is awesome, btw. Reminds me of Meiji-mura, the parkful of relocated Meiji-era buildings outside Nagoya. It includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel from Tokyo.

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      Those “probability experiment machines” showing how normal distributions emerge were staples of Western science museums at one point too. I remember seeing one in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago maybe twenty-five years ago. I’m not sure if it’s still there. It was pretty old then, and most exhibits have since been computerized.

      • Caroline says:

        There’s one in the Museum of Science in Boston — a great big wall-size one. It’s kind of hypnotic to watch.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hope you visited the hotsprings around Takayama. Hida-yu in Hida-Takayama was my favorite.

  5. Francesco Fondi says:

    Wow! Great reportage!
    For everyone interested in Show-era I suggest also the “Theme park restaurants” in both Osaka and Tokyo (Odaiba) where you can feel even more immersed in the atmosphere and eat street food from that era!

  6. synthsis says:

    “(You can click any photo to embiggen it.) ”

    -“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

    What, it’s a perfectly cromulent word.

  7. Bob K says:

    Wow, Mark, this is great! Thanks for posting so many pics! (got any more?)

    Good thing I didn’t stumble across this place on my family’s trip to Japan: they would have never gotten me out of there!

    BTW–the orrery reminds me of a toy version orrery I had as a kid: white plastic base, clever beadchain mechanism to rotate the earth and had a penlight built into the sun for creating your own lunar and solar eclipses. Made by REMCO in the 60’s…anybody else had one?

  8. Anonymous says:

    The cars L to R: Daihatsu Midget, Subaru 360, and Mazda Carol.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Hong Kong Museum of history does the same thing by recreating an entire Hong Kong street complete with stores and products from the turn of the last century. It even has sound effects.

  10. Rich Keller says:

    It looks like a Japanese version of the House on the Rock, but much more fun. Letting in natural light will do that.

    A couple of things really stood out to me:
    The happy smiling woman in the ad with the bottle looked like a character from a George Pal Puppet Toon
    The scary guy with the distended red nose looks totally Spumco
    The classroom planetarium looks like a spaceship out of a Frank R. Paul illustration.

    and …creepy doll is creepy.

  11. Darryl says:

    Ah, I had to call Lucky JuJu/Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda to get the name of that arcade game. (They have it and we played it at their New Years Eve benefit party): 1962 Bally Spinner.

    They tell me the instruction manual refers to it as Spin Poker. Here it is in action, in… Italy? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVYoux51qkE

    A very comprehensive write-up:

    http://marvin3m.com/arcade/spinner.htm

  12. fishyswaz says:

    The guy with the nose is a modern representation of the Tengu. A major youkai, that can often be found in shrines and at festivals.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengu

    The fly catcher is actually pretty clever. The tube is a specific diameter that allows the fly just enough room to take off, but not enough to get any lift and eventually it just falls down the tube to the liquid at the bottom. They were widely used in fish stores where use of a pesticide would possibly taint the food.

  13. fishyswaz says:

    In Oita Japan there is a town that has turned its rural backwater to a Showa showcase tourist attraction, showcasing the old buildings, store displays, foods of yore, etc etc

    http://www.showanomachi.com/index.php

    A short video:
    http://www.showanomachi.com/buntaka-bb.wmv

  14. Yamazakikun says:

    Meiji-mura (near Nagoya) is another good one, although that time period doesn’t have as many interesting plastic toys. (But there is a steam train.)

    http://www.meijimura.com/english/index.html

    And that Snow Brand ice cream sign is just freaky given their recent history. (Then again, I also have no plans to ever eat at Jack in the Box, so YMMV.)

  15. jungletek says:

    Came for the cases full of old toys, stayed for the model of a prolapsed rectum

  16. Flying_Monkey says:

    These places are all doing well because of the prevalent ‘Showa nostalgia’ in Japan. And it isn’t really the full 1926-1989 period that Japanese people are thinking about when they talk about ‘Showa Nostalgia’. Clearly the authoritarian period, the insane invasion of Manchuria and then the rest of East and South-east Asia, and the post-war US occupation are not what people want to remember, nor are they thinking about the Bubble Economy craziness of the 1980s, nor indeed the revolutionary period from the late 60s onwards. It is very much the 1950s to late 1960s. This is same period that has been identified as the ‘golden age of capitalism’ in the USA, or UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ – a time when everything seemed to be going so well economically.

    In Japan, it has a particular feeling of a period when traditional values had not disappeared but when militarism had been replaced by honest hard-work that seemed to be rewarded, and before the more extreme of forms of corporate dominance over individual life. The countryside was still beautiful and coasts hadn’t been covered in concrete. There was no crime and people trusted each other. Not many foreigners wanted to stay in Japan. This is the world of ‘Tonari no Totoro’ and of course, ‘Always Sanchome no Yuhi’.

    It is also, like all nostalgia, a lie, or at least a partial truth, a kind of collective deception. ‘Showa nostalgia’ ignores the fact that this was the time during which the Yakuza developed, and actually crime was far higher than now, especially violent crime. And Japan’s economic recovery far from being peaceful was built on its role as subsidiary and supplier to the USA in the Korean War. And the massive industrialization of agriculture in which farmers eagerly participated that destroyed the traditional countryside. And much more.

    Still, a fun museum (I’ve been too) and nice stuff, eh?.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I think you’re very lucky to have such a nice insightful comments ( I mean people actually telling about the pictures above).

    I will put my five cents: CONGRATULATIONS! Your chosen illness is actually Cataract (hakunaishou), which I have to say that can be removed by surgery.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I think Mark Ryden is another artist who would love this museum!

  19. Anonymous says:

    Two of the mascots you’ve taken photos of I talk about here

    http://injapan.gaijinpot.com/2010/07/15/pharmacy-mascots/

    Both are mascots for pharmacy companies. The kangaroo is Daio-chan and the orange elephant Sato-chan. I wrote more in-depth about Sato-chan on my own website http://idleidol.net/sato-chan-and-satoko-chan/. If you like Japanese mascots please check out my book idle idol

    http://www.amazon.com/Idle-Idol-Japanese-Edward-Harrison/dp/0984190619