1889 seems like a long time ago but if you are talking in terms of lifetimes then I guess it is not. 1907 seems like a long time ago but if you are talking about the founding of a city then I guess it is not either. 1962 seems like a long time ago but if you are talking about opening museums then, again I guess it is not.
You might well be asking ‘what are you on about?’ right now and that is a perfectly valid question; read on and it will all become clear.
I would like to start with a bit of general background as to why I am writing about this particular museum rather than some of the more well-known attractions:
The city of Matsumoto, founded in 1907, in Nagano prefecture offers a plethora of fascinating opportunities to the tourist and has a good number of options irrespective of what your preferences are: For those of you who love the outdoors, the city is cradled by mountainous terrain that gifts the hardy hiker rewarding challenges and beautiful views throughout the warm summer months. In winter it is not a huge distance from such skiing and snowboarding magnets as Hakuba and its nearby peaks. For those of you who love history, the most obvious draw is the 400 year old castle known as Karasu Jo or the ‘Crow Castle’ for its dark coloured walls and associated museum. I heartily recommend this and they have some very friendly tour guides (Thank you, Mr. Kitamura). For those of you with more artistic leanings, there is the famous Museum of Art that houses a number of painting and both large and small installations by the famous and eccentric Kusama Yayoi and her devotion to dots and spots.
You can readily find details of all the above in almost any publication or article on the internet that deals with Matsumoto City but, what I want to talk about is a far less well-known gem called the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum.
As mentioned, Matsumoto itself is a relative newcomer to the lofty status of City but it is a steadily growing place. During its century long tenure as a city it has, like an amoeba, spread out its tendrils and absorbed the other nearby towns and villages that surrounded it. In spite of this, the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum or Matsumoto Mingeikan is still on the outskirts of the city.
The museum can be found in an area surrounded by grape farms, spas and small clusters of houses and over looked by distant mountaintops. It has been open since the early sixties and began as a private collection before slowly swelling to its current state including over 7’000 individual items. The place was originally opened by a folk craft shop owner, Tarou Maruyama, from the lower part of Matsumoto, whose passion for folk craft was ignited by the work of Dr. Soetsu Yanagi.
Dr. Yanagi is a fascinating character whose lifelong work inspired the folk craft movement in Japan and arguably has inspired a number of these folk craft or Mingei museums across the country such as the one found in Matsumoto.
Soetsu was born in Tokyo in 1889. He developed a deep interest in religious philosophy and art at an early age. His youth coincided with the boom of the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe and the United States that started in the 1880’s to around 1910. Although this played no direct influence on Yanagi’s early life it indirectly formed a relevant backdrop to the circles he would later move in. He would come to read the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin and these chimed closely with his own feelings. As a young man his interests led him to become an enthusiastic member of the White Birch Society or Shirakaba-ha. These were a group of intellectuals that delved into more contemporary Arts, philosophy and literature, reacting against predominant themes of the time in Japan, namely Confucianism and naturalism and led them to embrace Western artistic schools such as Impressionism and non-Japanese literary styles such as humanism and individualism. However, almost in opposition to the above, the group was still interested in more traditional Japanese culture and folk art.
Soetsu was involved in their monthly magazine called Shirakaba. This ran from 1910 until the great earthquake of 1923 when its publication stopped. During this period he first encountered and fell in love with simple yet striking designs of Korean Joseon Dynasty Ceramics. This eventually led him to become interested in the ceramics of his own country and in particular the sculptures of the Buddha made by regular people during the Edo period known as Mokijiki.
In 1924 Soetsu set up the Korean Folk Art Museum in Seoul but in the following year, together with a pair of like-minded comrades, formulated their ideas for a Japanese Folk Art movement and strove to set up a museum like that in Seoul back in Japan. The group eventually achieved this in 1936. This is the Nihon Mingeikan that can still be found in Meguro on the south side of Tokyo.
The museum in Meguro brings together items from all over the country from Kyushu to Okinawa, from the Ainu of Hokkaido to peoples of Tohoku. It also includes pieces of art from Taiwan and Korea.
For inclusion in the museum, Yanagi had a set of criteria that items had to fulfil to qualify as Mingei (Folk) Art:
- They needed to be made by regular crafts people
- They had to be handmade but also in common usage by the population
- They had to be cheap
- They had to be items that could be used
- They had to be specific to or represent the region from which they came
The principles laid down by Soetsu would later be taken back to Britain by the potter Bernard Leach, a collaborator of Yanagi. Through his championship of these ideals, he allowed the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement to survive modernism and World War II and find new purchase on the fresh shores of the 1950’s and 1960’s and influence a new generation.
Soetsu Yanagi passed away in 1961. The Matsumoto Mingeikan opened in 1962. This is obviously not a coincidence.
The museum at Matsumoto itself is, like the other Mingei museums dotted around the country, a relatively modest building built in a traditional style. The building was originally an old warehouse.
The place is crammed with items. There are shelves and displays showing handmade wooden and bamboo items of all types. There are glass cases filled with glassware, ceramics, porcelain and china. You can also find traditional lacquer ware and furniture. As someone with an interest in carpentry and arts and crafts, I found the tightly packed displays a treasure trove of inspirational material and in spite of the compact nature of the building I literally spent hours there pouring over everything they had. Obviously this museum tends to have a great deal of stuff from Nagano prefecture but also features items from further afield and even abroad. They do also hold temporary exhibitions in addition to the permanent exhibits from time to time including such themes as basketry, porcelain etc.
As I indicated earlier, the museum is outside of the city proper and the most efficient way is to get a bus there, although if you are feeling energetic, it is only a 45 minute walk away (this is what I did). To get there more easily, catch a bus (it is the Utsukushigahara Line) from the bus station near the JR station. The journey takes about 15 to 20 minutes depending on traffic. You will need to get off at the Shimoganai Mingeikan Guchi stop that is directly in front of the museum itself. It only costs 300yen for admission and is open from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon although be aware that it is closed on Mondays.
If you do have an interest in the arts and crafts movement and you want to see how the work of men like Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin and William Morris was mirrored in the East, then this museum is an excellent snapshot of the wider legacy of its major proponent Soetsu Yanagi. It serves an excellent testament to what the enthusiasm and passion of an individual can gift to the society at large. If you are in the locale and want a change of pace from hiking the mountainsides or zooming down the slopes then this could be just the ticket for you.
Be warned, it is not showy and if you are expecting to see Katanas, Samurai armour and shurikens then this is not the museum you are looking for but, if subtlety and a desire to get a more genuine slice of hidden ‘times past’ is your thing then this is a winner. Be prepared to be inspired.