Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ryozen Historical Museum - Ryoma and the Shinsengumi

Ishi-chan, the museum mascot.
What have things come to!?
At last I got round to visiting the Ryozen Museum.

I had put it off for a long time as I had heard that a lot of the information about the exhibits was in Japanese and I'd always felt it was a bit pricey for what I was likely to get out of it.

Now that my Japanese is better and my background knowledge of the period has also improved, I felt ready to brave it.

The museum is on the far eastern edge of Kyoto, tucked behind the scenic Higashiyama tourist trail, up a fairly steep slope. It's not difficult to find, but you aren't likely to pass that way by chance, unless you have a thing for graveyards and instinctively head away from the crowd.

It was an interesting visit, but there are a few caveats for anyone interested in going themselves. Firstly, the museum is dedicated to the Bakumatsu Period, which is comparatively little known amongst non-Japanese, even among those with an interest in Japanese history - it features a large cast of characters, some of whom are quite famous (while others, equally important, are not) who were involved in a complex series of events that developed and came to fruition in a remarkably short period of time.

Not surprisingly, most of the sources are in Japanese, but even those in English (some of which are excellent) can be confusing, reflecting the chaotic nature of the period itself. The museum concentrates on several of the big names and big incidents (the Ikedaya, the Shinsengumi, the death of Sakamoto Ryoma), but it has lots else besides, including artifacts belonging to or associated with some people I had never heard of.

This would not be problematic if there were explanations in English, but unfortunately, this is not the case. Not that I'm complaining - one shouldn't expect there to be, but visitors beware. As in most museums, the items on display have the title in English, but the explanatory text is only in Japanese. What is a pity, however, is that there is no catalogue. I would have been happy to buy one and work my way through the entriesat my leisure - in real time, it required a bit more time  and patience on the part of my companions than they were willing to give, so rather than bore them stupid as I peered at the explanations, making notes and sketches, I resolved to come back on my own next time.

The items on display were quite mixed, including swords, armour, banners, letters, paintings and photographs - enough physical memorabilia to be interesting to those who would have trouble reading Japanese, but perhaps not so interesting if you really didn't have a clue who the Kondo Isami or Sakamoto Ryoma were. However, I was glad of the chance to see them.

Kondo's armour:

Kondo Isami's practice bokuto (wooden sword) and keikogi (practice jacket) with the embroidered skull on the back, were interesting to see - the bokuto itself was fairly standard in size, although the wood looked quite dense, but the tsuba was unusual in its thckness, this must have altered the balance quite a bit, and may have been a means of increasing the weight of the whole thing, or a matter of balance. There was also one of the heavy bokuto the Tennen Rishin Ryu (practiced by Kondo and Hijikata) sometimes use, as a hands-on exhibit which the public are allowed to touch and feel the weight of (it was fixed so it couldn't be swung, so it wasn't really possible to get a proper feel for what it would be like to wield it) - it felt extremely heavy. Also on display were Kondo's mail armour jacket and Hijikata Toshizo's sword. This was interesting - despite the generally received opinion that shorter swords were handier when it came to action (as expressed by Ryoma, among others) it was fairly long, and broad in the blade, with a long tsuka (hilt). The sword he favored later (by Izumi no kami Kanesada) is in the Hijikata Museum in Saitama (and is, indeed, shorter) but this one is similar in length to one Kondo mentioned in a letter in which he wrote about Hijikata's swords {this sword is 2 shaku, 6 sun, 9 bu (81.5cm): the one mentioned in the letter was 2 shaku, 8 sun (84.8)}. Also on display were the swords of Katsura Hayonosuke, one of which was used to kill Ryoma (and which I wrote about in a previous post).

This shows the two dioramas - from the museum

Another interesting part was the model corner - there were two scale models - one showed the attack on the Ikedaya, and the other Ryoma's death. They were both very nice models (complete with figures) and made it much easier to envisage these two incidents as they might have been. There was also a '3d' film explaining the death of Ryoma... it was really a narrated walkthrough of the model, but I didn't have time for that.

It seems that the exhibits change from time to time, but I suspect the more interesting and well-known ones remain fairly constant. Overall, recommended for history buffs, but if you're not so familiar with the period, you might find better places to spend your time.


  1. Hi Chris,

    I recently picked up your book. Seems interesting, though have read only the introduction yet.

    Mind telling me which kenjutsu you practice?


  2. Hi Kamal,

    I hope you'll find it interesting once you get into it.

    The style I practice is Shinkage Ryu Hassun no Nobegane Hyouhou.
    (Perhaps it could be considered a kind of cousin to the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu)


  3. Hi Chris,

    Are you on Facebook. Won't mind connecting with you on Facebook.


  4. Hi Kamal,
    Sorry it's taken so long to get back to you on this - I am on Facebook... I'd be happy to see you there.