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Published: June 24th 2017
In which I learn the difference between a katana and a tachi.
You wouldn’t expect to find a museum devoted to Samurai in the Kabukicho section of Shinjuku, but there it is. Kabukicho is a loud, brash area of narrow streets, with lots of bars, gaming arcades, and, um, “hostess clubs.” Music videos play at top volume on immense LED screens, and the noise from the speakers blaring promos for the latest boy band can be a bit overwhelming.
When I found myself standing under a statue of a giant gorilla, I certainly figured I was in the wrong place, but a helpful security guard pointed me in the right direction, and the museum turned out to be just a few steps away.
I’ve always had a kind of vague, romanticized vision of samurai as heroic, honorable warriors. Movies like The Seven Samurai
– later retold in the US as The Magnificent Seven
– reinforced that view. Just a little history:
Originally, samurai were the warrior class of feudal Japan, and were loyal to, and paid by, wealthy landowners. As the clans of different landowners fought each other, eventually one became
dominate, and the Kamakura Shogunate was established. This was essentially a military dictatorship. Since the shogun depended on the samurai to stay in power, the samurai were set as a privileged class. They were the only ones allowed to wear swords, and they followed a strict code of conduct, though they could kill any peasant who offended them with impunity.
The Samurai Museum was founded by a collector of samurai armor and weapons. After he had amassed a number of rare items, he opened the museum and put them on display. I tagged along with a small group of other visitor for a free tour in English, and it was well worth it.
The term “Samurai sword” is often thrown about rather casually, but there are actually several types. The two most common are the katana and the tachi, both of which are on display here. Tachi swords are longer than katana, and more deeply curved. They are meant to be worn and displayed with the cutting edge facing down. Katana were worn by being stuck through a waist belt. Since they were shorter and worn with the cutting edge facing up, they could be
drawn more quickly and were better suited to close combat.
I never thought of the bow and arrow as a samurai weapon, but that was the predominate weapon until the Edo period starting in about 1605. I also never associated samurai with firearms; guess it just didn’t fit my rather romanticized notion of these warriors, but their use was pretty common starting in the mid-eighteenth century. The museum has examples of both.
Another thing I learned, and which didn’t fit my picture of noble warriors, was that Samurai would decorate their face armor with beards and mustaches made of horsehair to look fiercer. They would also wear large and elaborate headpieces in battle, mostly to stand out so you could tell which soldier was on which side. Possibly Useful Information:
- The closest metro station in Shinjuku Station, which can be reached by most metro lines. Take the east exit from the station.
- Look for the gorilla hanging off the side of the building housing Regulus, a “gentlemen’s club”; the Samurai Museum is just up the street from there.
- Museum entry is JPY 1,800, about
note the horsehair mustaches and beard
US$16 at current exchange rates.
- The free tour lasts about an hour and is well worth your time.
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