Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Sengakuji (泉岳寺)

In November this year, I went to a conference organised by one of the other museums in the group of museums I work for. It was all about preserving the visual record. One of the speakers was the curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Keishi Mitsui, who spoke about a volunteer project to salvage and document photographs from Rikuzentakata, which were badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami.

I spoke to Mitsui-san after he gave his paper, and told him that I had been to his museum in 2012, where I had seen an exhibition about the British photographer Felice Beato. Turns out that Mitsui-san curated that exhibition. Small world!

So today I thought I would write about our visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and, because I wasn’t able to take any photographs at the museum, about the visit we made later the same day to Sengakuji.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is in Ebisu. We caught the train from Asakusa and, because we had set off late in the morning, bought some snacks at a combini near Ebisu station. We ate these in a paved public area close to Yebisu Garden Place. It was lovely to sit out in the sunshine, watching the world go by, eating onigiri.

Yebisu Garden Place is a shopping/dining/cultural complex built on the site of the original Yebisu Brewery and consists of the Museum of Yebisu Beer, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, a 3-star Michelin restaurant and a bunch of other eating places and hotels.

SONY DSC

Despite the range of attractions, we only had time to head for the photography museum, which is behind the main plaza. We bought a ticket that gave us entry to all three of the exhibitions on display at the time – a touring exhibition of Robert Doisneau’s photographs that are part of the J Paul Getty Collection, the aforementioned Felice Beato exhibition, and an exhibition of photography by the Japanese photographer Horino Masao.

We headed for the basement first, to see the Doisneau exhibition, which was a retrospective to commemorate the centenary of his birth. The images ranged from his very first photograph, through the 1930s and 1940s, including his famous images of wartime France, and ending with a selection of colour photographs taken in the 1980s. It was really interesting to see such a full range of his work and the playfulness in his images, because I am only really familiar with his black and white wartime photography.

Next we headed for the second floor and the Felice Beato exhibition. Beato was an important chronicler of the British Empire during the 19th century, particularly images of conflict, and the exhibition included images taken in India, Burma and the Middle East, as well as his famous photographs of Edo-era Japan. As well as having a significant influence on how war is photographed, Beato was one of the first Western photographers to systematically record images of Japan at the time it began to open up to the outside world again and into the early years of the Meiji Restoration. His panorama photographs, including an image of Yokohama and one of Tokyo (then called Edo) are incredibly precise – remarkable because they were taken in an era before panoramic cameras existed, and he positioned his tripod precisely to capture individual shots across a view, which he then joined together. As well as documenting the geography of Japan, Beato photographed local clothing and customs, and was responsible for popularising hand tinted photographs in Japan, using local artists to carry out the work. It was a stunning exhibition.

The last of the trio was the Horino Masao exhibition. I had never heard of him before, but learned that he was a modern, experimental photographer, active in the 1920s and 1930s. He saw photography as a way to capture form and social change, from the way the human body works to the construction of modern Japan. Most of his work appeared in photomontage magazines on particular themes, and there were copies of the publications alongside his photographic prints in the exhibition. He stopped taking photographs after the Second World War, because the images he had taken of Japanese-occupied Korea and Manchuria were used by the government for propaganda, and he became disillusioned.

I really enjoyed the visit and would recommend the museum to anyone who is interested in photography. The museum is currently closed until 2016, though, so don’t rush there just yet!

After looking round the museum, we headed back to Ebisu station and caught a train to Shinagawa for our next tourist adventure. My husband had read about the 47 Ronin in his book about Samurai history. Close to Shinagawa station is Sengakuji (泉岳寺), a Buddhist temple where the 47 Ronin are buried. The tale is a sad one. Asano Takumi was a samurai leader who quarrelled with his mentor Kira Yoshinaka. Following a fight at Edo Castle, during which he injured Kira Yoshinaka but didn’t kill him, Asano Takumi was ordered to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). His 47 men, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, vowed to avenge his death and killed Kira Yoshinaka in retaliation. This displeased the Shogun, who ordered that the 47 men be executed. Before his order could be carried out, however, the 47 committed seppuku.

Statue of Oishi Kuranosuke

For such a violent episode, the temple is a remarkably tranquil and serene place, with an impressive entrance gate, a group of cherry trees and then the graves on the hillside alongside the temple.

There are also two museum buildings that provide context to the story, but we arrived too late in the day to have a look around them properly, managing only to peep inside the building that contains weapons, letters and other items connected to the story. The curator on duty was literally closing up as we arrived.

Asano Takumi’s grave is separate to those of his 47 men. Outside the museum buildings you can also see the stone on which he committed seppuku. The graves of the 47 Ronin are in a separate area. I didn’t feel it was right to take photographs of the graves. It is a sobering sight, 47 grave markers, all with incense sticks burning in front of them. Visitors can buy incense from one of the museum buildings and make their own offering at the graves if they wish.

As we looked around, we overheard another visitor in conversation with the curator. The visitor really couldn’t get his head around the fact that the 47 men had chosen to commit suicide, rather than try to negotiate with the Shogun. The curator was trying his hardest to explain the concept behind ritual suicide in Japanese culture, but to no avail.

Our visit to Sengakuji was a reflective end to the last day of our holiday in 2012. I’m glad that we went. Even if we hadn’t been interested in the story of Asano Takumi and his 47 Ronin, it was a peaceful place to spend time in the evening sunshine, a place to pause and reflect, tucked away from the bustle of the metropolis.

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