My list of Japanese museums is fairly limited at the moment, and, sadly, many of the best known maritime museums and collections have closed for budgetary reasons. Some may only be temporary closures, and hopefully they will open again someday. The first four listed below are ones I’ve personally visited.
Toba Seafolk Museum – This is a very nice museum located in Toba, which is in the Ise Prefecture, about 2 hours by express train south of Nagoya. The museum has a very large repository of 90 small boats. It is difficult to examine many of them because they are stacked together fairly closely, making it difficult to see all the details of most of the boats. Also, the lighting, as in most Japanese museums, is very dim, making photography difficult. However, the main exhibit areas are interesting and there is a lot of information to be had. This museum also has a gift shop, with a large number of books from the Museum of Maritime Science, which was a major find for me.
Ogi Folk Museum – This museum on Sado Island is the home of the most accessible and well preserved of the bezaisen replica ships, the Hakusanmaru. The ship is housed inside the museum building, where I believe the ship was originally built, and it takes up the bulk of the space. The ship is a Kitamaebune, which is a northern port coastal trade ship. A wooden stair case provides access aboard the ship, and you can freely walk around the deck, inside the main cabin, and down into the hold, giving you a first-hand look at the details of the ship’s construction. Nearby, there is a cutaway display showing a cross-section of the hull, a large cutaway model of the ship, and a tenmasen, a small boat that would be carried aboard the ship and used for shuttling cargo and crew to and from shore.
In separate buildings, the museum also has collections of artifacts, and one building houses fishing gear and some old wooden boats from the area.
Urayasu Museum – Located at the south end of Tokyo, not far from Disneyland, is a small museum dedicated to preserving a glimpse of the once thriving fishing village that existed here. The museum has a reproduction of a section of the fishing village as it looked in the 1950s. In the lower floor of the main museum building is a workshop, where you may meet one of the last Urayasu boatbuilders working on boats or models of them.
Edo-Tokyo Museum – Built in 1993, the Edo-Tokyo Museum provides a look at the history of Tokyo and life from the Edo period with much focus on the 19th century. Given the importance of coastal trade and transportation to the metropolis, as well as the importance of watercraft on the city’s many rivers and canals, the coverage of wasen at the museum is important. There are only a couple large models of the most important watercraft, the bezaisen and the takasebune, but they are nicely detailed.
One of the most interesting of displays at the museum is a large diorama depicting day to day life on the streets and rivers of old Edo. In one part of the display, the many types of small boats traveling up and down the rivers provides a glimpse of these boats and how they were used.
Tokyo Museum of Maritime Science – While it has been closed since 2011, this is a large museum with a large collection of models of Japanese ships and watercraft, from early river boats to modern steel hull ships. The published reason is that it’s closed for renovation. But, I’ve heard that it’s partly a dispute between the owner of the museum and the city of Tokyo. The museum has an annex that is apparently open, and there are some maritime displays there, but the large model collection is not on display, though the models sometimes show up at temporary exhibits as needed.
The following museums are on my list of the museums in Japan that I want to visit next.
Lake Biwa Museum – The Biwako Hakubutsukan is located in the southern end of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa, to the northeast of Kyōto. Houses a replica Marukobune, plus several nice models of Biwako boats. Some old Biwako boats are housed at the museum, but I don’t know if they are accessible or not.
Taiji Whale Museum – My specific interest here is in the whaleboats that were used in the days of shore whaling in Japan. These are beautiful, fast boats that found use beyond their original intent. This museum, among other things, documents the history of these boats, and provides information on the colorful designs that were painted on their hulls.
Himi City Museum – Located in western Toyama prefecture, this museum is home to a nice collection of regional boats and information on them, their construction, and use. Douglas Brooks built his Zutta Tenma (a rice field boat) there. The museum has also recorded much information, which appears in their publications.
Fukagawa Edo Museum – Located in Tokyo’s Koto ward, this museum is perfect for those who want to really get a feel for what it might have been like to live in old Edo. It features a reconstruction of a small block of the city, with recreated shops and tenements for you to explore. There is even a small waterfront area, with a chokibune, or water taxi, moored along the edge of the canal.
Nakagawa Funabansho Museum – Another museum located in Tokyo’s Koto ward, this museum covers the history of the river and it’s use in fishing, agriculture, and transportation from the Edo times through modern times. There is apparently much about the Edo period, including a full-sized reconstruction of the Nakagawa river checkpoint station, the Funabansho.