While it’s always nice to visit the big, famous museums in the cities you go to in Japan, it can also be worth your while to seek out less well-known museums for an insight into something a bit different. Going down the road less traveled can introduce you to tourist attractions that are known only to locals and dedicated travelers, and more often than not these small, unheard of museums are a far cry from the packed-out museums you’re used to – you’ll often have the place to yourself! So if you find yourself in Nara and are interested in visiting a museum that is off the beaten track, head on over to the Naramachi Museum.
The Naramachi Museum is a private museum that has been around since 1985. The Naramachi area of Nara is one of the most traditional in the city – the old wooden houses are known as ‘machiya’ and are often decorated with traditional ornaments. One such ornament is the ‘migawari-zaru’.
The Naramachi Museum is sometimes known as the ‘monkey museum’ because of its main attraction – the migawari-zaru dolls. Walking around the Naramachi area you will see houses adorned with these strings of strange twirling balls – some have evidentially been there for a long time and are in various stages of decay with the red cloth much faded. But their meaning is important and transcends the physical appearance of the ornament.
It is said that these monkey dolls are the oldest good luck charms in Japan and can keep you safe from illness or accidents, or repel such things from entering your house. If you’re thinking that they don’t really look much like monkeys, I thought the same – the small white ball is supposed to be the face, and the four red strings which join together are arms and legs, like a monkey curled up under a branch as it clings on. Sometimes there is a white band which loops under the back of the monkey, with a wish written on it.
You can buy just the one migawari-zaru monkey, or you can buy a whole string of them – all the same size like a bead curtain, or a string of them in descending size with the biggest one at the top. It’s traditional to get one for each member of the family, which can be a pricey affair if you have a lot of siblings!
Aside from the main attraction of the monkeys (a variety of which are for sale in the small gift shop) there are many other things to see in the museum. It was a strange little place, like a junk shop that has collided with a whole bunch of random, not so junky things.
In one of the ‘antique-things’ sections, there were a couple of really, really big plates. I mean, really big. They’re called Zinemon gama ozara and are apparently the largest dishes in Japan – during the Koshin festival they were used to serve food to one hundred worshippers.
At the time of my visit, there were a couple of temporary exhibitions of interest – one was a showcase of beautiful landscape photographs, probably taken by a local photographer.
The other was a showcase of ornamental flowers made from the ‘pandan’ leaf which can be used for decoration or as an accessory. From the busy events calendar on the Naramachi Museum website, it appears that they frequently change the exhibitions around with pieces contributed by local artists, photographers, and even showcases put together by children of local schools.
I particularly like the pictorial name boards from the Edo period which were used to advertise different shops and services available to local shoppers.
The Naramachi Museum was a funny little place – it wasn’t really a museum so much as a random collection of things that didn’t really go together… but I liked it. In a country where everything seems to have a particular place as well as look supremely neat and tidy, it was nice to wander into a complete jumble and not know what to expect. Entry to the museum is free, and while many of the items in the gift shop are a little pricey, you might find something that takes your fancy. To find out more, visit the website below to see what exhibitions are upcoming.
Naramachi Museum Website*Japanese Only