If you’ve ever wanted to learn about Japanese swords, now’s the time, as an unusually large number of top-quality blades are currently on view at two Tokyo museums. Either exhibition is well worth a visit but together they’re dynamite.
“Perfect Guide to Japanese Sword” at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum offers a good introduction and overview, while “Eternal Treasures from Kasugataisha Shrine” at the Tokyo National Museum provides historical context. Both museums also provide information in English, making this a particularly good opportunity for those who don’t read Japanese.
It’s best to start at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, a private museum in Setagaya Ward housed in a historic manor on beautiful wooded grounds. This museum preserves an important collection of Asian art and manuscripts assembled by the industrialist Baron Yanosuke Iwasaki (1851-1908), who was also an avid sword collector and a champion of efforts to preserve the art of sword-making.
The museum owns approximately 120 swords, many of which are of recognized historical importance. For the present exhibition, which runs through March 20, about 30 particularly fine examples are on display, including one designated National Treasure and eight Important Cultural Properties.
These are lofty offerings that will draw seasoned connoisseurs, but the exhibition has been specifically designed to be accessible for those with no prior knowledge of swords. (The Japanese title is “Cho Nihonto Nyumon” — “A Super Simple Introduction to Japanese Swords.”) Many of the exhibits are overtly educational.
One case, for example, outlines the differences between tachi and katana swords. A tachi is worn suspended from the hip with the cutting edge facing down; a katana is worn thrust through the sash, with the cutting edge facing up. Tachi are generally longer and have a deeper curve, and the fittings are different. Another case presents an example from each of the gokaden, or five main traditions in sword making: Yamato, Yamashiro, Bizen, Soshu and Mino. The scene-stealers, however, are a 13th-century tachi sword (a National Treasure) made by master craftsman Tegai Kanenaga, and a number of other celebrated blades, including weapons used by famous warriors and a 10th-century tachi sword. Every one of these swords is in pristine condition; it’s hard to believe some are nearly 1,000 years old. The steel gleams and the surfaces of the blades are finished with subtle and beautiful patterns called hamon. The fittings and mounts are made by master craftsmen of the finest materials, and despite their age, appear perfectly clean and undamaged.
Signage within the exhibition is only in Japanese, but the museum has prepared English handouts you can pick up at the front desk. Along with a list of works with basic identification in English, there is a useful page of diagrams that teaches the parts of a sword, and a booklet with detailed explanations of more than a dozen exhibits. A full-color, multi-page pamphlet (complete with centerfolds) that beautifully illustrates the museum’s sword collection is also available for ¥500.
Once you’ve armed yourself with basic knowledge, and honed your powers of observation, make a second stop at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park to see the special exhibition of treasures from the Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara. Registered in 1998 as a World Heritage Site, the shrine was built in the eighth century in prayer for the safety of the nation, and is the repository for many priceless works of art that were donated in similar acts of devotion.
The exhibition, which runs through March 12 in the museum’s Heiseikan annex, brings forth a stunning lineup of rarely seen paintings and sculptures but also includes a splendid array of swords, helmets and armor that were donated to the shrine in previous centuries by warriors who came to pray for victory in battle. It’s incredibly helpful to see these swords in situ, as part of a shrine’s treasury, to understand that many of Japan’s finest and most beautiful swords were created solely as objects of ritual devotion and were never intended to be used in battle.
If you can, go soon and no later than Feb. 19, because right now all four of the shrine’s National Treasure yoroi samurai armor are on view together for a limited six-day run, an event so rare that it rates prominent billing in the exhibition posters up on the walls of subway stations all across Tokyo. You’ll also be able to see a famous 12th-century sword called “Kinji Raden Kenukigata Tachi,” a National Treasure that will only be on view through Feb. 19. The sheath of this sword is inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a charming design of a cat chasing sparrows, while parts of the handle, guard and sheath were made with nearly pure gold (22- to 23-karat, per modern analysis). Three other swords designated as National Treasures will be on view throughout the remainder of the exhibition.
Explanatory signs at the beginning of each section have been translated into English, as have the captions for each work. Audio guides, which can be rented for ¥520 and introduce 24 works, are available in Japanese, with English, Chinese and Korean expected to be available from Feb. 22.
“Perfect Guide to Japanese Sword” at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum runs until March 20; 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.seikado.or.jp/en “Eternal Treasures from Kasugataisha Shrine” at the Heiseikan annex of the Tokyo National Museum, runs until March 12; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,600. Closed Mon. kasuga2017.jp/english.html