Serendipity with suds


Forget that Kanto has a GDP bigger than Italy’s. What really fills me with a sense of civic pride is the knowledge that my Tokyo is home to the only museum in the world dedicated to laundry.

Of course, it’s entirely fitting there should be such a museum here in the capital of a land where godliness is next to cleanliness. And the spiritual father of the Museum of Dry Cleaning and Laundering, after whom its Japanese name is taken [see end], is one Kenji Igarashi.

His name, I suspect, is one that in Japanese dry cleaning and laundering circles is spoken with the kind of reverence normally reserved for royalty, deities or Michael Moore.

Igarashi it was who in 1906 introduced dry cleaning to Japan after simply reading up on it and figuring it out for himself.

His tale was related to me by Koichi Kosaka of the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Science Laboratory at Hakuyosha in Ota Ward — the company that opened the museum in 1982, and whose English motto is “Clean Living.” A perceptive man, Igarashi realized that there was money in laundering and founded Hakuyosha in 1906. Now it is the biggest dry-cleaning outfit in the country.

The museum serves as an adjunct to the laboratory, where Kosaka is general manager. In its library, visitors can browse among such titles as “Spotting Techniques,” “Textile Horizons,” “Power Laundry and Cleaning News” and “Petroleum Drycleaning.”

As one might suppose, the number of visitors falls somewhat short of a stampede. “I reckon we get about 1,500 a year,” reflected Kosaka — thereby elevating me to one whole quarter of that day’s quota.

Exhibits trace the history of laundering, starting with the ancient Egyptians, who did their cleaning like many Indians today — giving the clothes a damn-good clouting with wooden batons.

Among the showcases are as handsome a collection of antique irons as the visitor is ever likely to see. Closer to home, exhibits show the painstaking business of cleaning a kimono, which involves unpicking the entire garment, washing it, then sewing it all back together.

An original Hokusai ukiyo-e woodblock print depicting Edo Period laundering, as ever with Hokusai, manages to make something as prosaic as washing clothes appear somehow rather elegant. A set of rough reproductions from such artists as Pissarro, Gauguin, Degas, Picasso and Renoir shows how they brought their particular genius to bear on the subject of the humble washerwoman.

Part of the museum houses racks of clothes on hangers that are evidence of some of the freak accidents that occur in dry cleaning: the equivalent of the fearful things in specimen jars you see in medical museums. Kosaka told me to inspect them closely: Here, the color had badly faded; there, the fabric surface had come away. He invited me to feel the sleeve of one jacket, and it was like grasping part of some clammy dog. When things go wrong in dry cleaning, they can go terribly wrong.

In all, the museum was a happy serendipity. I had plucked it out by virtue of its irresistible obscurity, but then I found myself becoming oddly converted to the not-quite esoteric Way of Laundering.

Previously, I hadn’t the slightest interest in cakes of soap or what happens to shirts after you drop them off at the cleaner’s, but here my curiosity was aroused. Now I knew that, before soap arrived, the Japanese ground mukuroji (soapberries), added water, and washed clothes in a mixture not greatly inferior to soap in its cleansing properties. I had never before considered how the Japanese did their ironing before irons were introduced. Now I could inspect the hinoshi, a saucepan-like contraption into which glowing charcoal was dropped. It was held by its long handle and the hot base ironed out those creases. It was one revelation after another.

Drop by this small, free facility, and you will never view laundering in the same light again.