Lifestyle | CHILD'S PLAY

Picture the fun at a manga museum

The art of Japanese comics transcends culture and nationality. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Kyoto International Manga Museum is popular with both locals and travelers alike.

Built into a repurposed elementary school, this is one of the most impressive manga repositories in the world. There are more than 300,000 titles in its collection, with around 50,000 available to visitors at any given time. For most patrons, the museum acts more like a library, but you don’t have to be a seasoned comics collector to enjoy a visit. There’s something for everyone, with events, workshops, performances and rotating exhibits throughout the year.

Once inside, parents of little ones should head to the Children’s Library, a shoes-off space on the first floor with around 3,000 picture books to peruse. Nursing and diaper-changing facilities are right around the corner. The grassy lawn is just outside, so when the weather is nice there’s always a place to run around.

Beyond the Children’s Library are seemingly endless shelves of comics. Can’t read Japanese? Then use the touch screens on the first floor to locate manga in your preferred language. In general, you’ll find shōnen (boys) manga on the first floor, shōjo (girls) manga on the second floor and young adult manga on the third. The second floor is also home to the main gallery, stacked 13 shelves high with manga titles grouped by year. Chairs and benches dot the room, but the floors in the main gallery are very creaky, so I prefer the seating options in the halls. When the weather is nice, the front lawn is a perfect place to sprawl out and read.

In the center of the main gallery are bilingual displays explaining the history and business of manga. For example, one particular statistic jumped out at me. Weekly Shonen Jump, the country’s longest-running manga, published nearly three million copies at the end of 2009. Stacked on top of each other, they’d be close to 10 times the height of Mount Everest. The main gallery also has a display of manga from around the world. Here I saw zombie manga from Thailand and Korean “Spiderman” comics. France, Indonesia, the United States and many other countries are also represented.

Our favorite exhibit spaces are also on the second floor. One room is filled with plaster casts made from the hands of famous manga and anime artists who have visited the museum. Other rooms are used for traveling exhibits related to the art form. For example, during our last visit, we learned about Mexican comics known as historieta. Bilingual placards gave us the history and thematic elements you’d find in such tomes. As relatively new Spanish speakers, my kids enjoyed seeing how the language and stories differed from Japanese manga.

Our favorite room at the Kyoto International Manga Museum, however, is neither international nor dedicated to manga. Instead, it’s for kamishibai, the quintessentially Japanese “paper play” storytelling format that utilizes charismatic narrators with stacks of hand-drawn cards. Kamishibai is still commonly used in Japan to entertain children, but in the early to mid-20th century, it was mainstream entertainment. In fact, it’s arguably the precursor to today’s manga and anime. By the late 1940s, there were as many as 50,000 kamishibai performers in Japan, however, popularity plummeted with the rise of television.

There are daily kamishibai performances at the Kyoto International Manga Museum: twice on weekdays and three times a day on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays. Skilled performers can keep an audience rapt with only a stack of drawings and their own rhetorical gravitas. This is no small feat today, where moving images on screens and billboards incessantly scream for our attention.

Danmaru, the kamishibai artist we watched during our last visit, used a mix of Japanese and English and had an international group of onlookers in hysterics. Everyone was engaged and completely focused on him. Performances are around 30 minutes but it was over before we knew it. This was easily the highlight of our visit.

If you visit on the weekend, then drop by the Manga Studio to see artists at work. For an extra fee, you can even book a 10-minute consultation, where a working artist can advise you or your child on drawing aspects you want help with. Keep in mind, though, that consultations are in Japanese only and must be booked on the day in a first-come, first-served manner.

If manga is a treasure of Japan, then the Kyoto International Manga Museum is one of its deepest and most important vaults. Visiting with kids can be a great break from the city’s famous temples and historical sites. After all, the illustrated world can be just as fascinating as our own.

Tickets to Kyoto International Manga Museum are ¥800 for adults, ¥300 for high school and junior high students and ¥100 for elementary students. For more information, visit www.kyotomm.jp/en.