Along the Sumida River in Tokyo’s old “shitamachi” district, a small, no-frills museum with three generations of tradition behind it is waiting to be discovered.
With an assortment of tortoise shell accessories stretching back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), the wealth of history on display in Bekko Shiryokan, or the Tortoise Shell Work Museum, more than makes up for its compact size.
Housed in a glass showcase roughly 90 cm wide and about twice as tall is a collection of around 60 tortoise shell accessories and some of the myriad tools used to make these exquisite items.
“The name (of the museum) may sound great, but people are surprised when they come and see how tiny it is,” Fusako Isogai said.
Fusako’s husband, Hajime, 60, has been crafting accessories made with hawksbill turtle shells for 42 years and has helped with the museum since it opened 14 years ago.
Items on display include traditional turtle shell ornamental hairpins. And if these or any other exhibits take your fancy and the “meister” is actually in, you can take a peek into the tortoise shell ornament store adjacent to the showcase.
Hajime, a second-generation tortoise shell artisan, and his 30-year-old son, who is also immersed in the family tradition, are often away displaying their wares at department stores and other venues across the nation.
The elder Isogai has been recognized by Sumida Ward for his skills, and was approached to participate in the ward’s small museum movement, called the “3M project,” standing for meisters, museums and model shops.
The tortoise shell museum is part of a ward experiment in which 23 small museums have been set up in a bid to preserve and spread the word about local culture.
“We have to hand down these traditions or Japanese culture will go to ruin,” Fusako said.
Because the hawksbill turtle is now an endangered species, shells are in short supply and their trade is prohibited. But artisans have stocks that help them weather what would otherwise be a serious shortage.
Materials from other sources — at one time during the Tokugawa shogunate, artisans experimented with horse hooves — just do not work, Fusako said.
Modern-day products range from hairpins and necklaces to earrings and mobile phone straps.
Although tortoise shells have been used since the seventh century in Nara, they were not used in Edo, the present day Tokyo, until the Edo Period, and at first only in a very rudimentary way.
Gradually, artisans evolved the art into what it is today. In the wake of World War II, there were 38 tortoise shell craft studios in Sumida Ward alone, but today there are just a few across the city.
Items that can take days to produce range in price from a few thousand yen to several million.
“There was a saying that hawksbill turtles were worth a thousand gold coins — that is how valuable they were,” Fusako said, adding that today, geisha or those preparing for ceremonial events such as weddings are among the only patrons who seek out these accessories.