Thursday, 14 April 2011

太宰治記念館 (Osamu Dazai Memorial Museum), and then the 津軽三味線会館 (Tsugaru-jamisen Museum) in Kanagi

On Saturday we went to the 太宰治記念館 (Osamu Dazai Memorial Museum), and then the 津軽三味線会館 (Tsugaru-jamisen Museum) as both are located just across the road from each other. Aomori native, Osamu Dazai is one of Japan's most famous authors – I studied one of his stories in a Japanese literature class at university – and the Tsugaru-jamisen is a regional variant of the shamisen, a guitar-like traditional Japanese instrument. Both museums are found in the small town of Kanagi on the west side of Aomori Prefecture, and we'd responded to an advertisement looking for native English speakers to check the English of the Japanese tour guides.

The Osamu Dazai Memorial Museum is actually the house which Dazai grew up in. His father was extremely wealthy, and as well as being the family's home the house was used as a storehouse for rice farmed on the nearby land. The museum didn't have many exhibits or artefacts to look at, but the building itself was a spacious, impressive piece of architecture, made from many different types of expensive wood. Another interesting aspect of the house was that the first floor was Japanese-style while much of the second floor was Western-style. I can't imagine there were too many like it when it was built 100 years ago, but you often find such houses these days as Japanese families start to live more Westernised lifestyles. There were also a couple of Western-style chairs in one of the upstairs rooms, but these chairs were special in that they were lower than normal and had a large seat. This meant that women wearing kimonos could kneel down on them comfortably whilst being at the same height as everyone else who was sat down.

The Tsugaru-jamisen Museum was more like a traditional museum with a room full of display cabinets to look at. This room was quite small, so it didn't take long to look round, but next we were presented with a Tsugaru-jamisen and showed how to play it. There's a special way to hold the neck and the huge plectrum, and a special way to strum the strings, but once I learned these I found the instrument quite easy to play. A shamisen neck has no frets, but the version I used had numbers written on the neck indicating where to put your fingers to sound certain notes. My experience of playing guitar came in handy, and I was able to play the simple tune they wrote out for me quite easily, whereupon I was greeted with cries of すごい (amazing) and天才 (genius) by the ever-growing entourage of people we had amassed as our tour continued.

You see, for some reason our visit to the museum had been a huge event. We thought we would just be showing up to check the tour guide's English, but we ended up meeting the museum's director, a member of the local tourism society, a reporter/photographer from the local paper, another photographer and various staff from both museums. As soon as the tours had finished we were approached by the reporter who asked us for our impressions, so we should be in the 陸奥新報 (Mutsu Shinpō) some time soon. We were then presented with various business cards and some locally made 馬まん (horse meat dumplings).

In fact, Kanagi is famous for horse meat, and just as we were leaving we received a recommendation for a small restaurant called 駅舎 where we could go and try horse meat curry. Kanagi is a very small town so it didn't take us long to find the place. The curry was pretty good, and the horse meat was quite tasty. It was like a salty shredded beef, but it had more of a bitty texture and fell apart when you chewed it.

We received a great welcome and got tours of both museums for free, and the guide's English wasn't that bad, so we learnt quite a bit. We also got to try playing the Tsugaru-jamisen which normally costs 5000 yen (35 quid) per group. All in all, a good day out.

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