Photo/IllutrationA tour guide explains "yoroi" armor to visitors at the Samurai Museum. It covers seven centuries of samurai history, with impressive displays of "kabuto" helmets, yoroi armor, swords and other weapons. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Well, you never know, do you? Yup, my bad.

I went to the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku with zero expectations. I mean, no offense, but the location of the museum doesn’t exactly inspire confidence--it’s in a part of the Kabukicho red-light district that’s filled with massage parlors, “rabuho” (love hotels) and host clubs whose entrances are plastered with billboards of beautiful men.

Information on the web calls the place “an urban entertainment museum,” and the 1,900 yen ($16.75) entrance fee for such a seemingly tiny place seemed to shout “cheesy tourist trap.”

However, in the end, I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This Japanophile learned a few new things, too.

The museum covers two floors. Everyone removes his or her shoes and walks around small tatami rooms. It feels like you’re visiting someone’s old house. Entertaining and educational 90-minute English tours are conducted by, I suspect, part-time university students, most of whom are returnees. They do a magnificent job of herding the visitors from room to room, explaining the exhibits and answering questions.

The word samurai is derived from “saburau,” meaning to serve or attend, so it means “servant of noblemen.”

Samurai battle armors are made up of two parts: the body and the helmet, which are connected by curtains of joined metal. Most armors were made of navy blue and brown components. Why? The shade of blue is called “kachi-iro,” and that sounds like the word for victory. Brown masks blood, which keeps the enemy from seeing that you’re wounded.

It was fascinating to see up-close many kinds of facial armor. A commander’s mask was designed to make him look powerful, and some included a white mustache and hair so that he would appear mature and respected.

Helmets were adorned with large, imposing motifs such as cow horns to project the image of strength, the sun or moon to show divine power was with him, and rabbit ears to symbolize speed. One helmet had the kanji “love” on it. We’ll never know the real story behind it, but I was told that it’s believed to embody the spirit of Aizen Myouou, a Hindu-Buddhist deity.

And would you believe that Japan was the biggest gun-producing country in the world at the end of the 16th century? According to the museum guide, France produced 5,000 firearms while Japan made 17,000!

The crash course in samurai armors, helmets, swords, spears and guns was a well-spent 90 minutes.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.