Photo/IllutrationThe pipe case, right foreground, and the bag it was kept in were likely left by a senior officer of the Shinsengumi special police force. A ledger of the Kusatsu-juku Honjin inn, background, contains records of a visit by Shinsengumi members. (Jiro Tsutsui)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KUSATSU, Shiga Prefecture--On May 9, 1865, key members of the Shinsengumi special police force organized by the Tokugawa Shogunate let their hair down at an inn in this western city.

What transpired during the overnight layover may never be known, but a pipe case likely left by a senior Shinsengumi officer has turned up after more than 150 years.

A storehouse on the premises of Kusatsu-juku Honjin, an inn reserved for use by those of high standing when visiting the Kusatsu-juku post town in the Edo Period (1603-1867), proved to be a treasure trove of articles left by travelers of the feudal age, according to the municipal education board.

“I have never come across another instance of lost articles preserved for 150 years,” said Kazutoshi Watanabe, an Aichi University professor emeritus of the early modern history of transportation. “The finds indicate the Honjin took very good care of its customers.”

The city's education board has been researching 14,000 or so items kept on the premises of the Honjin, designated by the central government as a “historic site,” since 2018.

Eighteen items left by late Edo Period travelers were discovered in a cabinet drawer, and included the wooden pipe case, which is 17.5 centimeters long. No pipe was found.

The bag containing the pipe case has a paper tag attached to it, which reads: “Article left in Room No. 1 by the Shinsengumi party; date of stay: May 9.”

The Honjin’s ledger contains a record of a May 9, 1865, visit by a party of 32 Shinsengumi members, along with the names of four senior officers: Vice Commander Hijikata Toshizo (1835-1869), Saito Hajime (1844-1915), Ito Kashitaro (1835-1867) and Todo Heisuke (1844-1867).

That record coincides with the statement on the tag. The use of the word “stay” showed that the party did not simply drop in, but spent the night there.

The Shinsengumi members were likely on their way back to Kyoto after recruitment activities in Edo, or present-day Tokyo.

“Room No. 1 likely refers to the room where the senior Shinsengumi officers stayed,” said Jun Yasugi, director of the municipal Kusatsu-juku Kaido Koryukan museum of history. “The pipe case was likely left by one of the four senior officers.”

Researchers say the items offer valuable insights into the way people traveled in those days.

Other finds include a bag containing amulets from various sites of worship that was left by a retainer of the Akashi feudal domain in today’s Hyogo Prefecture, and a “yatate” portable brush-and-ink case, which belonged to an attendant of a princess of the Ozu feudal domain in today’s Ehime Prefecture.

The articles were presumably kept so they could eventually be returned to their owners.