Ureshino Hihokan 嬉野観光秘宝館
At the end of March, 2014, the Ureshino Sightseeing Museum of Hidden Treasures will be closing its doors, and yet another unique Japanese cultural phenomenon moves inexorably closer to extinction.
The Museum of Hidden Treasures, hihokan in Japanese, is a euphemism for a sex museum, and quite a few were built in Japan, usually in hot-spring resort towns, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but they have been closing down due to their unprofitability and there are now only a few left.
This one in Ureshino, Saga Prefecture, Kyushu, was built in 1983 at a cost of approximately $5,000,000, $2,000,000 of which was spent on the exhibits.
If the idea of a sex museum seems sordid or seedy, which it might well be in certain cultures, but the Japanese attitudes to things sexual have grown out of quite a different culture, and humorous or titillating are probably better words to describe them, but the best word would be kitsch, a concept that doesn’t seem to exist in Japan.
If you can’t read Japanese, then you would pass right by the museum without having any idea of what awaited inside. In front, towering over the surrounding buildings, visible from a long distance away, is a giant, golden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and coupled with the faux traditional concrete building one might be mistaken in believing it was home to a Buddhist related organization, possibly a new sect.
At the entrance booth a large phallus ringed with a shimenawa (sacred rope), marking it as sacred would further increase the perception that this was a religious site, and in fact the very first display encountered on entering the museum is a fertility shrine complete with torii and ema (votive plaques).
The ema have a variety of prayers written on them, some for sex, and some more traditionally for a baby. There are then a whole series of replicas of other phallic stones and statues from around Japan. These were commonplace in earlier times, being an agricultural country, and the link between human fertility and agricultural fertility being fairly common worldwide, but in the early Meiji Period the government of Japan adopted Victorian morality from the West and many of these phalli and shrines were destroyed or hidden.
There are a couple of major fertility shrines left, one near Inuyama in Aichi, and one in Kawasaki near Tokyo, but they function largely as tourist attractions, but in the countryside away from the cities, where the gaze of authority did not penetrate so deeply, there are still small fertility shrines used by the locals.
One of the things I look for in my walks around Japan are such shrines, and I have found several dozen, but for most Japanese it’s only at museums such as this where they will see them.
Next up we leave the world of religion and there are a couple of small displays of historic dildos and chastity belts. There are also a few examples of shunga, the erotic woodblock prints that were wildly popular in the Edo Period, but compared with other sex museums in Japan it is a small selection.
Finally we get to the section of the museum that is as if Madame Tussaud’s has been crossed with a Soho peep show, lots of life-size wax figures in various states of undress and activity: there is Superman, curiously with orange hair, copulating in mid air, a prostitute opening the door, a samurai and his lover, there are more females than males, usually quite curvacious, bent over in a garden, standing up in a bath, reclining naked on a beach. It’s all quite tame really until you consider that on display are genitals and pubic hair, two things that fell under the censor’s knife in postwar Japan.
Certainly it was possible to find illegal pornography, and Japanese strip shows were renowned for being more like gynecological exams than the erotic teasing of the West, but for many Japanese in the 70’s and 80’s the displays here would have been a glimpse of the forbidden.
It’s worth noting that these rather pedestrian displays are not what would have been seen when the establishment first opened. All these displays were animated by what was at the time the latest technology.
Superman rolled from side to side as he flew through the air in coitus, the woman in the bath revolved, a crab pulled away the towel covering the nether regions of the woman on the beach, but now all is still and lifeless, victims to the rising costs of repairing technology that wears out.
The next display, the centerpiece of the whole museum, a huge tableau of a roman orgy, still has some animation, figures move, lights flash, and fountains spurt, but it is obviously not as animated as it used to be.
The next two displays are both curious. The first, a full size mock up of the interior of an Adult store, lots of sexy lingerie and other “marital aids”. Boldly displayed posters give directions to the nearby store that this is a copy of.
The final display is a mock up of a “telephone club”, a series of booths with vintage telephones and walls covered with photos of girls with their phone numbers, customers called the girls and arranged a meeting for sex, circumventing the letter of the law outlawing prostitution.
All in all the Ureshino Sightseeing Museum of Hidden Treasures offers a very strange mix of displays, certainly worth the entrance fee.
So, why are the hihokan disappearing? Most are located in hot spring resorts, and they are not as popular as they were during the “onsen boom” of the 1980’s. Could it be that the Japanese are losing interest in sex?
Many surveys in recent years certainly are suggesting that, but Japan has one of the biggest sex industries in the world and it shows no sign of declining, so that seems an unlikely reason. I think the reason is simple.
For the same reason that 8 track tapes and video tapes are no longer popular, the technology has been superseded. In terms of the erotic and sexual, the internet now makes just about anything available, and what is on display at the hihokan is simply no longer interesting, except perhaps as a curio of cultural history.
Ureshino Sightseeing Museum of Hidden Treasures
Tel: 0954 66 5515
Until the end of March 2014 open from 8:30-5:30, 7 days a week.
Accessible by bus from either Ureshino or Takeo Onsen.
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