Urayasu's literary past revived in '50s exhibit

With the Golden Week holiday period approaching, now is a good time to think about places to go on day trips. This is the first instalment of a new three-part series in which we will introduce a variety of worthwhile museums showcasing aspects of Japan's literature, technology and popular art.

The former fishing town of Urayasu, which served as the inspiration for author Shugoro Yamamoto's novel "Aobeka Monogatari" (The Tale of Blue Beka Boat), has been re-created at the Urayasu Municipal Folk Museum in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture.

Yamamoto, who is loved even now for novels such as "Momi no Ki wa Nokotta" (The Fir Trees Remain) and "Akahige Shinryotan" (The Tales of Dr. Redbeard's Consultations), lived in the town of Urayasu (now the city of Urayasu) during his 20s in the early Showa period. Although he suffered from such adverse conditions as unemployment, poverty and disease, Yamamoto was later inspired to write about his experiences there, as depicted in his classic novel "Aobeka Monogatari" set in the fictional town of "Urakasu."

"Beka" refers to the single-person wooden boat used for collecting seaweed. Docked along the riverbanks of Urayasu at that time were countless beka. In the novel, the main character purchases a "dull and clumsy-looking beka painted in blue above the waterline." The story sketches out the lives of the people in the town, while the protagonist uses his boat to head out to sea.

Outside the museum there is a row of old wooden houses. The scene is a re-creation of "the town of Urayasu" circa Showa 27 (1952). A basic house from the end of the Edo period divided into three units, designated as cultural heritage by the prefecture, and a fisherman's house from the late Meiji era (city-designated cultural heritage) are among the buildings relocated here. In a place like this you can imagine running into the sturdy characters with pure hearts who populate "Blue Beka."

In the "town" section of the museum sits another re-creation - the old tempura restaurant "Tentetsu." This is the spot where the protagonist would sit and eat tempura, sipping sake while reading a book. Arranged on the low table are mock-ups of books and wax models of tempura dishes, made to look as if our protagonist had just been sitting there moments ago. Tempura is no longer being served, but one can relax and sip tea.

Also on display are photographs of Shugoro Yamamoto taken when he returned to visit Urayasu. The author, who wrote about lively townsfolk - sometimes with cutting incisiveness - is beloved by the people of Urayasu.

Motivated by "Blue Beka," Shusaku Iguchi, chief curator of the museum, says that he wants to "pass on the story of our local history."

In the "river" section, a beka boat floats in the museum's outdoor pool.

It's certainly not stylish, but it does have character and quietly brings to mind a quote from near the end of the novel. "While you may suffer, you must continue to work. Do not seek complacency. Life is a pilgrimage."

This "town" brings calm to its visitors, as well as encouraging and inspiring one to think, "I'd like to come here again."

- Urayasu Municipal Folk Museum

Opened in 2001. Built on the basic concepts of being "a museum open to everything," "a living museum," and "a museum that invites repeat visits." Seasonal lifestyle experience workshops featuring shellfish shucking and seaweed drying are also available. Audio guide services in English, Japanese, and Urayasu dialect are available. The research report published last month, "'The Tale Of Blue Beka Boat' - Sentiments of the People" (¥1,500) is available for sale.

Operating hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. Closed on Mondays (if Monday is a national holiday, the museum will be closed the following day), museum reorganisation days, and New Year's holidays.

Address: 1-2-7 Nekozane, Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture

Information: (047) 305-4300