This Japanese Museum Actually Keeps Time

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By Margaretd. Regina

There are a lot of reasons to visit Matsumoto, a city at the foot of the Japanese Alps in the central prefecture of Nagano.

Most visitors head there to see the 16th-century castle, one of the oldest in the country, or to bathe in the natural hot springs. But few, even within Japan’s large community of watch fans, know that Matsumoto also is home to the Timepiece Museum, a three-level bright and airy exhibition space that displays about 120 of its 800 clocks at any given time.

According to the website of the Japan Clock and Watch Association, the museum has “one of Japan’s richest collections of antique clocks in motion so that visitors can enjoy the movement of pendulums and the sound of bells.” (And you should hear the racket when the clocks chime the hour.)

Indeed, what sets the museum apart is that many of its clocks work. “It’s quite rare for clock museums around the world,” said Shun Kobayashi, the museum’s curator.

The oldest clock in the collection is an hourglass dating from the 1400s, and the newest are recent Casio and Citizen timepieces. Not all were made in Japan; eight other countries, including France, Germany and China, are represented, too.

The museum’s initial collection of about 120 clocks was donated to the city in 1974 by Chikazo Honda, an engineer who was an enthusiastic clock collector.

Mr. Kobayashi said that Mr. Honda, who was born in Kagoshima, in the south of Japan, accumulated a large number of clocks while he was living in Tokyo and that, during World War II, he brought them with him when he moved to Suwa, a city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Matsumoto.

As time passed, he started thinking about donating his timepieces to Suwa, but it had no watchmakers who knew how to repair antique clocks. Matsumoto, however, had both watchmakers and watch shops, and his collection ended up in the Matsumoto City Museum of Art before his death in 1985.

Other citizens began to donate clocks, too, so the city decided to build the museum, which opened in 2002, and it continues to support the facility financially. (There is an entrance fee of 310 yen, or $2).

One day in mid-March, I boarded a rapid train from Tokyo and arrived in Matsumoto in a little less than three hours. It was snowing quite heavily, even though spring was just around the corner.

The black and white castle, just a short walk from the train station, looked majestic under the dusting of snowflakes, although there were few tourists on this particular day. The five-tier structure, with three turrets, is one of the 12 original castles in the country. Matsumoto is also known for the Nakamachi, a former merchant district lined with white warehouses called kura. Craft shops, restaurants, breweries and cafes now line the streets, and there is a scale museum in a former scale shop.

Even in the snow, the Timepiece Museum would be hard to miss: A five-meter-tall (16.5-foot) pendulum is in constant motion in front of the building, which stands along the Metoba River. The pendulum is among the largest in Japan, the museum said, and it was intended to be an attraction.

The ground level is dedicated to the history of time, with displays that explain the evolution of timepieces. But Mr. Kobayashi led me upstairs, where the most interesting clocks can be found (the top floor is open only in summer, for special exhibitions).

“This is called the old timepiece road,” Mr. Kobayashi said, leading the way along a hall lined with 17 long case clocks, sometimes called grandfather clocks. One of them, made in France in the 19th century, was an hourglass shape, decorated with painted cherubs, and more than two meters tall. (“When they’re around 150 to 160 centimeters tall, we call them grandmother clocks,” just a nickname, he said.)

At the end of the hall stood a bust of Mr. Honda. The collection still has the one piece that he made, Mr. Kobayashi said: a rolling ball clock.

“In Mr. Honda’s clock, a small brass ball moves from side to side in a zigzag groove,” the curator said. “When the ball reaches the end of the rail, it hits a lever, which uses mainspring power to change the inclination of the plate, moving the ball back in the opposite direction and advancing the second hand by 15 seconds.” In the course of a day, the ball makes 5,760 round trips, he said.

“Mr. Honda traveled to obtain blueprints for this type of clock,” Mr. Kobayashi said, “and he made it from just looking at a blueprint.”

Masamichi Nakano, a watchmaker in Kyoto, said he remembered being impressed with the rolling ball clock when he visited the museum more than 10 years ago, while he was still a student at the Omi watchmaking school in Saga Prefecture, east of Kyoto. “It was the first time I had ever seen a clock with this mechanism,” he said, “and this clock was also displayed in motion, so I spent the whole time observing its movement.”

Then came the Western Timepieces room, which includes clocks made in France, Switzerland and Germany as well as Western-style clocks made in Japan.

In the display was what is called a reverse clock. “It was a barbershop clock, as people look at it from the mirror,” Mr. Kobayashi said, asking me to look at it using the mirror in the room so I would see the numbers in the right orientation.

And up on the ceiling was a chandelier clock, an elaborate light fixture outfitted with a large clock that faced down into the room.

Other fun pieces included a flying ball pendulum clock, also known as torsion clock, which has a small brass ball attached to a wire that spins around and is topped, for no apparent reason, with an umbrella. The model was made in Japan during the Taisho Era (1912-26).

Next to it was a swing clock, made in the same period, in which a ceramic figure of a child sitting on a swing moved up and down under the timepiece. Near it was a clock in the shape of a Rolls-Royce, and a wall clock in the shape of an adorable owl, made in Japan’s Showa Era (1926-89).

One wall was almost covered in cuckoo clocks, several from Germany but also some made in Japan by Citizen. And glass-covered displays contained pocket watches, some intricately set with gems or enameled, including one in the shape of a skull.

The museum’s room for wadokei — in English, “clock made in Japan” — is a completely different world.

Because Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world from the early 17th century through much of the 19th century, its watchmakers developed their own systems of telling time. “Days are divided into two, nighttime and daytime,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “And each of them is divided into six periods whose lengths change with the seasons.”

The room displays about 20 clocks that use the system, each featuring triangular bases and dials adorned with the 12 Chinese zodiac signs; each hour is associated with a zodiac sign. Mr. Kobayashi said they were made during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when “only wealthy people could afford those clocks back then, such as daimyo,” the feudal lords.

(While the timekeeping system is not commonly used in Japan today, the independent watchmaker Masahiro Kikuno, who lives in Funabashi, in Chiba Prefecture, makes wristwatches using it.)

To me, an incense clock from the mid-Edo Period was the most fascinating piece in the room. Invented in China, it measures time by burning powdered incense along a pre-measured path. “They are still used at temples today,” Mr. Kobayashi said.

It was just one more example of the museum’s working clocks, a distinction that the curator said the collection has had since its earliest days: “For Mr. Honda, clocks are worthwhile if they are working. That was very important for him.”

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