Slumbering in a small onsen town far off in Western Japan lies one of the most magnificent haikyo I’ve had the pleasure of exploring to date. The ‘House of Hidden Treasures’ is a collection of artefacts devoted to that most primal of human desires – sex. Full of erotic art, phallic sculptures and living wax models, this sex museum is a relic of past passions and perhaps more liberal times since passed. Are you ready to explore? No entry to under 18s, you know…
Japan’s sex museums (hihokan – 秘宝館) are in decline. Historically tied to tiny onsen (hot spring) resorts, they were places for the average person to liberate themselves while on vacation. But there are very few prominent locations left for the curious person to visit. In May of 2011, the famous sex museum near Beppu hot springs closed its doors after 35 years, replaced by an exhibition space for Buddhist art and sculptures. Hokkaido Hihokan, operating since 1980, shut up shop in 2007 and had several valuable items stolen in 2010. The International Sex Museum in Mie prefecture ran from 1972 to 2007. There are fewer and fewer really notable locations left on the map now, with perhaps the museum in Atami hot springs being the most prominent – Atami Adult Museum.
Why exactly these pieces of history are dying out is a story in much need of proper research and perhaps an idea for another post. But today I’d like to take you inside to see the remains of one of Japan’s best sex museums. Buried amongst the relics were a few copies of the old publication ‘Sankei Weekly’, precursor to Japan’s current SPA! magazine aimed at young people. In its November 23rd edition of 1978, I found a PR article that talks about the opening of the museum itself way back on 1st October 1978. Apparently the museum was opened with the cooperation of local inns and volunteer organisations under the head of one Mr. Okano, who says that he started the museum out of love for his local town and community. The theme was based on sex – the eternal love of mankind – and featured many unique items and statues from around the country and overseas. According to other haikyo websites, this sex museum regrettably closed its doors for the last time in the later half of 1997.
In case I hadn’t been clear enough already. If you are easily offended by adult material, read no further! We’re about to pass the point of no return!
Welcome, One and All!
On our exploration, haikyo friend Florian and I approached the abandoned museum through a back door, tellingly painted with the words ‘Nude Entrance’. It’s likely that dancers would have entered through here to access the main stage for the strip shows that took place in the facility. But the museum itself was designed with a purpose. Let me walk you through it as the owner originally intended.
Crossing over a small bridge, we come to face the large, white facade of this castle-like structure. It truly is quite remarkable in its architecture, mimicking that of a traditional Japanese castle or residence for nobles. In front of us is a hefty wooden door, guarded by a stone statue depicting the God of Wealth ‘Daikokuten’. Below our feet, a mat embedded with the words ‘Home of the Traveller’s Guardian Deity’ (道祖神の里). In the soggy tourist pamphlet we’ve picked up we learn that, at one point in time, this sex museum had the largest collection of these stone gods. The statues are often seen on roadsides where travellers pass. As the museum matured and the exhibits expanded however, more and more graphic ornaments were collected to go on display. Presumably they were more popular than our guardian deity!
Inside the main entrance, we’re greeted by an empty ticket kiosk with a couple of tiny security monitors and an old telephone inside. The price of admission is a welcoming 1,300 yen – not bad for entry to what is becoming a dying breed of museum! Pacing down the hallway, we see that mould has quickly begun to take over. Wallpaper has begun to peel and dirt is strewn across the floor. We can imagine the grand entrance in its heyday though, and it isn’t long before we are greeted with our first signs of traditional erotica. Emblazoned across several large panels is an enlarged version of a piece of Japanese shunga (春画) art. ‘Pictures of spring’, as the term translates. A euphemism for sex. It certainly leaves little to the imagination!
Praying for a Bountiful Harvest
Next we enter the main shrine area, presumably to pay our respects and cleanse our minds before peeking further into the dark depths of the museum. A grand vermillion facade stands before us to mark the entrance to the Shinto shrine.
Inside the main shrine, below the shimenawa rope marking the boundary of the sanctuary, is a detailed carving devoted to fertility. As we’ve learned before, Japan still has several fertility festivals, which are linked to older harvest rituals and held to pray for the healthy and abundant flow of new life into this world. To the average person though, at first glance they seem to be little more than an opportunity to parade around a giant wooden penis and free one’s animalistic desire for the day. But there is a deeper meaning there. And hey, perhaps the country could use a few more of these festivals. It’s struggling with a declining birth rate after all!
After paying our respects at the shrine, we continue walking through an artificially recreated natural environment. On either side of us are numerous stone phalluses, some towering several feet high in the air. A garden of mushroom penises greets us in the approaching grotto, complete with stone labia and masturbating statues of chimps.
Ducking down slightly, we walk through a short tunnel and find ourselves making the transition into the next area of the museum. Here, we find a new collection of carvings and statues. Judging from the signs that drape down from below each one, these statues were collected from various shrines and temples around the country.
In the centre of the room is a familiar sight. A large, wooden phallus housed cosily inside a mikoshi portable shrine. This is very much like the one I saw at the fertility festival a couple of years ago, although this particular member is indeed smaller and of dubious quality. Certainly not in the same league as the beastly trunk that needed the strength of 10 men to bear it at the festival. But the feeling is there, at least. These are important parts of Japan’s culture, and if you can get past the sheer shock of seeing such a bold manifestation of the male organ, there really is a rich history infused with deeper meaning and community behind it all.
Erotic Art and Titillating Statues
Onwards and onwards we walk. The place is pitch black of course, having been stripped of electricity for years. It doesn’t have many windows either, so the air is musty and full of mould spores. We don’t notice this at the time however. I mean, would you notice it when surrounded by such subject matter? We paid for it later though; lots of coughing and gargling to sort our throats out. But anyway, let’s hold on a little longer. We pass through another room filled with more stone statues of unknown people in curious, twisted embraces. A komainu – the dog/lion guardian of many shrines in Japan – appears around a corner. Only he’s looking rather…different. Instead of a ferocious lion head, he’s sporting a… Well, I should think you’d be able to imagine by now.
Off to the side is a room sectioned off with curtains. At first we think it might be a changing room for the dancers, or perhaps a small theatre of some sort. It turns out though that it was a special room that displayed erotic ultra-violet paintings. Above us were the telltale black tubes that are needed to send out the UV light. For 300 yen, you could view this ethereal world showing artistic impressions of fornicating couples and genitalia and giggle at how white your friend’s teeth looked in the darkness. Unfortunately for us, there’s no way to illuminate the pictures, so we must make do with squinting our eyes and turning our heads to the side to try and make sense of the pinks and yellows in the abstract paintings. Perhaps a return trip is in order, complete a with black UV torch.
In the room connected, we find a collection of Japanese shunga paintings. These erotic pictures are primarily associated with the Edo period and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and varied wildly in the sexual acts depicted. One infamous print was done in 1814 by the master himself – Hokusai. It’s entitled ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’, if you are curious to take a look at it…
Allegedly, almost all ukiyo-e artists made shunga prints at some point in their careers. The prints were enjoyed by a wide variety of people, and making such prints did not lower the prestige of the artist. Unfortunately, many of the pictures in this room were badly succumbing to mould and decay. Although it was still possible to make out the graphic scenes they depicted.
A Nightmarish Discovery
Afterwards, we progress to the final room of the main museum. We’re in for a treat – they certainly saved the best for last! A lush, red carpet stretches out in front of us, and to our right, several large, full-body mirrors. We can see a human-like shape reflecting in the dim light of the room.
Is somebody else here??
For a brief moment, I panic. The exhibits had been so engrossing that I’d quite forgotten that there may be other people sneaking around this abandoned sex museum beside my friend and I.
Nervously, we turn the corner. Definitely a humanlike shape, but… No. A mannequin. Of course! In fact, several mannequins, or at least the disjointed remains of several. A couple of pairs of smooth legs. A broken arm or two. And in the centre, a full-bodied female, covered in crackling paint and dust. Even though time alone in this deserted museum hasn’t been kind to her, there are still touches of her former glory left. The rouge on her checks and lush lipstick. The eyeshadow and fake eyelashes. In a certain light, she looks almost innocent. Perhaps almost nervous standing there in the darkness. It’s not often she receives guests, I suppose.
But as I move my torchlight around, something incredibly chilling occurs. The once innocent expression she wore to greet us is transformed into a nightmarish disfigurement. Her eyes appear sunken, rolling deeply back into her plastic skull. The false eyelashes she wears stick our like razors and her peeling skin – it screams out at me with memories of pain. It’s truly a terrifying sight to behold there, alone in the darkness. My buddy doesn’t see it; he’s away photographing another area of the room. I’m left there wondering what evil intentions my plastic companion has for the two intruders standing before her.
Shuddering, I snap a few more pictures and turn around to take in the room in its entirety. A red carpet covers the floor, and several plastic pillars mimic old Greek stone columns. The room has a very regal feel to it, apart from the softcore pornography pasted up on one of the walls. I wonder to myself if it was a later addition. I do know from flicking through the old museum pamphlet that this room used to have mannequins that were crouched down, bent at the knees in a seated position. Apparently they were actual seats for the museum guests to sit on. Apparently there were also pornographic films on display all day at the museum, from the 9.00am opening to the 11.00pm closing time.
We also know that there were two or three very expensive wax models that used to live here. Actresses Marilyn Monroe and Sofia Loren were stood in booths sporting very sexy poses. There was also an elaborate wax sculpture of Emmanuelle – the lead character in the series of softcore erotic French films – that sat in a woven bamboo chair in the corner, just like the actress on the original 1974 theatrical poster. The wax models apparently cost upwards of 5,000,000 yen ($60,000 or £38,000) each and took approximately 3 months to make, so its no wonder that they were stolen back in 2009. Or removed by the owner – we can’t be sure. By that time though, they had already succumbed to a nasty mould infestation and looked quite the part in this rotting haikyo. It’s a pity that were weren’t able to meet, as the photos I’ve seen of the decomposing wax models looked amazing.
There was however, one last surprise. Nestling in the corner of the very same room was a long glass box. In previous photos I’ve seen, this box contained a mannequin that was covered by a fluffy, pink cloth. I could see however, from a short distance away, that the pink cloth was no longer covering the figure. A small shiver spiked down my spine and I walked over to the mysterious glass box. A hole had been smashed in the top, and it was rather dusty, but sure enough, inside I could see the armless form of another female mannequin. On the outside of the box were a series of buttons that I assume moved parts of the mannequin inside. I could see a few wires and…and…
What on earth is going on here??
Shining my torch inside the glass box, I examined the female form. Naked, from the feet up, except for a pair of high-heeled shoes. The face was similar to our plastic Jekyll-and-Hyde friend from before. But there was something strange about the breasts. Something protruding upwards and outwards at an unnatural angle.
The mannequins’s nipples were horribly distorted. Twisted into what I can only understand was supposed to be a dildo of some sort. A sex toy that visitors would manipulate by pressing the buttons on the outside of the box. I have no idea what the purpose of such a setup was, other than perhaps to titillate the visitors. I felt a little sorry for her though, trapped in her glass box in such a demeaning position. I wonder who removed the fluffy pink cloth that used to conceal her pride..?
Live Nudes and Strip Shows
Exiting the main museum area, we find ourselves in a distinctly different area altogether. Here, a wooden stage rests with several old television units on top of it. The floor is littered with broken glass from a fallen display case that used to contain adult souvenirs. We also find a few old vending machines with posters of sexy ladies adorning the rusty metal. I wonder what 300 yen would buy you from these machines. Perhaps some erotic playing cards? We did find an empty box on the floor.
Signs of the live nude shows that used to take place here were everywhere. I was particularly taken by the coloured filter wheel hanging up around the back of the stage. Pinks, purples, reds… Definitely the sorts of colours you’d need to create an atmospheric performance. Lighting would have been key. After all, it’s as much about what you can’t see as what you can see. A carefully placed shadow can be expressly artistic!
It seems that live nude shows were performed at night, as well as in the neighbouring building (which is also a haikyo). It had a small stage for strippers and an entrance booth. Since these facilities are located in an onsen town, I should imagine the visitors used to come along in yukata (light bath robes) after a relaxing soak in the bath in order to take in the performances.
It seems the museum had a set of rules, or principles it aimed to work by. They were written on a heart-shaped board in the gift-shop area but, unfortunately, over the years the sign has degraded and rotted away, leaving only traces of the characters that were once inscribed upon it. I managed to track down an older picture of the sign though. Here were the museum rules, presumably for staff:
1. Think of others before yourself.
2. Get rid of dishonest thoughts.
3. Enjoy the feeling of just watching.
4. Unite the good and the bad.
5. Always greet with kindness and a smile.
In the August 1979 edition of ‘Graph Japan’ magazine is an article interviewing the owner and creator of the museum, Mr. Okano. He talks about a few things that inspired him to create the sex museum. He originally came across a book that introduced lots of unusual artefacts from around Japan and felt that a display of such items would benefit his town, in addition the strip clubs and nude shows already there. He then went off to Tokyo to begin purchasing items for the collection. Mr. Okano goes on to say that, at least at the time of the interview, about half of the guests to the museum were women. Often initially invited by their husband or boyfriend, they found the museum quite appealing. In contrast, many young people left disappointed thinking ‘it’s just a collection of old rocks’. We also learn that the wax models were created in Japan by a Japanese maker, although originally based on American versions. Apparently it took 5 people 5 months of running around to gather all the artefacts for display in the museum, including flying abroad to places like Taiwan and Korea!
We’re in the gift shop now, or the room that was originally used for the shop. Connected to it is a small kitchen and flight of stairs that lead up to a tiny office. It is full of newspapers and old magazines. Scraps and junk. Nothing much of interest that we can see immediately, except perhaps for the odd erotic picture and a nice poster back from when they opened the museum. A calendar on the office wall shows June 1988. According to other haikyoists, the museum closed in 1997. So why, then, does the calendar read 1988? And more importantly, why did the museum close at all? Is the owner still alive? What happened to the wax models..?
There are still many questions left unanswered in this mystery, and several important pieces of the museum gone. I hope we are able to unearth some more clues about the missing wax models and perhaps some information about what led to the sex museum’s demise. But what an amazing place it was! After reading the articles interviewing the owner and wandering around the place myself, I really did get a better understanding of his intentions to educate and liberate our sexual understanding.
As much as I have to admit that I enjoyed the haikyo adventure, I feel it’s a great shame that this museum, among with many others, have closed down. I truly hope that Japan is able to keep its few remaining sex museums open and retain these valuable cultural assets.
Until our next explore, then.