Boasting a colorful exhibition of garments once worn by Japanese nobility in the Heian period (794–1185), the Costume Museum is a go-to place for lovers of Japanese history, traditional fashions, and the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Using a model mansion built on a 1:4 scale and dozens of dolls, the museum recreates the garments, furniture, instruments, means of transportation, religious rituals, and the overall lifestyle from more than a thousand years ago based on numerous historical documents and extensive research.
Stories from old illustrated scrolls are brought to life through accurate and thorough reproduction of fabric colors and patterns as befitting each character and their standing at court. None of the fine details are neglected, from paintings on folding screens to foods consumed in a specific season, and a visit is guaranteed to give a deeper insight into the world of classical nobility. Photos are allowed, so everybody can try and make their own picture scroll of this miniature Heian residence and its inhabitants!
The museum is located on the fifth floor of the Izutsu Samegai Building, close to Nishi Hongwan-ji temple and within walking distance from Kyoto Station.
Stories from old illustrated scrolls are brought to life through accurate and thorough reproduction of fabric colors and patterns as befitting each character and their standing at court.
Scenes from Illustrated Scrolls
The museum’s most amazing feature is its faithful recreation of scenes from illustrated scrolls and other documents dating back to the Heian and Kamakura periods, such as The Tale of Genji, The Illustrated Scroll of Annual Events, The Pillow Book, and the diaries of a powerful politician Fujiwara no Michinaga. Right from the threshold you will see dozens of dolls dressed in carefully sewn, colorful costumes handling historically accurate weapons and tools, riding in carriages or on horses in full gear, playing musical instruments, dancing, or performing religious rites.
Some of the scenes shown here over time have been the large-scale Gion Goryō-e festival (the origin of what we now know as Gion Matsuri) and the Tanabata Star Festival as celebrated by the Heian nobility. The creators of the dolls pay careful attention to the minutest of details, and the resulting characters are so vivid that it is easy to imagine what the actual events could have looked like.
Heian Customs and Lifestyle
Combining education with entertainment, a tour around the replica of Hikaru Genji’s palatial residence Rokujō-in gives some insight into the daily life of the Heian period nobility. Due to the incredibly accurate and realistic reproduction of even the smallest everyday objects, visitors can learn how incense was used to perfume clothes, how the ladies-in-waiting dyed silk, handled fabric, and made garments, and what types of sweets were served during the Tanabata festival. You may be surprised to discover that women more a thousand years back also straightened their hair and used hair extensions, striving to meet the beauty standards of the era. To amuse themselves, the dwellers of Rokujō-in played games like go, sugoroku (Japanese backgammon), kaiawase (matching beautifully painted shells), or hentsugi (making Chinese characters out of components written on cards). Which fact of their life will capture your attention?
Seasonal Color Combinations for Jūnihitoe Costumes
The luxurious and elegant jūnihitoe (literally “twelve layers of robes”) were worn by court ladies starting from the 10th century. The color combinations, contrasts, and gradations of the multiple garment layers were typically inspired by nature and seasonal scenery and served the goal of showing the wearer’s sense of aesthetics and refinement. For example, one of these kasaneirome (“layered shades”) color combinations for early spring imitates the plum blossoms, using a deep purple that recalls plum buds coupled with red and lighter pink hues of the blooming flowers. An early summer dress employs the white, violet, and purple colors of wisteria flowers and the bright green of the leaves. An autumn garment is expectedly based on the greens, yellows, and fiery reds of maple leaves changing color, while pine trees with their green needles and reddish cones and bark serve as inspiration for a costume for all seasons as well as auspicious occasions: evergreen plants never wither.
History of Japanese Costume
On a dais located to one side of the museum you will find life-size mannequins wearing court ladies’ ceremonial dress that illustrate how Japanese costume and hairstyles evolved with time. Though exhibits change, visitors can learn interesting facts about historical fashions through the displays. For example, you will find that the ceremonial costume of the Nara period (710–784) was borrowed from the fashions of the Tang Dynasty China and followed the strict Garment Code. The elaborate dress of the early Heian period (end of the 8th century) still retained heavy Chinese influence; however, after Japan stopped sending official missions to China in 894, original Japanese features appeared, gradually transforming the ceremonial costume into what is now known as jūnihitoe. Come the middle of the Heian period, court ladies dressed in full, splendidly layered jūnihitoe costumes and long haribakama divided skirts, growing out their hair and leaving it unbound for a distinctly Japanese style. Which historical dress will you see during your visit?
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori Monogatari)
The famous Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is considered to be the oldest surviving example of Japanese work of fiction. As the story goes, an old bamboo cutter came across a glowing stalk of bamboo and found a mysterious baby girl inside. He took the girl back to his wife, and they named her Kaguya-hime and raised her as their own child. As the girl was growing up, word of her extraordinary beauty spread throughout the country, and five young nobles came to ask for her hand in marriage. The reluctant Kaguya-hime gave the five suitors impossible tasks, asking them to bring her legendary treasures and promising to choose the one who succeeded. However, three of them tried to deceive her with fakes, another got caught in a storm, gave up, and returned with nothing, and the last one suffered grave injuries, also failing to complete the task. After this whole ordeal even the Emperor of Japan heard about Kaguya-hime, and upon discovering her radiant beauty proposed to her himself, but only to be rejected, too. Kaguya-hime soon turned listless, wistfully watching the full moon, until one day an embassy of heavenly beings descended on clouds from the sky to take their princess back to the Moon Kingdom. This last scene has been made into a stunning display at the Costume Museum.
It is believed that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter originated late in the 9th century, dating it 150 years prior to The Tale of Genji. For this reason, the costumes and hairstyles in this display vastly differ from the jūnihitoe in the Heian nobility sections, showing strong influence from Chinese and Korean court fashions characteristic of the Nara period. The dolls representing the moon court ladies are dressed and coiffed in the exact way seen at the Japanese imperial court at the time, including special marks on their foreheads and near the mouth. The colors of their clothing reflect court rank as prescribed by regulations, clearly showing Kaguya-hime’s royal status to those keen enough to read the fashion – which now includes you!
The Costume Museum opened in 1974, presenting the evolution of Japanese costume from the earliest historical era to modern times using life-size displays. From 1988, the exhibition has been focused on recreating the costumes, customs, and lifestyle of the nobility of the Heian period (794–1185).
In October 1998, the museum enhanced its displays by adding a scaled replica of Hikaru Genji’s residence Rokujō-in, accurately reproducing the characters’ robes, room furniture, food and everyday objects of the Heian period, as well as recreating scenes of everyday activities and games played by the inhabitants of the palatial mansion.
The Costume Museum continues this mission today, with exhibitions changing every year to present a variety of displays for visitors both new and returning.
- General Admission: ¥500
- Junior High, High School, University Students: ¥300
- Elementary School Students: ¥200
- General Admission: 10:00 – 17:00
- Closed: Sundays and public holidays, Obon period (August 13th–17th), exhibition change (June 1st – July 31st, December 1st – February 3rd)