Ben Hills

Yokohama, Friday: This is a city that really doesn’t have a lot going for it. Its famous harbour is a rich broth of effluent, its history was bombed flat during the war, its scenery is a featureless swathe of concrete stretching to Tokyo, an hour’s train-ride to the north. So what do you do to attract visitors to such an unpromising venue?

A few years ago, 24 companies that have factories in the region banded together to make the best of a bad job and capitalise on the one thing grimy Kanagawa Prefecture does best – smokestack industry. The result, unintentionally, is the finest collection of truly whacky museums to be found anywhere in the world.

The Sock Museum, for instance.

In an abandoned red-brick factory – once the manufacturing plant of the Naigai company, Japan’s largest sock manufacturer – a museum of socks has been established in honour of Nobumasa Sakata, the company’s late managing director, and author of the definitive tome The History of Socks.

Here, one can inspect such priceless antiques as Japan’s oldest surviving sock, the Mito Komon sock, worn by the brother of the third Tokugawa Shogun(1630-1700).

The museum’s curator, Mr Takendo Nakamura, handles the beige, intricately embroidered garment with reverence, before confessing that, this being Japan, it isn’t the actual sock but a replica carefully crafted from a picture of the sock of the brother of the Third Tokugawa Shogun.

Several hundred people a year find their way to this obscure haunt for connoisseurs of the absurd, to marvel at Japan’s biggest sock, a red woollen windsock of a thing 29 centimetres long and once worn by the sumo grand champion Kitanoumi.

Here are the thick, grey lambswool socks specially knitted for the writer Yasunari Kawabata when he went to collect his Nobel Prize, because he had heard that Norway was very cold. Over there, the black silk socks with their special suspenders which Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s first postwar Prime Minister, wore on a visit to America.

There are socks of every size and shape. Moth-eaten cashmere bedsocks circa 1923, silk leg socks with no feet designed for kimono-wearers, battery-operated electric socks of Shetland wool made to keep fishermen’s feet warm, elbow socks for people with arthritis, socks like gloves with a “finger”for each toe.

On display are the many trophies which Naigai has won over the years for its stylish and innovative sock designs – the company makes 35 million pairs of socks a year – and examples of its bespoke sockmaking skills, including a pair of brown socks made of a blend of cashmere and vicuna wool for a mere$A366 a pair.

If you can drag yourself away from all this, there are many other exciting museums awaiting you on the Kanagawa tourist trail.

Chickens, for instance.

The Chicken Museum at Toyoura contains a unique collection of 33 stuffed chickens from all over the world, including some fine examples of the so-called Yokohama chickens which have tails up to six metres along.

If this should pall, there is also a display of eggs, including the fossilised egg of the extinct elephant bird which once lived in Madagascar, and a collection of 700 chicken toys.

What about the pen museum at the Pilot Pen factory in Hiratsuga, which has a collection of more than 300 fountain pens dating back to 1918.

Or how about the Roof-Tile Museum at Atsugi, which also contains a fascinating collection of saws, planes, chisels and a Japanese carpenter’s lacquered ink-pad used for marking off the timber for the famous Toshougu shrine in Nikko, which is officially classified a national treasure.

Publishing Info

Publication: Herald Correspondent
Pub date: Saturday 1 May 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: Page: 15
Word count: 760
Photography: by Ben Hills
Caption: Toe-tally awesome … Mr Takendo Nakamura, the curator of the Yokohama Sock Museum, with some of his exhibits.