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Rayna Denison checks out Bandai’s toy museum

In the dark days between the closure of the first Bandai-Gundam Museum in 2006 and the proliferation of Gundam cafes across Japan’s capital over the past few years, a small glimmer of mecha-shaped light remained for anime fans near Japan’s capital: the Bandai Museum in Mibu, Tochigi Precture. This new “Omocha-no-machi” Bandai Museum opened in 2007, following the demise of the original museum in Chiba, offering a huge collection of toys from the Edo-period to the present day.

Why is this Museum, from one of Japan’s most famous of toy and anime companies, so far from Tokyo (about 70miles away on the Tobu Utsunomiya train line)? That’s because Mibu became a centre of Japanese toy production in the postwar period, with Tomy among those putting their toys factories in this location. For that reason Mibu came to be known as “Toy Town” (Omocha-no-Machi in Japanese), which explains why Bandai think it is worth making its fans schlep all the way out of Tokyo on the Tobu Utsunomiya train line to this now declining centre of manufacture.  And they aren’t alone – Mibu actually has two toy museums – the Omocha-no-Machi Bandai Museum and the Mibu Toy Museum).

The Bandai Museum is the better-known and more adult-oriented museum of the two, welcoming guests with bronze superhero statues at its entrance, including Kamen Rider and Power Rangers. The Bandai Museum then delivers its fans into the welcoming arms of a massive Gundam (head and chest-only) sculpture in the museum’s lobby. This used to be the only near-to-life sized Gundam in town, but a life-sized, full body Gundam statue now graces the forecourt of a new shopping centre in Odaiba, making this impressive museum exhibit just a touch less interesting than it once was.

From there on out though, the Omocha-no-Machi Bandai Museum becomes enjoyably bipolar, depending on your reasons for visiting: it is split between being a museum, and a place to let your children run around. This is obvious from the permanent exhibitions: the Thomas Edison exhibition to the right of the entrance boasts a collection of over 3000

Edison-related items, but with only about 300 pieces on display. It is a nicely organised exhibition, with explanations of the items and videos to explain Edison’s importance to those wanting to be more in the know. Then there’s the main attraction – a maze-like set of displays featuring nearly 5000 Japanese toys through the ages (out of a collection of more than 20,000 pieces which suggests that the exhibits will be rotated), which includes an awful lot more than Bandai’s own contributions to Japanese toy culture. You’ll see everything from Astro Boy tin-toys from the 1960s to Sailor Moon figures from the 1990s. It is a really good way of seeing how the relationship between children and leisure has changed over the years in Japan, down to the very fabrics used to create play-things and the audiences they are aimed at.

If none of that whets your appetite sufficiently, but you have children, then it the museum is still worth a look for its child-friendly events and enclosed in-door and out-door play spaces. For those feeling nostalgic about Western toys, there is also a considerable (if more familiar and slightly less exciting) collection of largely European toys. For Gundam fans there are also additional diplaus, like “Zaku’s Dream,” which disturbingly shows the deconstructed remains of Gundam figures lying in a ghostly white heap.

Is it worth the trek  out of Tokyo? Less so now than when I went a few years ago during the low-point of Gundam visibility, but it is a solid museum with a great collection of toys. Fair warning though: it is aimed more at toy enthusiasts than anime fans. It’s also not particularly easy to get to or cheap, with a long-ish train journey from Shibuya or Ueno and costing 1000yen for adults and 600yen for children. The Museum is open 10am to 4:30pm, with last entries at 4pm. It will probably take you less than three hours to look at everything, but you may want to leave extra time if you have children likely to want to play or take part in one of the Museum’s many events. It’s worth a look, but only if you’ve already done the other, bigger, and more centrally located Tokyo anime museums.

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