Museum offers a universe to discover in Mitaka

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
An old clock and other furnishings in the study donated by local supporters

Time seems to stand still at Mitaka Picture Book House in the Astronomical Observatory Forest in Mitaka, Tokyo.

Originally built in 1915 as the official residence of the National Astronomical Observatory’s director, the wooden one-story structure was restored by the city of Mitaka and converted into the library and museum, where modern-day visitors can pick up a picture book and bask in the wonders of nature and the cosmos.

With 180 square meters of floorspace, the building would have been a sprawling residence, replete with a parlor and rooms for shosei, or students who worked as live-in helpers.

Warm sunlight streams through long windows, illuminating the old floorboards that still squeak with nostalgic charm when children scurry across them.

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
A trick door featured in the current exhibition

On a recent day, children and parents could be seen in the garden, playing with beads and relaxing in a hammock.

New exhibitions start each year on July 7, the date on which the museum opened in 2009.

Staff members brainstorm themes. The current exhibition, titled “A universe in progress: past, present and future,” explores time as its central theme. It is a theme with particular relevance during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has given people plenty of opportunities to think about the meaning of time while starting at home.

Exhibits include the original architectural sketches for the residence and unusual materials such as wooden nails that were used to construct the original building.

Visitors are also free to browse the 2,500 or so picture books in the library’s collection, organized under categories including “Stars,” “The Earth,” and “Forests.”

“They all look really interesting,” said elementary schoolteacher Takako Sato, 32, from Tachikawa, Tokyo, who perused the reading room shelves. “I can’t pick just one.”

Her 1-year-old daughter, Itoha, seemed more drawn to the trick doors in the next room.

Each door was painted a different color, bearing illustrations and a nameplate indicating chronological events, from the birth of the Earth to the age of the dinosaurs.

The little girl squealed with delight as she opened each door to reveal the next event.

Curator Mio Numahata, 52, said, “I hope our museum inspires a new appreciation of picture books.” She recommends “Toriaezu Machimasho” (Let’s wait for now) by Taro Gomi and “Mabataki” (Blink) by Hiroshi Homura with illustrations by Komako Sakai.

Both titles are suitable choices for this particular place because they make visitors think about time.

Mitaka Picture Book House

Opened in 2009. Housed in the former official residence of the National Astronomical Observatory’s director. The historic building was dismantled and renovated to enhance quake resistance.

Address: 2-21-3 Osawa, Mitaka, Tokyo

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. As an infection control measure, museum hours are split over two sessions, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays and over the New Year holiday.

The Yomiuri Shimbun