I often get emails from readers, asking where they should go while visiting Japan. There are the obvious answers like Akihabara or Den-Den Town. But one place I usually recommend, a Nintendo-funded museum in Kyoto, is closing its doors. For the time being, at least.
Dubbed Shigureden, it sits in Arashiyama, a quaint Kyoto village nestled in the mountains. It's picture post card pretty and has a rock garden in front of the museum. "Shigure" (時雨) is a seasonal word that appears in Japanese haiku and refers to the drizzling rain, or snow even, that falls during fall to winter (here, "den" or 殿 means "palace"). Shigureden's official site actually refers to itself as a "hyakunin isshu theme park". It's not a theme park in the sense that there are rides, and for all intents and purposes this is an interactive museum.
The museum is dedicated to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of poems that were turned into a card game called "uta-garuta" that is played during the New Year's holidays. Nintendo, originally a playing card company, lent its technology to power the exhibits, which were overseen by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, an avid card player and collector, funded the museum with ¥2.1 billion of his own money as well. Shigureden was founded by the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry as part of a larger plan to promote the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. This isn't just a Nintendo museum, it's a Nintendo-powered look at classic Japanese poetry.
"Traditional Japanese culture reconstructed using advanced modern technology."
Japanese grade school children begin memorizing the hyakunin isshu in the first grade. Most likely, they do not know what the poems mean — they're just sounds set to rhythm. But, like Shakespeare in the West, the poems are part of students' language acquisition and appreciation. Memorizing all one hundred poems means that one has a good sense of beauty as well as an excellent memory.
The museum is truly a magical place, with a main hall filled with floor monitors that interact with Nintendo DS units that are beautifully bound in traditional fabric. I attended Shigeruden's opening in January 2006 and had a blast playing uta-garuta on the floor monitors, which would also turn into a huge map of Kyoto, which also could be explored. In the back of the main hall, there are also interactive games that can be played with life-sized characters on screens. The museum even spawned a Nintendo DS game that gives players a similar experience to what Shigureden offers.