Step from high-rise urban suburbia into old Japan at Nihon Minkaen – Japan’s Open-Air Folk House Museum. Thatched buildings sit among the trees on the gentle hillsides, creating an image of a traditional village from rural Japan. Close to Kawasaki, and really right on the edge of the urban sprawl, Nihon Minkaen can be reached by walking from Noborito Station on the JR Nambu line or from Mukogaoka Yuen on the Odakyu line.
A meandering path takes visitors around the twenty-five buildings on the site, relocated from different parts of Japan, and arranged in groups according to their place of origin. They include gassho style farmhouses from the Shirakawago area, merchant houses, stables, a shrine, a water mill, a fisherman’s house from Chiba, and a kabuki theatre.
Each of the buildings has a detailed explanation of its purpose, information about the family who lived there, a floor plan and a small map showing its original location. Most of them also have a photograph showing the house in-situ before it was moved.
At the main entrance to Nihon Minkaen is an exhibition hall with a display of building tools, information on traditional building methods, farm implements, and household articles and clothing that was used in daily life. The information is in both English and Japanese.
On the day we visited there were many volunteers around the place, explaining details to visitors or demonstrating handicrafts. Several houses had fires burning in the irori (sunken hearths). The distinct smell of wood smoke pervaded the buildings, clinging to the wooden frames, the mud walls and the tatami mat floors. Visitors are invited to sit at the fireside and soak up the atmosphere of the houses. I found myself noticing the many chinks and gaps between the wood and walls and thinking how cold it must have been in the winter, especially in those houses with snow outside to the height of the upstairs windows.
Outside the Sakuda House a row of people sat in the shade weaving straw artefacts. Several were making straw geta (sandals), another made boots, and yet another was weaving a conical straw hat. Many of these things we had seen exhibited at the entrance and it was great to see that people continued the tradition of making them.
At the Ota House under a tarpaulin shelter a group of people were doing basketwork. As we approached a man stopped working and passed us a finished basket.
“Obento box,” he said, with a grin. “Lunch.”
The intricate weaving was beautiful, but rice might have escaped through the holes.
“Bamboo,” he said, offering us the pieces he was working on. Then he took a larger length and showed us how he split it to get the correct thickness.
At the Kabuki stage one of the volunteers began to tell us about the building.
“Have you seen underneath?” she asked. “The stage was turned by eight people. They had to clap a rhythm so they all worked together. Everything was done by hand here.”
She indicated the ropes hanging from the ceiling.
“These were for the curtains. And up there is the dressing room and from the loft the performers could throw things on to the stage — cherry blossoms or snow according to what was needed. The theatre wasn’t for entertainment. It was for honouring the gods and asking for a good harvest. The Ama women, the shell divers, who were wealthy, paid for it. They sat in the front row.” She pointed from the stage to the terraced slope.
The final building on our visit was the dying house. Here you can view some traditionally indigo dyed objects or for a small charge have a go at dying your own handkerchief or shop curtain.
Nihon Minka-en is an ideal one-stop site to see some of rural Japan without travelling out of the city. The excellent English information boards and helpful volunteers made the visit even more enjoyable too.
Japan Open-air Folk House Museum
7-1-1 Masugata Tama Ward Kawasaki City 214-0032, Japan
Opening: March – October 9.30-17.00
November – February 9.30 -16.30
Closed: Monday (open on holiday) and day after a holiday
Admission: Adults 500 yen