My favourite museums in Tokyo are the outdoor ones, and Nihon Minka-en (日本民家園) is arguably the best of them all.
OK, technically it's in Kawasaki, but it's only 22 minutes from Shinjuku on an express train, plus another 15-minute walk from the nearest station …
Minka (民家) is a Japanese word for private home, and Nihon Minka-en is an outdoor museum that showcases 25 structures from rural Japan. Nine of them have received the designation Important Cultural Assets from the national government. The oldest structure in the museum dates back to 1687; the newest to 1929.
|Ru loves roofs. These houses were built without any nails!|
The city of Kawasaki launched this project in the 1960s to preserve historic architecture from all over Japan. Old buildings were dismantled, transported and resembled in this beautiful, green, hilly area. Most are farm houses, but you can also see a watermill, a shrine and an old kabuki theatre.
Furniture, tools and utensils were preserved, and original tatami floors and thatched roofs were recreated. There's even a great (but crowded!) soba restaurant in one of the old houses.
Why do I rate it so highly?
Firstly, it's completely uncommercialized; as a matter of fact, I recall vending machines at the entrance and restaurants, but nowhere else. You won't see electric wires, you won't hear recorded messages, you won't spot any sponsors' billboards.
Secondly, it offers a wide variety of architectural designs in one spot, and it's fascinating to see how craftsmen adapted homes to various climates, ranging from mountains (sharply angled roofs so that snow can slide off) to beach (sliding doors to allow a summer breeze in or keep winter storms out). It would require weeks to see these homes in their original locations; here at Minka-en you can do it in a day. Oh, yes, you have to allow yourself several hours to wander along the full course, savour each house to its full and observe (or participate in) the special exhibitions and crafts that range from weaving to indigo dyeing. You can read more about the latter at this link (J).
|Arts and crafts|
|Making straw baskets|
Thirdly, it offers clear, well-written explanations in English, and you can buy an excellent English book at Reception. Groups can have an English guide free of charge, but you should request it upfront (link).
Finally, it's situated in a lovely park where you can wander for hours along trails, stumbling onto yet another beautiful building tucked away in a small hollow between hills. Some of the trails are quite steep; as a matter of fact, the museum warns you that you should be extra careful after rain. It gets slippery up there.
You can read a short leaflet about the museum here.
I'm not going to give you a detailed explanation of each home, partly because that could turn into an encyclopedia but mostly because I can't remember the details. I have to warn you that I took these photos in 2009 with a small Canon IXY camera. Yes, 2009. That just shows you how many unwritten stories I have! I'm writing this one now because I visited the museum in September, albeit four years ago, and I like to remain reasonably season-relevant.
I will highlight six houses and include several photos. If you want to read more, the city of Kawasaki has an excellent English website with descriptions of all the homes at this website.
The original homestead in this park dates back to 1891.
|Original homestead at Minka-en|
|I love the interior of traditional Japanese houses, and the seamless flow|
from outside to inside, room to room.
|Wooden joints without a single nail|
My favourite is, of course, the Suzuki House. This inn for horse traders was built in the early 19th century in a post town in Fukushima. The horses were kept in the earthen-floored portion of the inn, and the horse dealers stayed on the second floor.
The Misawa House from Nagano was the residence of the assistant village chief, and also served as a pharmacy. It has a stone-laid shingle roof.
|Rockfall guaranteed during an earthquake.|
The Sakuda House from Sanbu-gun in Chiba was built in the late 17th century and originally belonged to the chief of a fishing village. The roof beams above the living room are assembled with crooked, twisted lumbers. Beautiful.
|Volunteers provide information and friendly smiles.|
The Emukai House, one of several "important cultural properties" in the museum, is a gassho-zukuri house from Nanto City, Toyama. "Gassho" is hands brought together in prayer, and refers to the house's sharply inclined thatched roof, which was necessary to prevent the house from collapsing under the weight of the snow. You're right: these houses all come from areas with very heavy snowfall. This particular house was built in the late 17th and early 18th century in a village where refugees from the famous Heike samurai clan were said to have settled.
The Yamashita House from Ōno in Gifu was moved to Kawasaki and used as a traditional Japanese restaurant for a while before its final move to Minka-en. The attic of the house was used to raise silkworms and as a storage area for food and firewood.
Other open air museums
There are three other museums in or near(ish) Tokyo where you can see old architecture. I've been to the first two and will eventually write about them; the third one, in Chiba, is on my ever-lengthening list of future walkpeditions.
The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (江戸東京たてもの園 Edo TokyoTatemono En) in Musashi-Koganei (links for museum and Koganei Park)
Sankei-en (三溪園) in Naka Ward, Yokohama
Boso-no-Mura (房総のむら) near Narita Airport in Chiba
|These thatched roofs are the best!|
|I think I took 7004 photos of roofs.|
|Again: no inside, no outside, just a flow of fresh air. Who needs air con?|
|The houses are raised off the ground due to Japan's high humidity.|
|Grainy photo, but look at that earthen floor! Beautiful!|
|Fully natural: wood and earth|
|Know what this is? A small opening for a cat! Cats were very important|
to control mice in storage rooms. Yay for cats.
|I could so live here.|
|Not so sure that I could so cook here, but then again ... I can't cook|
in a modern kitchen either.
|Food for tsukimi or moon viewing, which takes part in late September|
or early October.
|Tobacco drying in a storeroom|
|Straw craft. Older Japanese people can sit seiza for hours.|