Skip to main content

Japan's old farmhouses at Nihon Minka-en

My favourite museums in Tokyo are the outdoor ones, and Nihon Minka-en (日本民家) 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

Indigo vats

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.

Kitchen floor

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.

Learning how.


View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…