Japan’s Open-Air Folk Museum: Nihon Minka-En

When traveling in Japan, I like to get off the beaten path. This is partly due to my need to visit historical sites that feature in my Hiro Hattori mystery novels and partly due to my love of the unique and unusual.

Saduka House

This morning, I visited a site that will doubtless feature fairly heavily here on the blog in the weeks to come: an open-air folk museum south of Tokyo, called Nihon Minka-En(The name translates to “Japan Folk Museum”)

The museum is located in Ikuta Ryokuchi Park in Kawasaki (Kanagawa Prefecture), Japan, and consists of more than two dozen houses and other structures–including a Shintō shrine and a functioning water wheel and mill–that have been relocated from their original locations and preserved in rural, village-like settings.

Gassho House

This Gassho-style house was relocated from the mountains near Gifu province (northwest of Tokyo), and is one of three such houses on the grounds. It once belonged to a paper-making family, and the racks and other tools for making traditional Japanese paper are on display inside the house. 

Most of the buildings date from the 17th century, and all are furnished with the tools and possessions appropriate to their former owners’ status and daily lives. Some of the furnishings are original, and some are reproductions, but they combine to give a realistic feeling for life in 16th-19th century Japan.

In some cases, very realistic:

Japanese latrine

Visitors can enter the houses and walk around, making the museum a highly interactive experience. Volunteer docents around the grounds are eager to answer questions (and many of them speak excellent English, for visitors who can’t speak Japanese). All of the signs, and the houses’ histories, are also written in Japanese and English, making the museum highly accessible for visitors with limited (or no) Japanese ability.

Irori fire

From 11am-2pm daily, docents light fires in the irori (hearth) of several houses, and visitors are invited to join the volunteers by the fire, to experience what life was like in a Japanese home of this era. The ambience isn’t the real reason they light the fires, however–the smoke helps keep the house dry inside, assisting with preservation, and also kills insects that might otherwise cause damage to the roof thatch.

Living history, indeed.