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Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009
Kawasaki's Nihon Minkaen: Traditional folklore in a natural setting
Special to The Japan Times
In an article last May 10 introducing the many attractions of Tokyo's neighbor Kawasaki, this writer made a brief reference to the Nihon Minkaen (The Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum) in Tama Ward.
This sprawling outdoor facility, operated by the city of Kawasaki, features 25 traditional farmhouses and other historic buildings brought from all over the nation, which provide a fascinating, educational time-travel experience in clean, tranquil and totally uncommercialized surroundings.
The old buildings, most dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, are arranged in clusters that follow the lay of the land, so that each new bend in the trail opens up to a separate section. And there's nothing to distract the visitor from his or her stroll down memory lane — no unsightly telephone poles or wires, no advertising billboards, no convenience stores and no skateboarders.
Viewing such buildings in their original locations would involve long hours of travel, and large expenditures, to far-flung parts of rural Japan. Timing your connections right, you can get to this place in a little over 30 minutes from Shinjuku, for a round-trip outlay of about ¥1,000, including admission — an amazing bargain if there ever was one.
The term "folk house" is somewhat generic, so be prepared for any preconceptions that you may have held to be completely dispelled.
Depending on the region of Japan, the inhabitants of these houses lived under widely diverse climate conditions. Some homes were in areas where snow fell heavily in the winter; some were on the plains; others beside the ocean. Their structural designs, and the implements on display therein — ranging from fishnets to farming tools — eloquently convey humanity's never-ending quest to adapt to its surroundings.
As explained on the small but well organized displays in the indoor section of the museum adjacent to the main gate, the houses began with a solidly packed foundation that was allowed to harden before the pillars and beams went up.
Whatever the region, the carpenters who constructed these minka houses were true craftsmen. That these sturdy homes have lasted hundreds of years is a tribute to their knowledge of local materials and mastery of building techniques.
The interiors of the houses are open to viewing, and many can be explored in detail. Seated cross-legged beside one house's irori (hearth), full of smoldering charcoal embers, a friendly volunteer guide informed me that the smoke it generated also served to repel insects.
In addition to farming and fishing activities, the members of rural households produced a variety of goods for sale and barter. Several of the homes displayed hand looms, and volunteers could be seen working the shuttle and weaving cloth.
While all the houses here have their own distinctive appeal, the unmistakable "stars" of the open-air museum are four houses built in the gassho-zukuri style from the Sea of Japan or Japan Alps regions.
"Gassho" means hands brought together in prayer, and with their sharply angular thatched roofs and geometric integrity, they are simply stunning. Their steeply sloping rafter roofs reminded me somewhat of the old wooden Russian Orthodox churches found in the medieval city of Novgorod.
The Emukai house, from Toyama Prefecture, was built in the late 17th century and has been designated an important cultural property of the national government. The Yamashita house, an early 19th century domicile from Gifu Prefecture, was originally used to raise silkworms and found a second life as a Japanese-style restaurant before its move to the park.
Tables are available in a shaded area close to four gassho-zukuri houses, as are vending machines dispensing cold drinks, so you can enjoy your own picnic lunch on the premises.
The whole museum is a photographer's dream, so don't forget to fully charge your camera battery. I traipsed up and down the hillsides to take panoramic shots from above and below, and also found myself zooming in to shoot close-ups of intricate knot patterns in the straw ropes used to fasten the exterior beams, and the wooden gears driven by the mid-19th century water wheel from Nagano, which was used for milling rice.
I also liked the Misawa house, a 19th century pharmacy from a post-station town in Nagano Prefecture. It's set onto the hillside in a way that makes you feel like you're actually visiting its original location on the Nakasendo, the inland road linking Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo).
In addition to the dwellings, buildings on display include a hut used by ferry operators who worked along the Tama River in Kawasaki City (early 20th century); the Kokagesan Shrine (19th century), built to worship the deity of silkworm growers; a Kabuki stage (19th century) from Mie Prefecture; and an elevated storehouse on stilts (late 19th century), from the Amami archipelago in Kagoshima Prefecture, cleverly designed to protect grains from floods and rodents.
After several hours of exploration, time was still left to stroll through other parts of the verdant Ikuta Ryokuchi, including a brief stop at a small restaurant outside the Taro Okamoto Art Museum for a refreshing frozen-custard cone. Educated at the Sorbonne, Okamoto (1911-1996) was one of Japan's best-known avant-garde artists, famed, among other things, for his enormous "Tower of the Sun" that loomed over the central plaza at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka. (It still stands at the Expo Memorial Park.)
The Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum scores at the very top in my three essential criteria for recommending a destination. First, it's easily accessible. Second, it's satisfyingly authentic — no loudspeakers blare music or annoying announcements, nor do wires or cables intrude upon the view (spotlights inside the houses provide lighting, but there's nothing artificial or tacky to diminish the authenticity). And three, it's foreigner friendly, with plenty of English guideposts, explanatory panels and other informative materials.
Nihon Minkaen, The Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum (tel:  922-2181), is open 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. (Closes 4:30 p.m. November through February). It is closed on the days following national holidays and on Mondays, except when the Monday is a national holiday. Admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for students, and free for the handicapped, children under 12 and seniors aged 65 plus. A limited number of wheelchairs and baby strollers are available. The main gate, which houses the indoor museum, is a 15-minute walk from the south exit of Mukogaoka Yuen Station on the Odakyu Line. Cross Fuchu Kaido and continue up the hill until you reach the turnoff to the Ikuta Ryokuchi on your right. You can also reach the museum from Mukogaoka Yuen's North Exit. Board the Odakyu Bus at stop No. 2, which terminates at Senshu University. After disembarking, it's five minutes to the museum's back gate. This gate is recommended as a starting point because from there the walk is mostly downhill. A tip: Many of the trails in the park are unpaved and signs warning against slipping are ubiquitous. Those who visit on a day after heavy rainfall should be forewarned. Web site: www.city.kawasaki.jp/88/88minka/home/minka—e.htm Free guided tours in English can be arranged for groups of five and over. Download the application at: www.city.kawasaki.jp/88/88minka/home/activities_g.html