Nihon Minka-en
Step back in time to open houses and open hearths

photos and text by Stephanie Wratten

Horse Play

Horse Play

Travel several hundred years back in Japanese history with just a twenty minute train ride from Shinjuku. A visit to the Nihon Minka-en (Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum) gives you the chance to imagine the life of an eighteenth century samurai, a late seventeenth century fisherman, or an eighteenth century farmer.

The Nihon Minka-en is in the Tama Hills area of Kawasaki city. In 1965 the city began to relocate historic Japanese houses to the wooded park, and today 24 buildings are preserved here. An exhibition hall at the entrance has small but informative displays on traditional Japanese folk house architecture and lifestyles. The labels are all in Japanese, but the models are easy to understand. Four displays in the first room show the different structures of Japanese houses built on plains, in the mountains, in towns, and in fishing villages. The concept "form follows function" is apparent.

Thatched roofs

Thatched roofs are increasingly rare in Japan

A five minute video demonstrates the construction of a traditional house. Only in Japanese, it is an interesting demonstration of the structure of traditional housing. The builders first embed large rocks in the ground, level them off, and place the main posts of the house on top. The main frame of the house is then fitted together with carefully carved wood joints. Finally straw is tied on, creating a thatched roof, then given a "haircut" to create a neat roof shape.

Now venture outside and begin your trip back in time. First stop: the Suzuki house, from an old post town. These inn towns were located about one day's walk from each other along travellers' routes. The Suzuki house was an inn for horse traders - and their horses! Step inside, where a large dirt floor area serves as both the entrance and a place for the horses to stay. The human guests of the inn slept in tatami rooms on the second floor. Other houses to explore in this area include a merchant's house, the gate of a samurai's residence, and a village chief's house. Each house has a small sign with both an English and Japanese description.


Traditional architecture

Now travel a bit north. You'll notice the houses have steep roofs to prevent snow from accumulating. This style is called gassho zukuri. The Nohara house, from a mountainous village in Toyama Prefecture, has two irori (sunken hearths) in the main room. The fires made in the hearths provided some warmth in the drafty homes and also a means for cooking. The frame suspended over the irori is called a hidana, and was used to both dry and preserve. If thinking about cooking over the hearth has you feeling hungry, stop in the Yamashita house, inside which you'll find a small soba restaurant.

"Dozo!" In some of the houses, staff have a fire crackling and are sitting around chatting - you'll even be invited in. (No tacky costumes, thankfully!) Feel free to ask questions or take pictures. The staff are well-versed in the interesting details of the houses. On the far side of the Hirose house, look closely and you'll see a Chinese character for good luck carved into the edge of the thatched roof. The Ito house has latticed windows in the front; these were specially designed to keep out wolves or wild boars. Life in Japan sure has changed! The Ota house is built in the betsumune zukuri style. The main part of the house and the dirt floor section have different roofs. A hollowed-out log gutter hangs inside the house where the eaves meet and channels rainwater out through the wall.

Dyeing art

Dyeing art

Hidden away on the side of a wooded hill is a tiny, ancient Kabuki stage. Actual performances are held here in the fall during the Folk Cultural Entertainment Festival. On the side of the hill there are audience seats on the ground, creating a small outdoor amphitheatre. You can't walk onto the stage, but you can go under the building to see the space where the revolving middle section of the stage is turned. Then retrace your steps down the hill; there are a few more farmer's houses and an old shrine to see as you make your way to the exit.

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