Meiji Mura – concentrated history made fun

By Vicki L Beyer

Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912) was a period of great change as Japan opened itself to the world after two and a half centuries of isolation. The nation went through rapid political, social and economic changes, arguably making up for the time lost by those centuries of isolation. The nation industrialized, became a constitutional monarchy with modern legal institutions, developed an international standard financial system, and introduced public education. Among the most tangible remnants of this dynamic period are the Western-style buildings, bridges, other structures and even train lines scattered across the country.

Located near Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture, Meiji Mura is an outdoor museum of Meiji period buildings reconstructed on this site from across Japan (and even a few representing Japanese migration overseas). There are more than 65 buildings and structures built between 1870 and 1923 spread across the park’s 100 hectares on the shores of man-made Lake Iruka, more than enough for a full day’s exploration that allows visitors to experience this evolutionary period first-hand. Adults will find the day fun and informative, but the park also gives children a chance to experience history first-hand.

The massive park contains five zones: clusters of reconstructed buildings. All are connected by well groomed gardens and walkways as well as a regular shuttle bus service. There is also a steam train (utilizing one of the oldest steam locomotives in Japan) and a Kyoto street car (complete with rope mesh cattle catcher) that connect parts of the park. A number of buildings in the park also represent the beginnings of Japan’s railway system, a phenomenon particularly related to the Meiji period. Inside the 1889 Shimbashi railway factory are the opulently-appointed railway carriages used by the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, and an imperial horse carriage.

Other examples of Japan’s industrialization of this period include a display of industrial machinery housed in “The Machinery Hall”, another Shimbashi railway factory building, and the 1877 red brick Shinagawa Glass Factory. But of course, Japan had forms of industry before its Westernization, one of which is well represented by the cavernous Kikunoyo Brewery, containing displays and equipment explaining the art of sake brewing.

Some buildings that were once commercial establishments continue to reflect their origins. An 1887 Kobe butcher shop near the main gate is now a sukiyaki restaurant. There is an operating post office that was originally built in Ise in 1909 and, nearby, an 1870s fish shop from Shizuoka now sells “period” sweets. This shop, the second floor of which was the turn-of-the-century summer home of Lafcadio Hearn, the Irish-Greek author often credited with introducing and interpreting Japan to the West, is flanked by a 1909 barber shop, and an 1870s kabuki theater from Osaka, complete with tatami-matted boxes and a manually-operated revolving stage.

Perhaps one of the most attractive—and arguably the most famous—buildings in the park is not even from the Meiji Period. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel opened on September 1, 1923, the same day as Tokyo was struck by the Great Kanto Earthquake, and survived the quake with minimal damage. However, it could not survive the passage of time and was razed in the mid-1960s to make way for a new high-rise hotel. Fortunately, the lobby was preserved and reconstructed in Meiji Mura together with a replica of the reflecting pool that was part of the entrance of the original hotel. The brick structure with Oya stone carved accents sports many of its original art deco fixtures as well as some original furniture, also designed by Lloyd Wright, together with displays on some of the hotel’s most famous guests, such as Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. A coffee shop, staff in period costume, operates on the mezzanine level.

There are three reconstructed churches in the park: the gothic-styled St John’s Church, an Anglican Episcopal church built in Kyoto in 1907; the imposing St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral built in Kyoto in 1890, the embodiment of the ambition of Catholic evangelist who first brought Christianity to Japan in 1549; and the St Paul Daimyoji Church of a more traditional Japanese design (including tatami mat flooring) built on an island in Nagasaki Bay in 1879 just after Christianity was officially permitted in Japan after being prohibited for 250 years. This latter, itself hidden away amid trees in the north end of Meiji Mura, was originally built by the so-called hidden Christians who had preserved their Christian faith in secret for 10 generations.

Also clustered in the north end of the park are a number of buildings relating to Japan’s legal system, including the 1907 red brick gate and wooden cell block of the Kanazawa Prison, the Tokyo Central Station Police Box dating to 1912, the 1888 wooden Maebashi Prison with timber cell bars in the traditional style of the Edo period, and the 1886 Miyazu District Court building, featuring a court scene with mannequins in the positions of the judges, clerk and lawyers.

Several wooden school buildings are interspersed across the park, some containing displays of objects of the Meiji period and one, a martial arts gymnasium, still used for an annual kendo tournament. Even the gate to the park is the Meiji-period main gate of Nagoya’s Eighth National High School. Also on the theme of education are the principal’s residence from the Peer’s School (now known as Gakushuin University) and the Kitasato Institute for medical research, a leading institution of its day. Other displays of Meiji period artifacts, and of movies and television shows filmed here, can be found in some of the reconstructed government buildings, hospital wards and military barracks also scattered across the park.

Among the residences preserved in Meiji Mura are a bungalow-style house built in the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement in 1889 and a two story Victorian house from the Kobe Foreign Settlement of about the same vintage. One of the Japanese style houses nearby is the 1920 Shizuoka villa of Prince Kimmochi Saionji, the last of the Meiji period genro. Saionji built this house for his retirement and was actually in the villa during the failed military coup of February 26, 1936. Above the villa, overlooking the lake, is the 1870 Shinagawa Lighthouse, which operated on a man-made island near Odaiba until 1957, and a lighthouse keeper’s residence from Mie Prefecture dating to 1873.

One can also find homes once occupied by famous Japanese literati. Snail Cottage, a traditional Tokyo house of the 1870s was the home of Meiji author Rohan Koda for nearly 20 years. Another Tokyo town house was home to novelist Soseki Natsume when he wrote one of his most famous works: “I am a Cat”.

Finally, while the Meiji period is often noted for the ideas and institutions Japan imported at the time, Meiji Mura has three buildings to remind us that there was also emigration from Japan in the same period, largely to Hawaii, the west coast of the United States and parts of South America. A 1907 Seattle house that belonged to the Japanese Evangelical Church, a 1919 Brazilian home of a Japanese immigrant, and the Japanese Immigrants’ Assembly Hall built in Hilo, Hawaii in 1889.

Meiji Mura is a fascinating destination for those who love history and architecture, but also for anyone seeking to understand a bit more about Japan and what makes it tick.

How to get there:

Meiji Mura is located 3 kilometers from the Komaki Higashi exit of the Chuo Expressway.

It is also accessible by public transportation from Nagoya: take the Meitetsu train to Inuyama and then catch the bus bound for Meiji Mura.

© Japan Today

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Lived relatively close to this place for twenty years. I enjoyed it immensely each time I had the occasion to visit !

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If you like this tourist theme park, then you have a very superficial appreciation for good architecture.

Good buildings are functioning part of their eco-systems. If you remove them from their environments and then isolate them by relocating them at a tourist attraction, then their inner essence is destroyed.

You're merely looking at shells. It's like viewing at a collection of dead butterflies with pins stuck through them. You may appreciate their pretty colors, but that's about it.

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