Japan in the middle of the 19th century was moribund, stagnating after 250 years of feudal rule. External pressure and visionary leaders enabled the country to catapult itself into modernity in just a few short decades: the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
Many acts of modernization are intangible and therefore unavailable to tourists. Fortunately, in the Tohoku area, there are several places where Western-style buildings, a particular feature of Meiji modernization, have been preserved and are open to tourists. Visiting these buildings is not only a chance to explore the architecture of this period, it also introduces some of the intangible modernization that Japan experienced during the Meiji Period.
Miyagi: a school and a police station
Compulsory public education for all was introduced to Japan in 1872, requiring construction of school buildings across the country. In the city of Tome, in northern Miyagi Prefecture, a two-story wooden school, built in 1888, has been preserved and is known as the Meiji Village Education Museum.
Originally known as the Toyoma Elementary School, this is a very large building with numerous classrooms. Local people must have been astonished when they first saw the size of the building, probably as astonished as they were by the notion that their children were being educated.
Visitors can walk the halls and poke their noses into ordinary classrooms, some with mannequins depicting the classroom dynamic. Marvel at the diminutive wooden desks, presumably for diminutive students. There are also special studies classrooms — one filled with treadle sewing machines — and displays on educational materials of the day.
The assembly hall has tatami mats instead of bleachers, possibly enabling it to serve as a multi-purpose room. The principal’s office is not so intimidating when the man sitting behind the desk is a mustachioed mannequin poring over a ledger.
Hours: 9:00-16:30 daily (closed across New Year holidays); Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: 9:00-16:00.
Admission: 400 yen
Located about a 10 minute walk from the school is the Police Museum, an 1889 white wood-frame building that was originally the Toyoma Police Station. Modern policing also dates to the Meiji Period, although even during the earlier feudal period there was a well-established system of policing for social control.
This legacy can be observed at the Police Museum when looking at the size and nature of the holding cells at the back of the building and the second floor display of wood block prints on the consequences of crime. The police chief’s office, the interrogation rooms and a display on the evolution of police uniforms show more about the modernization of Japan’s police force.
Hours: 9:00-16:30 daily (closed across New Year holidays)
Admission: 300 yen
There are other historical buildings (from various periods of history) to explore in this Toyoma neighborhood of Tome city, for visitors who can take the time. Information is available at either of the above museums.
Aomori: a library and the home of a missionary family
Public libraries are another innovation of the Meiji Period. The Former Hirosaki City Library is a three-story wood-frame building built in 1906 to commemorate Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the first time an Asian power had defeated a Western power. After the library was decommissioned in 1931 it was converted to apartments for a time. Now it has been beautifully restored to its original configuration and is open to the public as a museum.
The building boasts two octagonal towers, one containing stairs, and lots of windows to admit light for the reading ease of its patrons. There are numerous displays throughout the building relating to its role as a center of research and learning.
Hours: 9:00-17:00 daily (closed across New Year holidays)
Nearby is the Former To-o Gijuku Missionary Residence, a Western-style two-story wood-frame house built in 1900 for use by the foreign missionaries who came to teach at To-o Gijuku school, the first private school in Aomori. Visitors can explore various rooms of the house, many containing period furnishings, and imagine the lifestyle of the inhabitants more than a century ago. The fact that there are fireplaces in every room leaves one with the impression that the house was not exactly snug in winter.
The former parlor and dining room of the house have been converted to tea rooms where visitors can enjoy lunch or refreshments in an historic ambience.
Hours: 9:00-18:00 daily (closed across New Year holidays); tea room opening hours 9:30-18:00 (Last order is 17:30).
Admission: Free (tea room charges per menu)
In the gardens surrounding the Missionary Residence there are 1/10 scale models of a number of other Meiji Period buildings in and around Hirosaki city, a great way to see at least the exteriors of several of these distinctive and historic structures.
Yamagata: a hospital
Health care in Japan prior to the Meiji Period was largely based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Just as Japan imported teachers for other areas, it also imported doctors from Europe and the United States to practice and teach Western medicine, changing the face of Japanese health care.
Saiseikan Hospital, built in Yamagata city in 1878, is a delightful example of giyofu architecture, a Western-style building designed by a Japanese builder who was merely mimicking what he had seen, in this case, the British Royal Navy Hospital in Yokohama. Although the building looks Western, the building techniques employed were largely Japanese traditional wood joinery.
The building is donut-shaped, with all the rooms opening onto an inner courtyard. The entry area is a distinctive three-story tower, with the upper levels accessed via a spiral staircase. The window treatments and various other decorative features are also a fascinating combination of faux-Western and traditional Japanese elements.
The building was moved from its original location to the grounds of the former Yamagata Castle and now serves as a local history museum. In recognition of its history as a hospital, many of the museum’s displays are medical-related.
Hours: 9:00-16:30 daily (closed across New Year holidays)
These five historical buildings provide visitors with the opportunity to explore interesting architectural styles as well as to learn about the intangible changes that enabled Japan to modernize so rapidly during those transformative Meiji years.
To ensure no disruption to your Tohoku region adventures, please visit the Tohoku Destination Campaign website (https://www.tohokukanko.jp/en/dc/index.html) and each facility's website for up-to-date information prior to your departure.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.