December 29, 2019

Architectural Wonders

Found near Tokyo, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural and the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum have some amazing historic buildings to explore.

A traditional Japanese farmhouse at the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum in Kawasaki

Are you a major history buff or architecture geek? If so, today’s article is just what the doctor ordered. In this one, we’ll be taking a look at two fascinating spots in the vicinity of central Tokyo that are home to impressive collections of antique structures. Respectively, these allures are known as the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (which I referenced before in this piece on Mt. Takao) and the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum. Seeing as both sites are located but a mere thirty minutes away from Shinjuku by train, you’ll be hard pressed to discover an easier way to get your fix for this type of attraction. In fact, it’s a miracle that all these buildings have found a home in the world’s biggest and most chaotic megalopolis.

Now, I know you’re going to ask which of these dual competing locations is objectively the better of the two. Honestly though, I don’t have an answer for you. At the end of the day, I’d guess that it boils down to what the rest of your travel itinerary looks like. In the last few years, I’ve visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum a number of times so I can comment that it makes a superb addition to both Mt. Takao as mentioned as well as the area of Chofu. On the other hand, the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum is located in Kawasaki over in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture. While this slice of Greater Tokyo isn’t entirely void of appeal, it’s by no means a tourist trap.

In the coming sections, I’ll dive deep into the logistics and points of appeal for both the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum and the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum. This way you, the reader, can make the choice of which to patron. Though I realize that not everyone is a hardcore architecture nerd who is going to gush over old Japanese farmhouses, even the less enthusiastic souls out there can glean a lot from these two sites. For one, both locations allow you to experience sitting by a traditional Japanese hearth. As anyone who has read my Winter by the Irorieditorial already knows, this is one of my favorite wintertime things to do and I cannot more highly recommend you give it a go at either of these museums.

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

A historical Japanese building at Tokyo’s Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Of the two sites that I’ll cover in this feature, let’s begin with the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum as it is the better known of the two. As previously alluded to, this facility is located in western Tokyo nearby Mt. Takao. Though this might risk stating the blatantly obvious, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum is an outdoor curation of historic buildings that once resided in what is now modern day Tokyo. Most of these frameworks date from the Meiji period (1868–1912) but a handful of the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum’s other structures represent even earlier eras. Among the collection, you’ll find a public bathhouse, various shops, and a police box.

Given that the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum is located out in the suburbs of Tokyo, you might be wondering why the hell all these historic buildings have been moved to the quasi-boonies. Here, you need to know that there is a very good reason; to preserve them. Put succinctly, much of this chapter of architectural history was lost to time. Over the decades, citywide fires, earthquakes (like the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923), and other such calamities have claimed many of the other pieces from this period. Because of this, the remaining survivors that have been moved to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum are nothing short of priceless artifacts.

Alas, getting to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum is sadly a bit of a challenge. Though it’s not too far by train from Shinjuku, you’ll need to either navigate a tricky bus or hoof it from Musashi-Koganei Station after you arrive. The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum can be found here, amidst the grounds of a large public park. When it comes to transportation, I’ve just always opted to walk because I am a glutton for punishment so I cannot comment on the bus option. That said, it’s not like you’re going to be the first foreign guest to visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum so you should be able to inquire at the station.

Before moving on to cover the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum, know lastly that the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum is actually a branch museum of the wonderfully educational Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku. Though Tokyo is indeed home to many top notch museums, this property is truly top of class and I always learn something new whenever I go back.

Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum

A “gassho-zukuri” farmhouse from Gokayama at Kawasaki’s the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum

OK, let’s move on to the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum. Like with the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, this facility shelters a number of historic buildings. Additionally, as is the case with its sibling, the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum also has a ridiculously long name when rendered in English. While this is a bit of a tangent, seriously, who the hell was in charge of that localization?!?! I mean, it’s just “Edo Tokyo Tatemono-en” and “Nihon Minka-en” in Japanese! Somebody really dropped the ball on this one. Honestly, I am beginning to think that half the total word count for this piece is going to be comprised of just the names of these two facilities…

Anyway, getting back to the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum itself, know that this site differs in a number of ways from the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. For starters, understand that the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum is located here in suburb of Kawasaki city over in Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Kanagawa. While this might sound difficult to reach, know that the area is serviced by trains from Shinjuku. This means that all you need to do is take a short thirty minute ride over to Mukogaoka Yuen Station on the Odakyu Odawara Line. From there, it’s approximately ten to fifteen minutes on foot but you could also opt to take the bus if you can actually figure out which one to take.

The differences between the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum don’t just end there though. As a matter of fact, perhaps the most distinguishing factor between the two is that the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum doesn’t just curate structures from Tokyo. Instead, this location is home to over two dozen Edo period (1603–1868) buildings that were relocated to Kawasaki from all over the country. Among the exhibits, you’ll encounter a handful of domiciles that once belonged to both samurai and commoners alike. Likewise, there is also a historic shrine and kabuki stage on the premises to behold.

Now, while I think that ALL of the buildings on display at the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum are worth checking out, one that certainly deserves special mention is the “Gassho-zukuri” farmhouse. This gem used to be located in the Shirakawago area of Central Japan. Though it most definitely cannot replace seeing the region in person, those who simply cannot make the trek can at least get a taste of this iconic architecture at the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum. As can be seen in the shot above, the Gassho-zukuri farmhouse sports a very steep thatched roof to shake off the heavy snows. This rooftop is said to resemble hands clasped in prayer and is the root of the word Gassho-zukuri.

Spending Time by the Irori

A member of the staff tends to an irori hearthplace at Tokyo’s Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Whether you opt for the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum or the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, be sure to pop a squat by the traditional hearths you’ll find inside many of the farmhouses at either facility. Though I know I’ve already made this recommendation earlier in this article, I simply cannot stress enough how important experiencing sitting by one of these is. Known in Japanese as irori, these sunken hearths were the proverbial glue that held Japanese families together. In addition to serving as a place to congregate, the irori performed many other roles as well. For example, the smoke from the hearth was essential to preserving the woodwork of a home.

I’m sure that you’re tired of me harping on about the importance of traditional Japanese hearths by now. Nevertheless, while I am still on my irori soap box, allow me to end by saying that it is not enough to simply see one with your own eyes. To truly appreciate one of these engineering marvels, you must actually park your behind next to its open flame. Luckily for you though, there are a handful of these that are almost always glowing at both the Nihon Minka-en Open Air Museum or the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. Do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes contemplating this vital historical way of life throughout much of Japanese history. It will add a bit of authenticity to your visit.