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Meiji-mura – an outdoor museum showcasing Meiji period (1868-1912) architecture and culture. The name basically translate as “Meiji Village”, and the extensive park (nearly 250 acres) has buildings of architectural note rescued from demolition from all over Japan. Although the name and the majority of the buildings are from the Meiji era, there are a couple of exceptions including several buildings from the Taisho period (1912-1926) and from the early Showa era. A classic example of this is the preserved main entrance and lobby of the Imperial Hotel, moved from Tokyo when demolished in 1967, which was one of the masterpieces designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Meiji-mura is easy to get to and makes a good day trip from Okazaki or Nagoya, especially if combined with a visit to Inuyama Castle and the cormorant fishing on the Kiso River.

Opened in 1965, Meiji-mura was the brainchild of Taniguchi Yoshiro (an architect and professor at Tokyo University) and Moto Tsuchikawa (an executive of the Meitetsu Company). The two were previously classmates when studying in Kanazawa. Taniguchi wanted to preserve as much as possible of the architecture of the Meiji period, which was endangered by projects ranging from road widening and straightening to urban renewal construction during the period of high economic growth known as the “golden sixties”. Meitetsu, the Japanese name of the Nagoya Railroad Company created the open air museum as a combination museum/themepark. The park preserves more than 60 western style buildings of cultural and/or historical importance, as well as working steam engines and trams, and important industrial heritage including railway workshops.

The Meiji period involved rapid change as the country shook off more than 200 years of self enforced isolation and embarked on a rapid modernization. It was a period of tremendous friction, internal migration and urbanization, saw further civil disturbances (the rebellion led by Saigo Takamori in 1876, and not infrequent rioting) and then external conflict with China and Russia. The country was also forced into signing treaties which included extraterritorial provisions, struggled to modernize its financial system and transportation networks, and experienced political upheaval. Meiji-mura does not cover much of the above, and unless you are able to read Japanese and are familiar with the history it is easy to obtain the impression that Meiji was purely a period of westernization.

Most of the buildings preserved are identifiably “foreign” in either their appearance or inspiration, though there are some interesting examples of what ordinary Japanese dwellings and structures from the period looked like (both inside and out). Almost all of the buildings are registered as tangible cultural assets, nine of these as Important Cultural Assets. It is unusual to have so many cultural gems in such close proximity.

Japanese architecture: Some of the more interesting buildings include the house used by the authors Ogai Mori and Soseki Natsume built in 1887 in Tokyo, which is a pretty representative example of a private residence in a well-to-do part of the city at the time, and the interesting rooflines (and interior) of the sake brewery owned by the Nakai family (built in 1870, just 3 years after the civil war leading to the Meiji restoration) in Kyoto. Another early Meiji period Japanese house is the summer residence of Irish author Lafcadio Hearn, built in 1868 in Shizuoka, it is a pretty good example of an ordinary family dwelling.

Western architecture: What attracts most Japanese visitors to Meiji-mura is more the western architecture, particularly what is perceived as “romantic” or “exotic”. The gothic St. Francis Xavier church, which was the former Catholic cathedral of Kyoto (built in 1890) is a classic example, interesting not only for its stained glass and history (also interesting for those who haven’t visited pre-vatican II cathedrals) but also for the frequent weddings taking place here. Also interesting are the private dwellings from the foreign settlements (read up on extra-territoriality) such as “No. 25” from Nagasaki City (1889) with its double boarded walls and the two story house from the Kobe settlement, one of the fastest growing cities of that period.

There are also a number of buildings that tend to be overlooked, including those involved emigration. During the Meiji period large numbers of Japanese began to emigrate in order to escape the poverty Japan was experiencing, and many made their way to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations as indentured laborers (or made the journey as “picture brides” in many cases), or to farm in Brazil (which still has the largest overseas Japanese community and is now the largest source of “return migrants”, or to the continental United States (there is an interesting evangelical church from Seattle) prior to the immigration restrictions. The difficulties experience are well documented (some ability to read Japanese is required) and of interest.

Meiji-mura is open from 9:30 to 5:00 daily from March to October, and until 4:00 pm from November to February. Admission is 1600 yen for adults. Food is fairly expensive inside the park, so pack a sandwich and an onigiri or two if you are on a tight budget, but be sure to put the food discreetly inside your bag when entering the gates.

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