Nihon Minkaen in Kawasaki: Outdoor exhibits preserve home life of old

Stripes Japan

Removing your shoes and sitting on a tatami-mat floor may come to mind when most foreigners think of a Japanese house, but if you saw how Japanese lived more than 200 years ago you would find it’s just where the differences between U.S. and Japanese homes begin. The Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, or Nihon Minkaen, is the perfect place to do that.

Located in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa, about an hour by train from Tokyo and a 30-minute drive from Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Camp Zama, the museum is a good place to visit to dig into the traditional culture and architecture of Japan of old.

More than 20 homes sporting traditional Japanese architecture from the Edo Period (1603 – 1867) sit in a mock village. The homes were moved from different areas of Japan and rebuilt there for preservation as important national cultural properties.

Each house represents a different region of the country, reflecting local climates and the occupation of its inhabitants such as samurai, merchant, farmer or fisherman. Various tools and implements used in a variety of daily lives are also on display as well as traditional crafts.

Visitors can actually go inside the houses after removing their shoes to experience what it was like to live in these houses back in the old days. So it is best to wear easy-to-remove shoes to make it convenient for entering and exiting each house. One of the unique facts about life in Edo period that I noticed was that toilets were located outside of the house, while horse stables were on the inside. 

I recommend checking out some characteristics of these old Japanese houses, such as “kayabuki yane” (thatched roofs), “doma” (dirt floors), tatami mats and “irori” (hearths). Such architectural features can be artistic while reflecting the ingenuity people used before high-tech building was developed. 

I also highly recommend Shirakawago soba restaurant at the museum. It is in a beautiful old Japanese house which was moved from Shirakawa Village in Gifu Prefecture, a famous UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a quite the experience to enjoy soba noodles sitting on a tatami floor in a special folk house.

Workshops related to Japanese traditional handcrafts are also held in some areas as visitors walk along the village site. They include indigo dying, straw and bamboo craft making and cloth weaving. A variety of other cultural events and festivals, such as rice cake pounding, folk storytelling, traditional carpentry demonstrations and dances are also held occasionally throughout the year.

It takes a good half-day to walk from house to house and see all the amazing architecture and rich cultural heritage of Japan.

With Japanese houses getting more and more similar to Western homes nowadays, traditional Japanese houses seem to be fading away from the daily scene. The Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum is definitely worth visiting – both for children and adults – to experience and learn more about Japan.

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