By Noriya Nagashima / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterWhen I was a sixth grader in elementary school, I stayed for a week in a minka, a traditional A-frame folk house, in the Etchu Gokayama mountain area in Toyama Prefecture.
I remember that when I stepped into the house, the air was filled with the scent of the tall wooden pillars and beams that span the ceiling, shining black and covered with soot.
In the crystal clear waters of a nearby river I caught iwana mountain trout with my hands, and enjoyed playing folk music with a traditional musical instrument called a kokiriko.
Since the start of Japan’s high economic growth period, minka have been disappearing, mainly due to changes in people’s lifestyles.
The Kawasaki city government opened the Japan Open Air Folk House Museum in 1967 with the aim of passing on minka culture to future generations.
In an area covering about 3 hectares of Ikuta Ryokuchi Park in the Tama Hills, 25 buildings relocated from farming villages all over the nation have been preserved. They include minka, a water mill and a stage for kabuki performances.
According to the museum, students from about 200 schools, including elementary and middle school students, visit annually to learn about the traditional lifestyles of people who used such facilities.
One of the buildings is Ota House, a national cultural asset that was relocated from Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture. It was built in the latter half of the 17th century and was originally the home of the head of a farming village. The house was constructed in a style called bunto (meaning separate structures) and is characterized by the large thatched roof of its main building.
In the doma earthen floor space inside the house, Akane Tsuchiya, 9, a fourth grader of the Kawasaki municipal Kariyado Primary School, was grinding rice and soybeans using a stone mill.
She struggled with the heavy equipment, but seemed impressed.
“I’m proud that Japanese people living many years ago were able to develop such tools, even though life was more inconvenient then,” she said.
Every day, irori fireplaces in some of the old houses are lit, which visitors can observe.
In Sakuda House, which is also a national cultural asset, a volunteer guide provided information about the fireplace. The house was built for an amimoto, or fishermen chief, in the latter half of the 17th century in Kujukuri, Chiba Prefecture.
“Irori fireplaces were used to provide heat, a cooking source and also for light,” he explained, as students gazed at the fire intently.
The museum also regularly organizes various events, such as story telling of folk tales, mainly from the Tohoku region, combined with traditional hand games, bamboo basket weaving, and demonstrations showing how to weave the cloth used to make Japanese aprons and kimono.
Walking around the nostalgic setting of the museum grounds was a calming experience.
Such moments make people feel as if they have touched the very DNA of Japanese people.
■ Japan Open Air Folk House Museum
In the Exhibition Hall, visitors can gain basic knowledge about the layout, structure, history and other elements of old minka.
Address: 7-1-1 Masugata, Tama Ward, Kawasaki
Opening hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closes at 4:30 p.m. from November to February. Entry up to 30 minutes before closing time. Closed on Mondays. If Monday is a public holiday, the museum opens the following day and closes the day after that.
Admission: ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for high school students, university students and people aged 65 or older. Free for middle school students and younger.