While sericulture was first developed in China about 4,500 years ago, Japan has also been producing silk since around the third century.
Silk’s heyday in Japan was during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when it became one of Japan’s first industrially mass-produced export products.
The center of Japan’s silk industry has long been Gunma Prefecture, which even today is responsible for at least 40% of the silk produced in Japan. As I have written elsewhere, the silk mill at Tomioka was designated as a World Heritage site in 2014 and it is an excellent testament to the history of modern silk production in Japan.
But for nearly 1,500 years before industrialization, silk production was a cottage industry. And if you look around–especially in Gunma–you can find some of that pre-modern history, too.
The Tomizawa Family Farmhouse, just above Route 53 near Daido Pass, is one such spot. This fantastic thatched-roofed farmhouse has stood since the late 18th century, operating as a family home, barn, and silk production center for many generations. It sits in a tiny, picturesque village, just two or three other houses and–surprise, surprise–lots of carefully tended mulberry bushes. Houses of this vintage in such good condition are rare indeed. The house was designated as a national “Important Cultural Property” in 1980 and was donated to the town of Nakajo in 1987 by Kiyoshi, the 25th generation head of the Tomizawa family.
The structure is massive, measuring 23.9 meters by 12.9 meters, yet the living quarters occupies less than half of the ground level, with the rest being “doma” (earthen floor space), where cooking and indoor farmwork, such as threshing and rice polishing, would have been done. Tools and farm implements were also stored in this area and any farm animals may have also sheltered here.
The largest part of the living quarters is the main room with its wooden floor and central hearth above which the ceiling was open to the second level so that smoke could escape upwards and eventual seep out through the thatch. This main room also features a Shinto “god shelf”, a Buddhist “butsudan”, and a tokonoma where family treasures would be displayed. Behind this room was a storeroom/work room, also with a wooden floor. I cannot help but wonder if, in the pre-industrial age, there would have been a spinning wheel and loom in this room.
Off to the side of the main room were two smaller rooms which would have once had tatami mat flooring and were probably used predominately as sleeping rooms. One had a closet on one outer wall, where bedding would have been stored. The other opened onto a veranda that would have provided an insulative air lock to keep out the winter cold, while stimulating cool breezes when opened up during the summer.
Behind these two rooms was one more similar room, slightly more elegantly decorated complete with another tokonoma and an elaborate window treatment. Was this the master bedroom, or a room reserved for special guests perhaps? All three rooms were separated by shoji sliding doors that could be removed to create one large room when required.
These 5 rooms were the entirety of the living quarters.
Back in the main room, I noticed a small and extremely steep staircase to the second level–what we would have called the “loft” on the farm where I was raised–in one corner.
Open all the way to the rafters immediately below the thatch, this is where the silkworms were raised. They start as eggs that hatch to larvae–the so-called silkworms. The silkworms feed on mulberry leaves and grow until they have molted four times, after which they are placed on special racks where they spin themselves into a cocoon. The threads of this cocoon, after it reaches a certain age, are what are ultimately harvested and spun to make silk fabric.
It is said that in the still of the night, when everyone was in bed, the only sound that could be heard in a house like this was the sound of the silkworms munching away.
The care and feeding of the silkworms was not a simple task. Silkworms needed a very specific environment in terms of temperature and air circulation, as well as the right kind of leaves. To aid in this, the front of the house includes windows on the second level, and the thatched roof is carefully cut away to facilitate their existence.
On the other three sides of the house, the thatched roof extends all the way down to the top of the ground floor and the house is surrounded by a rubble drain to catch rain coming off the roof. The thatch is made of kaya, a special kind of strong grass grown for use in thatching. The thickness of the thatch makes it waterproof and provides insulation to the house, as well.
Due to its remote location, Tomizawa Family Farmhouse is anything but thronged with visitors. To visit here, one is really getting off the beaten track.
One other couple was leaving just as I arrived. There is no staff on site and payment (JPY100 for adults; JPY50 for children) is on an honor system. The couple that was leaving pointed out that they had opened various doors and windows and reminded me to close them when I was finished. I proceeded to open and close doors at my leisure as I explored the house.
Tomizawa Family Farmhouse is about 20 minutes by car from Nakanojo Station on the JR Agatsuma Line and about 30 minutes from Tsukiyono IC on the Kan-Etsu Expressway. It is truly a very special place.