A few months ago I visited the Niigata town of Tokamachi with the intention of attending a local festival. Alas, the festival was rained out and it seemed there wasn’t much to do after checking out the intriguing sculptures on the high street.
Fortunately, I found that Tokamachi has a wonderful city museum that proved great consolation for missing out on the festival. If you’re in the area, it’s good enough to be worth a visit even when the weather is fine.
Niigata is known as “snow country”, and Tokamachi, in the foothills of the Mikuni Mountains some 30 km. from the Japan Sea coast, is possibly one of the snowiest communities in the country. The museum capitalizes on Tokamachi’s snow-wrought culture and relationship with the mighty Shinano River, Japan’s longest, as well as the pre-history history of this region.
One gets a hint of this last aspect of the exhibits even before entering the museum, as just across the laneway is the foundation of a 1,200 year old residential house alongside a reconstructed house. Archaeologists believe 5 or 6 people would have occupied a home of this size.
The first room of exhibits provide an overview of the region. The overriding relationship with the mighty Shinano River is a particular feature. While the river is known as Shinano in Niigata, in its upper reaches, in Nagano Prefecture, it is called the Chikuma River.
Another key feature of the area is its snowfall. Archival photographs probably don’t do justice to the harshness of the winters here, but just looking at them made me feel cold.
The next exhibit is on this region in the Jomon and Yayoi periods of history, from 30,000 to 250 years ago. Lifesize dioramas particularly bring the period to life.
Artist’s renditions of provide other insights.
From here the exhibits come forward in time, with smaller dioramas of the mountain fortresses common in the Middle Ages as the archipelago warred its way into a consolidated culture and nation-state.
Exhibits on the agrarian life of the area, including crops and land management, left one feeling that most people didn’t care much about all that warfare and just got on with the business of survival. There are also detailed displays of the folkcraft that enabled people to survive the elements. Particularly interesting is the displays on how straw is woven to make boots and other items needed in winter as well as straw slippers popular with travelers in the summer months..
Weaving in this area is not limited to straw. The area has also produced silk and other fabrics for centuries. The displays show the processes of weaving and dying through the ages as well as some of the more modern finished products.
An hour or two here will leave visitors with a strong sense of life here across the broad spectrum of time and some great insights into the hardy people who make this their home.
Hours: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday (open on Monday public holidays and closed the following day)
Admission: JPY300 (free for junior high school students and below)
© 2019 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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