Stepping back in time: the Meiji Village Museum of Miyagi

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) is perhaps my favorite period of Japanese history. It is the time when Japan, which had stagnated from being closed to the outside world since early in the 17th century, leapt forward, grafting new governmental structures to its traditional emperor system and adopting various new technologies to allow it to fend off Western dominance by modernizing.

There are many remnants of the Meiji Period still to be found in Japan, both tangible and intangible. Perhaps the most striking are the buildings. In the city of Tome in Miyagi Prefecture, the neighborhood of Toyoma, which has history both as a castle town and as a riverside trading town, has managed to preserve some of its Meiji Period buildings, making the neighborhood a kind of living museum. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours exploring and soaking up the atmosphere.

Start from Toyoma no Sato, the tourism and local produce center in the heart of the town. Here you can learn about the products of the area and pick up some local produce or even a bite to eat. You can also buy a combi-ticket which, for JPY1,000, gives you easy entrance to the major sights of the town, all within about a 15 minute walk from Toyoma no Sato. Most buildings are open daily from 9:00 to 16:30, closing only for a few days around the New Year’s holidays.

Mizusawa Prefectural Office

Just across the main road (Route 36) from Toyoma no Sato is the Mizusawa Prefectural Office Memorial. During early Meiji, the northern part of what is now Miyagi Prefecture and the southern part of what is now Iwate Prefecture were a separate prefecture, Mizusawa, with its governmental functions in this 1872 building. The building was once part of a complex of buildings, shown in a scale model in the central room. A meeting room for the prefectural assembly, a small courtroom, and lots of vintage photos are among the highlights of the building.

Takakura Katsuko Memorial Art Museum

Directly across from the Mizusawa Prefectural Office is an art museum featuring the work of Nihonga artist Takakura Katsuko (b. 1923), a native daughter of Tome. Nihonga is a modern art form that emerged in Japan during the Meiji Period, featuring Western-style technique such as perspective and shading, while using natural pigments and materials like finely ground minerals, gems, or shells, suspended in an animal-based glue, instead of paint. The museum, in a building designed to look like a traditional kura warehouse with namako diamond grid-patterned tiles at ground level, was opened in 2009.

Shunrantei

A little further down the lane from the art museum is Shunrantei (literally “House of the Spring Orchid”), a 400 year old samurai home. The house is open to visitors free of charge, offering a chance to observe the living quarters of social elites before the Meiji modernization. Visitors can relax over tea or coffee and sweets while looking out onto the picturesque garden. Besides “regular” hot drinks, they also offer “spring orchid” tea, steeping the pretty little flower from which the house takes its name.

Toyoma Kaikokan Samurai Museum

This little museum in a stunning modern building houses the sword and samurai regalia collection of Watanabe Masato, a local industrialist whose hobby was collecting artifacts connected with the Date family, feudal lords of this region. Samurai armor and woodblock prints of this region of Japan are especially interesting.

Shunrantei and the Samurai Museum are adjacent and a delightful thatched “gatehouse” stands on the same grounds, part of its ceiling open to the roof tresses, enabling a good view of how the building is constructed.

The Police Museum

One of the prized Meiji period buildings of Toyoma is the two-story former Toyoma Police Station, a white wood-frame building sitting behind a wrought iron gate.

Inside, the front lobby area, once bustling with police officials, contains an old police car and an even older police motorcycle. The police chief’s office is off to one side and behind the lobby are interrogation rooms. At the very back are the cells, dark and foreboding.

On the second floor are displays of police uniforms and regalia from the past 150 years. Also notable is a display of 19th century prints of police doing their jobs, catching, interrogating and punishing criminals. Presumably these prints were widely circulated as a warning to would-be criminals of what awaited them if they broke the law.

Just behind the police museum is a small building with a narrow-pointed roof covered in slate tiles. Inside is a free exhibit on slate and how it is mined and used in Japan. This area was once known for slate mining. Even a portion of the roof of Tokyo’s Meiji Period red brick station building is made with slate tiles. Who knew? There are also samples of slate from other parts of the world.

Follow the road the slate building is on, which runs parallel to the Kitakami River (hidden behind flood levies), back to Route 36. Along the way you will see a number of samples of mercantile establishments in the Meiji style. As a river trading town, Toyoma was also a center of secondary production, processing raw foods to enable their long-term storage on on-shipment. The town is particularly known for its miso and there are still a number of miso breweries in operation here.

Turn left at Route 36 (the traffic light) to return to Toyama no Sato. Just beyond is the Meiji Village Education Museum.

Meiji Village Education Museum

This school building, formerly the Toyoma Elementary School, was completed in 1888. It must have been an astonishing sight to locals of that time period. It is an imposing structure even today.

Students would have entered the school ground through the red brick gate and made their way to one of two side entrances, where they would have changed from street shoes to slippers, just as visitors must also do today.

The general layout of the building is not so different to Japanese schools today. Classrooms are designed with lots of windows and natural light, opening onto an outdoor corridor running around the inner perimeter of the building and its two wings. Some classrooms are built for specialized study as well. Mannequins give a sense of classroom dynamics and displays of teaching materials in some classrooms are also insightful. The diminutive desk size was a particular surprise.

Mori no Butai (the stage in the woods)

While it has nothing to do with Toyoma’s Meiji history, don’t miss the Mori no Butai, a 12-15 minute walk to the hill behind the old school. This is a traditional Noh stage designed by famed modern architect Kuma Kengo. Typical of Kengo’s style, the stage is built to compliment and be complimented by its physical surroundings. It is a peaceful and contemplative spot. How wonderful it would be to watch a Noh performance here!

Toyoma is about 80 kilometers northeast of Sendai and the nearest train station, Yanaizu, is about 6 kilometers away, making it easiest to visit by private car.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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