A Career Woman’s Trip to Tomioka

I was recently invited to join a group of career women on a trip to Tomioka in Gunma, combining sightseeing, skin care seminars and time for telecommuting. I’d like to share a few highlights, some of which may also be interesting to men.

First one may ask, why would career women have any special interest in Tomioka, site of the Tomioka Silk Mill, which received World Heritage listing in 2014 as a “centre of innovation for the production of raw silk and marked Japan’s entry into the modern, industrialized era, making it the world’s leading exporter of raw silk, notably to Europe and the United States.” Opened in 1872 and in operation for 115 years, the mill was one of the first (if not the first) places in Japan to employ women to work for wages outside the home. In a sense, it can be regarded as the place where career women got their start in Japan.

Indeed, this trip was centered largely on silk, the silk mill, and its impact on the town.

We started at Sekaito, the visitors center housed in a century-old red-brick warehouse just outside Joshu Tomioka Station. Renovated by Kuma Kengo’s architectural studio and opened just last year, the visitors center has displays on the history of silk across 4,000 years, culminating in the mass production methods that made Japan the world’s leading producer/exporter of raw silk in the late 19th/early 20th century. A beautifully produced video featuring all four locations included in the World Heritage listing plays in the small theater every 20 minutes. On the second floor are detailed exhibits on the four locations as well as displays about other aspects of Gumma’s long association with silk production as a cottage industry prior to industrialization. Alas, there is little available in English on this floor.

Next we moved on to the mill itself, less than 10 minutes walk away. While we had a volunteer guide show us around, there is a good app to download for self-guiding. Look for signs just inside the entrance. There is also free wifi throughout the area, although it seemed a bit unreliable.

The mill is a complex of several buildings, the oldest of which are the east cocoon warehouse and the reeling plant. These and the west cocoon warehouse that opened a few years later, were built of locally-produced bricks laid around wooden frames. They are among the earliest red-brick constructed buildings in Japan. Various aspects of the construction are explained in displays on the second floor of the West Cocoon Warehouse, which was only open to the public last year. The builders, trying to build to the specifications of French advisors using unfamiliar Western techniques, such as roof trusses to allow for broad unsupported spans, must have been regularly confounded as they worked.

These three main buildings are laid out in a “C” shape, creating a central courtyard that now contains gardens (including a field of mulberry leaves, the favorite food of silk worms) and a model of the original steam engine that powered the mill’s machinery, but must have once been a bustling hive of activity. At the open end of the “C” are some cottages that were once occupied by managerial workers and their families. One can be entered to get a feel for their modest lifestyles.

The reeling plant, where 300 women worked the machines that unwound the thread from the silk cocoons and reeled it into raw silk “yarn” to be shipped out and ultimately woven into cloth, still contains the machines that were in use when the mill was closed in the 1980s. It also has models of the 19th century equipment used by the first workers. During the period when the Japanese government operated the mill and it was managed by French advisors, the workers had an eight hour work day (said to have set the standard that was adopted by Japanese law several decades later, and still the standard today). Later, after privatization, the working day got much longer for a few decades, until the Labor Standards Law was enacted. Most of the women working in the plant were in their late teens or early twenties, but there are records of girls as young as nine being employed. Most women quit to get married after a few years, presumably having socked away a bit of a nest egg.

The two cocoon warehouses dominate the site. Their vast size was needed because in the 19th century, silkworms only produced cocoons once a year so a substantial supply of the cocoons had to be stored at that time in order to keep the reeling plant operational year-round.

Other buildings on the mill site to check out include the Auditor’s house, the residence of the French women who trained the female factory workers, the infirmary, the Director’s house and the three long wooden women’s dormitories. Unfortunately, at present these can all be viewed only from the outside. One can only hope that at some point in the future at least one of the women’s dormitories will be opened with displays on the lives of the young women who worked at the mill.

Just outside the gates to the silk mill is a delightful little restaurant called Haya-aji serving an udon that epitomizes working women. Known as okkirikomi udon, it is a dish developed by the local wives of this area, who worked alongside their husbands on the land during the pre-industrial period. Because they had no time to cook, but were still expected to feed everyone, they developed this udon dish, meat and vegetables that were left to slowly stew all morning into which they could quickly add the udon noodles and serve a hearty and filling lunch.

Photo courtesy of Jenifer Rogers

In the afternoon we had a bit more time to explore the silk mill, or take advantage of the free but somewhat unreliable wifi on the site to get a bit of work done. Then it was time for a skin care workshop.

Okay, this sounds like an odd thing to hold on the site of a silk mill, until you think about two factors: 1) many women who work under fluorescent lights recognize that the lights are hard on their skin and are interested in learning more about suitable skin care techniques to prevent or repair damage to their skin, and 2) there is a line of skin care products featuring silk worm proteins. In our workshop we learned about various skin conditions and how to treat them. We also got to try out some of the silk-based skin care products, albeit only on the backs of our hands. We also got sent home with a goodie bag of sample products.

When the workshop finished, there was time on the schedule for teleworking, with several possible sites available, including the seminar room in the West Cocoon Warehouse where our workshop had been held, the public “rest houses” dotted around the town, and even a couple of very nice coffee shops. Most had reliable wifi, but not necessarily private spaces where one could attend a conference call. Still, it was good to get a couple of hours of work in.

When work was finished, there was time before dinner for an after work drink. Tomioka’s first craft brewery, Josyu Tomioka Brewery, opened earlier this year with a taproom just a couple of blocks from the train station. Don’t worry if you can’t read the ticket machine. The kindly bartender will help you. The taproom offers a selection of five different beers, the latest added to the product line being an alcoholic ginger beer with great taste and an amazing aroma. It being a mild evening, we could enjoy our beer in the “beer garden”.

Dinner was another great experience, as we dined on a set menu full of local treats at Tokiwaso, a restaurant located in a classic Japanese style home built in 1938 as a weekender for a wealthy businessman. The rooms were all beautifully appointed and there was a nice garden view as well. Gunma being the No. 1 producer of konnyaku in Japan, the menu included lots of konnyaku, a food renowned for being good for the skin. They even served konnyaku tempura.

On our second day, we had a leisurely morning walking tour of the center of Tomioka. Particularly relevant to our theme of working women at the silk mill, we included a stop at Ryukoji, a local temple where the cemetary included the graves of a number of women who died (mostly, it seems, of illness, not accidents) while working at the plant. If their hometowns were far away, their families often preferred that they be buried in Tomioka.

We also walked through the town’s nightlife district, where a local volunteer guide regaled us with tales of Tomioka’s once burgeoning geisha business. While this is not directly related to the silk mill and isn’t exactly what 21st century career women relate to, it was interesting to hear how the existence of the silk mill attracted other businesses to the area, making it a prime spot for night-time entertainment for businessmen. Lunch was served in a former geisha house now turned into a restaurant.

After lunch we left the center of the town to visit O-miya Nukisaki Shrine, an ancient shrine atop a hill. Founded in 531, this shrine is home to Hime Okami, goddess of silk farming and weaving. The current shrine buildings date to 1635, and were built under the patronage of Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), builder of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine as a mausoleum for his grandfather. The head priest explained that Iemitsu employed many of the same craftspeople to build Nukisaki Shrine. Nukisaki Shrine is also distinctive because it is approached by descending stairs rather than ascending them. There are only three major shrines in Japan built this way.

Tomioka is less than 2 hours by train from Tokyo, changing from the Shinkansen to a local train at Takasaki. It’s an easy day trip just to explore the World Heritage site, but as you see, it’s worthwhile to stay a bit longer.

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