Meiji Mura

June 20, 2007

What happens when Japanese cities and prefectures decide they don’t want their historical buildings anymore?

They get sent to an orphanage. No, really. They get dismantled piece by piece and sent to Meiji Mura, in Aichi prefecture, about 1.5 hours away from Shin’s house in eastern Nagoya. For those who are behind on their modern Japanese history, the Meiji era lasted from 1868 to 1919. It was a time when Japan completely flip-flopped from a dying feudal system to a country scrambling to modernize or face the consequences of colonialism, as many of its Asian neighbors already had. Brick buildings, steam engines, Western furniture and dress, and curry rice took the country by storm, and Japan prospered.

Japan is a country that resists change. But, when the pressure’s on, Japan is a country that can change as fast as a chameleon. What happened during the Meiji era would happen again once or twice more in the 20th century. Somewhere along the line, those stately brick buildings, those stone hotels, those Japanese tea houses, those steel bridges went out of vogue. Cities and prefectures see their maintenance as a budget-eating nuisance. Many of them are designated as Important Cultural Properties, which makes their upkeep even more expensive. These buildings are timepieces, but they’re a burden.

That’s where Meiji Mura comes in. Run by the Meitetsu Group, the same Goliath that owns department stores anddsc03162.jpg railroads, Meiji Mura does not bill itself as a theme park, although its grounds are on that scale. It is a museum, for buildings, paintings, utensils, china, machines, lighthouses, lamp posts, and many other relics of the Meiji era. Admission is a staggering 1600 yen, or 2200 yen if you include the all-day transportation pass that allows you to ride on an actual steam engine, a trolley, and the very cute maroon buses that run around the park.

Not knowing what to expect, I envisioned a Meiji-era Disney World. I thought there would be a mandatory character show (Admiral Perry and His Singing Black Ships!) or overpriced ice cream cones shaped like a corseted lady. I envisioned souvenir shops and obnoxious loud-speaker ads and jingles. But, no. This place really was like a museum. The quiet was broken in places by atmospheric classical music. Commercialism was kept low-key, perhaps almost too low-key; walking around in the heat, I found myself craving a few more vending machines and snack bars.

Along with your garden variety gimmicks like dressing up in gowns of the era and taking a 19th century style photos, the museum featured one of the most original schemes that I’ve ever seen. At the Uji Yamada post office, formerly outside of Ise Shrine, Japan’s most important shrine, currently one of the showpieces of the museum, visitors can mail letters and packages, and also access their postal savings accounts. In addition, they can also write a postcard to themselves, which the Meiji Mura post office keeps for ten years and then mails back to them.  At Meiji Mura, they obviously like the whole time capsule theme.

dsc03127.jpgThe museum showcased a wide variety of buildings, really enabling me to get a picture of what a typical Meiji Era street might have looked like. Three kinds of churches – from a soaring cathedral to a house of worship that looked more like a barn, sake breweries, private residences – both Japanese and Western, hospitals, schools, post offices, prisons. Even buildings that Japanese emigrants to Hawaii, Brazil, and Seattle lived in, all of the era, of course. Most of the kanji in the museum was written in the childlike font of that time, and backwards from right to left, rather than the opposite in use currently.

Perhaps most astonishing to me was the amount of important buildings in this “orphanage.” The former lobby of the dsc03123.jpgTeikoku Hotel in Tokyo, still one of Japan’s most famous hotels, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Decorated with stone, brick, and terracotta facades, the lobby, with its low ceilings, has a dark, cavernous feel, certainly not the style for hotel lobbies these days. Apparently, the Teikoku had intended to completely destroy the old lobby, until conservationists at Meiji Mura stepped in. Two other buildings that knocked me off my socks were the former houses of Japanese literary demagogues Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, and Koizumi Yakumo. For those that don’t know, Natsume Soseki is such an influential figure in modern Japanese history that he was on the 1000 yen bill. Coincidentally, he and Mori shared the same house, although not at the same time. Meiji Mura also holds the residence of Koizumi Yakumo, known otherwise as Lafcadio Hearn, Japanophile Numero Uno, who not only wrote books about Japan in English, but became famous throughout Japan for his short horror stories and drawings.

dsc03160.jpgI left Meiji Mura with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this museum serves an invaluable purpose in gathering and preserving buildings from one of Japan’s most dynamic and exciting eras. On the other hand, I kept wondering “Why wouldn’t the local authorities want these buildings? Can’t they see the value in having this kind of architecture lining their streets?”

Like cars, cameras, kimono, and Louis Vuitton bags, no one wants used buildings. Meiji Mura houses the fortunate ones. How many others must have met their final resting place in a junk yard somewhere, casualties of a country obsessed with the shiny and new?

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One Response to “Meiji Mura”

  1. Claude said

    This is a great article. If I can make it over, I have a better idea what to look for now.

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