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Traveling through time with the kids in tow

by

Staff Writer

Life in Japan has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. In the span of a few generations, millions of Japanese left the countryside and moved into urban and suburban sprawl. For city kids like mine, the connection to rural farm life is tenuous at best, but we feel that it’s still important to keep that connection.

Luckily, Japan is full of opportunities to look into the past. One worth recommending is Osaka’s Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses. Here you’ll find over 35,000 square meters of walking paths surrounded by maple, cherry and other trees. Along these paths are 12 rebuilt, refurbished or restored structures from Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). Some date from the 19th century, others from as early as the 17th.

This is Japan’s first open air museum, and its exhibits are authentic buildings that you can enter and experience for yourself. There’s something special about stepping into a museum exhibit instead of viewing things in photographs or from behind glass. Entering these former homes can be a transportive exercise, where kids can utilize their imagination and sense of the past.

There are farmhouses from prefectures as far south as Kagoshima and as far north as Iwate. Every one was painstakingly disassembled, moved and rebuilt on the park’s grounds. Each has a unique style and design that is best suited for the weather, geography and culture of the region where it originated. For example, the house from Yamato Totsukawa village in Nara Prefecture is fortified with a strong roof to withstand the wind of the valley, while the “L” shape of the Iwate farmhouse allowed residents to check on their stable animals in winter without the need to step out into the snow.

The diversity in building styles and materials for these houses is fascinating. The Nara farmhouse looks like something from the set of an old samurai movie. The farmhouse from Shinano Akiyama in Nagano Prefecture, with its thatched walls and arched roof, could pass for a wizard’s lair. One of our favorite structures, however, wasn’t a farmhouse at all. It was a rural kabuki stage brought here from the island of Shodoshima in Japan’s inland sea. Its roof was both thatch and tile — its stage boards worn and smooth.

Many of these buildings contain the tools and other utensils that were part of daily life at the time. Some of the farmhouses have volunteers waiting to tell you more about the structure, it origins and what life was like for its inhabitants. Most of the volunteers we encountered were kindly seniors who enjoyed the company of youngsters. Very little English was spoken, but the front gate has an English brochure with details of every structure.

The walking paths are also quite lush, and it’s easy to forget that you’re less than an hour from downtown Osaka. If you have younger kids who enjoy running in open fields and playing hide-and-seek, this is the place for you.

Now it’s confession time: I brought both of my kids here, and only one of them enjoyed it. My 11-year-old loved stepping into the buildings and trying to picture the original inhabitants. My 14-year-old, however, rolled his eyes and asked when he could text his friends. Open-air museums like this may work best with specific age groups, but you know your children best. Preschoolers will love it simply as a place to run and explore. Older kids interested in history and architecture will appreciate it on a different level. And sure, many teens may appreciate a walk-though as well — if for no other reason than the photo opportunities for Instagram. We even bumped into two groups of cosplayers using the old buildings as a backdrop for their own photo shoot.

The park is located in the north end of Hattori Ryokuchi park. This is a considerably large, heavily wooded green space with ponds, fields, fountains, an arboretum and a horse-riding school. In other words, you could make a visit here into an entire day’s excursion if you wanted to. Just plan your meals accordingly. We found a supermarket near the station to grab a bento to eat under the trees before we hit the museum.

Make sure to check the museum website and event schedule before you go, as there are frequent events that might be worth planning your visit around. For example, volunteers regularly light the hearth and talk about life inside the home, and every Tuesday between May and September there are kimono fittings. For ¥300, you can be fitted in kimono and then walk the grounds for an hour. Other demonstrations worth considering include a tea ceremony, operating a mill and learning to use a traditional spinning top. Some demonstrations are free, while others cost ¥300.

If you visit this summer, be sure to bring water and sunscreen. The walk from Ryokuchikoen Station to the park entrance is unshaded and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. It’s a short walk, but a long step back in time.

Entry to the Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses is ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for high school students and ¥200 for junior high and elementary students. Younger kids can get in for free. For more information, visit www.occh.or.jp/minka.