Japan takes enormous pride in its culture but has a poor record on its preservation. This is particularly true of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), perhaps the most dynamic period in the country’s history, when Japan emerged from more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation and laid the foundations of a modern nation state through the rapid assimilation of Western culture and technology.
Remnants of Meiji remain. Even amid the drab jumble of concrete cubes that are Japan’s modern cities one occasionally stumbles across a beautiful old building, a tantalizing reminder of a bygone age of elegance and style.
If you enjoy those rare finds you will love Meiji Mura — over 60 original Meiji Era buildings rebuilt in 1 million sq. meters of beautifully landscaped parkland overlooking Lake Iruka in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture.
The open-air museum was founded by two former school chums. Yoshiro Taniguchi (1904-1979) approached Moto Tsuchikawa (1903-1974), then a vice president at Nagoya Railroad Company, with the idea of saving some of the especially valuable buildings that had survived earthquakes, war and the rigors of age but were being routinely destroyed in the frenzy of postwar redevelopment.
The buildings are an eclectic mix of style and function. The Yamanashi District Office (1885) has a rigid Palladian composition and an interesting mix of English and Japanese influences. The Sapporo telephone exchange (1898) is a strong, squat building but features an exquisitely carved frieze around the entrance and between its two stories.
The Cabinet Library building is a palatial Neoclassical stack rebuilt in 1911 by Kiho Okuwa who later directed the construction of the National Diet Building. Nearby, the southwest corner of the Neobaroque Head Office of The Kawasaki Bank (1927) stands like a half-finished sculpture. The building originally graced Nihonbashi until the late ’80s.
Foreign residences from Nagasaki (1889) and Kobe (1890s) recall the treaty port style that at the time enthralled the locals.
There are even a few exhibits from abroad: a 1907 residence from Seattle that eventually became an evangelical church, a Japanese immigrant’s house, from Sao Paulo, Brazil (1919), and an Immigrants’ Assembly Hall from the Hawaiian Islands (1889).
Some buildings, like Prince Saionji’s residence, are positioned to face in their original direction and surrounded by trees and shrubbery carefully transplanted to give the same ambience enjoyed by their former occupants.
Undulations of the land and twisting paths obscure the exhibits so each can be enjoyed separately. The overall effect is of a well-planned, spacious and attractive town — a rare pleasure in Japan.
There are plenty of surprises — coming across a massive Catholic cathedral in the hills of Nagoya is unexpected to say the least. St. Francis Xavier’s cathedral (from Kyoto, 1890), dedicated to the Spanish Jesuit missionary who introduced Christianity to Japan, is an extravagant white stucco edifice with an impressive interior of zelkova wood and stained glass.
St. John’s (Kyoto, 1907) confidently proclaims itself in red-brick Gothic. Both churches are popular venues for marriage ceremonies.
Many of the buildings contain exhibits, while others are outfitted in complete period style and are in use. One can eat sukiyaki in the Ohi Butcher’s Shop, have tea in many of the houses and post a letter from Uji-Yamada post office.
Transportation is well represented. The first steam locomotive manufactured in Japan ran in Aichi Prefecture in the 1890s but now chugs through the park and over Japan’s first iron railway bridge. One can peer into Emperor Meiji’s personal rail carriage and take a ride on the Kyoto streetcars that clatter and clang their way around the park.
Perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit is the front facade of the original Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The fascinating Aztec-inspired design survived the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck on its opening day in 1923, and its colorful history and guest list, from Charlie Chaplin to the American occupation forces, made it the focus of a worldwide preservation campaign in 1965. One can have coffee in the second-floor restaurant while enjoying a view of the lake — far superior to its original view of Hibiya.