SYNOPSIS:  The world of the Meiji Restoration as it presents itself in a vast open-air museum.  From a prison to the doctor’s office; from a sake brewery to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (no kidding).


There is a lot to be learned (by me) about the Meiji Restoration, a relatively short period dating from 1868 to 1912, which despite its short life, seems to have had far-reaching consequences for Japan.   I have been baffled a bit by the term “restoration”.

So, it wasn’t a revolution, nor a coup, not a reformation either, but a restoration.  From what I understand it was the ruling class, some aristocrats, who restored power back into the emperor’s hands and away from the shogunates, the military class who had ruled Japan for 250 years during the preceding Edo period (1603-1868).  Something does not seem right about this picture.  Some day I will do my research on this.  For now, I come to this history from a very hands-on perspective, judging it purely through the affects it has on the arts.  And for that, the Meiji Mura Open Air Museum in Inuyama seemed perfect.

Picture again Greenfield Village, the open air museum by Henry Ford in Michigan (if you are from around there) and imagine it in the most spacious mountainous site flanked by a big lake.  It could not get much more picturesque than that.  It literally takes all day to get through and since I took my time and had not gotten there until 11 AM, I actually missed a few buildings.  From one end to the other it’s a few kilometers and perhaps, if I had fully realized that, I would have carried my back pack.  Instead I left it in a locker, which gave my sore shoulders a rest, but which forced me to hike all the way back in a hurry at the end of the day not to miss closing time!

60 buildings have been relocated here from that time period and put in their own picturesque setting to form the illusion of some sort of a village from the Meiji period.  Indeed, there is about everything you would expect in a town: the police box, the prison, the court house, the sake factory, the lighthouse, the high school, the medical research lab, two churches, lamps, bridges, factories, a post office, a doctor’s office, a brewery, a telephone exchange, a tea house, a foreigner’s residence, a martial arts gymnasium, the barracks of an infantry regiment, a glass factory, a public bath house, a library, a photo studio, a kabuki theater, a beauty parlor, various houses of the rich and the poor, and a hotel.

And just so you can really feel as if you are living back then, a steam locomotive, a street car, and a bus operate for real and you can ride them (for a fee, of course) across the village.  Really, what is missing?

I did not see any Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines…  I guess it is significant that there are two churches.  This was the time when Japan opened up to foreign influences, which in the case of Christianity, did not last long and did not go too well (massacres included).

The shogunate had pursued a policy of inwardness, focusing on all that represented Japan.  The new Meiji government, headed by a puppet boy emperor, focused on the outside, the western, developed industrial world.  Japan was to come out of its perceived backwardness.  The buildings reflected that beautifully.  Some of them combined traditional Japanese materials and techniques with western elements; others looked purely like copies out of central Europe.  And a few buildings reflected the resistance which most likely existed against this restoration as well.

One sentence from an information poster at Nagoya castle keeps going around in my head: there was the palace which currently is painstakingly reconstructed — and the sign at the castle matter-of-factly stated:  The palace was dismantled during the Meiji restoration to make room for army barracks!  The exclamation mark is mine.  That, in my art-historical mind, raised about a dozen flags about the Meiji Restoration.  Were they cultural barbarians?   Were they just anti-military?  But who in their right mind would do this, anti-military or not?  And why army barracks?  Who were the enemies?  What battles did they expect to fight?

I thoroughly enjoyed the day at this park-like village.  The sun was shining and the photo-ops were great.  I finally caved in and am doing it the Japanese way: I bought a hat.  I hate hats!  Now I look like an old Japanese lady, but who cares?  At least I don’t have to go the umbrella way and I can still survive the sun and operate my camera.  I know I should have done this weeks ago…

A few buildings would rank as my favorites; the post office (of all places) was cool.  The sake factory, impressive.  But how could it be otherwise, spot #1 has to go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s entrance hall and lobby of the Imperial Hotel which he designed in 1919 and which functioned as a state guest house for the new government housing politicians and royalty from all over the world, and the occasional celebrity, such as Marilyn Monroe.

But then there was the earth-shattering quake of 1923 which leveled much of Tokyo.  The Imperial Hotel actually suffered much less damage than other buildings in the area, but it was still no longer structurally sound; several floors had crumbled and chimneys were toppled.  It was dismantled and rebuilt here in the 1960’s.  Even the pond in front of the hotel was rebuilt and the effect is quite striking.  When you circle around the building you see that it is only a little more than a façade. But you clearly get the FLW feel with all of his signature features, including some of the original furnishings.  Quite astonishing.

And so went another day at the little town of Inuyama.  If I had time, I most likely would have gone to another theme park in town, called Little World.  Here in miniature, dozens of famous buildings from around the world have been recreated for fun and for education.  But as always, there is not enough time to do it all.

Good night.


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  1. That FLW building is beautiful….the Prairie Style kind of fits right into the Japanese architecture. I couldn’t help but go to the Internet and look up FLW and the influence Japan had on his work. Here are two interesting links: