“Have you got any plans for tomorrow?”
“I want to DO something. I worked so hard last month—we both did—and next week will be crazy busy again, but I’ve got this week off and I want to DO something.” Normally when the weather is good and neither of us has to work, we take a long walk around the neighborhood, which is both good for us and free, but I wanted to DO something.
“I don’t know. A museum or something, something we haven’t done before. Let me go see what I can find on the interwebs.”
What I found was the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. According to their website, “Since the Edo period, Tokyo has lost many valuable historical buildings because of fires, floods, earthquakes and warfare. Today, the city’s valuable cultural heritage is still being eroded due to social and economic changes.” That’s true enough. Just the other day, we were on one of our epic walks and came across this:
See the shape of the supporting beam just under the roof? Gorgeous. Many old Japanese farm houses feature that type of construction. I was surprised to see it in a city house and saddened to see that it was being deconstructed, which made the open air museum sound that much more appealing. I had never even heard of it, for one thing, and it was situated in a vast park I had also never heard of. Apparently, Koganei Park is the second largest park in the metropolitan area and has been enjoyed by the public since 1954. The only one bigger is Kasai Rinkai Park, which is an upstart having only opened in 1989, but it does have views of both the sea and Disneyland, and one of those oversized Ferris Wheels, and an aquarium with a pretty impressive tuna tank. OK. I take back the upstart comment. They’re both pretty cool.
I’m a big fan of both parks and architecture, so off we went. It took four trains and a bus to get there, but it was worth it. The park is truly vast:
The bright green bit is the museum, the rest is park, and the museum itself is 17 acres, so that gives you some idea of how big it is. The park also has nearly 2000 cherry trees. The day was one of those rare springtime gifts from nature, clear and sunny, warm but not too warm. Sakura viewing season was nearly over, but there was just enough of a breeze to send the petals swirling and fluttering toward the earth, a sight that always makes me want to clap my hands and dance around like a little girl.
The museum itself was a collection of old houses from different parts of Tokyo that the metropolitan government deemed worthy of relocation, preservation, and exhibition to the public. It was also a little overwhelming. I was not expecting such a concentration of elegance and beauty. Maybe it was the perfect weather, or the joy of not having to work, but it seemed like it was impossible to take a bad picture. You could go inside all the buildings and wander around the rooms, losing yourself in the awareness of past lives and the waves of change Japan has experienced over time.
The west part of the museum featured the oldest houses, thatch roofed wooden farm houses, lovely to look at but hell to live in. They’re cold, dark and drafty and there’s nothing but sliding paper doors to divide the rooms, so the occupants had little to no privacy. Plus, I know from visiting the Nihon Minkaen (Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, another very cool place) that the smell of thatch in the heat of summer will make you retch. Still, the craftsmanship alone makes these buildings museum-worthy.
As you move toward the east, the houses are newer, and that’s where the astonishment sets in. The Japanese are truly adept at absorbing and adapting foreign things. An otherwise thoroughly western style room with elegant parquet floors might feature tiny-paned windows echoing the shoji paper window screens of earlier design.
One house had an A frame design that reeked of Frank Lloyd Wright, if the man himself had been Japanese. The little yellow house strongly reminded me of Miss Nancy’s house, except for the tiled roof. (She was my grandfather’s southern belle girlfriend from North Middleton, Kentucky.)
I think that’s what inspired such astonishment. Growing up, the one thing my parents had in common was a love of old buildings and antiques. On family vacations, we spent a lot of time visiting old houses and historical museums, so these buildings felt sort of like old friends, except for the nuanced and delightfully unexpected differences in culture and tradition. Almost all new houses are built in Western style these days, including all of the five (5!) being built around my house right now, but it’s rare to find old Western style Japanese houses.
The east part of the museum is a somewhat Disneylandesque collection of shops and other businesses, mostly from the 1920’s but some were older.
My grannyphone pedometer says we walked 16,659 steps, 10.8km, that day. Needless to say, our feet were tired, but our eyes and hearts were full of images that will stick with us, and getting away from the familiar always jump-starts my joie de vivre. It was a pink petal paradise, with sakura ice cream providing the final, perfect tweak.