Ever wanted to walk the streets of Meiji Japan? Stroll along roads lined with extravagant Edo-period dwellings of fierce samurai?
You can! In Toyoma town in Tome City, located in the very north of Miyagi prefecture. Once a castle town ruled by thirteen generations of the Date clan (spanning a period of 300 years), today it remains a treasure trove of rich history, culture and tradition.
Perhaps a remnant of the strong castle defenses, the first challenge of visiting Toyoma is to correctly identify it by name. The Chinese characters for ‘Toyoma Town’ look like this: 登米町 . The town itself is located in greater Tome City: 登米市 .
Confused? So were we!
Even after asking several of the friendly locals we met during our visit, we still have no clear answers as to why their ancestors decided to take the same characters and attribute them a different pronunciation. Which came first, Toyoma or Tome? Who knows? It became apparent during the course of the day that people in Toyama just like to do things a little bit differently (and are quite proud of it!). It is a town with real character and its own distinct flavor, making it a stand-out from other small country towns in northern Japan.
For a start, the entire town is effectively a museum, also known as ‘Miyagi Meiji Mura’. The centre of town is dotted with incredibly rare, unique architecture and historic relics from the mid-Meiji period (as well as the odd Edo-period gem thrown in just for fun).
We only had less than a day to spend in Miyagi Meiji Mura and didn’t quite manage cover everything (though we gave it our best shot)! Here are some of the discoveries we made.
Our lovely local guide, Nakazawa-san!
Japanese-Western Fusion Architecture
Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japanese architects began using features of western-style architecture which came to be seen as symbols of Japan’s rapid modernisation. The result was the birth of a unique fusion of traditional Japanese architecture and elements of continental design. For example, the former Toyoma Police Station:
Built in 1889, the building features everything from Grecian pillars, western glass-pane windows and prison cells, to traditional Japanese roof tiles and interrogation rooms that reflect the Japanese cultural custom of apologizing from as low a level as physically possible. This building was used as the local Police Station up until 1968 and has now been recognized as an important cultural asset, due to the culture and history woven into its design.
However, the real star of the show is the former Toyoma Elementary School building (now Education Museum) which has also become the iconic symbol of the town.
Here you can take a guided tour around the old classrooms and facilities and experience exactly what it was like to be an elementary school student in the Meiji era. Complete with displays of original textbooks and other educational materials that were actually used, it is a real time warp!
Our favourite part of the experience was getting to dress-up in Showa period costume! These are traditional ‘Hakama’ skirts – we got to choose our favourite colour to try on and roam the grounds for a fun, atmospheric photo-shoot!
Old vs. New
Across the road from the Schoolhouse and Police Station lies a scenic street which you’d be forgiven for thinking was the set of a Japanese period drama or movie. Probably because it has been used for exactly that purpose, multiple times! This is the former samurai residence district which used to be home to some of the region’s highly ranked samurai.
We visited a beautiful residence called ‘Shunran-tei’. Here you can wander through the traditional style home and marvel at its architecture whilst enjoying a Japanese sweet with a bowl of freshly whisked macha green tea.
A short bus trip away is a real structural treasure – the Mori-Butai Stage, built for performances of traditional Noh theatre. The town of Toyoma has a long history of its own local variety of Noh theatre (Takigi Noh), which flourished under the rule of the Date clan who had a penchant for enjoying fine arts and culture. However, it wasn’t until very recently that the town built its own traditional Noh stage for these performances, which still occur twice a year in June and during the Autumn festival on the third Saturday of September.
The Mori Butai stage was designed by well renown Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, also responsible for designing the National Olympic Stadium for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The sleek design differs from traditional Noh stages in many ways, most noticeably that the stage itself is outside in the open elements. The traditional stage backdrop of a pine tree and bamboo grove are also painted in such a way as to incorporate nature into the structural design. You might notice that only the mid section of the pine tree and bamboo grove are painted, suggesting continuity above and beyond the stage into the surrounding forest.
Another mix of old and new is the fascinating Katsuko Takakura Art Museum. Born and raised in Toyoma, Katsuko Takakura is one of Miyagi Prefectures most well known and loved artists. A survivor of the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb blast in 1945, much of the artwork you will find in this museum reflects her love for her family, living things and life itself. Said to have been an incredibly vivacious character, her spirit can really be felt in this small but charming gallery of modern artwork in an historical neighbourhood.
After all that exploring, you will surely work up a pretty mean appetite in Miyagi Meiji Mura! Luckily, Tome City has some pretty hearty local specialties on offer. Two of the most famous delicacies of the region are ‘Aburafu-don’ and ‘Hatto’.
Aburafu-don resembles the Japanese crowd-pleasers ‘Katsu-don’ or ‘Oyako-don’…only without the meat!! In place of meat is ‘Aburafu’, which is a soft bread-like substance, in this case served with eggs in a sweet and salty sauce over rice. Kind of difficult to explain, but super tasty! A real home-style hearty meal to satisfy even the most ravenous of hunger.
And then there is Hatto! ‘Hatto’ are a flour-based dumpling that are often featured in soup-based dishes in most Tome City households.
So loved is Hatto that even Tome City’s mascot ‘Hatton’ is a big white dumpling on legs:
Hatto was even featured in a recent and highly entertaining PR video for the city, featuring one bad-ass Grandma fighting off some unwelcome impostors trying to take over the city and deny its residents of their favourite treat (many of the above buildings and Hatton himself also make a cameo appearance).
Tome City is just full of surprises! If you find yourself with a day or two in Miyagi Prefecture I would highly recommend Miyagi Meiji Village for a time slip with a twist!
MIYAGI MEIJI VILLAGE
Access: The easiest way to access Miyagi Meiji Village using public transport is to take the East Japan Express Bus (Tome Sogoshisho Line) from in front of the Miyagi Prefectural Office (Kencho Shiyakusho Mae) or from in front of Sendai Station (Sendai-eki Mae) in Sendai City, and get off at Toyoma Meiji Village (Toyoma-Meiji-Mura). It will take a little over 1 hour.
Miyagi Meiji Mura Homepage (Japanese): http://toyoma.co.jp/
MULTILINGUAL AUDIO GUIDEBOOK/PEN
Don’t speak Japanese? No problem! Tome City has you covered with their convenient Audio Guidebook/Pen system which provides useful information about all the best sites and attractions in town, in seven different languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, French, German and Spanish) !!
The Audio Guidebook and Pen will only set you back 500 yen for the day! They can be hired and returned at ‘Toyoma-no-Sato’, the main tourist information/local produce centre in the heart of Meiji Village.