Indigo Dyeing and Traditional Japanese Houses! Experience Edo-Period Japan on a Tour in Kawasaki

In Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, just 20 minutes away from central Tokyo's Shinjuku Station and 1 hour from Haneda Airport, is the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum. Here you can feel as though you've slipped back in time while experiencing elements of the Japanese lifestyle from centuries past. In order to best see all the highlights of the museum, including its rich collection of traditional Japanese houses and a hands-on indigo-dyeing experience, we chose to participate in a guided tour with a bilingual guide! Feel like leaving busy modern life behind for a morning to be transported back to a simpler time? Then read on to learn more about this awesome tour!


Things to Do

*This article was written in collaboration with the Kanto District Transport Bureau, local governments, and local railway companies.

About Kawasaki

Located in the northeastern part of Kanagawa Prefecture, Kawasaki is bordered by Tokyo to the north, across the Tama River, and by Yokohama to the south. Its location between the two major cities makes it a very popular place to live. During the post-war economic boom, it formed a part of the Keihin Industrial Region and attracted many workers, and the area is still home to many long-standing restaurants, sento (public bathhouses), and other historic locations that sprung up to serve them. On the other hand, the city has become a commercial hub and has developed into a very comfortable city to live in. It is this unique mix of old and new which makes Kawasaki a very attractive city indeed!

Kawasaki's Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum is aimed at smaller audiences of Japan lovers, history buffs, or architecture fans rather than casual first-time tourists. In the tour we participated in, the tour guide plays a vital role in translating the indigo-dyeing instructions to English and pointing out what to look for in the folk houses. For details of the cool things that we saw and did on the tour, read on!

Meeting Up at Odakyu Railway's Mukogaoka-yuen Station

We met at Mukogaoka-yuen Station on a crisp winter morning at 9:30. There, our tour guide laid out the tour’s schedule and some points to keep in mind, before guiding us onto a local bus that would take us to the Museum.

When we visited, the crisp air was decorated with the occasional birdsong. The area around the Folk House Museum is lush with beautiful natural scenery that changes with the season, and we enjoyed the colors of the trees on the path leading to our first stop.  

Design a Cloth Handkerchief With Indigo Dye, the Traditional Way!

As we entered the workshop which was our first stop, it was clear that they were taking COVID-19 prevention measures seriously, as all staff and guests were required to wear a mask, have their temperature checked, and sanitize their hands. 

Indigo dyeing, called "aizome" in Japanese, is performed by dipping cloth into a potent liquid made from knotweed. When exposed to the air, oxidation occurs and stains the cloth a dark blue color. This simple and traditional process has been handed down over generations and is a part of old Japanese culture. A beautiful gradation of indigo colors can be produced, from pale to deep blue, and this was supposedly called "Japan blue" by foreign visitors to Japan during the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912).

We were guided through the process by some kind ladies who worked at the workshop and were experienced in the practice. We’d been forewarned that the indigo ink can splatter, and it can easily create stains in clothing that can't be washed off (this is, after all, why it works as a dye!). We were told we should wear darker-colored items that weren’t too valuable, or bring aprons with us. What we should have been prepared for is that the little house keeps its doors and windows open for ventilation (another coronavirus measure), so we should have brought more layers! Other wintertime visitors should take note.

They offer the options of dyeing handkerchiefs, bandanas, and mini-tote bags. Since there were three of us participating, we opted for one of each! (You can also bring your own items to dye, including cloth masks, but they must be of certain materials for it to work, so let your tour guide know beforehand if you’d like to go down this route.)

How it works is that the whole object is eventually soaked in the indigo dye, so we used objects like clips, azuki beans, rubber bands, and mini-film canisters to keep certain parts of the cloth from making contact with the dye. The little objects, combined with methods of folding, create white patterns in the indigo product. (Some objects can be removed partway through the dyeing process, yielding patterns that are a lighter indigo color.)

I thought it would be possible to plan out a fancy design, but by the time you’re halfway through, and your cloth is a tangled clump of clips and sticks and marbles and canisters, you’re not really in a position to visualize the end product at all.

Which is the point, of course. Even if you use the same little objects in the same configuration, each piece will turn out differently.  You’re meant to enjoy each line and gradient that are the results of your particular handiwork, combined with the majesty of the deep shade of indigo. This, I would learn, was wabi-sabi - the traditional Japanese aesthetic sense that calls for an appreciation of imperfection.

As you begin the soaking process (before it, to be honest), you do notice the pungent smell of the indigo. (Indigo plants have to be fermented before they can be put to use as a dye.) But this is something you get over quickly, and once I did, swirling my creation around in the intensely-colored, twinkling liquid became a calming experience.

After removing the fabric from the dye for the first time, its color begins to change from green to indigo as it comes into contact with the air. This is repeated twice before finishing with a rinse of water. When we were finally able to see our end products, we were pleasantly surprised! I was skeptical that it would end up looking like what I’d imagined, but after removing all the rubber bands and clips, the finished product was revealed and was beautiful beyond our expectations.

The facility also displays indigo products made by the staff, which use a greater variety of methods and are quite beautiful and fascinating.

The indigo dyeing experience was fun and left us with an awesome souvenir in hand, and we would definitely like to do it again in the future!

Explore Traditional Japanese Houses From Various Eras and Regions

Next, our tour moved on to the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum. the museum, which opened in 1967, is a collection of 25 traditional Japanese houses situated in the midst of natural scenery, among which 7 are designated as Important Cultural Properties. These houses have been moved here from all over Japan, though primarily from within Kanagawa Prefecture and other parts of eastern Japan. They reflect the different architectural styles of various centuries (17th through early 20th) and each of Japan’s regions.

The Folk House Museum is located within the grounds of Ikuta Ryokuchi park. The attractions of the park itself aren't on the tour itinerary, but throughout the tour, you can still enjoy the peace and quiet of the natural scenery.

Examining 25 houses may seem daunting, but thankfully the tour guide knows exactly how much detail to give, adjusting with the group’s level of interest.

One of the museum’s oldest displays is the Kitamura Residence, which was built in 1687 and was located in central Kanagawa. It features a large kitchen and living room, and a very open design; its walls and floors are largely made of bamboo. Its thatched roof, a commonality across many of these houses, looked far more weighty and impressive up close than in photos. Indeed, even as these houses (and the lives led within them) look quite sparse to our modern eyes, I found that the actual structures themselves were quite impressive feats for a pre-industrial society, particularly those houses with a second floor.

The Hirose Residence is a product of the 17th century and was transported here from Yamanashi Prefecture. Most thatched roofs from this period were in the form of "hipped" roofs, which slope in four directions, but this house is "gabled", meaning its roof only has two slopes. This was a difficult feat for the time!

The roof at the entrance was extremely low, and we had to lower our heads to enter. My initial assumption was this was because people were shorter in past centuries, but it seems the entrance was low even then. The reason for this was apparently that there was a mountain in the vicinity, the Yatsugatake, and that a strong wind would blow down it during the winter (the Yatsugatake-oroshi). The low roof served as protection against it.

There was a Water Mill, a mid-19th century structure from Nagano Prefecture in central Japan. As our tour guide explained to us, water wheels didn’t generate electricity back then but rather had the function of processing wheat, rice, and straw. One characteristic of Japanese construction from this time was that metallic nails were rarely ever used; rather, buildings were held together by very puzzle-like joints that slotted pieces of wood together. This accomplishment was particularly impressive for something on the scale of the water wheel.

The grand finale was the Hara Residence, relatively new and more extravagant than the other houses within the park, as it was owned by a local wealthy landowner. It dates back to 1911 and originates from the same Kawasaki City where the Museum is located. You can fully walk around this one, and it appears much more recognizable to today’s audiences than the other houses, from the glass windows to the chandeliers to an early decorative clock from Seiko. Yet, central heating was still yet to come, and making a fire in the fireplace was the way that people stayed warm.

Each of the houses in the museum told the tale of its time and place. Different local lifestyles meant different machines were kept in the house. Different local climates (like levels of humidity) meant different building materials. The complexity and grandeur of each house depended significantly on its owner’s social status.

There was even a gassho-zukuri (thatched-roof) house, brought over from central Japan. Many tourists travel all the way to Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture to capture this type of rustic structure emblematic of old Japan, but there’s a perfectly reassembled example here as well, this close to Tokyo! (There is even a restaurant on the ground floor of this thatched-roof house that serves soba noodles and is the museum’s sole restaurant.)

A Pleasant Walk Through Nature and History

In some houses, we found little persimmons hanging from window sills, which served as a store of preserved dried fruits for the winter season. One house had in its garden a water feature called a "shishiodoshi," where a small bamboo tube slowly filled up with flowing water until it tipped over, letting out a satisfying thock as the tube returned to its position. Appreciating this sort of simplicity and austerity in everyday life, we were told, was also wabi-sabi.

The path through the museum winds down a forested hill surrounded by the calm of nature. The surrounding park acted as a buffer between us and all of the sights and sounds of modern society, allowing us to be fully immersed in the atmosphere of feudal Japan, the sort of life that you would find in a historical drama. Had we visited in midsummer, I might very well have had a different impression of these houses - perhaps even a desire to live in one for a week to unplug from society - but visiting on a cold day really underscored how different life used to be and how much we take for granted.

With my gratitude for the luxuries of modernity replenished, we concluded the tour with a quick peek into the museum gallery. Our tour guide helped to explain the exhibits, which showed various roofs, walls, and other architectural elements of these houses and provided an excellent complement to the physical exhibits!

The tour finishes in about 4 hours, so if you start in the morning, you might want to stay after the tour finishes to slurp noodles at the museum’s restaurant before spending the afternoon however you please. We opted to walk back to Mukogaoka-yuen Station, chatting with the amiable tour guide as we slowly re-entered modern society.

If you’re a fan of traditional Japanese culture, or interested in Japanese architecture, you will love this tour. It offers a unique experience that can't be found at most other traditional sightseeing places, and is definitely worth checking out!

After the Folk-House Museum Tour

Within the Ikuta Ryokuchi park, where the Folk-House Museum is located, you can find other attractions such as the Fujiko・F・Fujio Museum, the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum, or the Rose Garden.

■ Fujiko・F・Fujio Museum
Fujiko・F・Fujio is a manga artist known for creations such as Doraemon and Perman, and at this museum, you can immerse yourself in his dreamy, wondrous, and playful world.

■ Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum

■ Ikuta Ryokuchi Park Rose Garden

■ Odakyu Noborito Station
Noborito Station on the Odakyu Line is a very unusual station, where characters from the Doraemon anime series feature very prominently in the design. Characters adorn the station's walls and benches, so that you can immerse yourself in the world of Doraemon when you visit!

Further Afield in Kawasaki

The Kawasaki Station area can be accessed from Mukogaoka-yuen by taking the Odakyu Line to Noborito and then the JR Nambu Line, and it is one of Kanagawa's most lively neighborhoods. There's enough there to keep you entertained all day!

■ Kawasaki Ukiyo-e Gallery, Saito Fumio Collection
This gallery's exhibitions are drawn from a rich collection that includes some very rare items. It is a well-known gallery both domestically and internationally.

■ Night View of the Kawasaki Factory Zone
When visiting Kawasaki, one thing you absolutely must do is see the nighttime view of the factories, which are on Kawasaki's coastline and part of the Keihin Industrial Zone. These plants are illuminated during the night so that work can continue, and this ethereal nighttime scene has become quite popular. There is a cruise tour of the area that departs from Kawasaki Station.

■ Kawasaki Racecourse
This race course holds racing events on about 60 days per year, and among those, there are about 50 nighttime races held between April and December, where the illuminated racetrack contrasted against the night sky creates a dramatic sight. Every year they hold the Kawasaki Racecourse Autumn Festival, which draws many visitors.

Staying the Night at Kawasaki

If you're looking to stay at Kawasaki, visit the local tourism website's hotels page here!


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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