Through constant collaboration and cooperation, the Jobu Silk Road drove Japan to modernize and internationalize.
Discoveries come into view as one follows the road.
The Silk Road is not a thing of the past, but a road continuing on to the next generation.
Embark on a journey along the Jobu Silk Road from the southwest part of Gunma Prefecture to northern Saitama Prefecture.
The town of Shimonita is the location of Arafune Cold Storage, one of the assets comprising the World Heritage Site “Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites.” Construction of Arafune Cold Storage began in 1905 and continued into the Taisho period. It was a silkworm egg storage facility consisting of three large storehouses capable of holding up to 1.1 million silkworm-egg papers, making it the largest cold-air type facility in the world. It is located at the western end of Shimonita in a mountainous area at an altitude of 840 meters. Cold air with a yearly average temperature of approximately 2 degrees Celsius blows out from between the rocks. In order to utilize the cold air, a stone masonry structure was built on the slope of the mountain over which storehouse-style structures were constructed to house the silkworm eggs. Regrettably, the housing structures were lost in the 1950s and no longer exist. A model of Arafune Cold Storage is on display at the Shimonita Museum of History, showing the entirety of the facility. It is possible to tour Arafune Cold Storage, but the site is closed between December 1 and March 31. Full-time staff are available to provide detailed commentary.
Shimonita Station, the terminal station of the Joshin Electric Railway, is the closest station to Arafune Cold Storage. (Arafune Cold Storage is approximately 30 minutes by taxi from the station.) Adjacent to the station are the Shimonita Storehouses (formerly Kozuke Railway-affiliated facilities). The Shimonita Storehouses are two brick storehouses built in 1921 and 1926. The storehouses were used for storing cocoons purchased from farmers. Cocoons were then shipped on the Kozuke Railway.
The Usui Raw Silk Manufacturing Agricultural Cooperative Association and Usui Pass Railway assets such as Megane-bashi Bridge still remain in Annaka City, next to Shimonita. The city is also home to the former Usui-sha Headquarters Office, a base for cooperative silk milling which exported enough silk to move the world.
Tomioka Silk Mill, the symbol of the Jobu Silk Road, is located in Tomioka City.
Tomioka Silk Mill was established in 1872 as the first fully-fledged, large-scale mechanized silk mill in Japan. Many of the structures on the vast 55,000-square-meter site remain in the same condition as in the early years of the mill. The east and west cocoon storehouses use a “wood frame, brick construction” structure, evoking a blend of Japanese- and Western-style architecture of the time. On the arch of the side gate of the east cocoon storehouse, a keystone bears the inscription “Meiji 5” (1872). The silk-reeling hall is still equipped with the automatic silk-reeling machines left when the mill ceased operations in 1987. The hall originally housed French silk-reeling machines for 300 basins, where “factory girls” with their clothes tied back using tasuki reeled silk. In the year the mill was designated as a World Heritage Site (2014), three structures—the reeling hall, east cocoon storehouse and west cocoon storehouse—were designated as National Treasures of Japan. On the site, portable audio guides and guided tours by staff are available.
While in the area, take the chance to visit the graves of Tomioka Silk Mill “factory girls” at Ryuko-ji Temple and Kaigen-ji Temple in Tomioka City. Elsewhere, a large bronze lantern (a Gunma silk heritage monument) dedicated by businesspeople connected to the silk industry can be seen at Nukisaki-jinja Shrine, where the women workers used to offer up prayers.
The nearest station to Tomioka Silk Mill, Joshu-Tomioka Station, is on the Joshin Electric Railway, originally opened as the Kozuke Railway in 1895. The station building was rebuilt in 2014 to better serve as the gateway to a World Heritage Site. The unified design of the station building, plaza, and the surrounding area projects a regional aesthetic and has been highly acclaimed, receiving both the Good Design Award and the Architectural Institute of Japan Prize.
Raw silk production flourished in Fujioka City for long ages, and the city was known for silk products going by the names Hino Silk and Fujioka Silk. Located on Edo period highway routes such as the Shimonita Kaido Road and Jukkoku Kaido Road, the area prospered as a collection and distribution point for raw silk in the early modern era, and there were thriving silk markets. Markets were held 12 times a month, and as early as 1781, the market in Fujioka had the largest transaction volume in all of Joshu and Bushu Provinces. The areas known as Fueki-dori and Yurugido in which these markets were located (in the vicinity of Kozakura) are dotted with old storehouses, and evoke the atmosphere of bygone times. Takayama (formerly Takayama-mura) in Fujioka City is home to Takayama-sha Sericulture School, one of the assets comprising the World Heritage Site “Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites.”
Takayama-sha was a sericulture association and sericulture education institution founded in 1884 by Chogoro Takayama, who established the seion-iku sericulture method balancing ventilation and temperature control. The school sent highly qualified graduates around the country to teach sericulture, achieving great results and disseminating the seion-iku method. The association’s main building with sericulture rooms was built in 1891. When Takayama-sha Sericulture School was built in the town, this original structure served as a detached classroom. In addition to the sericulture rooms, the extant structures include a mulberry storehouse, the nagayamon-style gate, a cookhouse, and toilet. The sericulture rooms were for hands-on seion-iku training and are equipped with facilities for ventilation and temperature/humidity control including three yagura towers, ventilation openings, and a sunken hearth. Takayama-sha Sericulture School is owned and maintained by Fujioka City. It is available for tours of the inside and staffed with full-time guides.
Fujioka City also has other sericulture farmhouses used by Takayama-sha as detached classrooms, such as the Nuishima residence and the birthplace of Kikujiro Machida (both private residences). Monuments honoring Kikujiro Machida, who succeeded Chogoro Takayama, stand on the grounds of Suwa-jinja Shrine near the area where silk markets were opened.
The sericulture industry flourished in Isesaki City—the place where Isesaki Meisen silk fabrics originated.
The Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm, one of the assets comprising the World Heritage Site “Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites,” is located in Sakaishimamura in Isesaki City. The Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm was built in 1863 to serve as a main building with sericulture room by Yahei Tajima, who systematically perfected the seiryo-iku method, taking advantage of natural ventilation and rearing silkworms in near-natural conditions. Based on the ideas of seiryo-iku the building featured a yagura tower structure for ventilation on the tile roof, and became the prototype for modern sericulture farmers. It was a long and large building, 25 meters wide and more than 9 meters deep. In addition to the windows of the second-floor sericulture room, the venting windows of the yagura could be opened or closed to control the temperature in the sericulture room. The Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm is a private residence, and although the on-site mulberry storage area is open to visitors, the inside of the main house is not open for public viewing. Isesaki City has set up an information center nearby with models, documents, and explanatory panels on exhibit. There are also scheduled tours of the local area.
The area around the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm is dotted with yagura-equipped sericulture farmhouses, forming a historic landscape. In Naganuma near Sakaishimamura, the Komoda family residence (a sericulture farm, and now a private residence and Gunma silk heritage site) was utilized as the sericulture training facility, Shinjinkan.
Shimamura Church (a registered Tangible Cultural Property and Gunma silk heritage site) of the United Church of Christ in Japan, is also located near the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm. The church was built in 1897 as a result of Shimamura residents in the silkworm egg business encountering Christianity through the export of silkworm eggs. From the early modern era, buying and selling of raw silk had flourished in the former Sakaimachi area of Isesaki City (in the vicinity of Sakaimachi Station). The Tobu Railway opened in 1910, and in 1919 the Sakai Red Brick Storehouse (a Gunma silk heritage site) was constructed in front of Sakaimachi Station for storing cocoons. On the west side of the storehouse, the textile manufacturer Nakajiro Kaneko built a factory in the early Showa period for weaving Isesaki Meisen silk fabrics for export. Today, the factory site has been turned into a library and the residence is now available for public use under the name Kinu-no-Yakata (“House of Silk”).
In the early modern era, Honjo City prospered as the largest post-station town along the Nakasendo route, and from the Meiji period onwards it flourished as a production center for raw silk and silk fabric.
The Kyoshin-sha Sericulture School (a Heritage of Industrial Modernization site) was built near Kodama Station on the Hachiko Line in 1894 by Kuzo Kimura, the younger brother of Chogoro Takayama of Takayama-sha Sericulture School. It served as a training facility for the ippa ondan-iku sericulture method propounded by Kimura, the founder of the sericulture association Kyoshin-sha. It is more than 20 meters wide and features four yagura towers on the roof for ventilation.
Of the four sericulture rooms inside, three feature exhibits of archival materials. The remaining room is used for demonstrating the ippa ondan-iku system of temperature and humidity control using charcoal fire and ventilation. The site has full-time staff who provide regularly scheduled explanations.
There is a group of sericulture farmhouses called Takamado-no-Sato south of Kodama Station in Higashi Kodaira in the Akihira region (Kodaira, Kodama-machi). These farmhouses have takamado (“high windows”) for ventilation on their roofs—takamado are the same structures as yagura. Depending on the region, they are also called tenso, kemudashi, or koshiyane. The beautiful scene of these houses lined up in a row led Saitama Prefecture to award them the Aya-no-kuni Scenery Prize in 2008.
There is a currently operating sericulture facility, in the Kanaya region (Kanaya, Kodama-machi) near Takamado-no-Sato, where newly hatched silkworms are reared cooperatively by sericulture farmers. The Old Brick Warehouse of the Commercial Bank of Honjo is also located in Honjo City. This is a registered Tangible Cultural Property of Japan, built in 1896 and used to store raw silk and cocoons. In nearby Kamikawa, the premises of Japan Mica Industrial feature the Hara Wataruse Silk Mill cocoon storehouse, a silk-reeling factory, and other extant facilities once owned by Hara GMK, the operator of Tomioka Silk Mill at one time.
Fukaya City has historic sites relating to Eiichi Shibusawa and Atsutada Odaka, who were involved in the founding and management of Tomioka Silk Mill.
“Nakanchi,” the former Shibusawa residence was built in 1895. The roof features the same type of yagura for ventilation as on the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm. The 16.5-square-meter room where Eiichi Shibusawa lodged when he returned home is still intact in the back of the house. Another Shibusawa-related site is Seishido, a relocated and reconstructed building first built in Setagaya, Tokyo by volunteers from the First National Bank, where Shibusawa served as president. The building commemorated Shibusawa’s 77th birthday. Other sites include Seifu Tei, a building constructed to commemorate the 70th birthday of Yunosuke Sasaki, the second president of the bank, and the former brick-making facility of Nihon Renga Seizo KK.
Atsutada Odaka’s birthplace, a house built in the late Edo period, is still standing. The house is known as Aburaya (“the oil shop”), because in addition to farming, the family pressed and sold rapeseed oil. The house is built in the typical merchant house style for this region. It is said that the yagura on the roof are from the Meiji period or later. Odaka would later open an academy at this house—one can still imagine the young Shibusawa walking to his studies here.
Fukaya City and Tomioka City established a friendship-city relationship in 2013, a relationship one might say was mediated by Shibusawa and Odaka.
The Kumagaya Factory, in Kumagaya City was the last silk mill owned by Katakura Industries and remained in operation until 1994. The cocoon storehouse was converted to the Katakura Silk Commemorative Museum (a Heritage of Industrial Modernization site), which opened in 2000. Inside the museum are exhibits featuring machines and tools actually used in the factory, so visitors can learn about the processes involved in silk milling. The purpose of the museum is to preserve and pass on the history of Katakura Industries’ more than 120 years in the silk industry. The Minorikawa multiple-spool silk-reeling machines which produced Minorikawa Raw Silk, and automatic silk-reeling machines of the same type used at Tomioka Silk Mill are on permanent display.
It is said that when the mills were operational, Katakura Industries’ Tomioka Factory (Tomioka Silk Mill) and Kumagaya Factory exchanged technical information and were friendly rivals competing to make the highest quality raw silk. The museum conveys the spirit of the modern silk industry of the Jobu Silk Road.