Everything You Would Want to Know about the Tomioka Silk Mill

The history and culture of Japan is one that is so diverse that you will find all kinds of weird and unique attractions there as a result. This is a great thing because it means that some of the attractions found in Japan only exists and can be enjoyed in Japan. There are a number of unique attractions to be found here like the anime and several historical locations. If you are looking for an attraction that had a great impact on Japan, you need not look farther than the Tomioka Silk Mill found in the Gunma Prefecture of Japan.

By C1815 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

The History of Japan’s Tomioka Silk Mill in the Gunma Prefecture

Without even considering the detailed history of this establishment, it can already be deemed as a worthy place to go to in Japan because it was Japan’s first modern silk factory. It started construction in the year of 1871 and it was officially established in the year of 1872. Japan had been trading their silk way before this silk mill was built and the silk created such a large demand which Japan obviously wanted to meet. They started to rush making their famous Japanese raw silk due to their focus on quantity over quality and it was a mistake by them because the decrease in the quality of the product they were trading hurt they reputation tremendously.

By NY066 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With their competitors milking this opportunity, the national government had to act fast to correct the mistake and so they decided to build a model filature facility that would be equipped with the most up-to-date machinery available in the silk industry at the time. This facility would be the Tomioka Silk Mill and its precise purpose was to simply improve the quality of their raw silk.

During those times in Japan, the Meiji Restoration’s Industrial Revolution was on-going so there were a lot of foreign experts working in Japan to help them progress faster. They had people coming in from France and other parts of Europe to work here. With regards to this silk mill facility, it would be the French trading expert named Paul Brunat that would ultimately ensure the success of this facility. The equipment and facilities were an easy thing to arrange because they were just objects that would work anywhere you placed them. What Paul Brunat brought to the table was his research on the most suitable location for such an establishment in the Kanto region.

This was an essential decision to make because the location of such an establishment would determine the time it would take to complete the whole process of manufacturing and trading the product. The town of Tomioka was the one he selected because it had a great transportation infrastructure that made it incredibly easy to send the silk to the Yokohama Port for immediate trading. A silk mill for quality control over the primary trading product of a country would need a huge land to stand on and Tomioka had this as well. Lastly, the cool climate that provided a natural cool storage for the conservation of silkworm eggs and its close proximity to large bodies of fresh water that is needed in the process of making raw silk helped a lot in reducing the overall cost of the process.

At the start of operations, the silk mill only had around 150 silk reeling machines and about 400 workers that operated the machines. If by any chance, you would want to know how the life of these workers was, you’ll feel lucky to find out that there is actually a worker that recorded her life as a worker there. Her name was Wada Ei and the tour around the silk mill would show you this piece of history.

Sadly, the Tomioka Silk Mill seemed to always be in some sort of financial stress despite the fact that they had fixed the quality issue of the Japanese raw silk product as well as the fact that they were able to reestablish themselves by regaining their reputation as the best place to get raw silk products in the world. This financial stress led the Japanese government to privatize the silk mill. At first, it was transferred to the Mitsui Finance Group in the year of 1893. Almost a decade after, it was then transferred to the Hara Company. It stayed under the control of the Hara Company for about 4 decades and then it was again transferred to the Katakura Industries Co., Ltd, which was the largest silk reeling company in Japan during that time.

It stayed in operation during and after World War II and in the year of 1987, just a month after February, the Tomioka Silk Mill officially closed. This isn’t bad news though because it was eventually honored as a historical site by the Japanese government in the year of 2005. The state returned ownership to the city of Tomioka in the following years.

How the Tomioka Silk Mill Became a World Heritage Site and How It is related to the Other Industrial Revolution Sites

By yellow bird woodstock from JAPAN (富岡製糸場・繰糸場) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Considering the information mentioned earlier, it becomes pretty clear how this silk mill contributed to the Industrial Revolution of the Meiji period. The building and establishment itself was a product of this industrialization and it gave back by returning the quality and reputation of Japan’s raw silk products back to the top of the list. In the year of 2014, it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as a cultural site not just because of its contributions to the Japanese economy but also because of all the Japanese history that had happened here.

Although it was built a several decades into the Industrial Revolution of the Meiji Restoration as well as the fact that it wasn’t listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was under the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution”, it is still closely related to these establishments and structures because of how it helped in the improvement of the overall economy of Japan. This is the primary thing they have in common. Even if the silk mill had nothing to do with iron and steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, or coal mining, it did keep a massive portion of International trading alive because of the great quality control it provided the raw silk products.

It also pioneered the establishment of the textile industry as Japan’s most vital industry because even after the Meiji period, particularly during the 20th century, the Japanese raw silk products remained to be one of the international trade commodities. In addition to this, it indirectly paved the way for today’s car manufacturers to evolve and perfect examples of these are the companies like Toyota and Nissan who first were into the loom making business before moving on to their car manufacturing.

The Operating Hours of the Tomioka Silk Mill

By nesnad [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

This place is very well-preserved. With this being said, going here would really make you feel like you went back in time. It isn’t its 1872 version but it still does hold a big chunk of the Japanese trading industries history within its walls. There are 3 main buildings to see on your visit here. One of them is where the silk reeling happens while the other 2, located on the east and west sections of the vicinity, are where the silkworm cocoons are stored until ready for use.

You also might want to check out the Brunat House which is where Paul Brunat and his family lived as he developed this prestigious silk mill. It is quite a luxurious home and may make you realize just how much he earned from the job he did or how thankful the Japanese government was for his help and expertise. You will also be an old-school chimney here that was used for burning coal once upon a time. This was done to power up the steam engines of the mil, much like how you saw the coalmen in the Titanic burn coal to speed up that huge metal ship.

The silk mill is open from 9 AM to 5 PM and they only close from December 29 until December 31. There is an admission fee worth 1000 yen to pay but the tour can be an optional thing because you can use your phone to get the necessary information as you tour the area. If you aren’t used to that kind of touring, you can opt to get a tour guide for 200 yen but they only speak Japanese. Luckily, they also offer good English audio guides here for 200 yen as well so if you can’t speak Japanese, it would be your best bet.

Getting to this place is quite easy since it is near a lot of train lines. If you are near a JR railway, whether you are in Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya, just get on a train that will bring you to the Takasaki Station. If you are on the Joetsu Shinkansen, your goal would be to reach the Takasaki Station as well. Once there, you will simply get on a train through the Joshin Railway to get to the Joshu-Tomioka Station. From there, the Tomioka Silk Mill would be a 10 to 15-minute walk.

This attraction is incredibly accessible and it is a pretty affordable one. You don’t need a hotel because all you really need to pay for it the ticket and the admission fee. What you get in return is a tour around a historical and cultural attraction in Japan that you cannot possibly experience anywhere else in the world. Knowing the story behind this building makes it all the more interesting because you will be able to appreciate the establishment sincere if you also know the struggles behind it. If you’re craving for uncommon knowledge, this place would be a great place to start in quenching that thirst.