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There’s a lot to love about Tokyo. Aside from the sheer energy of being the most bustling metropolis in Japan, it’s home to some amazing modern attractions, like the Skytree, Ebisu Beer Museum, and RocketNews24 offices.

Still, even we can appreciate the occasional longing for a simpler, slower-paced time. Thankfully, even if you don’t have a time machine, as long as you have access to the capital’s outstanding public transportation network, you can catch a glimpse of Japan’s traditional rural lifestyle at this beautiful open-air museum of thatched-roof houses that’s an easy half-day trip from Tokyo.

Yamanashi, one of the prefectures bordering Tokyo, is where you’ll find Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nenba, or just Nenba, for short. It’s also where you’ll find breathtaking scenery like this.

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With Mt. Fuji standing in the background, Nenba contains no less than 20 structures with the sort of thatched roofs that could still be seen decades after Japan became an industrialized nation. So while the complex, which is a little more than two and a half hours from Tokyo by bus (or just over three hours if you take the train part-way) is technically a museum, it feels more like a village as you stroll through the grounds.


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Actually, until about 50 years ago, Nenba was a farming community. In 1966, though, a typhoon tore through the region, severely damaging homes and causing the residents to pack up and relocate. As this sort of architecture became less and less common even in the Japanese countryside, though, cultural conservationists took up the cause of restoring the Nenba farmhouses. In 2006, their efforts led to the opening of the current facility, which gives visitors a peek at how the town used to be.

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The oldest building of the bunch is the Former Watanabe Residence. Although repairs were carried out on the farmhouse in 2008, the structure itself dates back to the late Edo Period, which came to a close in 1868.

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Farmers who lived in thatched-roof houses had a periodic maintenance program called ibusu, which involved lighting fires inside the building to produce fumigating smoke that would drive out bugs and mold from the reeds. Lacking residents, Nenba’s thatched roofs don’t go through this process, however, and have to be replaced every ten years or so at a cost of more than 10 million yen (US $83,300) per roof.

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▼ The Nenba visitors’ center

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▼ Even the doghouse has a thatched roof!

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Even if no one lives there now, there’s still a little bit of agriculture going on at Nenba, in the form of this compact wasabi field.

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That doesn’t mean your only options are growing your own food or growing hungry, however. A few of the buildings contain restaurants, such as the once called Satoyama that we stepped into for lunch.

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As promised by the signs outside, Satoyama serves udon and hoto, the noodle and vegetable stew that’s a regional specialty of Yamanashi. They also have great smelt tempura that’s cooked to just the right crispiness. If you’re craving something sweet, we highly recommend the oshiruko, a hot drink/soup made with the sweet red beans Japan calls anko (which, by the way, make everything better).

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▼ If you’re feeling inspired by the old-school surroundings, Japanese-style seating on tatami floor mats is also available.

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Other buildings contain art galleries showing works by area high school students and traditional craftsmen, and there’s also a souvenir shop with locally produced products.

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Nenba closes at dusk, so as the shadows grew longer we turned our feet towards the exit. And while we may not be ready to tear the roof off our office and replace it with a thatched one, given how quick and easy the trip out to Yamanashi is from Tokyo, it’s good to know that we can go back and see Nenba’s again when the mood strikes us.

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Museum information
Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nenba / 西湖いやしの里根場
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (March-November), 9:30-4:30 (December-February)
Closed Wednesdays during December, January, and February (but open January 28 and February 11, 2015)
Admission: Adults 350 yen, elementary and middle school students 150 yen
Parking: Free
Admission discount coupons (50 yen off)

Photos: RocketNews24