Tomioka Silk Mill

Tomioka Silk Mill: World Heritage Site (2014) 富岡製糸場

Matthew Baxter

Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture, not far from Tokyo, was Japan's first mass-production silk mill, using techniques and experts brought over from France.

Having recently become a UNESCO World Heritage site (the first industrial site in Japan to be added), Tomioka is set to become a much more famous tourist spot in Japan. Tomioka Silk Mill is famous for its red brick buildings and interesting history that shaped the future of Japan.

East Cocoon Warehouse, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture.
East Cocoon Warehouse, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture
Silk-reeling Mill, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture.
Silk-reeling Mill, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture

History of Tomioka Silk Mill

At the beginning of the Meiji era (1868 to 1912) Japan was rapidly trying to modernize its industry and catch up with the more modern west. As part of this process the government wanted to introduce modern machinery for things such as the mass production of silk.

Tomioka was chosen as the site for the first such mill. A combination of many factors made the site ideal. The area around Tomioka had the space and environment to produce large quantities of silk cocoon and local towns had the required materials such as coal to power steam engines.

To help in the construction, training and management of the mill, the Meiji government decided to bring over advisers from France. Men such as Paul Brunat came over to direct the project, while many French women came over to train the Japanese women in how to use the new, modern machines.

The mill operated for about 115 years before production stopped, but the buildings have been well looked after since then.

Brunat House, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture.
Brunat House, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture
Workers residences, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture.
Workers residences, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture

Tomioka Silk Mill Highlights

Tomioka Silk Mill is not just one building, but a collection that made a little, miniature town when it was in use. There were sleeping quarters for workers, French engineers, medical facilities as well as many other structures.

The East Cocoon Warehouse is the main attraction, made from various local materials but built with French know how. The first floor was used for the ladies to work, while the second was used to store the dry silk cocoons. Nowadays, the building is used as a museum to show off the site's deep history. English translations of all the exhibits are available at the entrance.

Right at the back is the West Cocoon Warehouse. While not accessible to the public, it's worth having a look around it. Nearby there is a large chimney and a former boiler house. On the way there, the Cocoon Drying Room, which has totally collapsed on itself, is fascinating to have a little peek into.

Right next door is the Silk-reeling Mill. Seemingly endless lines of silk machines fill up this huge building, which were used to reel off the silk thread from the silk cocoons. There is a useful video presentation to explain how it all works.

The area is also dotted with many other buildings that supported the workers and their bosses. The French Female Instructors Dormitory and French Male Engineers Dormitory are both unique, pretty buildings, combining traditional Japanese and French architecture.

The French director's house is, as you would expect, far grander than the others. Brunat House is named after Paul Brunat, who was the mill's first director. The building was later used to train new workers. Brunat House is a very spacious building, with wide verandas and a nice little garden.

Nearby Attractions

Nukisaki Shrine is the main shrine nearby. It has stunning red and golden buildings, plus a treasure museum. It's a super quiet place to get away from all the noise in Tomioka. Take the train from Tomioka to Joshu-Ichinomiya Station and follow the signs from there.

Gunma Safari Park is also a short taxi ride away. There are over 100 hundred species of animals, including tigers, elephants and lions. You can get a taxi from Joshu Tomioka station or Takasaki Station.

Nukisaki Shrine, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture.
Nukisaki Shrine, Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture

Tomioka Silk Mill Details

There are guided tours in English & French (only by special appointment), but there are English audio guides for 200 yen at the entrance.

Tomioka Silk Mill
1-1 Tomioka
Tomioka City
Gunma Prefecture 370-2316
Tel: 0274 64 0005
Admission: 1,000 yen
Hours: 9am-5pm (last entrance 4.30pm); closed Wednesdays

Access - Getting to Tomioka Silk Mill

From Tokyo Station take a Joetsu Shinkansen to Takasaki (50 minutes). There are also cheaper trains from Ueno Station (100 minutes). From Shinjuku Station take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Takasaki. Karuizawa is one stop westbound from Takasaki.

From Narita Airport there are limousine highway buses to Takasaki taking about 3 hours. There are also limousine buses from Haneda Airport, Tokyo's other main airport.

There are also highway buses from Shinjuku, Shizuoka, Nagoya and overnight buses from Sendai, Osaka Nara and Kyoto run by Nippon Chuo Bus.

From Takasaki station change to the Joshin Electric Railway and take the train to Joshu Tomioka station (40 minutes). The trains on the Joshin Electric Railway are not very frequent, so check the train schedule before you go.

Tomioka Silk Mill is a 10 minute, well signposted walk from the station.

There are a number of good hotels in Takasaki if you wish to stay longer in this pleasant city.

Joshin Electric Railway train, Gunma Prefecture.
Joshin Electric Railway train, Gunma Prefecture

Matthew is a blogger and writer living in Tokyo, Japan. He writes for Super Cheap Japan, a travel guide dedicated to budget travel in Japan. You can read more of his work at www.supercheapjapan.com


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