Translated by Shinji Takaramura
Day Trip From Tokyo To The Historic Tomioka Silk Mill In Gunma
Written by Kunihisa
The city of Tomioka in Gunma is a great destination for a day trip from Tokyo. It features historic sites such as Tomioka Silk Mill, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a building renovated by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Read on to learn about other amazing places to visit in Tomioka.
Visiting the Charming City of Tomioka in Gunma
Gunma Prefecture is known for its beautiful natural surroundings and nostalgic townscapes. Kusatsu Onsen and Tomioka Silk Mill, a world heritage site, are popular local attractions. Actually, Tomioka also features a building renovated by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and a Shinto shrine with a spectacular view.
Let us introduce a day trip itinerary of Tomioka recommended by the MATCHA staff.
1. Okatte Ichiba - Renovated by Kengo Kuma
From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Takasaki Station, switch to the Joshin Dentetsu Line, and get off at Joshu-Tomioka Station. From here, it's just a three-minute walk to our first destination, Okatte Ichiba.
Kengo Kuma, the architect who designed Tomioka City Hall across the street, renovated this building by adding a simple, elegant touch. It will change your impression of Gunma.
Okatte Ichiba is located inside one of the warehouses built during the Meiji Period.
In the Gunma dialect, "okatte" is the word for kitchen. Residents can purchase not only local goods but also fresh farm products delivered from neighboring areas. This makes Okatte Ichiba indispensable to their daily life.
State-of-the-art carbon fibers are used for seismic reinforcement against earthquakes. The interior has a minimalistic design and a nostalgic atmosphere. The produce looks tasty in the natural light seeping through the windows.
Exhibitions by various artists are held periodically in one corner of the building. There is also a cafe that serves light meals.
Picture courtesy of Okatte Ichiba
Tsukiichi Marche is held on the second Sunday of each month. The aroma of fresh bread and coffee permeates through the venue. Young local farmers participating in the market also offer recipes for vegetable dishes. Come here to enjoy local hospitality!
For further information, please check the official site of Okatte Ichiba (Japanese).
2. Haruta Kimono Store - A Very Special Local Kimono Shop
Before heading to Tomioka Silk Mill, stop by the over one hundred-year-old Haruta Kimono Store. Visitors can wear kimonos loved by local women back in the day. The history of this red brick building will feel more tangible if you explore it wearing a kimono.
The kimono rental costs 3,000 yen with tax. Zori footwear and other accessories are included in the price. You'll be able to choose from a wide variety of colors and designs.
The most popular design is the red yagasuri (arrow-feather pattern). Ask the staff for advice if it's hard to decide. The store owner is an expert who has won multiple awards in kimono competitions. They will select the kimono that best fits you.
Hair ornaments are also available, but styling is not included in the kimono rental. Before visiting Haruta, arrange your hair in a ponytail or bun. This will save some time during your kimono-wearing experience.
3. Tomioka Silk Mill - The Symbol of Japan's Industrialization
The silk reeling industry in modern Japan began at Tomioka Silk Mill.
The mill was built at the beginning of the Meiji Period. At that time, it was one of the largest factories in the world. Fortunately, the building was not damaged during World War II and has remained intact to this day. This is the first facility from modern Japan to be registered as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The building can be easily recognized by its red brick walls that evoke Western architecture. This is a rare sight, even by today's standards.
Before electrical lights became common, the many windows along the wall effectively brought in natural light. The windows were also used for ventilation letting the steam from the reeling machines out of the building.
Some may assume that the mill hands were forced to work under harsh conditions. On the contrary, Tomioka Silk Mill paid attention to their employees' welfare.
The wages were not high, but workers had Sundays off—a rare employment condition at the time. The mill hands worked an eight-hour day with housing and meals. Various cultural activities were held here, and the mill even had a medical clinic on the premises.
There is a 40-minute guided tour in Japanese or English. A rental audio guide is also available in multiple languages. Budget-conscious visitors can even download a free app. By using these tools, you will have a better understanding of the building and its surroundings.
4. Dining near Tomioka Silk Mill
Although the mill is in a quiet neighborhood, there are some popular dining places nearby.
Okaju Meat Shop - Loved by Meiji-era Girls
Okaju Meat Shop, located mid-way between Haruta Kimono Store and the Tomioka Silk Mill, sells croquettes that were popular among Meiji-period factory workers. Enjoy the fluffy texture and nostalgic flavor that the mill-hands loved.
Old-fashioned croquette: 70 yen including tax.
The croquettes are crisp and warm on the outside because they are fried at the shop. Aside from the official menu, there is a list of popular dishes by local students who frequent here. This shows that Okaju is still serving the community just like it did during the Meiji Period.
Hayami - Thick, Delicious Udon Noodles
Located next to the mill, Hayami is a restaurant serving regional dishes of soba and udon noodles. The shop became famous after being featured in various media. Try the Okkirikomi udon if you have the chance to visit.
When the silk mill was brimming with business, udon became popular because it was a hearty meal that could be eaten quickly. The restaurant began boiling the wide, thick noodles with other ingredients to shorten the cooking time.
Okkirikomi, 950 yen with tax
Fourteen types of ingredients are boiled in the dashi broth. The udon becomes tastier with a dash of soy sauce. This regional noodle dish will satisfy all visitors.
5. Otomichan's House Machinaka Sightseeing Information Center
Beautiful silk products of great quality, the perfect gift to yourself, can be purchased at Tomioka Silk Mill. If you are looking for souvenirs for friends or family, drop by Otomichan's House. This information center carries a variety of local products.
The facility also offers a power-assisted bicycle rental service. Visitors can venture out on a biking tour of Tomioka.
Upper left: cookies 270 yen/bag, upper right: pass holder 1,188 yen, lower left: soap 440 yen (26 g), lower right: konjac jelly 146 yen/bag. All prices include tax.
The retro-style pass holder with a design inspired by the red bricks of the mill, as well as the lathering soap make ideal souvenirs for children.
The facility also showcases unique products from other areas of Gunma. Many of the items, including the healthy jelly sweets made with konjac, feature Otomi-chan, the mascot of Tomioka.
Our writer bought Otomichan butter cookies. They have a soft texture and were very tasty.
6. Ichinomiya Nukisaki Shrine - A Beautiful Shrine Hidden in the Hills
Take a Joshin Dentetsu Line train to Joshu-Ichinomiya Station in the afternoon.
Boasting a history spanning over 1500 years, Ichinomiya Nukisaki Shrine is located not far from the station. It may, however, require some endurance to get there. After descending the long steps, visitors will feel the solemn atmosphere of the shrine surrounded by hills.
Visitors can purchase here a beautifully designed goshuin booklet with an embroidery of the main hall.
Picture courtesy of Tomioka City
The walk to the shrine requires time and strength. In spring, however, you'll be greeted by a pink tunnel of cherry blossoms looming overhead. Visitors will feel awe walking towards the red torii with the petals showering down.
7. Chafe Chakichi - A Cafe in a Traditional House
Chafe Chakichi is a kominka (old-style house) cafe near the shrine. The building is a renovated 60-year-old house. It is operated by Yoshida-en, a company that specializes in Japanese tea.
The owner, Mr. Yoshida, renovated his grandparents' home and placed the seats by the window. Guests can enjoy the view of a Japanese garden and the Joshin Dentetsu trains passing by.
Gelato Tasting Set: 825 yen with tax
The cafe offers a wide variety of treats. The matcha gelato with six flavors is one of the most popular items on the menu. Our writer's favorite was the genmai (roasted brown rice) tea gelato made from Kawane tea—a high-quality product of Yoshida-en. This dessert will delight guests with its mellow flavor and fragrant blend of green tea and brown rice.
Tomioka's Retro Charm Will Steal Your Heart!
Tomioka is a city full of charm, from the retro townscape around the Tomioka Silk Mill to the nostalgic surroundings of Joshu-Ichinomiya Station. There is plenty to explore! Let us know your personal favorite spot when visiting this historic city in Gunma.
Written by Lin
Sponsored by Tomioka City (Gunma Prefecture).