When the Tomioka Silk Mill first opened in Japan in 1872, the Japanese government set out to recruit young women to come and work at the factory. But they were shocked to find that nobody was applying.
It was well-paid work in a relatively comfortable environment, so why were there no takers?
Well, it turns out that the Japanese were scared of the French technical advisors who had been hired to run the mill because it was rumoured that the French drank blood!
The young women were terrified and refused to apply for jobs. It got so bad that the Japanese government had to issue official notices to deny the rumours.
As it turns out, the story started because the Japanese had seen the French drinking red wine and had mistaken it for blood. In the end, the head manager of the mill – a Japanese man – employed his 14-year-old daughter as the first millhand to prove there was nothing to fear.
It worked and the job applications came in and the mill started operation… three months behind schedule.
What is the Tomioka Silk Mill?
Established by the Japanese government in 1872, the Tomioka Silk Mill was the country’s first modernised silk production centre. The original buildings (and much of the equipment) have been protected for their heritage value and the site is now a museum.
Why was the Tomioka Silk Mill built?
The Tomioka Silk Mill was set up as part of campaign led by Emperor Meiji to bring the country into the new age of globalisation. By using mass production machines from overseas, the silk industry in Japan was able to better compete internationally – and grow the overall economy.
Is it worth visiting the Tomioka Silk Mill?
For tourists, the Tomioka Silk Mill is a bit different to many of the other attractions in Japan – and this is one of the reasons I think it’s well worth visiting. The heritage of the site has been well preserved and it offers a fascinating insight into the industrialisation of the country.
After it opened about 120 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, the Tomioka Silk Mill was active for more than a century. Eventually it was closed down in 1987.
And, credit where credit is due, officials saw the value in protecting the site because of its important role in the history of the nation. Although just one small example, it is emblematic of the huge shift in the country’s economy that led to Japan becoming the powerhouse that it still is today.
Because of all of this, the Tomioka Silk Mill has been named as one of Japan’s World Heritage Sites.
Visiting the Tomioka Silk Mill these days doesn’t just let you see the buildings and some of the equipment that was used here. It also takes you inside a little slice of history.
When it comes to Japan, we often think of the neon kaleidoscope of Tokyo and the futuristic robots the country has produced. All of that started in places like this silk mill.
History of the Tomioka Silk Mill
The story of the Tomioka Silk Mill really starts with the Meiji Restoration, a political event in 1868 that saw the power to rule the country centralised with the emperor – at this time, Emperor Meiji.
One of his main goals was to open an isolated Japan up to the world and to begin to compete economically with large industrialised countries.
Silk was traditionally an important part of the Japanese culture and economy, but it was not a large industry. To grow, it would need to stop relying on manual reeling techniques and modernise.
To do this, the Meiji government turned to France and a French silk expert, Paul Brunat, was invited to Japan to come up with a plan. His recommendation was… you’ve probably already guessed… a new silk mill that used French machinery and Japanese workers.
And so, the Tomioka Silk Mill was born.
The town of Tomioka was chosen because it was close to silkworm farms, had lots of water, and provided good transportation options.
The design of the mill is interesting because the buildings are a fusion of French industrial styles and traditional Japanese elements. With brick walls, tall ceilings, and large windows, they were different to many of the other factories in the country at the time.
Inside the mill, over 300 reeling machines were powered by a steam engine, while the work was done by young women who had been recruited from across the country.
Because it was so innovative for its time, the Tomioka Silk Mill became a hub for technological advancement and attracted Japanese engineers and scientists who wanted to learn about its practices. It paved the way for the establishment of similar factories across Japan.
Before the Tomioka Silk Mill was built, Japan was producing about 1000 tons of silk a year. By 1910, less than 30 years after the mill opened, the country was producing more than 12,000 tons!
Things to see at the Tomioka Silk Mill
As I walk through this old industrial complex, which is now so empty and quiet, it’s strange to think that it would once would have been so noisy, bustling with the sounds and activity of efficient and inexhaustible production.
In the main silk-reeling building, the machines are still in place. Covered by plastic sheets for protection, there’s a ghostly feel to their silence and inertia.
If they could speak, they would tell tales of the thousands of young Japanese women, hired for their small hands, who delicately manipulated the cocoons of silk onto the reels and extracted the threads.
They would talk of the communities that formed amongst these workers who came from across the country and lived on the site in the dormitories.
They might even whisper about the financial losses the mill eventually had to face which led to their abandon.
The site is relatively small but there are still quite a lot of things to see at the Tomioka Silk Mill.
After you come through the gate, the first thing you’ll see in front of you is the three-story brick building known as the east cocoon warehouse, which now houses the information centre and an exhibition area.
On the other side, across the courtyard, is its twin – the west cocoon warehouse. Both of the buildings were mainly used to store the cocoons of the silk worms, up on the second floor where they could be dried. The first floors were used mostly for offices and workspaces.
In the courtyard is the cocoon drying facilities, and an important chimney, which you can take note of.
But the most important structure between the two warehouses is the silk-reeling plant. This large 140-metre long factory is where the 300 French machines were located and used to reel off the cocoons.
Other smaller but also important buildings in the heritage site include:
- The director’s house, built in a colonial style and home to the Frenchman who ran the place.
- The inspector’s house, a similar architectural style and home to another Frenchman who was in charge of inspecting the silk.
- Dormitory for French female instructors, who taught the Japanese workers how to use the machinery.
There are also outdoor areas that you can wander through, including a small mulberry tree plantation representing the food of the silk worms.
Both those sites were once home to thousands of employees who lived and worked together during industrious times for their country. But both sites eventually became victims of changing economic fortunes and priorities.
The Sewell Mining Town and Crespi d’Adda are both included on the World Heritage List for the roles they played in their country’s economic and social history. It seems fitting that the Tomioka Silk Mill should be respected similarly.
Visiting the Tomioka Silk Mill
A visit to the Tomioka Silk Mill will take between 60 to 90 minutes and you can wander through the various buildings independently.
The regular guided tours are only in Japanese, so if you want an English guide you need to reserve one in advance (the fee is for your whole group, not per person).
But I think there’s probably enough information available here that you can get by without a guide, even though it would be nice to have one.
The exhibition spaces here will give you a fair bit of background, so I recommend visiting them first. One of the residences has an exhibition called ‘Gallery of Daily Life’ that shows how it would’ve been to live here in the 20th century.
Transport to the Tomioka Silk Mill is pretty straightforward because it’s just a short walk from the train station. If you drive, there is nearby paid parking.
A few other things to take note of:
- The Tomioka Silk Mill is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers and can be borrowed at the municipal parking lot with limited availability.
- There is no area or playground for kids but there are rest areas within the mill. There are diaper change areas in the toilets, and multipurpose restrooms are available in the facility.
- Reservations are only necessary for groups with 20 or more people.
- Pets are not allowed inside the Tomioka Silk Mill with the exception of guide dogs and service dogs.
- There is a gift shop at the Tomioka Silk Mill that sell silk products, souvenirs and books.
Where is Tomioka Silk Mill?
The Tomioka Silk Mill is in the city of Tomioka in Gunma Prefecture, about 100 kilometres northwest of Tokyo.
The address is 1-1 Tomioka, Gunma 370-2316, Japan.
You can see it on the map here.
How do you get to Tomioka Silk Mill?
By public transport, you can catch the train to Tomioka City (Joshu-Tomioka Station), which takes about 1h 45m from Tokyo. The silk mill is about 15 minutes’ walk from the station.
By car, it takes about 2 hours from Tokyo. There is paid parking nearby.
When is Tomioka Silk Mill open?
The Tomioka Silk Mill is open every day from 9:00 to 17:00.
It is closed from 29 – 31 December.
What is the Tomioka Silk Mill entrance fee?
The entrance fee for the Tomioka Silk Mill is:
Standard: 1000 yen (US$6.65)
High school or university student: 200 yen (US$1.35)
Elementary or junior high student: 100 yen (US$0.70).
Are there tours to Tomioka Silk Mill?
The standard official tours are taken only in Japanese and cost 200 yen (US$1.35) per person.
For a guided tour in English, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. It takes about 40 minutes and costs 3,000 yen (US$20) for a group of up to 30 people.
For more information, see the official website of the Tomioka Silk Mill.
There is nowhere to eat at the Tomioka Silk Mill, but don’t worry, there are a lot of cafes and restaurants that are a few minutes walk. A few that I would recommend are:
- Hayami: Great udon noodles just one minute away.
- Cafe Drome: A 150-year-old nagaya with a private home atmosphere decorated in European style.
- Tsuchiya Uoten: A local favourite with deep fried food.
- Merci Cocon & Café: A charming café housed inside a stone warehouse with lovely interior decoration.
There are quite a lot of other attractions nearby that you can visit apart from the Tomioka Silk Mill.
In fact, the World Heritage Site officially includes a few other locations that you can get to by car if you really want the whole picture – the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm, Takayama-sha Sericulture School, and Arafune Cold Storage.
There’s enough to justify a day trip from Tokyo, including host springs, galleries, and some lovely natural scenery.