Frameworks of Former Society at the Matsumoto City Open-Air Architectural Museum

History / Sightseeing
Sat, Oct 15, 2022


Only on my most recent visit to the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, located out west where the fringes of the city give way to the open rice fields, did I notice the really cool building sitting right next door.

I only had time for a quick look, from outside the brick-and-iron wall where a small sign told me I was looking at what was once a district court house. Yesterday I went back to check it out, and found quite a bit more.

Laying Down the Law in Two Prefectures

The large wooden building grabbing all the attention at this collection of preserved pieces of area history once stood on the grounds of Matsumoto Castle. There it served as a district court for both Nagano and Gifu Prefectures.


For the people of the immediate Matsumoto area, having District Court right in the center of town was a convenient silver lining for those finding themselves tangled up in the law. For those living over in Gifu, on the other side of some of Japan’s tallest mountains, the possibility of having to make the trip here for a court date was likely enough to dissuade many a would-be scofflaw.


The building itself is an architectural exercise in right angles, with some of the rooms containing displays and exhibits that cover both the working legal system of the Meiji Era and the comparatively barbaric practices of Edo Era justice.






Nothing is explained in English, which rather takes away from the educational potential of the place, but still, you get the idea.

Behind the court house sits a former detention center – a nice way of saying a building with one long, hard, sterile hallway lined on both sides with solitary confinement cells. The inhabitants were juveniles, with no indication given as to whether such conditions made the young men held here less or more prone to violence in the future.


Slightly Nicer Digs for the Girls

Across from the iron gates of the boys’ gated community is the Horai-ya, a common wooden one-story building constructed during the Edo Era in a village called Nagawa, up in the mountains west of Matsumoto. Nagawa was a community along the old travel and transport route known as the Nomugi Kaido. This road connected the Matsumoto region with the Hida region on the far side of the northern Alps, and was traveled by, among other people, young women from Hida who made the long, harsh walk to Suwa to work in the silk factories during the Meiji and Showa Periods.


As far as old Japanese buildings go, perhaps the Horai-ya is not all that unusual. But imagine a young woman walking through the mountains in winter in straw sandals and finally finding this refuge where she could warm up and eat and sleep. For such a person, this place was probably nothing less than a palace.


The building doubles as a glimpse into how people in the mountains generally lived a century ago. With the stable for the horses right next to the living quarters it’s evident that life in Nagawa, and countless mountain communities like it, was anything but a vacation.


Speaking of Silk Factories…

To the side of the Horai-ya, facing the noticeably non-historic Exhibition Building, stands the remaining components of a former silk factory. Silk was for a time a huge industry in the Shinshu/Nagano area, and this operation, active both before and after World War II, was located in Suwa – an obvious link to the Horai-ya next door.



This silk factory was actually in operation until 1995, when modern methods of silk processing, combined with the decline in demand for silk, rendered the factory obsolete. Inside, the original machines and, by extension, traditional methods of silk production, are on full display.

And In Case You Missed It on the Way In

Right there at the entrance to the grounds of the Rekishi-no-Sato Open air Museum, before you even reach the welcome center and the ticket window, is a modest home from the 1800’s, notable for who was born here. Well, not here, but in this house before it was moved here.


Naoe Kinoshita was the son of a low-ranking samurai who grew up to become a lot of un-samurai things: a journalist, a lawyer, a novelist and a social activist who advocated for, among other things, universal voting rights – interesting since voting was hardly a well-known concept at the dawn of the Meiji Era when Kinoshita was born.

Like the Horai-ya, the Kinoshita residence is not in and of itself particularly striking, but nevertheless offers the visitor a chance to see how someone like Naoe Kinoshita, a well-accomplished individual in a time of tectonic political and societal change, could come from the most common of places.


The Rekishi-no-Sato Open Air Museum offers a lot in a compact area. The district court building is one of only a remaining few of its kind. And it can be a bit weird to see rows of solitary confinement cells for juveniles in a safe, orderly society like the one that exists in Japan.

The obvious drawback is the museum’s location. Not that it’s all that far from downtown, but unless you (a) have a car, (b) have a bicycle and love to ride, and/or (c) have plans to go out to the Ukiyo-e Museum next door, you may not see room in your itinerary for a trip out here.


If you have the time and the means, though, the Rekishi-no-Sato Open Air Museum makes for a pleasant and serene step back into the last century and a half of life in the greater Matsumoto area.