Spinning silk at the Tomioka Silk Mill (UNESCO)

Spinning machines in the Tomioka Silk Mill

“Year 5 of Meiji era”, reads the keystone above the entrance of the Tomioka Silk Mill. The silk spinning factory of Tomioka was built in 1872. That was the fifth year of Japan’s sudden turnaround towards a modern industrialised state under Emperor Meiji. It was not only one of the first modern factories in Japan, but is also a prime example for the sharp growth of light industry in Japan in the following decades.

Headstone marked  "Meiji 5" at the Tomioka Cocoon storage

Western architecture

Mr. Kondo, a German-language tourist guide (there are tours in English and other languages as well), points out the red bricks of the façade. Indeed, they look very western for a country that had, until the late 1860s, tried to suppress and control any contact with the Western world. Instead, Japan had continued its practically mediaeval lifestyle.

“At the time of the founding of the Tomioka Silk Mill, they didn’t have cement yet in Japan”, Mr Kondo explains. What could they do, then? They glued the bricks together with lime mortar and this construction was not strong enough to hold the roof. The building uses a traditional Japanese timber frame construction instead.

Modernization by all means

Japan’s decision, in 1868, to embrace Western life and technology, was sudden. The change of government is generally called the Meiji Restoration, referring to the restoration of the Japanese Emperor to power. But the effect of the new policies was rather revolutionary. Government ministers travelled to Europe and America to bring back new ideas and technologies. They also brought in foreign instructors and specialists in order to implement them as quickly as possible. For the modernization of the country Japan needed foreign currency, and therefore export goods.

At that time Japan already had a well-developed silk production, based on independent cottage industry and small manufactures.

Spinning machines in the Tomioka Silk Mill, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan

The government was keen to increase the output with the help of new technologies and machines, and also to ensure a continuously high quality and reputation of the export silk by controlling the production. That’s why the Japanese government invited French silk specialists to build this first silk factory in Japan. Later on, the government also hired French engineers and female French instructors to live in Tomioka for a few years.

France, in turn, was eager to import both cocoons and raw silk after a silk worm epidemic in Europe had caused a severe shortage on the market.  Japanese workers were however at first reluctant to sign on at the factory. Mr. Kondo grins: rumour had it that the French were drinking blood from glasses – red wine was still completely unknown then.

Silk production for American silk stockings

With the help of the French, Japan quickly increased its silk production and found a perfect niche in the world market in the early 20th century. That was when demand for silk especially in the American market increased. Silk stockings were en vogue, and they required high-quality silk which not many countries could provide.

The Tomioka Silk Mill was in operation for 115 years until 1987 when it had to shut down. After the closing of the factory the once prosperous town of Tomioka faded into oblivion. But with the listing of the remains of the Tomioka Silk Mill as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, and its development into a major sightseeing spot, hopefully more tourists will come to visit. Especially for independent travellers, it is a great place to visit, very authentic and off the beaten path.

 Tomioka Silk Factory

The main tourist site of the UNESCO Heritage are the remains of the Silk Mill itself, a rather large area. The precincts include not only the spinning factory with the imported machines from France, but also several living quarters. Not only the female Japanese workers lived on-site, but also the French director and the French staff. A movie as well as demonstrations give a vivid insight in the silk production here during the 19th and 20th century.

Apart from the Silk Mill the World Heritage includes three more sites, which we did not visit. They are the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm, the Takayama-sha Sericulture school and the Arafune Cold Storage.

Is the Tomioka Silk Mill worth visiting?

Industrial history has only recently raised more interest in many countries, not least in Germany. Read, for instance, about the coal mining history in the Ruhr Area, or in Wales or Slovakia. We find that exploring the industrial history of the 19th century is fun, not least because it is an historical era still rather imaginable for us. We also like the mix of Western influences and Japanese tradition in that period in Japan. The effects must have been quite bizarre at times. Even Japanese food occasionally still diplays that peculiar mix, as we found in Kanazawa, for instance.

Foreign travellers who don’t have a good grasp of Japanese history would definitely benefit from a guide, though. And don’t miss the white chocolate silkworm in one of the shops near the Silk Mill!

Tomioka Silk Mill silk worm chocolate
White chocolate silk worms at a souvenir stall in Tomioka

How to get tho the Tomioka Silk Mill

The Tomioka Silk Mill is situated about 100 km northwest of Tokyo in the town of Tomioka in Gunma. Note that this is totally unrelated to Tomioka in Fukushima, where the Fukushima nuclear reactor stands!

From Tokyo, you have to travel to Takasaki (50 minutes by Shinkansen or 1 ½ hours by regular train). You can then change to the private Joshin Electric Railway line for another 40 minutes to Joshu-Tomioka. On this line, the Japan Railpass is not valid. The Silk Mill is a 15 minute stroll from the station.

NB: Our visit to the Tomioka Silk Mill was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves. This post does not contain any affiliate links.

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    1. The Tomioka silk mill is indeed a great site with historical significance taking us back into the journey of the industrial revolution. And it’s rather interesting to learn how the silk mill flourished during 5 years of Meiji rule and how the Japanese hired French engineers and specialist to improve their silk quality and production. We have so much in history to be thankful for and Tomioka Silk Mill sets such an example. And I would definitely love to taste the white chocolate silkworms and a visit to Tomioka Silk Mill.

  1. I have never travelled to Industrial Tourism related places. This silk mill looks amazing and moreover the way they are weaving the silk that’s really interesting to watch. Need to visit such places 🙂

  2. I have seen weavers make silk in India on looms. But this is the first time I am seeing a mill. And the French drinking blood! That goes to show how we need to keep travelling to learn truths. This was a good virtual tour of the Tomioka Silk Mill.

    1. Dear Ambica, we found the sightseeing at factories and mines of the industrialization really interesting. It is a not so far away history and yet we do not know much about it.

  3. It would be an interesting tour to learn more about Japan’s early roots in industrialization and the silk making process.

    1. Dear Renee, yes the history of the industrialization in Japan gained more popularity recently with some of the sights gaining UNESCO status.

  4. The weaving of silk and the whole process is very interesting indeed. Even though I did not visit the silk mill when I was in Japan, I have been to a silk mill in India before and I know how much of work goes behind spinning silk. Am adding this mill to my list for my next visit to Japan.

    1. Dear Raksha, the Tomioka silk mill was very interesting indeed. I have seen the traditional weaving in China, Uzbekistan and other countries. The Tomiokoa mill shows the beginning of industrialized silk weaving.

  5. This is such an insightful post about the Tomioka Silk Mill history. I had no idea that it played such an important role in the modern industrialisation of Japan. Would love to visit it when Japan opens for foreign tourists.

  6. I have been to a Silk factory many a times but to a mill for the first time. It was so nice to know about Tomioka. Visiting Japan is high on my list of countries to visit after a while when situation settles down a bit.

  7. Memories of childhood came back because my grandfather used to grow silkworms. I fed these beautiful silk warms and watched them pupate. When I traveled in India, I saw silk production there, but it was not as impressive as Tomioka Silk Mill. It was more of manufacture. And Tamioka is a factory. Amazing that it was built in 1872. It was great that you had a chance to see the whole production process. I love silk scarves so I would spend a fortune shopping there.

    1. Dear Agnes, they do not really produce anything anymore at the Tomioka Silk Mill. And I am afraid, no shopping. They used to produce silk for stockings for the American market. Feeding the silkworms of your grandfather must have been an amazing experience!

  8. This is this interesting. I have very limited knowledge about the silk industry and I am happy to learn something new today. I am also keen in visiting them in the future. Will take your advice to get a guide.

  9. This post is very timely for me. Currently, in the middle of planning a trip to Japan, and this was not on my agenda. Will look into it to see if I can squeeze it into my itinerary.

  10. I would like to visit the Tomioka silk factory and learn about the process of making silk. It’s very interesting to see how the industry changed so fast, from the building with the wooden beams to a Western construction. I have seen silk cocoons and how they are separated and the silk extracted when I was in Vietnam. But I wonder what is the next process, how does silk actually becomes silk. How fun that you can buy chocolate in the shape of silk worms. What a novelty!

  11. I have seen many looms and factories for various fabrics, one as recent as last week! But Tomioka silk factory looks different. These things fascinate me a lot. Would like to visit to learn more on it. Good that they changed wooden to western which was anyway required.

    But love those silk worm chocolates!!

  12. What a fascinating location and history! I haven’t been to a silk mill yet, but reading this article has made me want to. If I ever visit Japan, I’ll definitely make a trip to the Tomioka Silk Mill. White chocolate silkworms are, by the way, very adorable!

    1. Dear Maria, if you have never been to a silk mill you should first visit a traditional one, where everything is done by hand. The Tomioka silk mill is an early industrialized silk mill. You will be much more able to appreciate the differences then.

  13. I have never known about this in Japan’s history. Very interesting! We have not visited this area of Japan but if we had, we probably would have been here because we always look for Unesco Sites and historical places. But we also learned, that there are SO SO many Unesco Sites in Japan! It was amazing! It is interesting how they wanted to get more western. The chocolate silk worms are so cute, my kids would get kick out of them.

    1. Dear Joanna, a visit at the Tomioka silk mill is intersting, because it is not your typical silk mill, I would say. And let me tell you, I got a kick out of theses chocolate silk worms too. They were quite good.

  14. Happy to know that this is still worth visiting. I don’t have a good grasp of Japanese history and I find this really interesting. Sorry to hear that the Tomioka faded after the mill shut down. I also hope that there will be more tourists who will visit. Hopefully, they can include this line under the Japan Railpass. I believe that will encourage more people to visit.

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