Tomioka Silk Mill 富岡製糸場
Silk and the center of Japan's push into modern industrial innovation
Tomioka Silk Mill, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, is both the symbol of Gunma's silk industry and of the industrial modernization of Japan. This small city helped turn the country into the world's leading silk exporter, taking advantage of French industrial sericulture techniques and mass production.
The mill site and the related sites in the World Heritage listing includes a large raw silk reeling plant, an experimental farm for cocoon production, a school dedicated to sericulture knowledge, and a cold-storage facility for silkworm eggs. The mill was revolutionary for its time, and a fascinating time capsule of how Japan became an industrial power.
- Taking the tour and using smart glasses to “see” Meiji-era silk production
- The late 19th-century brick buildings such as the silk-reeling plant and east and west cocoon warehouses
How to Get There
You can reach Tomioka by car or train. From Takasaki Station, one of the main transport hubs in Gunma, ride the Joshin Dentetsu Line 45 minutes to Nishi-Tomioka Station. The mill is a short walk from the station.
The mill shows the entire raw silk production process
Mass production of high-quality raw silk required innovations in reeling technology and silkworm rearing methods
Tomioka produced silk until 1987
Walking through the eras
From Nishi-Tomioka Station it is a pleasant 10-minute walk to the Silk Mill. Along the way, you'll notice the change in architecture from the typical mix of wooden housing and bubble era (1980s) concrete blocks to the starkly different red-brick style of the mill.
An opening to the outside world
Gunma has always been a key region for producing silk. When the Meiji Restoration started in the late 1860s, Japan was looking for sites to mass-produce silk. Tomioka met all the requirements for building a machine-driven silk mill, so French architects and technical advisors were brought in. Their influence on the architecture, particularly inside the mill, stands out.
See and experience the French influence
The French connection can also be seen in the nearby eateries. Be sure to stop in one of the French-inspired cafes or restaurants just outside the mill. Make sure you walk around the entire mill, including the main silk-reeling plant, the cocoon warehouses, the director's house, the inspector's house, and the dormitory for the French female workers.
Audio guides are available and recommended to help you comprehend the scale of the mill. You'll also be able to hear some of the more interesting stories about the clashes between the French and Japanese cultures. One such misinterpretation was related to the drinking of wine—the local Japanese had never seen wine before, so it was mistaken for blood.
The other sites that changed a nation
The Tajima Yahei sericulture farm in Isezaki, the sericulture school started by Chogoro Takayama in Fujioka and the Arafune cold storage facility in Shimonita are all part of the extended World Heritage site headed by Tomioka Silk Mill.
The bigger picture
Silk was Japan's most important trade item. The rapid modernization of many areas of life meant that the high-quality silk produced in Tomioka could be exported overseas. This was a major contributor to establishing Japan's reputation for high quality goods and helped grow the economy. It also helped strengthen relations between Japan and France.