Take the kids back in time this summer

August 22nd, 2012 by Rebecca Milner

Lunch at Ubusuna House, part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. (Rebecca Milner photo)

Last week, NHK ran a story on a “Showa Lifestyle” exhibition at a shopping center in Mito, a city two hours northeast of Tokyo. The exhibit wasn’t aimed at baby-boomers — Showa refers to the historical period from 1926-1989 — but rather their children and grandchildren.

The Mito City Museum, which put on the event, set up a mock living room circa the 1960s. Here kids could experience sitting at a low table on floor cushions, turning the dials on a black-and-white TV, many of them likely for the first time. They could also see what it was like to use an old rotary phone, a foot-pedal sewing machine and even a few pairs of take-uma, bamboo stilts, a popular amusement from an era of few luxuries.

For kids weaned on mobile phones, there may be no greater novelty than the past. They can also get an inkling of how different their world is from that of previous generations.

While the Mito event has already ended, there are plenty of other places where the family can get a taste of Showa life. At this summer’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, in rural Niigata prefecture, visitors can eat and sleep inside country homes and schoolhouses dating from the early to mid-20th century.

Many such structures outside of cities around Japan have lost their original usefulness on account of the country’s aging population and lack of attractive job opportunities there for young people. Countless such sites have been lost forever; however, there is a growing trend to label them heritage buildings and turn them into museums or hands-on learning centers.

One NPO, Showa Furusato Mura (literally, Showa Hometown Village), in Tochigi prefecture, has turned a schoolhouse from the 1930s into a place where families can spend the weekend pounding mochi flour, picking bamboo shoots, and making tofu. A like-minded NPO, Yūgaku, in neighboring Ibaraki prefecture, restored an early 20th-century farmhouse and now rents it to urban dwellers who want to try their hand at cooking over a traditional irori hearth.

It’s not just the structures, but also the skills of the past that have become endangered. At least that’s the message sent by the “Tokusatsu Hakubutsukan” (literally “Special Effects Museum”), a summer-long exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. On display here are the handcrafted rubber suits depicting monsters and herors, as well as the intricately crafted dioramas and props used in the making of Japan’s then cutting-edge sci-fi movies of the ’60s and ’70s — rendered all but obsolete by computer graphics.

While it is tempting to package all of this as the “Summer of Showa,” the trend for picking up pieces of the past has been ongoing for several years now. We’ve covered the return of the dagashiya (corner sweet shop) and classic drinks like Hoppy — repackaged as retro chic.

At this point, however, the nostalgia trip seems more than just fashion (and marketing campaigns), and indicative instead of some serious soul-searching about what Japan has given up in the name of progress over the last half-century. A summer vacation back in time (yet close to home) might also be the answer for families who are cutting back on their holiday budgets.

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