The Tomioka Silk Mill and its related sites are registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. They offer visitors a unique view into how Japan modernized itself and rose to one of the superpowers in the early 20th century. These world heritage sights are nestled in the heart of Japan, 2 hours from Tokyo and are a must-visit for travelers interested in uncovering Japan’s modern history.
Mulberry trees are need to cultivate silkworms and Japan has an ideal climate to grow them. Around 2,000 years ago, sericulture (silk farming) was first brought in from China and developed throughout Japan during the Nara period (710-794).
During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Edo shogunate encouraged sericultural activities, and various feudal clans promoted sericulture to expand their trade.
At the end of the Edo period, sericulture became very popular, and the invention of revolutionary sericultural techniques led to the production of high-quality raw silk.
In 1865, a disease hit the European silk industry. It almost wiped out France’s silk worms and threatened the entire region’s economy. The disease even spread further to other silk-producing countries as people weren’t able find a way to stop it. This led to an overwhelming shortage of raw silk for the use in silk fabrics in Europe.
In 1859, a few years prior to this happening, Japan had just opened its borders to the outside world. Once Yokohama and other ports opened their doors to trade with the Western countries, the British, French, Italian, and other merchants competed for Japanese raw silk due to the shortage in Europe.
Japanese raw silk sold exceptionally well, but the quality produced by in-house handcraft workers was inconsistent, and its reputation gradually declined. However, European countries needed to import raw silk urgently. So they sent official envoys accompanied by a raw silk specialist to inspect the state of silk production in the countryside. They came to a conclusion that adopting the European technology of machine-made silk would help quality and efficiency.
Meanwhile, the Japanese authorities, who had just established a new government (the Meiji era 1868-1912), were looking for a way to move forward their “wealthy nation and strong army (富国強兵)” program. Selling a lot of raw silk was one way to earn foreign currency and fund this idea. This meant it was crucial to introduce the efficient European silk manufacturing technology and improve quality to build stable production and sell it at a higher price.
The Meiji government went to Paul Brunat, a French silk inspection engineer and asked if he could help build a government-run silk factory. After inspecting different locations, Brunat selected Tomioka as the location. Less than two years later, a huge red-brick factory with two cocoon warehouses, the likes of which no one had ever seen before was completed.
The Tomioka Silk Mill became a symbol of Japan’s industrial revolution and was completed in the same year the first railway opened in Japan. It stayed operational for 115 years and was a model for other factories that opened later. Due to the expansion of silk mills which were based on the Tomioka model, Japan became the ‘number one’ producer of raw silk by the early 20th century producing as much as 60 percent of the world’s supply.
Yuki city and Oyama city are home to ‘Yuki Tsumui’ a UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage.
The ‘Yuki Tsumugi’ fabric goes through a meticulous process of extracting silk floss from silkworm cocoons and spinning it by hand into yarn. This fabric bears the most beautiful, dyed patterns created by skilled artisans using the kasuri ikat technique before weaving it on a Jibata (地機) loom. This fabric is a testament to the hard work, dedication,
Kiru City has a strong reputation as the hub of textile manufacturing in Japan. With over 1,200 years of experience, the locals take pride in showcasing their expertise in silk fabric production and offer workshops using their traditional weaving machines. In addition, there are places where you can rent kimono to wear for the day or buy Kimono fabric at a reasonable price. Visitors can also rent bicycles at Kiryu Station to move around the city and explore all that Kiryu has to offer. (See Kiryu’s city page here)
Silk production, known as sericulture, has a long history dating back to 2640 B.C which means it has been around for about 5,000 years. Legend has it that a Chinese princess was the first to real a cocoon of silk which dropped into her cup of tea!
A single silkworm cocoon is made of one unbroken thread about 900 meters (3000 feet) long. To produce half a kilo of silk, it takes approximately 3,000 cocoons.
After silkworm eggs hatch, they are fed mulberry leaves and grow rapidly. Once the silkworms have reached their full size, they enter the spinning stage and construct a protective cocoon around themselves.
The cocoons are then placed in hot water or steamed to soften the silk fibers and dissolve the sericin, a natural gum that helps hold the cocoon together. Finally, the softened silk fibers are carefully unwound from the cocoons using a process called reeling.
The raw silk thread is finally ready to be dyed, twisted, and spun into various types of silk yarn suitable for different products.
Silk acts as a natural insulator, which means it traps warmth when it’s cold outside, making you feel cozy. At the same time, it lets heat escape when it’s hot. It’s like having a built-in thermostat. In addition it doesn’t trap moisture, keeping you feeling dry and comfortable. Its shiny appearance and strong fibers make it a durable and long-lasting.
To spin its silk cocoon, a silkworm rotates its body in a figure-8 movement and continues this for about 300,000 times! It takes a silkworm between 3 to 8 days to finish.