Earth, Wood, Dry Hay

Saving Japan’s Heritage Farmhouses

by Daniel Hurst

They say art is everywhere. That includes a 150-year-old farmhouse set on the side of a mountain in a tiny village in rural Japan.

The owner, artist Tei Kobayashi, considers her home to be an integral part of her creative process. Known in Japanese as a minka, the building is both a source of inspiration and also one of her projects in its own right: a structure that undergoes constant tinkering and renewal.

‘It’s very quiet and serene,’ she says. ‘It’s a humble, undemanding existence here.’

She sleeps well. But each morning, as Kobayashi goes to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, she confronts an image that fills her with sadness.

The next property is the site of yet another minka, a type of hardy structure that once dotted the landscape across rural parts of the country. It, too, is a work of art, in the sense that it illustrates the harsh forces of nature over time.

Unoccupied and neglected for the past decade or two, the neighbouring home has fallen into disrepair. The tiled roof has crumbled away on the side closest to Kobayashi’s house, and the thick curved timber beams appear to gradually be rotting, exposed to the elements. The view from Kobayashi’s home is a cross-section of decay.

‘Oh, I just wish I could buy and restore it,’ she says, exhaling sharply as she surveys the vista from her veranda.

‘I’ve slowly watched it deteriorate and it’s a pity. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it. People are saying now it’s too late. Maybe it is. But you can see the beautiful beam coming across. If the beam was supported – and half of the house is still there…’

Kobayashi trails off. She’s unsure whether it can really be saved. But she’s equally saddened about the tear-it-down-and-start-it-again mindset that took hold in post-war Japan.

‘I’m really shocked when people come to visit, the older Japanese, and they say: you should make them tear that down, it’s an eyesore. And I don’t see it that way. I sort of see it as hope that, as long as it’s still standing, maybe something can be done.’

*

The decaying minka in the village of Nogura, a four-hour drive north-west of Tokyo, is a symbol of a transformation playing out across Japan. Traditional farmhouses that were designed to last for hundreds of years are being torn down because owners don’t have the money or inclination to preserve them. Often taking their place are prefabricated homes that will be knocked down and rebuilt every 20 or 30 years. It’s a great waste, according to minka enthusiasts who aren’t ready to relegate this chapter to the history books.

Those lamenting the loss are not driven merely by a desire to preserve aesthetically pleasing architecture – even though they see that as important, too. One of the striking things many people remember from their first time walking inside a minka is the smell of earth and wood. The design of the farmhouses varied from region to region, but the core structure was formed by large pillars and beams of high quality timber. These beams, often maintaining their natural curves, were connected to pillars by intricate, interlinking joints in a style known as shiguchi. They supported a roof of either thatch or tiles. Part of the ground was left as hardened soil, which could be used as a workspace, and the extended family and farm workers would later gather around a fire in the ground as food was cooked.

No, beyond aesthetics, minka mourners fear the tearing down is symbolic of society emphatically turning its back on sustainable, community-minded practices of the past. They point out that when these farmhouses were in their heyday, about 200 or 300 years ago, Japan was at the forefront of ecologically friendly practices. Perhaps our consumerist, polluting societies could learn a thing or two from the minka dwellers?

*

‘Lie on the ground; you’ll be a different man.’

Yoshihiro Takishita, an architect who has made it his life’s work to preserve these farmhouses, insists their charm is best experienced while resting on the soft tatami mat floor. From down here, the high angled ceiling looks even more distant, adding to the sense of spaciousness. Closer to eye level, the low-hanging paintings, ornamental bowls and decorated wood-panel doors compete for attention.

More than anything, though, the setting makes me want to close my eyes and rest. This dimly lit shelter from the elements lends itself to quiet reflection – a practice to which Takishita has devoted plenty of time.

We are chatting inside the first minka he relocated and restored, about 50 years ago. The imposing wooden posts and beams are the same ones that formed the core of the original structure when it stood hundreds of kilometres away, before local officials intervened with their plan to build a new reservoir.

Takishita remembers when he first set foot inside the home in its original site in Gifu prefecture, central Japan, when he was a law student in his early 20s. It was a sensory experience. ‘Earth, wood, dry hay,’ he recalls. ‘Something really made me feel good. I stepped up, and I saw these beams, they looked very reliable and I felt very secure inside.

‘I loved it. I just loved it.’

The home – then estimated to be 250 years old – was dismantled but it took Takishita and his father a year and a half to find a suitable plot of land on a hill in Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo. Then, with a team of six hardworking carpenters, they reassembled the building in 40 days.

Takishita was hooked. He abandoned the prospect of a legal career, reasoning that lawyers had to confront difficult problems daily whereas architects focused their creative efforts on making something beautiful. ‘This is more enjoyable,’ he says now. He has overseen dozens of relocation or refurbishment projects and is a passionate advocate of minka preservation. Takishita often gives speeches about the issue, including at an event at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, which is where I first met him.

The wooden core of a minka is said to reach its peak quality some 200 years after construction and can stay standing for hundreds more years. Alternatively, a minka can be dismantled and put together in a new location, with help from the small band of carpenters who specialise in this type of work.

‘This is real treasure,’ Takishita declares, evoking the almost spiritual attachment of the townsfolk of that era, who all pitched in to replace each other’s thatched roofs as necessary. ‘This is the symbol of self-sustainable society at that time. And every single piece of column and beam is touched by those people who had that kind of spirit, really cared. They worked together. All that is involved in this space.

‘Architecture, like art, is a reflection of the people who lived then. It’s like a mirror. So when you and I are here … we have a message from those people who lived harmoniously with nature and helped each other in the village and with great satisfaction.’

*

Just how well did those communities treat the local environment? For insight, I turn to Azby Brown, a United States-born architectural researcher and author who has lived in Japan for the past 33 years.

During his university studies, Brown developed an interest in Japanese wooden architecture designed to last for centuries.

‘I’m from New Orleans,’ he says. ‘New Orleans is full of old houses. It had a terrible disaster, Hurricane Katrina, that destroyed a lot of things, but it was just so normal to live in a house that’s 100 years old. The neighbourhood I grew up in was built in the 1920s so that was a relatively new neighbourhood. I knew so many people living in old houses. And the value of things that had existed over time, that had become more human over the generations, just was an obvious and apparent thing to me.’

A few years after he graduated, Brown came to Japan and was introduced to Tsunekazu Nishioka, a respected master carpenter who focused on Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine restoration projects. Nishioka allowed Brown to document the restoration of the 1300-year-old Yakushiji Temple in the city of Nara – a process that led Brown to publish The Genius of Japanese Carpentry. Brown tells me he learnt a lot about the fundamental environmental soundness of Japanese carpentry.

‘Everyone I knew [in the US] – builders, carpenters – for them, to be a good carpenter meant accurate dimensions, things fitting, and maybe a nice finish, no mistakes,’ he says.

‘For a Japanese carpenter that is the lowest common denominator. That is just an absolute given. What I learnt from Nishioka was that a good Japanese carpenter in the Japanese tradition thinks about wood as a living thing and how it changes over time, how it’s affected by the environment it grew in, how it will continue to change after it’s used in a building … [and] the carpenter has to understand the individuality of each tree and their characteristics and use them in the best way, and to combine these different characters in a building in a way that makes it as a whole a better thing.’

Every conversation with Nishioka eventually came back to discussions about the environment, the essence of time and change, human nature and compassion. ‘He really cared about the work and saw himself as just a tiny speck in this long continuum that began more than 1000 years ago,’ Brown says.

Such carpenters expect the tree to continue its life in the building. ‘In that sense it is about no wastage: we’re going to build it once and it’s going to be here a thousand years,’ Brown surmises. Shinto beliefs emphasise respect for wood as a living organism. Building something that’s enduring, Brown continues, ‘is totally opposed to this obsolescence, scrapping, rebuilding mentality that we have, even in good construction, these days.’

The same ideas influenced minka construction. Such homes are built for the ages and ‘have a wonderful archaic quality’.

Like Takishita, Brown invokes the sensory experience of entering a minka.

‘You go into a minka and if there’s a fire burning in the irori, the hearth, the rafters and the roof you see underneath are all sooty and smoke-seasoned, and you have this earthen floor under foot when you enter. This is not so different from a Jomon-period house or a house several millennia ago; it’s the same sensibility.’ Jomon was a period in Japanese history from about 14,000 BCE to 300 BCE marked by a hunter-gatherer culture.

Early minka did not have modern features such as tatami mats. ‘They were earthen-floored and then maybe wooden-floored with some rush mats on top. Over time they evolved and many things became more sophisticated and convenient.’ There was a significant amount of variation from region to region, and the builders used abundant local materials to build things that were durable and fit with the environment, Brown says.

‘They’re designed to be able to be dismantled and maintenance carried out and new parts fitted to replace old parts that may have rotted or broken,’ Brown explains. ‘Minka also are like an organism, a living organism, with constant renewal, especially the roof when it’s a thatched roof. You would find some shingle roofs, some tile roofs in certain regions, but generally that was more a mark of the economic status of the owner. They were almost all thatched roofs.’

In earthquake-prone Japan, minka were able to withstand tremors – up to a point. In side-shaking quakes, the building would sway and the mass of the roof actually acted as a damper, Brown says. But if an earthquake happened to be too strong, the centre of gravity would shift and the roof would collapse.

The social system that allowed the whole community to help to maintain the minka in a village was known as yui, meaning a cooperative labour exchange.

‘This has vanished and there’s nothing that really has replaced it. But in the farm village, there were communally held fields for thatch. It’s basically a reed and it grows wild but you need a place for it, and they would set aside a plot for it to grow. And they knew how much thatch they would have and they could apportion the thatch itself and then the time and labour of the community to the various households when needed. So it would be: this year we’re doing a north-facing roof of this house, and next we’re going to do this southern-facing roof of that house, and basically every year doing one house continually and maintaining everyone else’s.’

Minka were at their peak, according to Brown, in the late Edo period (1603-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912). Edo was a time when Japan was ruled by feudal lords. The samurai warrior class comprised about five per cent of the population, but commoners made up most of the rest of the population and usually lived in rural areas. If translated literally, minka can be described as ‘house of the people’ or ‘folk house’.

In his book, Just Enough: Lessons in living green from traditional Japan (2010), Brown describes the lifestyle of rural villages in the Kai province of central Japan in the late 1700s. Villagers, especially women and children, would keep busy during the daytime foraging for essential foods such as mountain greens, mushrooms, nuts, seeds and burdock roots.

Villagers would also collect fallen leaves and organic matter to make natural fertiliser and mulch. Only wood that had naturally fallen to the ground and that they were able to carry could be used for fuel consumption, eliminating a potentially major source of environmental pressure, Brown writes.

The placement of farms would depend on the local geography, with some crops such as rice requiring flat land and others like tea flourishing along steeper slopes. New rice paddies were approved only if the impact on the shared water supply was acceptable to all. Gravity was the favoured method for moving water wherever possible, with the liquid often cascading several times and filtered before being released into the ecosystem downstream. Water used once in households would then be put into the farm ponds for reuse, including soaking the rice bales to help them germinate. Often, natural sunlight was relied on to warm the water to the best temperature for growing crops.

The farmhouses would be nestled in clusters in the nooks and hollows of the hillsides. They were generally placed in a position to make use of natural sunlight. ‘They were masterpieces of passive solar,’ Brown tells me.

Recycling was a way of life. Agricultural waste would be turned into compost and mulch, a broken metal cooking pot could be refashioned into another necessary item, and a broken wooden plow frame might be turned into an axe handle. While rice was a thirsty crop, the villagers sought to ensure that none of the by-products went to waste. For example, bran could be removed from the rice and used in pickling, food preparation and skin care. Rice hulls could be used to make a variety of household products. Dried stalks and leaves could be used to make straw or for fuel.

Brown describes it as a perfect example of a ‘zero waste’ mentality. It was driven by necessity, but necessity can ‘lead to a sense of virtue’.

‘Japan was in many ways resource-poor. It had abundant water and other good things but it didn’t have a lot of arable land,’ he says. ‘Trees had to be taken care of. That leads to an understanding of the need for conservation, which makes it a kind of moral or ethical imperative. So conservation becomes a virtue and part of the Japanese ippanjoshiki. It translates as “common sense” but also connotes shared values, and that influenced pretty much everything, the way everything was approached.’

*

Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since then, but back at Tei Kobayashi’s minka in Nogura it’s clear she similarly seeks to tread lightly upon the earth.

Her best estimate is that her farmhouse, which used to be the site of silkworm production, is at least 150 years old.

‘It’s at the point where the wood is beginning to be in its prime, its strongest moment,’ she says, sharing a lament: ‘Whereas most of them in this village now … they’re all being destroyed right at their peak, which is a pity.’

Kobayashi’s home is not extravagant. ‘I don’t expect much of it either,’ she says.

For instance, the building does not have a bathtub. ‘I go to the village hot springs and when I can’t go, if I’m too tired, I don’t really worry. So I’m very undemanding of the house itself. I am grateful for what it gives me. When it rains it doesn’t leak. Especially the thatched roof – in the summer it’s cool and in the winter it’s warm.’

The home also contains an eco-toilet. The waste is collected at the base of the toilet and mixed with wood chips to become compost. ‘I have to occasionally empty it and clear it myself. It’s inconvenient, but I’ve sort of grown to appreciate that it’s showing me my lifecycle – not just the beautiful parts of my body but all the excess and everything that is not needed, I have to face and work with and understand how it’s a part of the whole life process.’

Kobayashi is not completely off the grid: she relies on town-supplied water and electricity, but tries to use them sparingly. In winter she uses a wood-burning stove that provides ‘a very gentle warmth’. When people come to stay in her minka – perhaps to mind her three Shiba Inu dogs – they report that they sleep really peacefully. The thatched roof used to be exposed to the elements, but in order to reduce the upkeep it has since been covered with metal casing.

After the interview is over, Kobayashi invites me to join her and a group of nearly a dozen people – a mix of local villagers and some visitors – to gather wild mushrooms along the hillside. Some of us are given woven baskets to tie around our waists.

Next to a path stand clumps of mushrooms of varying shapes and colours. One member of the group is the appointed expert and consulted each time someone finds a questionable mushroom. He peers at the item and provides a verdict on whether it is safe to eat or should be tossed away. In some cases, the decision is deferred to later when an exhaustive hardcover guide to edible mushroom varieties is within reach.

After an hour and a half of searching, and with the onset of rain, we head back to the Nogura Folklore Museum – the site of an old Buddhist temple that has gone through numerous transformations over the years and now features a repository of old tools. We sit around the hearth as a pot of mushroom stew is cooked in front of us. The warmth from the fire is welcome. The smell of smoke is a tad overwhelming. The hearty meal goes down a treat and is washed down with sake and beer.

Nogura suffers from an ailment that is especially severe in rural parts of Japan: its population is ageing and declining. Nogura has about 90 residents, most of whom are elderly. Kobayashi fears that, in conjunction with that trend, the chance to save minka is being lost.

‘There are about 30 [minka] here in this village now,’ Kobayashi says. ‘The ones that I am interested in saving are not inhabited at the moment. There are about five of them. The sixth one was destroyed recently.’

*

About 100 kilometres south of Nogura, Masafumi and Miriam Arai are grappling with a similar predicament. They inherited a property in Nakagawamura after the death of a relative two decades ago. Both villages are in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, in the centre of Japan’s main island.

There’s no minka on this property, but the front boundary features a beautiful castle-like wall and gate – known as a mon. The gate is believed to be more than 100 years old. Behind it are two old storehouses, called kura.

Until recently, the Arais leased the property to a tenant, who lived in one of the habitable storehouses, but it is now unoccupied. The couple lives in Tokyo and comes to the village every few weekends to do some upkeep – but the bills are mounting. They have been stunned at the fatalistic mindset of some of the locals.

‘We’re just trying to decide what to do, but we feel as though we’re sort of competing with the people around us probably wanting us to destroy it all,’ Miriam recalls as we chat over tea. ‘Actually we did go to a local contractor and construction company and they said, just get the whole thing taken out, don’t even save this kura, just tear it all down.’

Miriam says many people see restoration projects as a money-hungry task and aren’t sure about the value of preserving heritage. ‘The historian of this area actually said, “Oh there are two other of these kinds of mon nearby, so we don’t need it for historical purposes”,’ Miriam recounts. She begs to differ: ‘I think if there are several in the town it makes a better atmosphere – but they don’t appreciate that.’

Masafumi chimes in. He believes these attitudes spring from the period after World War II, when the Japanese public had to confront the country’s defeat and saw ‘everything destroyed’. Accordingly, they focused on rebuilding the country and starting afresh. The post-war boom resulted in double-digit economic growth and rapid change. People aspired to live in a big city such as Tokyo, leaving behind rural village life.

Masafumi adds, however, that he’s optimistic some of these attitudes are beginning to change as the next generation gets fed up with the stresses of living in Japan’s big cities.

‘Many, many of the young generation who were born and brought up in Tokyo are beginning to be tired with life in Tokyo and have come back to [the regions],’ he says. ‘We call it the i-turn, instead of u-turn… never been here before but they come here.’

*

However, those pushing to save heritage buildings in Japan face a number of challenges. One is financial: the cost of restoration projects can be prohibitive.  Owners looking for support from the public sector may be disappointed. Governments around the country are grappling with pressures on their finances as Japan’s demographic upheaval is gradually shrinking the base of working-age taxpayers.

At a national level, the main body responsible for culture and the arts is not exactly flush with cash. Funding for Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has remained at just 0.1 per cent of the total general account of the national government for several decades, according to a paper by Emiko Kakiuchi, director of the Cultural Policy Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

The total annual spending on culture by local governments around the country now stands around 450 billion yen (£3.2 billion), about half of the peak reached in 1993 just after Japan’s “bubble economy” burst. Kakiuchi tells me most of the spending of local governments goes to arts and cultural facilities, rather than to heritage.

Nevertheless, there are several categories in Japan’s heritage protection system that minka could fall under. Those that are designated as ‘Important Tangible Cultural Properties’ are strictly protected and attract subsidies. Kakiuchi says minka could also be listed in the less restrictive category of ‘Registered Tangible Cultural Properties’ but in that case ‘public support is moderate’.

Of course, the most valuable heritage sites can attract international recognition. The Japanese government is one of the biggest funders of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural preservation body, and aggressively pursues World Heritage site designations. Since 1995, World Heritage sites have included the historic minka villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama in central Japan. In those villages, the farmhouses have Gassho-style designs in which the steep thatched roofs are joined together like the shape of hands in prayer. These villages are now humming with tourists.

Market forces, meanwhile, pose another challenge to heritage protection. Brown explains that the Japanese property market puts a premium on the land rather than the structure, so there is a disincentive to keep older homes. ‘The property value is so much higher than the value of the house itself. People buy the property. The house is something they have to deal with, usually by demolishing it and building a new one. It’s incredibly wasteful. It’s called scrap and build.’

When it comes to minka, Takishita points out, the country is also facing the loss of highly skilled carpenters who specialise in these intricate structures. These are the very experts he turns to when he is commissioned to move a farmhouse to a new location and restore it into a comfortable, modern home – so the cost of carrying out such projects is increasing.

‘Without carpenters, I’m nothing,’ Takishita admits.

‘I think the most dreadful thing, the most difficult thing, is that my favourite carpenters are ageing. Some have already passed away, some are getting very old, many are retired. Some are getting so old that they are not as active as before, and I have no young ones I can easily talk to or trust or rely on. The really good carpenters are getting scarce.’

Takishita diagnoses himself with ‘a deep sense of astonishment and sadness, of helplessness and mortification’ at the loss of countless minka from across the countryside. He wrote in late 2017: ‘Why should such structures that still have hundreds of years of useful life in them be cast aside? In a sense my life has consisted of picking up what others have thrown away, driven by regret over the waste of it all.’

But at heart he maintains optimism and determination. ‘I hope that these farmhouses remain in Japan as long as possible,’ he tells me. ‘And well, that’s probably my work the rest of my life: I am trying to persuade people and encourage them to keep these old beautiful Japanese minka. That’s my mission.’

 

Photographs by the author

 

 

About the Author

Daniel Hurst

Daniel Hurst is an Australian freelance journalist based in Tokyo, Japan. His news and feature articles about Japan have been published by The Guardian, NBC News, The Times of London, Smith Journal, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Diplomat among others. Before relocating to Japan in 2016, he was a political correspondent for The Guardian’s […]

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