- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

KAMAKURA, JAPAN

Anybody who thinks all Japanese live in cramped quarters should take a look at architect Yoshihiro Takishita’s home.

The peaked roof shelters four floors. Massive rough-hewn dark wood beams — fitted together without nails — frame the expansive living and dining area. A series of sliding glass doors open to a veranda overlooking the hills and coastline of Kamakura.

For Mr. Takishita, his farmhouse is more than just a home. It’s also a labor of love: He is one of a growing number of architects and conservationists who are trying to salvage centuries-old Japanese “minka” farmhouses and bring them into the 21st century.

“A lot of wisdom, good thinking and good materials went into making these homes,” says Mr. Takishita, who found his house in central Japan’s Gifu prefecture, disassembled it and then restored it on the hills over Sagami Bay, south of Tokyo, in 1976.

“There is a beauty and value to traditional architecture that we can take advantage of even today,” he notes.

These spacious structures once graced the mountain-studded, rice-paddy-filled countryside, their grass-thatch roofs and dark brown and whitewashed exteriors blending gently with the bucolic surroundings.

Then came the 20th century, when many Japanese abandoned their rural roots in a fevered rush to modernize, crowding into cramped apartments that clotted the country’s burgeoning cities. Modern homes are built to last just about 30 years.

Now the sturdy, elegant minka farmhouse is making a comeback.

“The strong economy stirred pride in Japan’s cultural accomplishments,” says Geerta Mehta, an architectural historian at Temple University Japan. “It also meant people had a lot of money, which always helps when it comes to doing renovations.”

The result has been a steady rise since the early 1990s in interest in traditional living and the homes in which to do it.

The Tokyo-based Japanese Minka Recycle and Reuse Association (JMRA), a volunteer group, was started in 1997 and has logged at least 35 restoration projects since then. The group lists about 105 companies and individuals around the country as restoration specialists.

Mr. Takishita, who is not affiliated with the JMRA, has himself worked on 30 minka projects since completing his first in 1967.

Interest in minka was boosted in 1995 when the United Nations named two Japanese mountain towns — Shirakawa-go and Gokayama — World Heritage Sites because of their well-preserved farmhouses. Renovated farmhouses fill lavishly illustrated magazines and books by architects and residents.

Restoring these gems involves more than just whitewashing a few walls.

Some — like Mr. Takishita’s — are taken apart, moved to the new owner’s land and reassembled. The rudimentary kitchens of the past are trashed and filled with the latest designer equipment. Rustic bathrooms are retrofitted with modern Japanese favorites such as toilets with heated seats and tubs that would not be out of place at a spa.

“Retrofitting bathrooms and kitchens is usually at the top of the list,” says JMRA official Akiko Iijima. “Owners frequently assumed that these homes are just too old to have proper plumbing installed or that it’s too difficult.”

Extras abound. Mr. Takishita, for instance, has added outdoor hot tubs, a billiards room and, in one case, a red spiral staircase. Farmhouses also have been converted into restaurants and art galleries.

All that work comes at a high price.

Renovations can range from $400,000 to millions. Also, if you are relocating a minka, you need the land to put it on — and lots of it. Land in Mr. Takishita’s neighborhood averages around $1,500 per square meter (about 11 square feet), and a minka can require as much as 300 square meters (almost 3,230 square feet).

Farmhouse admirers say the expense is worth it. In an age when new homes can be selected out of a catalog and conform to cookie-cutter patterns, these country homes offer buyers buildings with real personality.

The homes are organically linked to their environment. All the raw materials traditionally came from their surroundings. Also, putting one up was a community effort, much like a barn-raising in Amish country in Pennsylvania.

They also were designed specifically with their climate in mind.

“Most Japanese architecture is driven by whatever is fashionable, especially overseas. Minka are probably the only type of Japanese building that takes its environment into consideration,” Miss Mehta says.

Farmhouses in snowy climates, for example, have grass-thatched roofs built into what is called a “praying hands” shape because of their distinctive steep slopes meant to keep snow from piling up.

Their close links to their environments, the craftsmanship that went into them and the careful thought given to the world in which they were built all show new generations of Japanese how their ancestors once lived, their promoters say.

“People today can see that minka are a sustainable kind of architecture,” says Miss Iijima of the JMRA. “They are recognizing that there is a naturalness to them that you don’t find in homes today.”


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