Published: August 20 2005 03:00 Copyright The Financial TImes
After meandering through the urban sprawl of Tokyo, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the Japanese are not keen on architectural conservation. The demolition in the 1960s of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel of 1923 is but one example of how the city has wiped out character and history only to replace it with blindingly bland concrete boxes.
But concerned visitors need only turn to Kyoto for comfort. Here, they will find kyo machiya, traditional Japanese wooden townhouses (literally translated as city craftsmen’s houses) dating from the Edo period (1603-1867) to the beginning of the Showa (1926-1989).
These buildings are rare now, of course, some having been sacrificed for more modern housing and many more destroyed in earthquakes and fires over the centuries. Still, they serve as salient symbols of a fading Japanese style and culture, a unique aesthetic with personality and a legacy that Kyoto residents are realising they must preserve.
Constructed of wood, earth, paper, and stone – natural materials chosen to blend harmoniously with Kyoto’s surroundings and adapt to its subtropically hot summers and freezing cold winters – kyo machiya are invariably tan or brown. Other signature features built to suit the area’s climate are dark lattice (koshi), bay windows with wooden lattice (degoshi) and windows in the shape of an insect cage (mushikomado). No more than 5.4 metres wide – taxation was based on street frontage – with a compensating length of roughly 20 metres, their long rectangular footprint explains why they’re popularly called “eels’ beds”.
Some elements of the kyo machiya are common to most traditional Japanese houses. There is a strong Chinese influence, but the overriding template is the shoin-zukuri style of residential architecture, honed in the Muromachi period (1333-1573). Interiors are versatile because Japanese houses initially didn’t have separate rooms.
When people began attributing functions, such as eating and sleeping, to specific areas, they opted against stiflingly permanent walls in favour of sliding panels that would filter sunlight and provide privacy. In winter they’re closed and heat comes from a hibachi brazier, around which the family gathers. In summer, they’re replaced by screens of natural, woven reeds that allow cool air through.
“Room” size is based on the tatami, a soft straw floor mat covering about 190cm by 95cm that the Japanese have used as a unit of measurement since the Middle Ages. (The rest of the world didn’t adopt a standardised way to compare building size until after the second world war.) Two tatami equals a tsubo, which is used to describe the dimensions of a space. A tsubo-niwa, for example, is a compact inner garden measuring 3.3 sq m.
But the kyo machiya takes the Japanese preference for clean lines (clean and beautiful are the same word in Japanese) to a new level. From a boxy interior layout (rooms are literally one after the other) to the spartan, linear furnishings of screens, panels, windows and doors, the houses seem to echo the pristine geometry-within-geometry of origami.
In one house I visited, the black fabric borders of each individual tatami created a striking facsimile of a tan and black Mondrian. The only departure from the linear was paintings of birds, mountains, chariots found on a fusuma (opaque, paper-covered screen). After the front “room”, there was a long and dark kitchen – placed one segregating step down from the house – containing an ancient but powerful ceramic wood-burning oven, two wooden pails to fetch water from the in-kitchen well, a mahogany breakfront with storage compartments, and an elongated “cathedral” ceiling with skylights engineered to draw hot air out during summers.
The “backyard” had a stone floor surrounded by pine trees, Japanese laurels, camellias and nandins. My host, Naka san, a sprightly octogenarian in traditional blue yukata, overcame our language barrier to explain that he follows the ancient practice of spraying water on the stone, which results in evaporation that causes his bamboo plants to rustle reassuringly.
Surveying the hushed elegance of this and other kyo machiya, one can’t help but marvel at Japan’s history of creating striking but serene architecture. The remaining example are still used as both residences and places of business, with the front room serving as a shop (selling kimonos or tea pots, perhaps) and the back as a warehouse.
And, thankfully, there is now a concerted preservÃ‚Â ation movement under way in Kyoto, with craftsmen being trained to repair these simple houses just as they would Japan’s most precious ancient temples – with traditional methods and materials honed over the ages.
To get a glimpse of Japan’s rural past, one must bypass the visual debris of modern factories, cars, telephone poles and wires, commercial signs and even the unfortunate rice paddies abutting the motorway, and explore hidden towns, such as Miyama-cho.
The name Miyama means beautiful mountain (cho means town) and this rustic hamlet, with a population of 5,000, is nestled in the northern Kitayama Mountains between Kyoto and the Sea of Japan, in the centre of one of the remotest parts of Kyoto prefecture.
With two sizeable rivers and numerous small streams, the valley is surrounded by steep, 900-metre-high green mountains (the Ashiu, a rare preserve of virgin forest).
Within it stand clusters of thatched-roof houses (kayabuki yane) that pay homage to the fading Japanese tradition of a simple life lived off the land. Covered in grass that becomes mossy in spring and holds snow in winter, they also blur the line between between nature’s landscape and man’s architecture.
It wasn’t long ago that all of Japan was predominantly rural, with communities generating food through farming and fishing and joining together for activities such as house-building.
Now, it is only in remote corners such as Miyama-cho, away from the hustle-bustle of the big cities, where the idea of nature as home and home as nature still holds.
Miyama-cho boasts 250 thatched roof houses, the most in the whole of Japan, all dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). Unlike those in the English countryside, for example, the size of these roofs significantly overwhelms the actual houses, practically obscuring their brown wooden sides. There is no baby-bonnet curvature either. Instead the roofs are angular, with a considerable triangular peak, more like those found in Cambodia. This enhances the sense of disproportion. The grass used for the thatching is kayatate, and it is piled up and dried for a least a year in the hamlet’s fields.
In spring, moss dots the rooftops with artistic clumps, while winter snow makes them look like chocolate cake sprinkled with powdered sugar.
However the thatching is prized for more than its aesthetic effect. It is also a sound-muffler (useful, given Japan’s significant annual rainfall) and a tremendous insulator that is twice as efficient as the modern, inorganic variety. The light weight of the dried grass is another plus for those who have to carry it to the building site.
Under their big roofs, the houses have lattice doors, a square-ish footprint with a four-room arrangement – elevated a little higher than the ground outside the house – and straw and earth walls.
The Japanese say spirits reside in the mountains and perhaps it is the energy flowing from Ashiu that has inspired the people of Miyama-cho to become more focused on maintaining their rural lifestyle and their thatched houses over the last couple of decades. (After all, there is a Japanese saying: “If the roof remains, tradition will not be forgotten”.)
With generous assistance from the national government, the town has been making strides both in preserving the architecture, improving access to the materials used in them and teaching a new generation of young builders the specialised skills needed to make and repair them. These are impressive feats, given the considerable shortage of grass and of roofers in the country, and the fact that it does take a village to properly thatch one.
When the time comes for one to be raised or replaced, some 200 volunteers are called into action via radio. They work – clad in traditional indigo-blue cotton clothes – under the careful guidance of a professional, stitching twisted straw twine with a fat wooden needle, tying beams and rafters together with bindings of rice-straw rope and so on. The aim is to guarantee that the resident of the house will have a roof over his head within a weekend – yet another lovely old Japanese custom.