COURTESY GARY GILL
Curved beams reach across the expansive living room of architect Yoshihiro Takishita, who specializes in giving new life to centuries-old Japanese farmhouses. He maintains their stature and serenity, while adapting them for modern life.
From old farm to new charm
Traditional Japanese homes called minka are enjoying a revival in the East and WestSTORY SUMMARY »
When American reporter John Roderick first stepped into a traditional Japanese farmhouse 42 years ago, he hated it.
"It was cold, damp, cobwebby, dirty and forbidding," Roderick writes in his just-published memoir, "Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan." "I could barely discern through the gloom the immense posts and beams that held up the massive roof."
Not wanting to be rude, Roderick hid his feelings. Within a matter of hours, the thatched farmhouse, built by hand in 1734, was presented to Roderick as a gift from its elderly owners. The hamlet was about to be flooded by dam construction. He felt he couldn't refuse.
Now 93, Roderick splits his time between his Waikiki high-rise apartment and that roomy farmhouse, or "minka," which was taken apart timber by timber and reincarnated on a coastal hilltop south of Tokyo. There, it has become a model of preservation for a unique architectural tradition that is now coming back into vogue.
COURTESY GARY GILL
Sunlight flows through paper-paneled shoji in this revived farmhouse, transplanted from deep in the mountains of central Japan to Kichijoji, a bustling section of Tokyo.
In his new book, Roderick chronicles his change of heart about minka, describing in witty detail how his adventures in homeownership melted his postwar hatred of Japan and replaced it with affection and admiration.
Once a prominent feature of the Japanese countryside, their thatched roofs rising high above the rice paddies, minka have largely vanished since Roderick was presented with a house he didn't want. Less than 140,000 are still standing, down from roughly 5 million in 1960, according to Kunihiro Ando, a Tsukuba University professor of architectural design who headed a nationwide survey.
"Minka are on the verge of extinction at the beginning of the 21st century," said Ando, a leading preservationist.
After World War II, minka were cast off as drafty relics of a rougher time, torn down or left to decompose as people flocked to jobs in the cities. But a few people recognized their worth. One of them was Yoshihiro Takishita, who grew up in mountainous Gifu prefecture and introduced Roderick, an Associated Press correspondent, to his native architecture.
"Japan's minka are like sculptures," said Takishita, who founded the Association for Preserving Old Japanese Farmhouses. "I have looked around the world but never found another place where curved trees are used as anchor beams."
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Thatched roof farmhouses have all but vanished from the Japanese countryside, but the village of Shirakawa-go is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Because their timber frames are fastened with joinery, rather than metal nails, minka can be pulled apart and rebuilt like giant puzzles. Takishita and a crew of carpenters swung heavy mallets to persuade the aged joints of Roderick's farmhouse to let go, then trucked the 40-foot beams across the island to Kamakura.
There they re-created a structure that is both inspiring and comforting. Its soaring interior opens to a sweeping view of the ocean, while its warm, adz-cut beams offer a secure embrace.
Takishita has gone on to relocate and revive more than 35 minka, including minka at a private estate in the Portlock area of Honolulu and a museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He retains the stature and serenity of the original while adding modern comforts like floor heating and digital hot tubs.
Age-darkened posts and beams are linked with fresh, white plaster walls. Modern roofs replace thatch, due to fire regulations, but the original flavor is retained with rafters lashed with straw rope. Sliding glass doors and skylights brighten the interiors.
"His genius is not that he takes these things apart and puts them back up again," said Roderick. "What he does is make them livable."
Susan Essoyan studied minka in Japan on a Fulbright journalism research grant.
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Katsumi Oba and his wife, Shinako, have lovingly maintained their centuries-old farmhouse, above, despite pressure from family members to tear it down.
ISHIOKA, Japan » Katsumi Oba cherishes the farmhouse built by his ancestors two centuries ago, its thick, thatched roof as comforting to him as a quilt. His 92-year-old mother sees it differently.
"Grandma keeps saying, 'This is such an old house, why don't we destroy it and build something new?'" said the grape farmer, his tanned cheeks giving in to a grin. Over her protests, Oba has just spent a hefty sum to re-thatch it.
"The important thing is to inherit the culture," he said, pointing to the home's hand-hewn curved beams, crisscrossing high overhead, a trademark of Japan's rural architecture.
The Obas' divergent views reflect the love-hate relationship that Japan has with its aging farmhouses, marvels of Japanese carpentry whose structural logs are joined without nails, using techniques dating back a thousand years.
Almost every town across this island chain has saved at least one or two of these "minka," or "folk houses," for display as examples of Japan's rural heritage. Schoolchildren gape at their vast interiors and sturdy posts and beams, so unlike their own compact, modular homes. But few people actually want to live in houses so in tune with nature that snowflakes sometimes creep inside.
In recent years, however, a quiet current of people has begun to focus on this dwindling natural resource. Architects and preservationists are giving some minka a new lease on life, either in their original settings or transplanted elsewhere.
Their open-timber frames can be pulled apart and resurrected, then linked with new walls, plumbing and modern roofs. Farmhouses that would otherwise be "thrown away" are being reincarnated as breathtaking houses, restaurants and galleries. Several have gone overseas.
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Japanese farmhouses were made entirely of local materials, from the stones at the base of their wooden pillars to the straw rope lashing their rafters.
Terence and Motoko Murphy, who have a home near Diamond Head, are part of the new trend. They got hooked on minka when they saw a copy of architect Yoshihiro Takishita's 2002 book, "Japanese Country Style: Putting New Life into Old Houses," which chronicles 16 of his projects.
"We knew if we were to build a house in Japan, we wanted it to be a minka," said Motoko Murphy. "We liked the wood feel, the high ceilings," added her husband, an investment manager.
This spring, Takishita will put the final touches on the Murphys' 3,000-square-foot minka, which was trucked from mountainous Gifu and rebuilt on a corner lot near Tokyo's Inokashira Park, famed for its cherry blossoms.
"We're making the whole southern side of our house glass to bring in all that sunlight," said Terence Murphy. "We'll have modern elements like floor heating. In my experience, there's almost nothing colder than a Japanese house in winter, so we want to warm it up as much as possible."
The Murphys considered bringing the minka to Honolulu but feared that would take too long. Another family did move a 200-year-old minka to an Oahu hillside last year but wanted no publicity.
Their architect, noted preservationist Ryoichi Kinoshita of Atelier Ryo in Kyoto, said it was his first international move of a minka. He's already taken on another assignment to transplant one to Germany.
"A minka can be moved anywhere and still exude its inherent charm," he declared. "It's a universe unto itself."
He pegs the cost of buying and rebuilding outside Japan at $600,000 and up, including flying in Japanese carpenters. Within Japan the cost starts at about $350,000, close to the price of building a new wooden home.
Kinoshita wishes more of his countrymen appreciated the unique value of minka. While the best, straightest wood was reserved for the samurai class, Japanese farmers made the most of what they had. They fashioned their homes from trees that had been sculpted by the forces of nature, and incorporated their organic curves into the design.
"The farmers found beauty in irregular materials, advantage in disadvantage," said Shigeru Matsushita, museum interpreter at Nihon Minka-en, an outdoor park in Kawasaki that preserves folk houses from across the country. "They are the Picasso of Japanese architecture."
Unlike the refined, constrained lines of a Japanese teahouse, minka rest on bold posts and beams that open up spacious interiors under dramatic roof lines. They housed generations at a time, with fluid floor plans. Sliding panels, or shoji, reveal long verandas sheltered by deep eaves, inviting in the garden.
The Japanese government has helped save several farm villages as preservation districts, offering subsidies to maintain the thatched homes. In a testament to minka's appeal, a village of statuesque farmhouses in remote Gifu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and now attracts 1 million visitors a year.
Oba is one of the rare farmers who have held onto their farmhouses through sheer will, without government support. The re-thatching of his home's massive roof in this placid valley north of Tokyo attracted neighbors and even a television network.
When a visitor suggested to the Obas' daughter that she must be proud, she shook her head. "No, actually I'm not," said Yukiko Oba, 40, who was visiting for the weekend and shares her grandmother's outlook on the old homestead. "I would rather have a modern house."
In keeping with tradition, the property will be go to Katsumi Oba's son, who works for Microsoft in Tokyo. The Obas hope their 6-year-old grandson Souta, who loves the house, will live in it one day.
In the meantime, the wiry farmer and his wife, Shinako, are preserving it as faithfully as possible. To ward off the chill, some shoji panels have frosted glass, a modern style his mother prefers. But Oba is secretly plotting a return to the traditional "washi" paper, which lets in soft light.
"I'm preparing proper shoji panels in the back," he said, his brown eyes twinkling. "It all depends how long my mother lasts. I'm dying to change it back to shoji."
American builder revives design
Charla Honea, based in Franklin, Tenn., offers a solution for people enchanted by minka architecture but unwilling to import a centuries-old house from Japan.
Her company, Haiku Houses, bills itself as the purveyor of "Country Houses of 16th Century Japan." Its pole houses are modeled on traditional Japanese farmhouses, with similar scale and roof pitch, but fashioned of new timber.
Anchored by massive Douglas fir logs, Haiku Houses have commanding roofs, open posts and beams, a cathedral-style great room and wraparound lanais. Honea bought the company 10 years ago after falling in love with its designs, which were originally developed by a Japanese architect in Hawaii.
"These houses capture people's imaginations," Honea said. "People come in and say something like, 'This is the house I've always wanted, but I didn't know that it existed.'"