book cover

"Japanese Country Style:
Putting New Life Into Old Houses"

By Yoshihiro Takishita (Kodansha),
hardcover, 168 pages, $45

At home with Nature

The traditional Japanese farmer's house
is reborn as a high-concept
architectural masterpiece

By Burl Burlingame

It's not often someone can cite a specific vision that changed a life, that channeled a restless spirit into a soul's work, but for Yoshihiro Takishita, it was the day he saw a house. Not just any house, mind you, but a Japanese "minka," or hand-built home, one that had been restored by brilliant and eccentric American publisher Meredith Weatherby in Roppongi.

Takishita was just 18 and bound for law school, but he was transported by awe. "I grew up in the country, Gifu prefecture, and here in urban Tokyo was this large cultural artifact from Japan's past, transported, reassembled and modern conveniences added. It was very beautiful and comfortable and inspiring."

And so, the law was not for him. Takishita graduated and went into the antique business, determined to immerse himself in Japan's artistic past. And then family friend John Roderick, a kind of godfather to Takishita, began looking for his own home.

Author Yoshihiro Takishita became entranced by traditional Japanese architecture while still a teenager and later became an architect.

"My mother dealt in antique kimono, so she knew many people," said Takishita. "I asked her to keep her eyes open for a minka that was endangered."

Within a few months, Takishita got the call -- a new dam was flooding a valley, and the ancient homes within were being destroyed. If they hurried, something might be saved.

"Even then, homes were very expensive in Japan, and I only had about $15,000," recalled Roderick, an Associated Press reporter and old China hand, now retired in Honolulu. "It seemed impossible."

But the demolition crew let the old timbers go for about $14 in American dollars. "A good deal!" laughed Takishita. "It took 18 months to find property to move it to, however. We found a place on a hill above Kamakura."

"I was dismayed at this pile of old wood. I thought it was dark, dirty and dusty," recalled Roderick. At the last minute I figured, oh, what the hell, and moved in. And Yoshihiro saw beyond the dirt and made it livable and beautiful! His genius is in -- mortalizing? -- homes, making them livable."

Takishita approached restoring and modifying the minka as a hobby. It was so successful that the Roderick house in Kamakura became a must-see for distinguished foreign visitors -- including, at first, George Bush the elder, and, most recently, Hillary Clinton -- and Takishita became the go-to guy for antique home restoration. He went back to school and earned a degree in architecture. "I have had a lucky, happy career!" he says, beaming.

The pinion-and-peg construction style is apparent in this lintel and beam joint.

HIS EXPERIENCES and observations were recently published in Kodansha's "Japanese Country Style -- Putting New Life Into Old Houses." It's already sold out in Japan, and Takishita was recently in Honolulu to lecture on the subject and visit Roderick.

What is special about these homes, says Takishita, is the reverence for natural materials and the clever craftsmanship that created them. Unlike the rigid boxes of modern architecture, the minka spread the load structure across a springy construction that is largely pegged and lashed together, a design that not only wiggles safely in an earthquake and provides natural ventilation, it allows the structure to be dismantled and moved.

"Japanese are animists, seeing god in natural materials. Trees are holy," said Takishita. "These house are very organic, growing out of the environment. Taken care of, they last hundreds of years. There is reverence for the wood; centuries later, you can still make out the woodsman's tool marks on the beams.

"And I love the smell. It was so exciting to touch wood touched by so many others over hundreds of years, for bare feet to feel the vibrations through the floor. I've lived in that house for 35 years, and the excitement is there every day. There is such harmony. Western architecture conquers nature; a traditional Japanese home is part of nature."

The use of heavy wooden beams and straw thatch make living in such a house a hobbitlike experience. "Some 70 percent of Japan was forested in the Edo period; still quite a lot today," said Takishita. "There is reverence for wood, and as much as possible is recycled. It's beautiful and self-sufficient."

Minka also are designed around the Japanese concept of community -- large areas are devoted to communal activities involving the entire village, and there is little private space. And every house is pretty much like another; the idea of owning a home that's individualistic would have horrified Edo-era farmers. "Impossible to imagine!" said Takishita. "The 'hare,' or ceremonial space, was a feature of every home, even those of only a few hundred square feet."

The standardized construction techniques also meant that the structural members could be reused in a variety of ways, like Legos. "Unpeg the posts and you could reassemble it somewhere else -- a home into a temple, a store into a palace."

Whole homes can be assembled and disassembled like a model kit. A traditional feature is the central firepit on a dirt floor -- modern homes demand fireplaces with chimneys. A vacation villa near Karuizawa, uses both.

A 20th-century home, however, is not the same as the 17th century. The minka were designed around dirt floors and an open hearth in the middle of the main room. Not many salarymen are stirring ashes and blowing on embers on cold mornings these days.

"Spirituality is fine, but we also need amenities," Takishita said. "Space is important. What we're recycling is not the walls, but the space within these walls, and honoring the dignity and spirit of the carpenters. The space in architecture is like the silences in musical composition."

Modern home design in Japan is "a mess," said Takishita. "Skyscrapers are pretty much the same everywhere around the world, but the vernacular architecture of Japan doesn't know where to turn these days. We took everything from China for centuries, and since the war have taken everything from the West. What's resulted in Japan are ugly, ugly, strange little houses. It's like we're free to be individuals and don't know how to handle it. But if you take the long view, the historical view, it's clear Japan is in a transitional period."

His skill in rehabbing minka has even sent some of the old buildings overseas, to Argentina and Hawaii. "Of course, it's best if they're kept where they're born, but if they're going to be destroyed, they might as well be re-created elsewhere, where they're appreciated."

Three minka were cobbled together for a grand residence on Portlock in Hawaii Kai, an experience that Takishita recalls fondly. "We brought over 17 carpenters from Japan, and they ate at McDonald's once and didn't want to do that again. So my wife cooked every meal for them!"

His only disappointment was also with the Portlock home. The owner suffered financial reverses and promptly put it up for sale. "A house is for a lifetime!" said Takishita. "I thought he'd live in it for 100 years! And a house like this is very spiritually rewarding in such a materialistic world. We have enough stuff! Enjoy the space within your house and within yourself, not the things piled in it."

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