No Country for Old Homes

In the remote rural town of Katsuyama, nestled beyond the San-In mountains, opposite a lumber yard and next to a gaudy supermarket, is the house my cousins grew up in.


It is a grand, old Japanese country house, complete with massive wooden doors for a gate, two kura (warehouses), an inner courtyard and expansive front garden crowded with ancient trees, including pines, maples and a magnificent cherry tree.


I used to visit this house as a child, every year in the wintertime when the cold Katsuyama air kept us firmly entrenched in the kotatsu (a wooden table covered by a wooden blanket, under which is a heat source) reading manga, playing cards, eating mikan tangerines and generally doing the things kids out of school did back then.


The grown-ups must have been doing something as well, but the thrill of delving into my cousins’ vast collection of manga and playing silly card games, like “usunoro-no-manuke,” which translates something like “super-slow and stupid,” seems to have blocked out any recollection of what anyone above the age of 12 might have been engaged in.


My cousins’ house held another kind of unsettling excitement for us city kids – it was spooky.


Unlike our (relatively) modern, western-style house in Tokyo, the house in Katsuyama was vast, dark and draughty – the perfect setting for a good scare at night, especially after reading an episode of “The Snake Woman,” a gruesome but popular manga at the time.


I remember how difficult it was to muster the courage to get out of the kotatsu for a visit to the outhouse, not only because it was cold but more crucially because it was terrifying. In the old days, toilets were commonly located outside the main house and consisted of a Japanese–style latrine over a big pothole – just the kind of place where a snake woman might appear to drag you into the endless blackness below.


Back then, Katsuyama was a much quieter town that grew pitch dark after sunset. There was no gaudy supermarket next door, nor any of the fancy coffee shops and restaurants in renovated warehouses that are now a major draw of the town.


Such fond memories of a long-forgotten chapter of my childhood came rushing back to me recently when I had the chance to visit the house in Katsuyama for the first time in many years.


The house had been sold and was being torn down. My aunt and cousin were frantically clearing it of its contents and we wanted to see the house one final time before it disappeared, taking decades of an extended family’s history with it.


Like many old houses in Japan, nobody lived in the house in Katsuyama anymore. My uncle had passed away and my aunt was living with my cousin in Tokyo. A friendly neighbor took care of the house in the absence of its residents, airing it regularly, replacing the fusuma sliding doors with sudare shades in the summer and making sure the gardener kept the trees and bushes properly trimmed.


As we walked through the spacious house, I couldn’t help feeling a deep sadness at the thought of all the invaluable parts that would be lost forever – the thick doors to the kura with their distinctive design, the delicately carved ranma – wooden decorative piece above the shoji paper windows – and the paper closet doors brush-painted with a mountain landscape.


It wasn’t just sadness over the loss of a house full of memories.


As I surveyed the house in Katsuyama being tidied up for its last day, I was struck by the thought that all over Japan, traditional houses abandoned by their owners who had moved to the cities, or were just simply too tired of maintaining them properly, were being torn down.


With the relentless decline and ageing of Japan’s population, the inexorable shift of young people to the cities and the hollowing out of the countryside, there is no one left to look after old, traditional houses like my cousins’ in Katsuyama.


Nobody wants to live in the countryside anymore, where most of these grand, old houses stand. It takes hard work and not insignificant financial investment to keep these houses properly maintained, given that wood is susceptible to rot.


They tend to be draughty and ill-suited to the modern lifestyle.


My cousin considered taking down the house and re-assembling parts of it as a summer home in a resort town closer to Tokyo, but the cost was prohibitively high.


It is not just traditional country houses that are being abandoned.


Empty houses are mushrooming all over Japan.


The number of housing units not lived in reached 8.2m in 2013, of which 3.18m have no plans to be sold or rented out. That is 5.25 per cent of all homes, according to a government survey.


The empty houses are a growing social problem, particularly as many of them are full of junk or falling apart and pose a fire and health hazard.


The plight of old, traditional houses that are being abandoned or torn down points to a different kind of social dilemma.


The demographic and social forces sweeping through Japan are irreversibly altering the country’s traditional landscape, replacing indigenous architecture that embodies the traditional aesthetic with modern, often pre-fabricated houses.


Pretty soon, there won’t be enough people capable of building traditional houses and Japan will have lost a part of its architectural history.


I live in a modern house in Tokyo that is more minimalist than minka.


I often dream of owning a traditional Japanese country house, complete with an iori, a hinoki bath and beautifully painted paper doors.


But I also know that owning such a house is a luxury reserved only for the few who are wealthy enough and dedicated enough to ensure its upkeep – a hinoki bath needs to be replaced every couple of years.


Just as the modern working person cannot be expected to wear kimono to the office, it is clearly unrealistic to expect people to re-discover the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture and start building minka of their own.


So, I console myself by staying at traditional ryokan inns whenever I can, or at machiya, the traditional town houses that Japanese architecture advocates like Alex Kerr have lovingly restored.


If more businesses can be encouraged to capitalize on the beauty and appeal of traditional architecture, perhaps the knowledge and skills required to build minka can be preserved along with scattered microcosms of the old Japan.


The next destination I am eyeing is an old soy sauce warehouse that has been turned into a small inn on the western island of Syodoshima.