March 10, 2007

In minka condition

Restoring old, traditional Japanese farmhouses into modern spaces comes at a high price, but fans say they are worth it

KAMAKURA, Japan - Anybody who thinks everyone in Japan lives in cramped quarters should take a look at architect Yoshihiro Takishita's home.

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

For MrTakishita, his farmhouse is more than just a home. It is also a labour 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,' said MrTakishita, who found his house in Japan's Gifu prefecture, disassembled it and then restored it on the hills over Sagami Bay in 1976. 'There is a beauty and value to traditional architecture that we can take advantage of even today.'

These spacious structures once graced the mountain-studded, rice padi-filled countryside, their grass-thatched roofs as well as brown and whitewashed exteriors blending with the bucolic surroundings.

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

But now the sturdy, elegant 'minka' farmhouse is making a comeback, thanks to the strong economy and the pride it stirred in Japanese about their country's cultural accomplishments. The result has been a steady rise since the early 1990s in interest in traditional living - and the homes to do it in.

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

Houses at a price

BUT restoring these gems involves more than just whitewashing a few walls. For some, the rudimentary kitchens are filled with the latest designer equipment, and rustic bathrooms are retrofitted with modern favourites such as heated toilet seats and spa-like tubs.

Others have been converted into restaurants and art galleries.

All that work comes at a price. Renovations can cost from US$400,000 (S$611,300). And if you are relocating a minka, you need the land to put it on - and lots of it. Land in MrTakishita's neighbourhood averages around US$1,500 for 10sqft, and a minka can require as much as 3,230sqft of space.

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

The homes are organically linked to their environment - their raw materials traditionally come from their surroundings, and they are designed with the climate in mind.

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

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

JMRA official Akiko Iijima said: 'People today can see that minka are a sustainable kind of architecture. They are recognising that there is a naturalness to them that you don't find in homes today.'