On a mis­sion to save the Ja­panese minka

Tra­di­tional Ja­panese homes are be­ing aban­doned in favour of mod­ern hy­brid styles — and sold, of­ten derelict, at rock-bot­tom prices. Yet with a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions they can be charm­ing and com­fort­able – and a good in­vest­ment, says Michael Fitz­patrick

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Overseas -

AF­TER

Artists, po­ets, ar­chi­tects and style gu­rus have all fallen in love with the tra­di­tional Ja­panese house. And with good rea­son. Low-slung thatched or tiled roofs, half tim­bered in aro­matic cedar; inside, the de­light­ful del­i­cacy of tatami mat­ting and shoji screens while out­side awaits the seren­ity of a Ja­panese gar­den. Who could not be se­duced by such a home?

Well, the av­er­age Ja­panese, it ap­pears. Should you ever want to see ex­am­ples of the tra­di­tional Ja­panese house or even pos­si­bly be­come the proud owner of one, you had bet­ter get to Ja­pan quick. For the lo­cals have been aban­don­ing them like heart­less lovers in favour of charm­less mod­ern hy­brid styles.

“Ja­pan lost its way decades ago,” says ar­chi­tect Tetsuo Fu­ruichi in his Tokyo stu­dio. “Nearly all of our great na­tive ar­chi­tec­ture has van­ished. What peo­ple want now is Euro­pean-Amer­i­can style,” he adds dispirit­edly, pat­ting an enor­mous tome en­ti­tled Tra­di­tional Ja­panese Houses. “Most of the houses de­picted in this book, which records our best old homes, have gone for ever.”

This whole­sale aban­don­ment of cen­turies-old ar­chi­tec­tural val­ues

BE­FORE

verges on a crime, he says. It has turned many of Ja­pan’s vil­lages, towns and cities into eye­sores that squat on ar­eas of nat­u­ral beauty. Even much of Ky­oto, fa­mously “saved” for pos­ter­ity by the Al­lies when it was spared Sec­ond World War bombs, has been re­built with the same West­ern-in­flu­enced do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­ture.

But there has been method in such ap­par­ent mad­ness. The tra­di­tional Ja­panese house, with its thin walls, freezes in win­ter and is short on com­fort, while ren­o­vat­ing or re­pair­ing such del­i­cate struc­tures, in cities at least, can be ru­inous.

There is also the fact that as many as 2,000 vil­lages and ham­lets are on the brink of be­ing aban­doned: Ja­pan’s rural econ­omy has taken a bat­ter­ing and there is lit­tle money for pre­serv­ing its her­itage.

The coun­try’s dif­fi­culty, how­ever, also spells op­por­tu­nity. As the coun­try’s over­all econ­omy warms up again and prices rise in the cities, the as­tute are mov­ing out to the hin­ter­land, lured by spec­tac­u­larly low prices and the prom­ise of es­cape from the rat race. Some homes, in de­serted vil­lages, are even be­ing given away.

A slow trickle of re­tired or down­siz­ing ex-cor­po­rate war­riors from the city and now-re­tir­ing baby boomers are re-colonis­ing Ja­pan’s paddy fields and bam­boo groves. And this band of en­light­ened Ja­panese is be­ing joined by like-minded canny for­eign­ers de­ter­mined to make their home — or at least a sec­ond home — a tra­di­tional one.

Among them is Bri­tish-born Steve Beard­s­ley, who has been in Ja­pan 17 years, speaks the lan­guage and has an Indo-Malaysian wife and a 10-year-old son. He teaches math­e­mat­ics at a Tokyo school dur­ing the week but at week­ends and hol­i­days is the zeal­ous re­storer of a 19th-cen­tury Ja­panese farm­house, a minka, 150 miles from Tokyo and with views of the Ja­panese Alps.

“It’s huge, with lots of im­pres­sive old beams, an an­nex cot­tage, a gar­den with 100-year-old stat­ues and a veg­etable patch the size of a ten­nis court. It backs on to a rice field val­ley rem­i­nis­cent of Bali and faces the snow-capped moun­tains,” he says.

Be­cause of Ja­pan’s rapidly fall­ing birth rate and the ex­o­dus of young peo­ple to the cities, Beard­s­ley’s his­toric minka, like many in the coun­try­side here, cost him noth­ing.

“I didn’t need a loan be­cause the house came free with the land, which cost me about £30,000,” says Beard­s­ley. “I reckon it will cost an­other £30,000 to ren­o­vate.”

The house and its three acres of land are two min­utes from fish­ing ponds, five min­utes from a grand golf course and 20 min­utes from an Olympic ski­ing re­sort. “It is very much a lifestyle in­vest­ment rather than a hard-headed fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion,” says Beard­s­ley. “But com­pared with what is avail­able for the same price in the UK, I think we are on the right track.”

In­sur­ing the prop­erty was cheap, as were other costs. But, as Beard­s­ley ad­mits, the down­side is that there is no cover for the earth­quakes that plague the whole ar­chi­pel­ago. How­ever, tra­di­tional Ja­panese houses are built to be quake-re­sis­tant, which is why there were so many stand­ing be­fore they fell out of fash­ion af­ter the war. An­other up­side is that, with some of the low­est in­ter­est rates in the world, typ­i­cally about 1.9 per cent, mort­gages are very cheap.

“For­eign­ers can ob­tain loans from Ja­panese banks and the rates are very low, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through,” warns Beard­s­ley. How­ever, rules have changed re­cently to make it eas­ier to bor­row in Ja­pan and at last non-per­ma­nent res­i­dents can get loans.

“Now for­eign­ers can buy prop­erty more eas­ily than five or 10 years ago, be­cause the banks have be­came quite flexible in their lend­ing to for­eign na­tion­als,” ex­plains Yuya Sugi­moto of Tokyo-based Ken Real

Es­tate In­vest­ment Ad­vi­sors. “Not only lo­cal banks but also some for­eign banks, like Stan­dard Char­tered, have such loans.”

“Ren­o­va­tion costs are low, too,” says Beard­s­ley, “and that has also been rel­a­tively pain­less.” But not with­out its hic­cups. The area re­cently suf­fered from a land­slide, which the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are now deal­ing with. “The builders here are very ef­fi­cient, com­pe­tent and cheap to em­ploy. Also the costs of ma­te­ri­als are gen­er­ally less than in the UK.”

Karl Bengs, a 62-year-old Ger­man ar­chi­tect lauded in some quar­ters for his pas­sion for sav­ing minka, agrees. “It’s a plea­sure to work with th­ese su­per crafts­men, whom I see as artists. It is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary how they build th­ese unique struc­tures,” says Bengs, who has a life­long love of Ja­pan. “But it is also very sad, be­cause al­though the car­pen­ters still have the skill to do great work, there is lit­tle de­mand for their skills. Un­for­tu­nately, to the av­er­age per­son here, old means bad. New/mod­ern equals good.”

Bengs has be­come some­thing of a me­dia dar­ling, help­ing to alert the Ja­panese to the plight of their own her­itage while prov­ing to them that tra­di­tional homes can be great places to live with the ad­di­tion of some west­ern in­te­rior com­forts.

When he con­verts homes, such as his own his­toric minka in the farflung vil­lage of Take­dokoro near Ni­igata, he ditches such el­e­ments as unin­su­lated walls and adds Ger­manstyle wooden sash win­dows and heated floors.

His hy­brid homes are in great de­mand from afi­ciona­dos, but few other ar­chi­tects tread a sim­i­lar path. Now his great­est fear is that as his car­pen­ters reach re­tire­ment th­ese liv­ing na­tional trea­sures may not be around much longer.

But Bengs has a plan to keep the skills alive around his adopted, 160-year old, thatched minkas, a twohour train jour­ney east of Tokyo by bul­let train, which he bought for £180,000 10 years ago.

“We have just pur­chased land for three more minka to be re­con­structed there,” he says. They will be­come hol­i­day homes and the ba­sis for a new com­mu­nity that will at­tract a new gen­er­a­tion – “young peo­ple who can learn the dy­ing car­pen­try tech­niques be­fore it is too late”.

Bengs hopes such a com­mu­nity will rekin­dle a real re­spect among mod­ern Ja­pane­ses for th­ese van­ish­ing trea­sures be­fore the coun­try loses them al­to­gether. As he puts it: “Towns that don’t have old houses are like peo­ple who don’t have mem­o­ries.”

And what could be sad­der than that?

For more de­tails on Karl Bengs’s restora­tion work, visit www.k-bengs.com.

Ken Real Es­tate In­vest­ment Ad­vi­sors: www. ken­corp.com

Soul food: a vil­lage house, ex­ten­sively re­stored inside and out by the Ger­man ar­chi­tect Karl Bengs

Big plans: Take­dokoro, the vil­lage where Karl Bengs has his own minka (above, right), and where he is ac­quir­ing o

o other prop­er­ties to re­store them in the same way

Thatched par­adise: Karl Bengs hopes that his pro­gramme of art­ful mod­erni­sa­tion will help pre­serve tra­di­tional crafts

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