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
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
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