A step back to the way life was

by Setsuko Kamiya

Everyone knows — especially the organizers of home stays and house visits — that you can learn a lot about a society from observing the way its people live. But how about taking a trip back in time, to a home of times past, to gain a better understanding of the cultural roots of today’s society?

An afternoon at the Nihon Minka-en (known in English as the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum), in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, gives just this insight. History comes alive at the theme park, which is set in green and tranquil surroundings, and contains 25 traditional Japanese wooden homes and other structures that date back to the 17th century.

Once the humble residences of the likes of farmers, fishermen and townspeople, these buildings are now designated as local or national cultural properties. The houses gathered in Kawasaki’s Minka-en are drawn from across northern and central Japan, with several from Kanagawa itself.

In general, traditional minka, as such everyday dwellings are known, are structured with interconnected wooden pillars and beams, and have walls made of clay plastered over woven bamboo lath. The roofs are often thatched, shingled, or tiled over a frame of wood or bamboo. Shoji (paper-screen doors) or wooden sliding doors are used to close the openings.

Minka are masterpieces of joinery — as is typical of traditional Japanese carpentry; neither nails nor braces are used to build them.

Inside, the houses are divided into two areas. One is the doma, an earthen-floor area that you step into upon entering. Doma usually contain a kamado (clay oven) where meals were cooked, and sometimes one corner of the area was used as a stable.

The floor of the rest of the house is raised about 50 cm, and the space can be partitioned with the sliding doors into areas where the family work, dine, attend to their guests and sleep. The rooms closest to the doma are often wood-floored, but the ones in the inner part are tatami-matted.

One of the wood-floored rooms would have an irori hearth set into the floor for warming the house. Smoke from the irori (and kamado) served as a natural insecticide, though it also blackened the interior pillars and beams.

Restricted adornment

Such houses, built before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, are plain and functional. More than reflecting the owner’s tastes, this simplicity was due to sumptuary laws that restricted personal adornment and possessions in accordance with one’s social status, explained Bunmei Nakagawa, a curator at the Nihon Minka-en.

“No matter how much money ordinary people may have had, they were not allowed to use lavish materials and designs,” he said, pointing out the lack of a proper entrance hall to the house and the use of bent beams — straight ones were regarded as extravagant.

While all minka share certain basic characteristics, the range of buildings at the Minka-en — many were dismantled at their original location and faithfully reassembled in Kawasaki — reveals regional differences in such details as the angle of the roof and the thickness of the supporting pillars.

Four farmhouses, including the Emukai house, which was originally situated in Toyama Prefecture, are called gassho-zukuri — houses characterized by their precipitous roofs and an interior on two or three levels. The pillars and beams used in these houses are thick, as they had to hold up against heavy snowfall, whereas the supports in homes from more temperate regions, such as the Sasaki house from Yachiho Village, Nagano Prefecture, are much thinner.

Floor plans vary, too. The Sakuta house, once the home of a fishermen’s boss in Chiba Prefecture, comprises two separately roofed portions connected by a gutter; the larger part contains only wood-floor rooms while the smaller is the doma. Meanwhile, the Kudo house from Iwate Prefecture has an L-shaped floor plan known as magariya (bent house). The short side of the L-shape was used as a stable, an arrangement common in the horse-breeding region of Tohoku.

In addition to these old minka, visitors can also enjoy other historical structures, including a kabuki stage used by fishermen in Mie Prefecture who would perform as part of religious ceremonies held at one of the local shrines. The stage is still used a few times a year, in October and November, during the Minka-en’s own festival.

Ironically, the Nihon Minka-en was established in 1967, during a period of rapid economic growth when many Japanese longed to live in newly built homes outfitted with the latest Western-style fixtures and fittings. It was this newfound prosperity and the consequent shift in consumer taste that sealed the fate of the minka.

We should be grateful, however, that a fortunate few were saved from destruction and have found a new “home” in the Minka-en.