Living in the past, with pleasure


A short walk along a twisting, narrow stone path branching off a busy road through Tokyo’s Yanaka district brings you to the warm glow of a small andon lamp, its paper shade mounted on a wooden frame.

There, in a square hardly bigger than a handkerchief and surrounded on all sides by wooden houses, the air is moist, cool and smells pleasantly mossy even on a sunny day. To the left is a reed screen door. If you press the bell beside it, you’ll hear the rustle of movement and soon the rattle of a glazed door sliding open as Jim Hathaway, an American sumi-e (ink painting) artist, welcomes you to his nagaya studio and gallery.

Hathaway’s Taisho Era (1912-26) studio in Taito Ward, and the nearby nagaya — literally, “long roof” — house he shares with his Japanese wife and two daughters, are remnants of the traditional inner-city life.

Since the dawn of the Edo Period in 1603, these had made typical homes for urban commoners. But, today, even in Yanaka, a temple town northeast of Ueno Park, in the heart of Toyko’s traditional shitamachi, they are becoming an increasingly exceptional style of dwelling. Like much else of traditional Japan, these cozy domiciles have been devastated by rapid postwar economic growth, gradually giving way to houses, apartments and high-rise condominiums.

“I was always fascinated by Japan’s old-style architecture; its design and materials are so inviting,” says Hathaway, seated on a zabuton (floor cushion) as he pours Japanese tea and offers a manju (bean-jam bun) in his studio’s one-mat “living” room. To the side, in a tiny alcove just under the stairway, stands a stone Jizo the artist made from a pickle-stone left by the former occupant, nicely arranged with a small flower display and some of his sumi-e pieces.

“I love my painting, I love my neighbors. Everything is very happy for me,” he declares.

Hathaway’s first encounter with his family’s nearby nagaya home was in early 1990 when he was exploring the Yanaka district, now home to an artistic community. When he first set eyes on the 70-year-old, two-story house with its tatami rooms, shoji screens and solid wooden pillars, Hathaway says simply, “It was love at first sight.”

His wife pointed out that the tatami was filthy, the shoji screens were full of holes, and the house’s walls looked set to crumble — but to no avail. “You can make a place look very different if you just slop on some paint. And everybody gets new tatami anyway,” he says.

Using his carpentry skill, Hathaway leveled the floor before having new tatami mats laid; he painted the walls and built a bathroom — at the request of his wife — in the neko no hitai (cat’s forehead) garden. Far from objecting to the renovation, the landlord lent a hand with the work. The bathtub was later replaced with a luxurious cypress model built by a neighboring artisan.

Hathaway sleeps in the upstairs tatami room with his family, eats at a low dining table in the downstairs tatami room and does his sumi-e sitting upright on tatami in his nearby studio. In the surrounding alleys, his children play ball games with their friends, as the neighborhood adults drink beer and eat fish cooked on a hibachi outside on the street.

One thing Hathaway, a native of New York state, particularly enjoys about his nagaya home is that it puts him in greater touch with nature.

“It’s my belief that in the summer you should sweat because it’s hot. And in winter, you should be cold. In New York, you sweat in the winter because all the buildings have so much heating that you have to open the windows. To me that’s ridiculous,” he says. “In nagaya, there’s no question about whether it’s winter. The wind blows right through.”

Appreciating this “natural lifestyle” evidently falls in with the current back-to-nature trend. In fact, Hathaway says that nagaya residents are often asked by young couples: “However did you find a nagaya? I want to live in one, too.” “But if they actually moved in, I think they would be shocked,” he says. “Seen from the outside, it’s a very romantic idea. But inside, it’s a different story.”

For one thing, good ventilation means poor insulation. The kitchen is also small and not designed to accommodate a refrigerator. Neither are visitors limited to friends and neighbors — crickets, fleas, slugs, cockroaches and rats often show up as well.

“My wife got very upset yesterday because rats came back to our kitchen to shelter during the typhoon,” Hathaway says. “They were running right in front of her when she was cooking.”

Equally, living in such an intimate community means living with very little privacy.

“Everyone talks about you. Everyone is everyone else’s entertainment,” says Hathaway. “And it is very upsetting to hear your life story told differently from what it really is. It’s a very small world, the nagaya one.”

Although he’s sympathetic to complaints from his wife, once an uptown Tokyo girl who dreamed of living in a big American-type house, Hathaway enjoys life in the microcosmic nagaya style. Having grown up in a small town, he says it feels like home to live in a community where everyone watches over their neighbors and where mothers know what their children did at school even before they get home.

And in a country where people, particularly the older generations, sometimes feel nervous about encountering foreigners, Hathaway believes that living in such a tight community, is, paradoxically, more comfortable for expatriate residents.

“If a gaijin hides, it makes more trouble for him, because then he is more mysterious and also more frightening. If they don’t understand you they are more nervous. But if they see you, and they see you are a person, they realize, ‘Ah, here is a person.’ To me, it’s better to be open.”