Home sweet (old) homes


To buy a dream home is an aim shared by many, and in this respect Satoshi and Yumiko Takano were no different from millions the world over.

In November, after a decade of marriage, the happy couple from Saitama Prefecture finally realized that ambition when they moved from a rented 2LDK apartment into a home of their very own.

“We wanted a place with a garden for our daughter,” said 42-year-old Satoshi with a smile as he looked at 15-month-old Masaki, who his wife held in her arms. “So it was when Yumiko became pregnant that we decided to take this step.”

As we speak, bright winter sunshine streams into the two-story house through the large windows of the first-floor living room and dining-kitchen. Adjoining those are a quiet guest room, Satoshi’s study, a bathroom and some storage space. Upstairs above the kitchen is their bedroom, with the rest of the floor open to the ceiling. The garden has yet to be made, but Satoshi has many plans for it.

What makes the Takanos’ new home rather special is that it is anything but new, since the structure itself is at least 80 years old. What’s more, in its previous incarnation it was a rice granary for generations of farmers in neighboring Chiba Prefecture.

This is because, like an increasing number of people, when the Takanos decided to become home-owners they also decided against buying one of those Western-style houses that construction companies advertise. Instead, they opted to renovate an old minka, which is constructed in the traditional fashion without nails or braces from fine Japanese timber that still has many decades of useful life to go.

“When we decided to buy our own house, we didn’t want one that would have to be scrapped in 20 or 30 years like many new houses today,” Satoshi said. Explaining that both he and his wife are keen on being eco-friendly, and are enthusiastic about recycling issues, he said that for them it seemed natural and sensible to utilize existing materials. “We choose to eat organic food, to recycle and things like that, so we wanted to apply [our philosophy] to where we lived as well,” 39-year-old Yumiko added.

As a result of this, it wasn’t long after the couple began their research on home-building and renovating that they came across Tokyo-based architects Kozo Shimizu and Yuko Sasaki. Although they also work on contemporary houses, Shimizu and Sasaki are well-known in their field for remodeling minka for residential use. They first got involved in such projects 12 years ago when one of their clients commissioned them to build a home using natural materials reclaimed from traditional houses.

After consulting with the Takanos, the architect duo set about finding a suitable old building. It wasn’t long before they happened on an ideal one — an old warehouse — through the nonprofit Japan Minka Reuse and Recycling Association.

Both Satoshi and Yumiko admire the British countryside, and the way many people there live in centuries-old farmhouses. The thought of doing likewise was part of the appeal of renovating a minka.

Last year in March, after the Takanos had seen the building the architects had found, the old building was carefully dismantled and transported on two large trucks to its new site, where it would be reassembled with various renovations incorporated to create a comfortable home.

More than 70 percent of the old warehouse’s original materials were retained — including its elegant keyaki (Japanese zelkova) structural pillars and matsu (pine) beams. Unlike many old minka, whose interior timbers take on a black sheen from smoke from their open hearths that were used for cooking and to provide warmth, the elegant bare bent beams now above the living room and bedroom of the Takano’s home have retained their original, lovely brown colors. Other timbers in the house feature square holes, once part of joints, but which now look like part of the decoration of this simple yet handsome home.

New features incorporated into the Takanos’ home include a cream-colored wall constructed between the wooden pillars and beams (with insulating material concealed beneath the plaster), and heating systems under the floors in the living room and dining-kitchen. Needless to say, the latest fittings are installed in the new bathroom and kitchen as well.

In addition, Satoshi hunted round himself to find several sliding doors and pillars and beams from another 80-year-old house near his father’s that was coincidently doomed to be demolished. Architect Shimizu then tastefully reworked some of the sliding doors to make an attractive cupboard and transformed the beams into a sturdy brown kitchen counter-cum-dining table extending from the sink area. “I’m looking forward to making soba noodles on this,” said Satoshi, cheerfully.

As well as being beautiful, the Takanos’ “new” house is free of that peculiar chemical smell of adhesives, paint and solvents that comes with many newly built homes. Loveliest of all, the atmosphere is calm and settled.

Strength and flexibility

While some minka — including the Takanos’ house — are relocated for their new occupants, others are remodeled on the spot, explained Kazuhiro Kiyosawa of JMRA, which has attracted more than 2,000 members since it was set up in 1997. He also pointed out that the group considers viably recyclable minka to be those built from the 19th century to around 1940; anything older is best regarded as a “cultural asset.”

That such minka have survived is a testament to the strength of the local timbers — such as keyaki, matsu and kuri (chestnut) — used in different parts of the structure depending on the characteristics required, and to the flexibility inherent in nail- and brace-free construction.

“Timber was precious in the old days, and Japanese used to build houses on the premise that they would last for a long time,” Kiyosawa explained. As further evidence of this, he said, when a minka is dismantled it is not uncommon to find joints or carvings clearly made for some prior purpose. “People used to repair their houses with great care as they lived in them,” he added.

Such estimable traditions took a turn for the worse after so many houses were lost during World War II; the postwar priority was to quickly throw up new housing to meet the desperate demand. This tendency accelerated during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and ’60s, when companies built residences that by then had come to be regarded merely as “consumer products,” Kiyosawa noted. “As a result,” he said, “houses became commodities, and they were no longer expected to last very long.”

According to JMRA, however, other factors now in play are the increasing number of minka owners giving up their houses because they regard them as inconvenient, dark and cold; some have to relinquish the properties because of road construction, or in order to split assets for inheritance purposes. In other cases, rural depopulation simply takes its toll, leaving an old house abandoned.

Likewise, the motives of people interested in recycling these houses also mirror changing values.

Like the Takanos, some prefer to take on an old minka out of environmental concerns over the chemicals used in modern construction as well as their interest in recycling. Then there are others, like Kinya and Seiko Kobuchi, who are attracted to the unique design and rustic beauty of minka.

Kinya, a 61-year-old surgeon who runs a hospital in Mie Prefecture with his 60-year-old pediatrician wife, said that he was always saddened to see charming minka and other old properties being torn down one after another as if they were worthless. “I couldn’t stand the fact that people were losing respect for old buildings,” he said.

Eleven years ago, the Kobuchis were something of trailblazers in the current minka-renovation movement. Back then, the couple relocated a huge 170-year-old farmhouse from the snowlands of Niigata Prefecture to the land next to their hospital and, with the help of an architect, renovated it to suit today’s way of life.

Instead of living in it as their home, though, the Kobuchis now utilize their renovated minka as a facility for their 74 staff. The couple also enjoy hosting home stays, concerts and gatherings with friends in the building’s spacious rooms. “We’ve had people tell us that after visiting our place, they decided not to scrap but to preserve and renovate an old minka they lived in,” Seiko said.

Positive feelings

New owners of minka all seem, in their different ways, to have very positive feelings about living in harmony with their traditional homes — and architects seem to thoroughly enjoy their involvement in these renovation projects.

For instance Shimizu and Sasaki, who worked on the Takanos’ minka, said that although they need to take care of some issues such as making the buildings quakeproof in line with the Building Standards Act, working within the houses’ given parameters is like solving a puzzle to them.

In contrast, he said, “when you begin constructing a house from blueprints, you sometimes have to make compromise decisions [on the design or materials], but with old minka the structure is already decided so what you do is try and bring out their charm. There is delight in the whole process because homeowners often participate enthusiastically.”

His partner Sasaki added: “The design of these old buildings and their basic fittings are truly gorgeous. Since good Japanese timber has now become very expensive and difficult to obtain, it’s a privilege to work with such good materials that also have real character.” The experience of being involved in minka projects, the couple noted, has led them to the conclusion that even when they are working on contemporary projects, they should want their work to last for a century.

But it’s not just owners and architects who have all the fun. Specialists agree that only carpenters with traditional skills can work on minka renovation — for those who have only worked on modern construction projects it would be very difficult.

Even for such traditional craftsmen, though, renovating old minka involves techniques and procedures they would not have come across when building a house from scratch. According to Minoru Kojima, a 69-year-old craftsman who has worked on minka relocation in Aichi Prefecture, “The dismantling is more tense than the reassembly, because you have to number the timbers meticulously to show where they were used, and you also have to handle the materials with great care because you want to re-use as many of them as possible.”

As a veteran with 54 years’ experience, Kojima said that he felt great joy upon recognizing that traditional techniques he uses haven’t changed from the time, 250 years ago, when minka were first built — and from long before that, too.

The bottom line

Finally, of course, there’s the big question of how much it actually costs to turn your minka dreams into reality. Although many parties are involved in the process, for its part the JMRA makes it a rule to ask relinquishing owners to provide the houses for free. However, new owners are required to pay for dismantling and moving the materials, as well as the reconstruction costs.

As a result, Kiyosawa said that on average a “new” house constructed from an old one costs around 30 percent more than a newly built contemporary dwelling. If the renovation is done on the spot, though, the cost works out at about 20 percent less than constructing a new one, he added.

The initial budget for the Takanos’ house was 30 million yen, but they ended up having to pay more than 40 million yen. “I may have been able to stay within my budget if we had built a completely new house,” Satoshi said with a wry smile. “But I feel that it was worth paying what we did,” he said.

And even though it now takes him nearly two hours to get to his office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward — 20 minutes longer than before — Satoshi insists that, too, is a price he’s more than happy to pay. “I feel so content when I come home.” he said. “And I just hope that the next generation of our family will continue to live in this house as well.”