Off the Top of My HeadBy Paul Murray
From a vantage point on wooded Mt Genji overlooking the ancient city of Kamakura, Yoshihiro Takishita relaxes in his stately antique home after returning from a U.S. book tour.
His book, Japanese Country Style: Putting New Life Into Old Houses is the culmination of his career to date as a rescuer and restorer of old Japanese minka (farmhouses). His life’s work has been to preserve the grace and style of traditional Japanese architecture for future generations to appreciate, enjoy and admire.
The positive response of audiences on his U.S. tour “gave me confidence in what I’m doing, that I’m doing the right thing––and that’s so important for Japanese people, he said.
The book is essentially a collection of excellent architectural photographs that capture the splendour of 16 of the minka homes Takishita has rejuvenated. But it also includes insight into his life and his passion for minka, background information on the buildings, tips for modernising the homes, hints on joinery, advice on suitable interior decorating and details on dismantling, transporting, and reassembling the structures in separate locations.
Takishita has saved 30 such homes so far, dismantling the buildings, transporting the materials to new locations and reconstructing them to live on as examples of a bygone age when elegance, refinement and grandeur were more highly regarded than purely economic considerations and rationalisation.
“People today buy houses like they’re buying (a new car) from a catalogue: fast and cheap.”
Takishita claims it is reasonable to expect a reconstructed minka home to provide comfortable living for at least 200 years, and that minka––themselves antiques––actually become more beautiful with age, unlike contemporary Japanese homes, which begin to deteriorate and become “grimy and unattractive within a few years.”
“Government statistics show that the average lifespan of a new house in Japan is 26 years. People say ‘economy comes first,’ but what kind of economy is it when a house only lasts 26 years? In the long term, minka are much more economical,” Takishita said.
To sit chatting with Takishita in the spacious living area of the more than 200-year-old minka annex to his Kamakura home, surrounded by sturdy, solid wooden uprights and majestic overhead beams blackened by centuries of wood smoke and the patina of age, is truly awe-inspiring.
He uses the building as a showroom for his separate, but complimentary, business as an antique dealer. “What could be better to display antiques in than an antique building?” he asks in his book.
Takishita fears the nation is losing its way culturally and is allowing the West too great an influence. “We are losing our sense of beauty and sense of value. We are losing the beautiful things in this country. We are ruining and destroying it.” He said.
“Japanese are group-minded and community minded; they lack the ability to make individual judgement––it’s a shame, Takishita said. “Losing (World War II) was a denial of our cultural heritage and we lost confidence in our traditions. It is now time for us to rediscover Japan and it is my mission to spread this message,” he said.
There seems to be a popular misconception among Japanese that old houses are cold, dark, dirty, damp, uncomfortable and expensive to maintain. Worse, they carry the stigma of penury in the Japanese mind-set, in which keeping up with the Watanabes is essential.
“For Japanese, to live in a farmhouse is a symbol of poverty. A thatched-roof house is considered shameful,” Takishita said.
This may have been valid 100 years ago, but Takishita’s homes have every modern convenience from flush toilets to Jacuzzis, as each home can be tastefully modified to include any amenity required in the process of disassembly and reconstruction. Incorporating fireplaces, air conditioning, and subfloor heating panels that warm the entire home from the bottom up solves the heating problem, skylights improve lighting and security is enhanced with locking doors and windows. Takishita appears to have a solution for every objection and a visit to his comfortable Kamakura home quickly dispels minka misconceptions.
Takishita looks to the past for a vision of the future and his excellent book redefines the word “progress.” Modern buildings become inconsequential, regressive and artless beside the splendour of minkas, serving as a reminder to us all that we can still learn from our ancestors.
The following excellent short documentary film by Davina Pardo is on the life and work of Mr Minka Yosihiro Takishita: