We completed Phase I of the restoration of our minka in the mountains in mid-October, which we immediately followed with “The Haunted House of Hanase,” an adaptation of a Halloween event I’ve staged for local kids for the past six years.
For this post, I’m going to let the pictures do the talking with these before and after shots. Enjoy!
The original estimate from the builders was three months and a little more, so I figured they’d finish around October 10th if I was lucky, October 20th if they were running behind. I was, then, startled in conversation with them some weeks ago to learn they were actually hoping to finish this month, September, though they cautioned they might run a few days into October. Best news of the week!
The maki sutoobu (maki stove or, wood-burning stove) crew arrived, allowing me my first good look inside the loft level. I’d tried before, but the space was so dark and so huge, no flashlight or lantern gave off enough light to see much of anything. What we found was a revelation!
Meanwhile the wood flooring for the annex bedroom, genkan-turned-dining room, and main room arrived, and Masutani-san set to work carefully installing it.
While Masutani-san worked and I mostly watched, a huge typhoon swept through Hanase:
Progress on the minka in the mountains continues; perhaps not at the pace I’d like to see, but it’s progress nonetheless, and the workers can’t be faulted. When they’re there, the house continues taking shape.
Today was another hot summer afternoon in Hanase or, as I like to call it, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The workers had been off a record 12 days – first there was Japan’s latest holiday, “Mountain Day,” and then oban and then, well, it was quiet on that front for a while. But now they’re back, allegedly planning on working pretty much every day through to the end of the month and perhaps beyond.
I’ve been busying myself with various small projects: trying to hold the line against the weeds, some of which seemed to surge to a meter in height before I pulled ’em out or hacked away at them with my mighty sickle.
We’ve also met the nice couple next-door to Simon and Keiko-san, who live and work in Osaka, but come out as often as they can. We invited them over for BBQ ahead of the matsuage, Hanase’s local fire festival.
I’ve been too busy to blog much about the minka in the mountains these past few weeks, making trips there almost every day to try and do my bit, helping the workers here and there but mostly working independently on little jobs. Since my last post most of the work has been concentrated on getting all the flooring done, but in recent days they’ve begun work on the walls and a few details like getting the mizuya drawers unstuck and planing and sanding the sliding doors and fusuma so that they’ll slide easily, too.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll let these images do most of the talking this time out:
The second week of “Phase I” as I call it, the hardcore, make-it-livable part of the “reform” (i.e., renovation) work, wasn’t quite as visually dramatic as the first, but progress was nonetheless made.
The most noteworthy developments involve the former genkan passageway-future dining room and former stable-future annex bedroom, each of which had some water damage to their respective ceilings. Once those were removed I began to think how much nicer each of those rooms might look with the high ceilings retained, especially as they exposed additional long ceiling beams running the length of the house.
My pal Jeff Flugel paid a visit to the Hanase minka for the first time, and while he was there we tried climbing the long ladder in the doma 18 feet up to the small sliding door that leads to the loft area. But even stalwart Jeff confessed to being a little nervous so high up, and having to squirm into the tiny space up there.
But a long piece of floor bracing, leaning against the futon closet in the bedroom annex got me thinking: Why not put a much shorter ladder to the loft right there? The climb up into the loft would be a much less daunting seven feet instead of eighteen. Further, a simple collapsable step-stair of the sort associated with attics could be hidden out of sight in the futon closet.
Big, strapping Masutani-san – he must be around six feet, five inches tall – continued his work with the flooring, adding insulation between the original beams before nailing the flat wood base that will rest under the hardwood flooring, and full sheets of insulation where the tatami rooms will be. For much of this, he used a red laser to reposition and ensure a completely level floor. What would the original builders in 1810 have made of such a device?
Meanwhile, I did what little I could to save the crew a little time and trouble. Monday was a national holiday so Yukiyo, Sadie and I drove over to barbecue. Later in the week, I cleared several hundred pounds of muck that had through the years been building up behind the house, almost all of which consisted of endless rocks, roots, muck and mire. Soon after I began work on a multi-stepped gravel pathway, an intended shortcut for the crew (and, later, us) from the secondary parking directly to the doma, but my efforts were so pathetic I’m not ready to post any images just yet.
We also made a final decision about which stove company to hire for the purchase and installation of our wood-burning stove. It was an agonizing decision. We got three estimates, and each company a) came up with a plan completely different from the other two, and b) insisted the other two plans were totally unsafe. We went with the plan that made the most logical sense in terms of safety and, naturally, it was also the most expensive.
We also found a place to send our two dogs, Maisie (a 15-year-old Papillion) and Edie (a six-year-old Boston Terrier), to for a little remedial education. Much as we really want them to be able to run around the area without a leash and have the time of their lives, Edie particularly is so stupid it’s easy to imagine her running off merrily into the mountains, never to be seen again, or Maisie latching onto a snake that turned out to be poisonous.
Each day on my way to Hanase I’d pass a dog-training center, and finally we stopped by and said hello. Turns out the owner-trainer, Fujii-san, knew exactly where we lived in town from my annual Halloween Haunted House shows. And it turned out he’s training a German Shepherd two blocks away and also trained Oscar, the dog that lived in our house in town before we did. Small world, this.
The real fun came on Sunday. With most of the house’s interior looking like the inside of a Brontosaurus skeleton, I thought it would be fun to take Yukiyo and Sadie out exploring the countryside near our minka in the mountains. First we stopped by a big summer festival at the public campgrounds about five minutes from our minka. Farmers brought produce from at least three local communities: Hanase, Hirogawara, and Momoi, and we feasted on grilled ears of corn, and Yukiyo and Sadie enjoyed some barbecued squid. My American eyes latched onto a booth selling burgers but it was only after I ordered, “Hitotsu, onegaishimasu!” (“One, please”) that I was to be given a choice: wild boar or deer. I opted for the wild boar, and I must admit it was the best burger of any type I’d had in a long while.
Later, we drove through the mountains past some really spectacular scenery to Miyama, a medium-sized town to the northwest famous for its little sub-hamlet of restored straw-thatched minka. During the long drive back into Kyoto both Sadie and Yukiyo, as they always do, fell into a deep sleep. Must be all that fresh air.
Work on the minka in the mountains continues at an impressive clip. The reform crew removed the old, far-too-tiny wood (and wood-burning) bathtub out of the bathroom, which appears to be in good enough condition to use outside, in addition to the new and much larger one that will replace it indoors. They also removed the old, very dangerous wood-burning stove that had been sitting atop the former iyori, along with the crude piping. Incredibly, there had been no chimney per se: the hot smoke and soot emptied into the loft. I’m told this isn’t unusual as the idea was that the black smoke would keep the thatched straw under the tin roof dry and the insects out.
By now nearly all the flooring had been removed, much of it useable firewood for our eventual stove, and since there was a literal ton of it (or more), it made sense to begin sticking it all on a firewood rack I had ordered online and assembled at the house. While the reform crew did their thing, I tried to help out by moving firewood around, and swept out debris in the various floorless rooms, as well as the bathroom, ahead of its major reconstruction.
I also tried to rake and shovel the muck and mire behind the house, thinking to eventually supplement the stone retaining wall with a French drain. It was hot and humid, but nonetheless I wore big rubber boots, heavy jeans, and a long-sleeve shirt owing to the many snakes, mukade, and especially wiggly black leeches back there.
What I discovered was that the ground behind the house seems to consist almost entirely of 1) rocks; 2) tree roots; and 3) slimy muck. However, the previous owners must have succeeded in making that back area nice at some point. There was, unusually, a small engawa that, I discovered, looked out over a small garden, its stone border still in place, if completely overgrown.
But Matsuda-san, our chief carpenter, made the most interesting discovery of the week: two coins, dating back to Japan’s Edo Period. (see below)
Next, the crew tackled the ugly, impractical postwar kitchen sink, a back-breaking job as the sink turned out to be virtually a huge cement block with a sink on top. While they worked, I thought it would be a good idea to remove all the firewood under and adjacent to the okudosan, as Mrs. Fujimura pointed out that was extremely dangerous once the stove became operational.
Moving all this firewood, I couldn’t help but wonder how long these dry pieces of wood and been stored there. Five years? 50 years? Then, as I was reaching deep under the stove, I experienced something very much like what happens at 1:45 mark of this:
At first I thought it was an enormous spider, but it turned out to be a hand-sized colorful cricket-like insect. I was so startled by it lunging at my face that I let out a yelp loud enough for the crew to hear it over their jackhammering and stop to see what it was.
Finally, the lumber for the flooring framing arrived and everything was off-loaded and made ready for next week’s work!