In late-April 2016 the author of this blog, a longtime American expatriate and Kyoto-based Japanese cinema historian, thought to buy an old farmhouse located somewhere beyond the city, of the busiest, most bustling tourist destinations on earth. Initially, the plan was to fix it up a bit rent it out as a guesthouse for domestic and foreign travelers, while also using it for the occasional weekend getaway for my Japanese wife, Yukiyo, our eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sadie, and me.
Yukiyo, a native of the remote southern Japanese island of Amami Oshima, had lived in Kyoto since junior high school, but had never ventured beyond what most Kyotoites think of as the city’s northernmost border, Kurama, a small hamlet famous for its temple and onsen (hot springs). Look at any city map of Kyoto and Kurama will be at the top, just as Iwakura, the northern suburb where we live now, topped maps 40 years earlier.
Kurama’s onsen is, in fact, the last frontier of anything resembling Kyoto City, even though technically the city extends far beyond that, for miles and miles to the north. Once past the onsen, however, the already narrow road instantly becomes little more than a 1¼ lanes-wide service road and one is suddenly thrown headlong into a rich forest. Once past the Kyoto Bus Line’s turnaround substation, it’s up and over the mountain through a series of hairpin turns until one reaches Hanase.
To call Hanase a village would be overstating it. A village of perhaps fewer than 50 homes, I’d guess that a third of these were occupied by year-round residents, one-third as summer vacation homes, and one-third abandoned or otherwise unoccupied. There is no gas station, no convenience stores, and no nighttime restaurants. A one-time grocery store, A-Coop, was converted into a community center. There’s a city building, a fire station, a public school system but little else.
Hanase is really several clusters of homes, the largest weaving through the single winding road in and out of the area to the south, a smaller one in the “center” of town, and a third, less-defined occasional grouping of homes to the north. Beyond that lies Hirogawara and its ski resort and, further still, the village of Miyama, moderately famous and quite stunning for its community of restored thatch-straw roofed houses.
The minka that would be my great escape into the Hanase Mountains lay on the northern outskirts of already intensely rural Hanase.
We met the realtor, a typical Japanese businessman of 50, minutes after we arrived. And then he unlocked the enormous, 200-year-old nouka minka, a traditional country house, built by a wealthy lumber merchant when samurai still roamed the land.
It was dirty, dilapidated, mice-infested, teaming with mildew – and I fell in love with it at once: its 18-foot ceilings; its huge pine-log framework, assembled without the use of a single nail; its roof of intricately thatched straw; its centuries-old okudosan (wood-burning oven); its six bedrooms (two originally servants’ quarters), that later would accommodate up to 20-some guests; its kura, a fireproof vault-like standalone structure once used to lock away the family’s silver and gold; and its long and spacious engawa (deck) overlooking the Katsura River and the mountains beyond.
Unoccupied for the past five years, the place was structurally sound but superficially a disaster. There were mice droppings on the worn tatami (straw floor mats), ash and mildew on the gigantic crossbeams, broken windows, ripped shoji screens. There were cracks in the wood where light from outside peeked through.
The price of the house included much adjacent land, primarily a large open space east of the house where a large storage building, also dating back to 1810, had once stood, and two big plots of farm land upstream northwest of the house.
Clearly, to make it livable the house required an enormous amount of work, but the asking price struck me as unbelievably cheap: USD $50,000. By the time we had returned home, I was, already, eager to call the realtor to tell him we wanted it.