In the weeks that followed (the events in “Preface,” that is – you did read that entry first, right?) my inexplicable interest in the Hanase minka ballooned to the point where I could barely think of anything else. While I was still able to get through my daily work and fatherly obligations, my DVD and Blu-ray reviewing for DVD Talk dropped precipitously. I, who had the habit of watching one or two movies every day could no longer concentrate on their narratives long enough to sustain much interest.
Instead, I found myself devouring every scrap of information I could find about minka such as the house in Hanase. Online I came to rely on websites like JAANUS (the Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System) to gain a better grasp of minka terminology, and the functions and histories of various components of the house. I began researching the craziest things: how to build a bear-proof trash cage, how to clean 200-year-old wooden crossbeams, the altitude and average monthly high and low temperatures in Hanase. When I wasn’t there I was often tooling around Google Maps’ street-view of the area, checking out other houses and wondering if there were any lumber stores nearby.
One particularly inspiring thing found online was Alex Kerr’s TEDxKyoto talk from 2013. Also quite wonderful is Minka: A Farmhouse in Japan, made with Kickstarter funding. If anything in this blog here interests you, be sure to take a look at these.
I began ordering books in both English and Japanese about minka, very enlightening as it turned out because several of these featured restored minka in Hanase and I learned a lot about the lost art of Japanese carpentry, of assembling entire buildings without so much as the use of a single nail. Further, I was surprised, just a little, to discover that other foreigners, usually also married to a Japanese, had likewise fallen in love with such places. Some weeks later I went to a BBQ and found that three or four of the 20 or so guests lived full- or part-time in the countryside north of Kyoto themselves. At the suggestion of several friends I contacted one who also had a house in Hanase. Talking on the phone we gradually realized his house was directly across the Katsura River from mine, 50 meters away. Further, until recently a Norwegian family lived nearby and just last Sunday we learned that an Australian (but Glasgow-born) chef and his Japanese wife had moved into a huge villa two doors down.
Finally, maybe in a nod to Richard Dreyfuss’s obsessive recreation of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I decided to build a full-scale model of the minka in Hanase. For one thing, it gave me something constructive to busy myself with while nervously awaiting approval of our bank loan. For another in building it, it would provide me with a better understanding of just how the house was put together, and I could take it with me for meetings with the contractors to discuss the renovation-restoration work (called “reform” in Japanese). Here’s a look at the model, in progress:
(You’ll note I’m not the world’s greatest model-builder. In my defense, there’s a long way to go and I do plan to fine-tune that terrible paint job.)
But where, I wondered, did this sudden obsession come from? Though I’ve lived in Japan nearly fifteen years, and had been visiting for years before that, I live here for mostly practical reasons. In point of fact, I’m fairly ambivalent toward most traditional Japanese culture and history. I enjoy visiting temples and shrines but not frequently, to the point of creating the term “templed-out” after my brother-in-law crammed far too many such places into my first visit to Kyoto.
While I admire things like ikebana, Bunraku puppetry, kendo, tea ceremonies, and maiko, I see enough of those kinds of things when escorting friends visiting from America. How, then, did I come to be so consumed by the history and architecture of this house, and a passionate desire to restore and live in it?
Part of it, I think, stems from a lifelong interest in old buildings and their all-too-rare restorations. I spent several years researching what eventually became a reference book called Motor City Marquees, about downtown movie palaces, neighborhood suburban theaters, and drive-ins in and around Detroit. And I’ve always been pretty fascinated with pre- and early postwar department stores, drive-in restaurants, gas stations and the like.
Partly too this interest in the Hanase minka derives from its similarity to the environment of the “up north” hamlets of Hessel and Cedarville, Michigan, in that state’s upper peninsula, where I spent many a summer (and occasional winter). Though my folks retired there, for various reasons I’ve rarely gone back – just twice in nearly 15 years – yet those trips left an indelible impression.
The third and perhaps most important reason has to do with wanting to provide a place for my wife, Yukiyo, to decompress after her all-consuming 75-80-hour weeks. (That’s not a typo.) Further, Sadie loves nature, getting her hands dirty and her feet wet. My vision for the house in Hanase is a getaway with no TV, where we can, for the most part, leave all the personal devices at home. There’s a lot to be said for doing very little, to sit on the engawa looking at nature, playing in the river and finding a huge nest of tadpole eggs, or sitting around the wood-burning stove in winter playing go.