Ever since I first came to Japan and backpacked around western Japan for 2 months during my summer university vacation over 45 years ago, I have been fascinated by Japanese architecture.
I couldn’t believe that the great big temples, shrines and castles that I visited on that first trip, like the Todaiji in Nara, Izumo Taisha in Shimane and Himeji Castle, were built with no nails and was intrigued how the timber work was joined together. The wooden structures looked light and delicate and yet were solid and built to last for hundreds of years. I was also impressed by how such structures were functional but also beautiful, and that the timbers in them created a wonderful sense of solidness, strength and pleasant smells. It was also on this trip that I had my first experience in an old Japanese ryokan, and I fell in love with the tatami floors, the shoji, the beautiful tokonoma and of course the onsen baths.
A few years later after completing my degrees in economics and Japanese in Australia, I came to live, study and work in Japan and so my interest and love of Japanese timber buildings, architecture and furniture continued to develop. In those days kominka were being knocked down all over Japan and the only ones I saw were turned into local museums. However, I thought how nice it would be to live in such pleasant wooden homes with thatch roofs.
Perhaps my idea of living in a kominka was a bit romantic! In fact, I never experienced staying overnight in a kominka until we bought our current home: a 270-year-old kominka in Chino City, in Nagano Prefecture which we moved into after I retired in 2014.
Our kominka is located at 1,050m above sea level on the slopes of the Yatsugatake mountain range, so while it is pleasantly cool in summer it is bitterly cold in winter. When we moved into our kominka in early Spring I had my first reality check about living in a kominka: they are freezing cold! The wind can find its way through any tiny crack and the water pipes freeze and cause all sorts of problems – which of course they did. Even though we have installed pair glass windows and ceiling insulation our kominka is still hard to keep warm. It really makes me admire the Japanese of old who lived in these homes with just fires to keep them warm. The other reality check I got was the from the okojo (stoats) who came to play in the roof above our heads in the middle of the night! I realized the kominka provide shelter for all sorts of wild animals too!
However, apart from the cold draughts and the wildlife coming indoors, I must say that I am not at all disappointed about living in a kominka. I love to admire the strong, solid keyaki daikoku bashira (main structural pillar) and the exposed crooked curves and black soot encrusted roof beams over our heads. Although our roof is made from steel, there is a thin layer of the original thatch left under it so that from the inside it still looks and smells like a thatched roof house.
When we told our friends that we would be moving into a kominka in a farming village they warned us that joining such an old community might be troublesome. They said we might be required to do all sorts of things associated with the village maintenance. As it turns out, they created a special category of resident for us, and so we are not required to do communal activities such as cleaning and maintaining the irrigation channels, cutting the grass in common areas etc. Once a year we help with the cleaning the village hall and sorting the recycled rubbish, so apart from that we have no responsibilities. Moreover, we are incredibly lucky that our neighbors, on both sides, are terrific people and we have become good friends. They are of course much better vegetable and fruit gardeners than I will ever be, but they are happy to share their growing tips and their produce with us. They even come to admire how we have improved the condition of our kominka and that makes them feel prouder of their own kominka.
There are of course some things that I do not find so pleasant about village life, like the siren tests that go on at 6am and 6pm every day. And I do not like the farmers who burn their weeds and straw when the wind blows the smoke towards our house, or the farmers that spray chemicals that drift over to our garden.
However, the best surprise of living where we do is that our village is part of the famous, and one of the most dangerous, Onbashira Festival that takes place at the Suwa Shrines every 7 years. The last one occurred one year after we moved into our kominka and we had no idea what to expect. Pulling the big logs with the long ropes and singing songs turned out to be a lot of fun and a good way to meet all the other villagers and do something together.
I am still amazed that our house has stood for 270 years and is still so livable and enjoyable and am so pleased to be able to live in such a nice village with such good neighbors.