Koichi Sato is the I Ith head of a family of landowners in Oomagari City. Akita Prefecture, located near the Japan Sea in the northern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Winters here are severe, and everything mantles over with thick snow from November to April, presenting a beautiful sight on moonlit nights. Scarlet-tinged autumn leaves herald the coming of the long winter, prompting local people to set about winter-proofing their homes. The traditional houses here are wrapped with boards and rice straw mats (mushiro) to protect glass windows and doors from snow falling off roofs. This makes the interior of the homes dim for months on end, while the outdoors are bright with snow. Removing snow from their roofs and entrances is part of the daily routine of life in Oomagari City.
The Sato house was built in 1894 in this harsh countryside. While the exterior and parts of this imposing edifice are built to withstand extreme weather conditions, parts of the interior have been designed in the delicate aristocratic Shoin style. A wooden fence (itabei) made of scorched planks of Japanese cedar lines the approach to the Sato house and extends seemingly endlessly. The house is hidden from view from the main gate (mon). A stone pavement runs from the mon to the central gate in the second boundary wall, where one gets the first full view of this majestic two-storey house surrounded by aged cedar trees Shoin-style houses were considered a privilege of the samurai class during the 15th century, but had become an acceptable style for people like village headmen and wealthy merchants or farmers toward the end of the Edo Period (1600-1867). In the years after the Meiji Revolution, such houses continued to speak of the status and sophistication of the owner. The front entrance of this house is used only for ceremonial occasions such as weddings or funerals, while family members normally use a smaller door on the side of the house. In addition to the main house, this vast estate includes some fireproof storehouses (kura), a Shinto shrine, several ancestral tombs, and wooded hills, which were the source of firewood and charcoal before electricity or gas became available.
The Sato house took ten years to build and was completed in 1894 by the eighth head of the family. The fact that the house has needed very few repairs for nearly a hundred years and is still in very good condition is a testament to the skill of the craftsmen from the neighboring villages who built it. High-quality woods such as cedar, Japanese cypress, pine, and zelkova were used in the construction of this house. The loving care shown by its inhabitants is also remarkable, as it speaks for their love of traditions and their family history. The house is cold in winter and hard to maintain, but the Satos are intent on keeping it in the family as a symbol of honor to their ancestors.
Above: This ceremonial outer gate is in the shape of a warrior's helmet, and is roofed over with ceramic tiles. Such gates were symbolic of the status and sophistication of the owner.
Left: This inner wall is of the type usually seen in samurai villas or temples, and is made of scorched pine planks, sikkui plaster and tiles. The understated beauty of this wall leading to the inner gate is augmented here by the autumn colors of gingko and maple trees that grow alongside it.
Previous pages: The heavy roof and deep overhangs are an aesthetically important part of a traditional Japanese home. This roof is covered with ceramic tiles, which were unusual in this area where most homes used to be roofed with thatch. The serene dignity of this house is enhanced by the vast garden of ancient cedar trees around it. The left wing of the house holds the formal drawing room, while the entrance is located in the right wing.
Left: The formal drawing room with 24 tatami mats and a high ceiling is made in aristocratic Shoin style, so named after a ceremonial built-in desk of the type seen below the window. The oversized decorative alcove (tokonoma) is in keeping with the impressive size of this room. The suitably large hanging screen (kakejiku) displayed in it was painted by Hoan Kosugi, a famous artist. The walls are plastered with a unique plaster of fine sand. Fusumo doors are decorated with real gold and silver dust. The lacquered (urushi) frames of the shoji screens, the exquisite ornamental nail covers (kugi-kakushi) and door handles (hikite) are a sign of rare luxury.
Above: The antique pieces displayed on this open shelf are from the collection of Sato's grandfather, who had served as die village chief for about 20 years till he was in his 50s.
Right: This door handle (hikite) has an elaborate flower pattern of open metal work and lacquer.
Opposite: The window and the open door bring the beauty of the garden into this grand reception room that is used on formal occasions. With the fusuma partitions removed, the 18-mat room and the 24-mat room can be combined to seat 40 diners.
The wide veranda (engawa) has been lacquered to protect the wood floor from rain. Fifteen sliding storm shutters (otnodo) can be taken out of their closet (to-bukuro) located at the end of the veranda, and pulled into the rails just outside the posts on the garden side. This is done to protect the large drawing room from cold, rain and snow. Constructed more than a hundred years ago, the amado have not warped and can still be easily pushed one after another, like a train of cars along the rails.
Above: The wooden brazier (hako-hibachi) is used for warmth and for boiling water for green tea. Charcoal is arranged in the center under a trivet provided to support an iron kettle.
Left: The Satos enjoy fresh produce from their estate. The big bamboo colander has persimmons and gourds picked in the garden The small colander has chestnuts gathered in nearby woods. The edible pink chrysanthemums in the basket at the back are the special flower of this area, and make a pretty garnish on Japanese dishes, meant to please the eye as well as the palate.
Opposite: The small dressing table, the low towel rack and the tiny lamp (andon) furnish this dressing room that is used by guests while seated on the tatami mats. Such décor is reminiscent of classical Japanese inns.
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