The unassuming beauty of Japan's minka farmhouses comes from the use of natural building materials and traditional techniques perfected over hundreds of years. The word minka originally meant a home of a common person who was not an aristocrat or a samurai. However, it is now primarily used to describe farmhouses with heavy wooden structures and thatched roofs. These buildings also illustrate a deep understanding and appreciation of wood in Japan. The love of nature instilled by Japan's ancient religious beliefs, an abundance of forests, and a damp climate have contributed to wood becoming the preferred building material for over a thousand years. Since common people did not have access to fine straight woods and quality cutting devices, minka often exploit the beauty of large uncut timbers in their natural form. These timbers are rendered shiny and dark over time by soot from the large hearth that was the core of life for the large families that lived and worked in these homes. Instead of chimneys, the smoke in such homes escaped through the thatch, moth-proofing the wood at the same time.
The minka now owned by graphic designer Takeshi Yamamoto is located in Keihoku Town, an hour's drive south of central Kyoto. The home is situated among mountains and valleys where cedar trees called kitayama-sugi rise straight into the sky. These trees have been carefully cultivated for centuries to provide the flawless straight, fine-grained wood used for sophisticated Sukiya-style structures.
Yamamoto had originally bought the minka in an attempt to preserve it. He heard from a wood-artist friend that a nearby minka of fine wood was to going be demolished so that the land could be sold. The story deeply moved Yamamoto and his wife—who had developed a keen appreciation for minka—and they decided to purchase the structure in 1995. They initially planned to use the minka for weekends only, with a view of settling down in it permanently in the future. While inspecting the house. Yamamotos discovered the construction plaque (munafuda) placed on the ridgepole, which confirmed that a skilled master carpenter had built the house in 1912. A watercourse circled the premises, which also has a solid rammed earth boundary wall built on a stone base. The Yamamotos decided to leave the structure and the exterior of this handsome house just as they found it, simply re-tiling the roof and refinishing the stucco walls. However, more remodeling was ultimately needed in the interior to make it suitable for a modern lifestyle. Using instincts and expert advice, they removed many of the later additions and ill-matched fixtures that were not in the spirit of the original house They replaced these with old fittings and tatami mats purchased from demolition sites of old machiya in Kyoto. After consultation with a lacquer expert, fresh raw lacquer was applied to the floorboards
The Yamamotos have filled their new home with antiques lovingly collected over many years from antique markets and demolition sites throughout Kyoto. Their collection includes pottery, lacquerware, glassware, ornamental hairpins (kanzashi), furniture, lighting fixtures and fusuma doors with beautiful paintings. Infused with the Yamamoto's love for their home, new life is given to these old treasures.
Above: Takeshi Yamamoto has collected antiques since he was in his 20s. These blue and white dishes are some of his favorite porcelain collection pieces. Eye-catching fluted Imari has been produced in Kyushu since the Momoyama Period (1572-1603), when this style was brought to Japan from Korea during the pottery wars. Blue and white pottery has also constituted an important portion of Japan exports throughout history, with rough and rejected pieces used as ships' ballast.
Left: The water laver (chozu-bachi) seen through the window is a type used as an accent in gardens, and was originally used for washing hands.
Opposite; The wood-floored living room, tatami room and the veranda spaces flow around the central pillar in this restored minka. Bamboo blinds called sudare, traditionally used on windows during summer, are used here to provide visual definition to one part of the room without disturbing the flow of space.
Above: The crescent-shaped hanging vase bearing a camellia creates a nice silhouette against the shoji screen. Hairpins (konzashi) with ornamental heads are a popular collector's item, and are displayed here next to a lacquered box.
Left: The sliding partitioning system in Japanese homes skillfully expands or contracts space according to need. In the front room, a tobacco tray with a fire pan and an ashtray sit beside a square cushion (zabuton). The room at the back with the tokonoma is for formal use.
Above: Made since the Edo Period (1600-1867), Japanese chests (tansu) derive their beauty from a practical but tasteful mix of hard and soft woods and decorative hardware. Hardwood is used for the framework, while the softwood used for the drawers and shelves keeps the contents ventilated and, at the same time, is light enough so that the tansu can be moved easily. A pair of porcelain guardian dogs (shishi) sit atop this simple tansu, displayed in front of calligraphy screens.
Left: This folding screen with a depiction of a multi-petaled cherry tree on a golden background was made from fusuma doors originally painted in the mid-18th century. Such fusuma and byobu were designed for lighting with papered lamps (andon)—a method of lighting that still produces a deeply satisfying effect.
This wood-floored room is a remodeled tatami room. Yamamoto had painstakingly applied layer after layer of lacquer to the floor himself. The family collection of pottery and glassware is at home here. The chest shown in the background is known as a kuruma-dansu, and was made during the end of the Edo Period (1600-1867). It has built-in wheels, which allows it to be easily rolled out of danger in the event of fire.
Above: The use of hoiizontal and vertical lines combined with muted shades form the aesthetic basis of traditional Japanese architecture. This earthen-floored corridor connects the front and the back of the house.
Left: This lower level, earthen-floored space (dome) was originally meant to serve as both a kitchen and a workshop, and still retains a wood-fired cooking stove. The curved beam on the rear wall shows an example of the rough timbers often used in minka.
Right: A particularly unique bath (goemon-buro) is surrounded by blue and white tiles imprinted with a popular early 20th century design. Rarely seen today, this type of bath has a metal tub heated from beneath by an external wood-fueled stove. The lid leaning against the wall is placed over the tub to keep the water warm. A wooden panel is pushed onto the floor, providing an insulated surface to sit on and protecting bathers from the hot metal.
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ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.