Akiko nods, smiles, says something in Japanese I don’t understand. Which is all of it since I don’t speak the language. I like this. Her knowledge of my ignorance and that she doesn’t let it affect her. She has her piece to say and will say it, regardless of her audience’s comprehension.
“Doma,” I say, pointing at the floor of her farmhouse, recalling the word for earthen floor from the books I’ve read on such traditional farmhouses as part of my research, the same research that is the impetus for my current visit to Japan.
“Hai, doma,” she says, humoring me, handing me a cup of green tea.
I slide my feet along the floor, the gray, smooth, one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old floor of plaster of lime and clay and gravel. I think of all of the feet, the generations of feet, that have shuffled across it, lived on it, of the people who’ve sipped tea standing in the same spot. Birds chirp above, young swallows hungry in their nests in the rafters, their parents swooping in and out through the front entryway as they hunt across the surrounding hills of Kumenan, the rice paddies and overgrown and vacant farmhouses in these hills north of Okayama city.
Akiko runs a tidy household. There is not a speck of swallow shit on the floor in the entryway despite the five active nests along the timber beams above us. Only the dustless earthen floor and sheets of old copies of newspaper to catch the droppings from above. I smile dumbly at my host, sip the tea and say “Oishii” and mean it. It is delicious. Light, grassy and slightly bitter.
I’ve come here on a grant to research traditional Japanese farmhouses, to document either their restoration and second-lives as inns (like Akiko’s farmhouse I’m staying in), restaurants, and community centers or, more likely I think, their decline and rapid, inevitable disappearance, their would-be heirs and caretakers having long since moved to the cities in search of work, modern conveniences, the rest of the world.
I finish my tea and leave Akiko to her preferred company chirping overhead and walk along the grounds waiting for my ride. Kyle, an American expat who moved to Japan eighteen years ago to study traditional building techniques, became a plasterer and recently moved to a derelict minka and converted it into a new permaculture center. He is due to pick me up and take me on a tour of the minka dotting the hills here.
Near the back of the building is a cement cistern full of cold water. Originally functioning as a simple emergency water supply for wooden and thatch homes susceptible to fire, it now looks like an oversize bath or a small plunge pool. I sit on the edge of it and read through the book that made me want to come to Japan and see and walk through and sleep under the minka that remain.
The Japanese House in Space, Memory and Language by Takeshi Nakagawa. The very first chapter opens with a section on the earthen floor. There’s a wistfulness and warmth to Nakagawa’s writing that makes me want to follow him through each minka he describes. To see with his eyes. To follow him home.
I read his poetic description of the doma in the famous Egawa minka: “In certain lights, the earthen surface of its floor resembles a pebble-strewn riverbed; in others, it takes on a deep velvety smoothness. I can think of no better material than earth to bear the imprint of daily life over the years; the earth of the doma…wears an expression that hints at sturdiness, elasticity, and what I can only describe as absolute gentleness.”
I think back to when I first read these lines, sitting in the Japanese Nationality Room in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, the forty-two-story gloomy gothic revival building jutting out of the earth like a grandiose lightning rod. It is the center of the campus and houses rooms—the Nationality Rooms—showcasing different countries and cultures. I was about to teach English Composition in the regular classroom next door and trying to swallow a panic attack like it was an ill-timed cough, sitting on the floor of an empty classroom built to showcase minka architecture, staring at the latticed bamboo ceiling and trying very much to withstand the imprint of daily life, desperately looking for a bit of sturdiness and gentleness in what felt to me an increasingly fragile, hostile, disposable world. And, bubbling beneath it all, perhaps even worse, a vast indifference—my professors’ indifference towards me and my work, my students’ indifference to my class and my own corresponding deadening, this collective indifference as contagion. The only thing that seemed to cut through it all was the image of minka, the idea of them out there, these communally constructed farmhouses, their simply beauty rotting in the woods of rural Japan, and this need to see them. I could almost feel my feet along some distant doma, feel my head resting against the widest pillar of a minka—the daikokubashira, a functional and symbolic pillar of the house, and, as Nakagawa states, “a word that is used figuratively of a person who plays a central role in supporting a family or group.”
But our pillars and symbols have left us. The pillars’ disappearance in modern construction troubles Nakagawa: “There must have been some special reason for making one pillar thicker and giving it a name with such symbolic resonance, but it is not altogether clear how this came about,” he writes in his chapter devoted to it. I wonder too. Did previous generations better grasp the need for added support, for a symbolic center? The tired farmers must have found solace in it when coming home, stepping up off the doma and onto the wooden floor of their minka, and greeting that solid wooden heart of the house. Nakagawa’s lament: “And nobody seems to know why houses no longer have daikokubashira, either; when I raise the subject people tend to say vaguely, ‘Now you mention it, you don’t see them anymore, do you?’” Pacing the dark halls at the Cathedral of Learning I, too, wanted to stop people and ask if they knew what happened to the central pillar? If they knew where it had gotten to and if it might come back?
I applied for a grant, and, miraculously, got it. I contacted the Japan Minka Revival Association, an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting minka, who put me in touch with Kyle, my English-speaking guide, and, along with some other minka spots mapped out, set off for Japan.
Kyle picks me up, lean and wiry and dressed to work outdoors. We hop in his small white Kei truck and he drives me up winding roads, pointing out the famous terraced rice paddies flowing green below us on this warm late May morning.
“They put a vending machine up here for the tourists,” Kyle says, pointing at the parking lot at the summit.
“Must be nice to have a soda when you take your photos, I guess.” Though I don’t like soda. The carbonation and sweetness make me believe I can hear the enamel on my teeth erode.
Kyle shakes his head. “I was the only person in the village to oppose it. A lot of the locals here don’t know what they have. People don’t come here for conveniences. They come to get away, get back to nature, to see Japan as it used to be.” He pulls to the side to let a little truck coming down the hill to pass.
“These roads are a bit treacherous,” I say, watching a crab creep across the road.
“I’ve come to appreciate the roads here. Come to love them. They keep the village the way it is.”
I think of the Robert Moses highways in New York, designed to alleviate congestion but filling up all the more the minute they were opened. The world expands to fill any gap, any space you give it.
I had originally planned on staying at his permaculture center, pitching in, taking photos of the structures, getting a feel for the place. But this is Kyle’s busy season and he’s hosting a group of a dozen architectural students from the University of Wisconsin soon, kids with stronger backs and more zeal than me, as well as a few visiting family members and some volunteers interested in permaculture, organic farming, living off the grid and sustainability. I’m not sure if life is worth sustaining and I think Kyle sensed my ambivalence but still agreed to spend a day taking me on a tour of his home and surrounding structures. Elasticity, I think, as the rice paddies recede in the rearview mirror. Gentleness.
“Why, out of any place in Japan, did you settle here?”
“The younger generation doesn’t want to live out here,” Kyle says, gesturing to the flat patches of paddies encircled by forests of thick bamboo. “They don’t want to work the land. They move to the cities instead, looking for work, for fast Wi-Fi, fast trains. But the government doesn’t want the homes vacant so you can live in them basically for free. It’s rural revitalization.”
“Is it working?” I ask, envisioning a minka renaissance.
“Jury’s out so far. But it’s working for me. Though a lot of Japanese families don’t want to rent or sell their traditional family homes. So they stay empty. They rot.” He pulls into a driveway and rolls to a stop. “We’re here.”
Kyle’s minka is a work in progress. Like most minka, it’s a mud wall and timber frame box with a thatch roof, its supporting timbers resting on hand-picked stones set in the earth. It looks light and airy—and, as I learned last night in Akiko’s minka, they are plenty airy, one might even say drafty. He’s put in a composting toilet and refinished the walls, making use of his plastering skills. The mud walls add a warmth to the room that sheetrock never could.
I walk through the main living space, run my hand along the daikokubashira and see, through cracks in the tar-black ceiling boards, the bright blue color of a vinyl tarp.
“To keep the dust and thatch from sifting down here. I’m happy with the result. A cheap and easy fix.”
The majority of minka are one floor of living space and the attic, if used, was a storage area, or, with the expansion of sericulture in Japan, housed silk worms. Kyle’s upstairs is empty but I pretend I can hear them up there, the worms, munching and writhing and shitting lucrative silk.
“Is the roof thatch?”
“Yeah, the stuff holds up pretty well. This one is covered with sheet metal to protect it. Which is pretty common in minka out here. Though I wouldn’t mind rethatching it in the old school way. Get a fushin party going.”
I saw a photo of such community building events on a postcard from the UNESCO site Shirakawa-go, a village in Gifu famous for minka with steeply-pitched roofs to shed snow. I imagine it’s like a barn-raising. The whole community up there, laying thatch. I envy the sense of community for a moment, the sense of purpose, then realize I’d probably get dizzy up there and sneak away to be alone, leaning against the daikokubashira, sweating over a cup of bitter tea.
Along the raised floor, about a foot tall, is a plaster wall with what look like horizontal s-shaped black ceramic chunks sticking out of it. Kyle sees me admiring them. “Upcycled roof tiles. They get old and lose their strength but rather than chuck them, I’ve been collecting them and using them as filler for the walls. They look cool and add nice texture. People even use them in the garden, to line paths.”
I run my hand along the tiles. They’re cool to the touch. In one corner, propped against the wall, is a Japanese adze. “Mind if I check that out?”
“No, go ahead. My friend Jon made it. He’s a carpenter in town.”
I pick it up, a wooden “J” with a chisel blade at the bottom of it. I’ve always been attracted to woodworking tools. To their precision and specificity. Even though I have no idea how to use them.
“You a woodworker?” Kyle asks.
“Sort of,” I lie, though I have done some woodworking. A furniture building class where by the end of it, fed up with measuring twice or thrice just to find I fucked up the cut anyway, I was more inclined to press my face into the giant oscillating spindle sander in the corner of the shop. I also took a course, later, having momentarily forgotten my failures in the first, in woodturning. There was something about the gouge cutting through the block of maple that moved me. I produced a nice wine bottle stopper at the end of it, curvy and sanded-smooth, but lost it in one of my moves over the years.
Kyle checks his watch. I put the adze back in its place and follow him out the door.
We meet up with a young couple who are volunteering at the permaculture center and are thinking of relocating from Nagano in the north to the Kumenan area, which is cheaper and warmer and thus has a better growing season. The man is American and so soft-spoken I only catch every third word he says. The woman is Japanese and also on the quiet side. I don’t catch their names and they’re focused on their own minka hunting so I shadow Kyle as he leads the couple up the hill.
“The village elder turned me on to this place. It’s been empty a while but the views, if you cut back this brush and bamboo, would be amazing,” Kyle says as we approach the house.
The house, once visible through the lush forest, is obviously unlivable. Half of its roof is caved in. Kyle shakes his head, says the cost of renovating it wouldn’t be worth it, in materials and effort. But that we should feel free to poke around. I circle the house, peering in the dusty windows at the old appliances and forgotten furniture. On one side, I see the workshop. A small room of tools and a bench under the table. On the bench sits a sumitsubo, a traditional Japanese carpenter’s line. Instead of chalk to mark a straight line, it uses the ink in its well. The sumitsubo were often intricately carved, a handheld representation of the carpenter’s skill. Along with the clothes drying on a line inside, it looks like the owner left suddenly, like a set in a post-apocalyptic film. A world of abrupt flights and sudden, lasting vacancies.
“Why didn’t they pack anything before they left? They didn’t want to bother?” I ask Kyle.
“The clothes, the furniture, the tools. They left it all.”
He shakes his head and answers quietly, “The owner didn’t leave. He died. And there’s no one else.”
We hike down road back to the car and leave everything as we found it. Though I keeping thinking of that sumitsubo on its bench, its ink long since dried and the long-gone hands that carved it.
The fees at Akiko’s inn include dinner. There are no restaurants in the village. No stores within walking distance. Just that vending machine standing at the summit, keeping vigil over the rice paddies and humming to itself. Before dinner, I walk along the road to take pictures of the rice paddies at dusk only to realize, once standing before them, that the battery for my camera is dead and I forgot the spare in my room. I walk back looking for that crab again to see if it made it across the road but there are no signs of life except for one old woman bent over her rice. I wave to her but she doesn’t wave back. She probably just doesn’t see me.
Akiko brings me a nice spread: a lacquered bento box of white rice, a small bowl of soup, potato salad, fried fish cakes, several slices of the slightly sweet Japanese rolled omelet, and four pieces of sashimi. I eat on the veranda, the engawa, overlooking the hills now dark. Akiko comes back an hour later and asks, “Oishi?”
“Hai, oishi,” I say in my limited Japanese, glad for the language barrier. I don’t understand anyone in English either but in Japanese at least I don’t have to pretend.
She takes the plate and begins to put up the storm shudders to close the veranda like she had the night before. I try to stop her. I like its openness without the shudders, the way the boundaries of inside and outside blur, but she gestures for me to understand that without the boards up, the minka, even in May, will be very cold. I acquiesce and lend her a hand. The minka grows darker and darker as the open veranda is enclosed. She says goodnight and leaves me to my box. I use a headlamp to read in my second favorite book on minka, Japan’s Folk Architecture by Chūji Kawashima, that the engawa was the hot spot to socialize, the “locus of both work and leisure.” Kawashima even states that “the word engawa might be translated literally as ‘line of relation,’ suggesting that it served as the zone of convergence between private and public life.”
Sitting in the dark in an old minka in the hills surrounding Okayama, Japan, I think of this world of ours still standing yet without a center, without a daikokubashira to lean on, and I think about my own zones of convergence, internal and external, of my own in-between spaces and I hope Akiko doesn’t see me as I open the boards a crack, six inches, a foot at most, to let in a little air and, though it’s a cold night in the country, there has to be more light without than within. There has to be something.
Kent Kosack is a writer and MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Sonora Review, Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Cincinnati Review (miCRo series), Columbia Journal, 45th Parallel and elsewhere. See more at his website: www.kentkosack.com
Header image from the Japan Minka Revival Association (http://www.minka.or.jp/minkabank/2018/12/a181203-4e92.html).
All other images of minka homes in Miyama by Maithilee Jadeja.