Japan has an equivalent of the Historic Houses Association in the UK. It’s called the Japanese Historic House Owners’ Society, and comprises 130 or so private owners of traditional Japanese houses. I’ve just had the privilege of visiting Japan to talk at a symposium organised in collaboration with the Society, and to visit a number of owners in their houses.
The historic house in Japan is, of course, very different from its equivalent in the UK. There are over 400 historic houses designated as being ‘important cultural properties’, and about 250 of them are private houses. Collectively they are known as ‘jubun minka’.
Jubun minka are in the main timber-built properties, dating from the 16th or 17th centuries. Many were farm houses, some were shops or merchants houses. They are now largely buried in the urban sprawl of modern-day Japan, but provide oases of serenity in the midst of bustling city life.
I was staying in Osaka, and the houses I visited were all to be found there or in surrounding areas (such as the nearby city of Kyoto, which I reached by bullet train from Osaka in just 15 minutes). Some of the houses are pictured here.
There was a similar form to each of them: after an entrance area, visitors (having removed their shoes) are invited to step up onto a raised platform to visit the house. Although there were houses with more than one storey, there were many that comprised a range of rooms on a single floor.
Individual rooms are formed by means of wooden partitions, often made of a combination of wood and paper. In the most historic houses, the paper on these panels is decorated with delicate drawings.
Rooms are set aside for different purposes: tea ceremony rooms, shrines, receiving guests. Another difference from Western Europe is the absence of any furniture: seats would have been cushions or mats on the floor.
A museum in central Osaka, the Museum of Housing and Living, contains a replica of a typical Osaka street scene in the last of Edo Period (about 200 years ago), housed within the 8th floor of a modern office building. The museum had queues of people waiting to get in before opening time at 10am: it is hugely popular, not least because of the chance for visitors to dress up in kimono
My favourite house (Nijo Jinya) was in Kyoto: a former inn that was used by soldiers visiting the nearby Nijo Castle. The house was full of surprising features: secret spaces for ninja to hide in, holes in the ceilings for soldiers to leap down if their master needed protection, even a room set aside for seppuku (harakiri).
I was very lucky to have the chance to visit so many wonderful houses. I was especially lucky too, in that a typhoon hit Osaka just a few hours after I caught my flight home.