Agano, Niigata, May 24, 2009
(so the story begins)
Depart Tokyo 09:21. Arrive Tokyo 20:54. Distance covered in the day: 723km (449 miles). Cost: Most of two tankfuls of fuel, Y11,145 (GBP74.00, $117.58), Y3,700 in (discounted) highway tolls, and Y252 for a miserable onigiri rice ball and a bottle of chilled tea, all I had time to eat and drink. Just to see a couple of properties. Was it worth it? Oh yes.
This was the latest in a series of very occasional random quests for the ideal home that have taken me from the Loire to Bali to London in real life, and everywhere from Hawaii to Shropshire to Costa Rica on the Internet. This time I was in search of the perfect kominka (old Japanese house, usually a farmhouse), and I thought I’d found one.
Kominka are not an easy quarry in a country where I would anyway guesstimate that at least 95% of the population lives in accommodation built after the war. There is scarcely an active market for them, as the mostly elderly farmers that live in them tend to stay put until they keel over, at which point the children, seeing no use for the house they have inherited and barely any demand from others for it, either leave it to rot, sell off the land for development, or tear down the house and build something modern, comfortable, and efficient in its place. You certainly can’t ramble down the streets of a rural town or village and lust over the property porn in estate agent’s windows.
There is however a tiny market for kominka on the Internet; many are in states utterly uninhabitable to modern, creature-comfort loving, urban eyes, although probably structurally sound enough for another century of inhabitation. That these places have asking prices of around Y3m-Y6mn (GBP19,900-GBP39,800, $32,000-$64,000) is testament to their unloved nature. I’ve thought long and hard about buying one of these wrecks myself and doing it up (or rather paying someone to do the dirty work), and it’s a route I still might take.
In my rooting around I stumbled across a firm called Shiawase Home (“happiness homes”), located in Niigata Prefecture in what’s called “ura Nihon” (“the back of Japan”), which covers the thinly populated Sea of Japan-facing coast of the main island and which is a designation deemed so offensive that broadcasters have added the term to their list of banned expressions. In addition to the usual humdrum real estate operations, one of Shiawase Home’s business lines—and this makes them very unusual and highly commendable—is that they buy up kominka and other vintage properties, renovate them, and then sell them on.
On the Shiawase Home website a couple of weeks ago, I came across a kominka that on first blush looked perfect: recently refurbished, elegantly proportioned, sizeable (180sq m, 1,940sq ft) but not dauntingly large, and with an attached adobe storehouse known as a “kura”, which to my mind are pinnacles of folk architecture; I’ve long desired to get my hands on one. I kept returning and returning to the website and knew that my curiosity would have to be satisfied, so I finally made an appointment to see it.
Which is how I came to be sweating in traffic on the southern reaches of the Kan-Etsu Expressway, trying to battle my way out of Tokyo, as the mercury pushed on towards 30 degrees Celsius one Saturday morning in early summer. It was the first time I’d ever driven the entirety of the Kan-Etsu in daytime, and despite the early traffic annoyances, it was one of the great drives of my life. Leaving Tokyo behind and entering the “home counties”, the land assumes a gradual but perceptible upward gradient, until the largish population centres of Gunma Prefecture are done with, when the blacktop reduces from three lanes to two, the volume of vehicles thins noticeably, the gradient steepens, and the mountains crowd in closer. Onwards and upwards through tunnel and across viaduct to the Kan-Etsu tunnel, which at 11km, was on completion in 1991 and for many years the longest dual-pipe road tunnel in the world—a factoid for fellow tunnel fans out there. The tunnel passes under the 2,000m peaks of the Mikuni range and across the Gunma/Niigata border; mid-tunnel, I began to see the stream of wall-mounted lights dip away and realized that I’d crossed the Pacific/Sea of Japan watershed.
On the Niigata side of the tunnel, the clouds were closing in and the temperature only in the high teens; first up the surreal rural skyscraper landscape of ski-resort Echigo Yuzawa, and then down, down, down, criss-crossing the Shinanogawa, Japan’s longest and mightiest river, to the Niigata plains, covered with shimmering rice paddies for miles in every direction.
I found the house about 40 minutes before my appointment and had planned on doing a little exploring before returning; there was no escaping, however, the stumpy, chubby, and cheerful Ogawa san, Shiawase Home’s representative, who bounded over to the car proffering his business card. Ogawa san grew up in Agano, which is about 30km outside the prefecture’s largest city, Niigata (population of around 800,000), and having spent most of his working life in Tokyo, returned a few years ago to semi-retire into this salesman’s job. He got straight to work with a well-rehearsed guided tour of the farmhouse; there are additional pictures here at the agent’s website, though not for long.
This is the property from the front; the kura is off to the right. The concrete car apron, which I suspect is new, would be first against the wall.
As UK estate agent argot has it, “the property benefits” from having its original itabei plank fencing intact; across much of the land they’ve been replaced by hideous concrete walling.
The kura was exquisite, and could easily be converted into a studio, a library, an office, or accommodation for guests. Here’s some of the delightful exterior detailing. Love the kawara ceramic tiles.
The lintel over the entranceway had me in Mondrian geometrical rapture, as did much of the house.
The main building has three largish Western-style rooms scattered around, with in addition a dining room/kitchen area on which every expense has been spared—but I can’t blame Shiawase Home, not when you’re working with the sort of budgets they are. The plain but well-updated bathroom has a view of the pine in the back garden and I could easily imagine passing a blissfully balming hour or two in the bath reading; in characteristically Japanese fashion, Ogawa san apologized for it not being a “unit bath”, an all-in-one bathroom in which the bath, the sink, and even the walls and the ceiling are molded out of a single piece of plastic. I gallantly told him that I really didn’t mind.
The centerpiece of the house, though, is a five-room (seven if you include the smaller “engawa” verandah rooms) ensemble of Japanese-style rooms that are an achingly beautiful symphony of texture, colour, light, and space and their absences, as open-plan or not as your mood decides, an ensemble that is an amazing, unintended, reconciliation of the rustic with the modern and which would be fully worthy of space in an exhibition of Japanese design and its influence on 20th century Western art. My hurriedly taken photos fail to do it any kind of justice.
Out the back, there’s a garden of sorts, which could be worked on, although I was a tad wary of the tangled network of spider webs covering every shrub.
Behind the garden there’s a barn, which looks unprepossessing enough from the outside but which is clearly from the interior as old as the house itself. Inside is the fairly recently acquired and elaborate rice-milling machinery, as well as big vats for making pickles and an array of hoes, saws, threshers, scythes, and hand-winnowers. Ogawa san said that they didn’t know what to do with the barn, almost apologizing for leaving it standing, and promised that the mess out the front would be promptly cleared up on purchase. Vulgar, I know, but I’d turn it into a six-car garage.
No one knows exactly when the house was built; the earliest record the agents have for it dates from Meiji 31 (1898), when Niigata was, I discovered today to my utter astonishment, the most populous prefecture in Japan, bigger than Tokyo or Osaka or Nagoya, I guess thanks to its bountiful rice-bowl. The recent history of the house, as related by Ogawa san, is sadly all too predictable: the widowed rice-farmer, increasingly infirm, was invited by her son in late 2008 to come and live with him in Chiba Prefecture, on the eastern outskirts of Tokyo, and she has left many of her possessions behind, including these old tansu chest-of-drawers.
So it’s on the market for Y13mn (GBP86,000, $136,700). I could probably shave 10%-15% off that. Here are the top pros and cons.
1) It was love at first sight. I know full well I’ll have to do a lot of searching before I find somewhere that is as spiritually and aesthetically satisfying.
2) I can move all my books and junk up there, move into an apartment half the size in Tokyo, and the house pays for itself in six years.
3) I could have nine cars! OK, let’s not be greedy, but I could at least unleash my obscure desire to collect, or at least experiment with, odd Japanese vehicles of all vintages.
4) The conversion of the kura would be a fantastic project to be leisurely pursued.
5) Let’s be honest, it’s as cheap as chips, even at the inflated post-restoration price. In a G7 nation, a quiet, neglected masterpiece of folk design going begging—it would cost five times the price in Surrey.
6) These houses need to be saved—while I’m sure Shiawase Home will find a buyer, there’s no guarantee they won’t do something shocking to it.
7) Weekend parties have potential to be lots of fun.
1) It really is a long way from Tokyo for a weekend: three hours and three trains, assuming you can get a seat.
2) There’s no heating. Japanese farmers were rock hard. Niigata’s average temperature is below freezing for two or three months of the year. There are traditional Japanese ways around this, but none are going to involve central heating or anything that would involve wastefully warming the whole place all at once.
3) I’ll never get back what I pay. Niigata’s population is roughly what it was in 1945 and is going to ebb back to late 19th century levels in the next couple of decades. The regional economy, needless to say, sucks.
4) The natives may not be friendly. The house is in a hamlet of half-a-dozen dwellings, and I wouldn’t have automatic right-of-way back down the lane on the left-hand side of the house to the barn.
5) If the translation gravy-train runs out, could I live there permanently? It would seem implausible.
6) I have absolutely no connection with the town or even the prefecture. Not something that ever bothered my parents when moving, but…
7) Do I need to complicate my life further in this way?
After our tour was over, Ogawa san surrendered an hour of his time to show me another property Shiawase Home have on their books at the moment, this time in the centre of Niigata City, which was exceptionally kind of him as I made it plain in advance that I had no intention of buying it. I think he was—rightfully—proud of the restoration.
The Shiawase Home website bills the place as “Taisho Romanesque”—the Taisho era covered the years from 1912 to 1926 and saw a brief flowering of both democracy and a renaissance in the arts that was snubbed out by the low, dishonest decade that followed. Ogawa san told me that the building was originally a restaurant that geisha frequented; he may have meant that it was an authentic “ochaya” (geisha tea house) or that it was some sort of hybrid establishment, I wasn’t entirely sure. Either way, it is now one of the most extraordinary private residences I have ever seen, all the more so for being situated in a shotengai shopping street that is so bedraggled and forsaken that it must have been bypassed the best part of half a century ago.
My rushed snapshots entirely failed to do it justice, so here is the link to the photo album on the Shiawase Home website.
All yours for Y33.38mn (GBP222,400, $354,700).
Ogawa san escorted me to the nearest interchange and bade a cheery farewell. I accelerated full throttle into the descending dusk and made it back to the lowlands of the Pacific side of the archipelago before night fully fell.
So should I or shouldn’t I? Do I or don’t I?