Farm To City Chic

Satoshi Miyazawa found his dream home while surveying old buildings for Japan's cultural-affairs agency in 1963. Built in Niigata prefecture in 1803, the classic minka, or "people's house," had vaulted ceilings, posts and beams honed from ancient trees and a thatched roof pitched steeply to shed winter snows. After coveting the decrepit house for more than three decades, Miyazawa, a recognized authority on architectural preservation and dean at the Nagaoka Institute of Design, finally approached the owners--who gave him the building provided he remove it from their property. As a "hobby," he carted the parts to a nearby meadow and rebuilt the farmhouse with modern wiring, plumbing and windows. "The young carpenters," he recalls, sitting on hand-hewn plank flooring beside a glowing cooking fire in his minka, "couldn't imagine that these dirty pieces of timber would make such a beautiful house."

Most Japanese once would have thought Miyazawa a kook. Fifty years ago, Japanese were fleeing the farm to find work in cities--and leaving behind their dark and drafty minka quite happily. A boomtown ethos prized all things modern and new. When cottage industries like sake brewing began to abandon farmhouses for factories, minka were left to rot in the fields. Today many Japanese are nostalgic for a simpler time, and rundown minka are the hottest new thing. "It's natural that people like the warmth of wooden buildings," says Yasuyuki Fujiwara, a Ministry of Construction official. "They are tired of steel and concrete that symbolize the bubble economy."

The nonprofit Japan Minka Reuse and Recycling Association is leading the backlash. Established two years ago, the group publishes a restoration magazine, sponsors how-to seminars and field trips and runs a "minka bank" database that links prospective home buyers with preservation-minded contractors and salvageable structures. This month the popular women's magazine Croissant ran a cover story on old homes called "In Your 40s: The Next House You'll Want to Live In." It advises readers that "the most luxurious thing you can do these days is relocate and renovate an old minka." In Matsumoto, a small city near the Japanese Alps, architect Hironobu Furihata pioneered preservation in the 1980s. At first he had to hunt for customers and coax historic-home owners to renovate, not demolish. "We don't have to go door-to-door anymore," he says. "People are lining up to hire us."

Central to the minka movement is adaptive reuse: removing wings and shrinking rooms to suit urban lots and smaller families. As the Japanese reject the wastefulness of the boom years that ended with a crash in 1990, they are attracted by the fact that minkas are environmentally friendly. Building new dwellings with recycled materials, says Akihiro Sato, director-general of the Minka Association, signifies rejection of the "throwaway society" Japan has become. "We once believed in mass production, mass consumption and mass abandonment," he says. "Not anymore."

Typically, the old homes cost about 30 percent more than comparable new homes. The structures are packed up, moved to cities and reassembled with modern kitchens, bathrooms and other amenities. Not without headaches. In her latest novel, mystery writer Masumi Hattori spins a semi-autobiographical tale about a minka restoration gone awry. "Buying a House at an Antique Market" views a wife's old-house obsession through the eyes of her skeptical but reticent husband. They start with land and $420,000, which runs out when their home is still a shell, minus stairways. The wife remains chipper until the house is finished--seven months late and $80,000 over budget. Then, to her husband's dismay, she finds faults with the floor plan and ventilation, vowing to fix these problems "when we restore our second minka."

"It was fun to read, but it also made us nervous," says Mariko Tanabe, 30, who with her husband is moving a minkato a seaside Yokohama suburb. Workingwith Tokyo architects, they're spending $400,000--"not so different from what we would pay for a regular, nondescript house," she explains. What they're getting is an imposing two-story home with mother-in-law quarters and a kiln for firing pottery, Tanabe's hobby. The couple had doubts when a mountain of old timber arrived on the lot, but now that the ridge beam is up, fear has yielded to anticipation. They spent the holiday waxing and polishing pillars. And they're happy to report that their antique dream home is on schedule and on budget--so far, that is.