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Rescuing the minka

An American is part of a movement to protect Japanese farmhouses, sometimes by moving them abroad.

December 20, 2007|Susan Essoyan | Special to The Times

SOMA, JAPAN — ASKED why he wants to move an old Japanese farmhouse across the globe, Harrelson Stanley had a simple answer. "I have to do it," said the 44-year-old woodworker, his fingertips poking through worn gloves after weeks of pounding and pulling the house apart. "It's what I'm meant to do."

Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle Corp., built a Japanese-style estate in Silicon Valley, complete with a teahouse he imported from Japan. But Stanley is no high-flying billionaire. And this is no delicate teahouse. Stanley and his wife, Sayuri, have four kids under age 18 and an annual income that averages $65,000. The farmhouse they are shipping to their home in Pepperell, Mass., from the rice paddies of northern Japan is a massive, 6,000-square-foot structure built in 1891 of hand-hewn logs.

"My wife sees the day-to-day financial reality and says, 'This is crazy,' " Stanley said.

Here in Japan, although an overwhelming majority prefer to buy or build a new home, admirers of the nation's centuries-old wooden farmhouses, or minka, are another story. The rustic homes epitomize the unadorned beauty that is the essence of Japanese artistry, reflecting their intimate bond with nature. Powerful posts and beams arch high overhead, supporting soaring roofs and spacious interiors that open to the garden.

Once a prominent feature of the Japanese countryside, minka have largely vanished since World War II, torn down or left to decompose as much of Japan's population flocked to jobs in the cities. Kunihiro Ando, the University of Tsukuba professor of architectural design who headed a nationwide survey, estimated that the number of these thatched-roof farmhouses had dwindled from about 5 million in the 1960s to about 140,000 in 2002, and the number has since fallen.

But a quiet current of preservationists is working to save the few that are left, either in their original settings or transplanted elsewhere. Farmhouses that would otherwise be destroyed are being reincarnated as homes, restaurants and galleries. Several have been moved overseas.


DEVOTEES of these cultural relics often fall in love with their bold, free-form spirit. Though the best, straightest wood was reserved for the samurai class, farmers made the most of what was left.

"Japan's minka are like sculptures, works of art," said architect Yoshihiro Takishita, founder of the nonprofit Assn. for Preserving Old Japanese Farmhouses. "I have looked around the world but never found another place where curved trees are used as anchor beams."

The timber frames of minka are fastened with ingenious joints cut into the wood, rather than with metal nails and bolts. That means they can be pulled apart like three-dimensional puzzles and moved. The logs are then locked together again, to be linked by modern roofs and plaster walls, rather than the traditional thatch and clay.

Minka can be small, starting around 1,000 square feet, but they have vast roofs. Their rugged posts and beams hold the load, allowing for flexible layouts inside, with sliding partitions that can carve up the space or throw it open. An earthen-floored entryway and work space lead to a raised living and dining area centered on a sunken hearth. Together, they form a great hall open to the interlocking beams above. Smaller sleeping and guest rooms beyond it are hidden behind removable panels.

A revived minka combines the stature and serenity of the original with the comforts of modern life. A fourth dimension -- time -- shows in its adz-cut beams and the lacquer-like sheen of its sturdy pillars, left by generations of polishing cloths and the soot of hearth fires.

"The farmers found beauty in irregular materials, advantage in disadvantage," said Shigeru Matsushita, museum interpreter at Nihon Minka-en, where folk houses from across Japan are preserved in an outdoor park.

"They are the Picasso of Japanese architecture."


GROWING up in Massachusetts, Harrelson Stanley knew nothing of Japan and its crafts traditions until he started studying carpentry. "Then I got a Japanese chisel, and it just blew me away," he said. "I was hooked."

He moved to Japan in 1987 as an apprentice carpenter and has wanted a minka of his own ever since. But his decision to bring one from this town 150 miles north of Tokyo to Pepperell, outside Boston, involves more than personal satisfaction.

His goal is to spread the gospel of traditional Japanese craftsmanship. He hopes the farmhouse will serve as shelter and inspiration for Americans studying under master artisans from Japan, from potters to sword makers. Volunteers from both countries, from teens to retirees, have already stepped up to help, stripping the house to its skeleton.

Perched on top of the open timber frame, nimble Japanese carpenters swung heavy mallets, trying to coax its aged wooden joints to let go. A computer engineer from Chicago, red hair damp under his hard hat, swallowed his fear of heights to clamber up with a crowbar.

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