Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan
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In 1959 journalist John Roderick joined the Tokyo bureau of the Associated Press. There, he befriended a Japanese family, the Takishitas. After musing offhandedly that he would like to one day have his own house in Japan, the family—unbeknownst to John—set out to grant his wish. They found Roderick a 250-year-old minka, or hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof and held together entirely by wooden pegs and joinery. It was about to be washed away by flooding and was being offered for only fourteen dollars. Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years. But Roderick's reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him. Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan. Working together, they renovated the farmhouse, adding features such as floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and a modern kitchen, bath, and toilet. From these humble beginnings, Roderick's minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton. John Roderick's architectural memoir Minka tells the compelling and often poignant story of how one man fell in love with the people, culture, and ancient building traditions of Japan, and reminds us all about the importance of craftsmanship and the meaning of place and home in the process.
into the bank. They can be seen all over America and Europe these days riding the trains in their underwear, gaping at the Empire State Building or admiring the Mona Lisa. I knew that farmers, fishermen, artisans, merchants, and handicraftsmen lived in these old houses. But I hadn’t heard that foreign journalists did. I was determined that this one never would. It didn’t seem fair to me that I should be chosen to stem this lamentable but inexorable decline of the minka. At the same time, my
valuable the emperor didn’t want them to leave, not even to visit their homes and families. Like birds in a gilded cage, he heaped on them wealth, honors, and imperial favor, but denied them the one thing they most cherished: freedom. Like their forebears, the carpenters who came to Kamakura from Shirotori had spent years under a master carpenter who clothed and fed them and acted as their surrogate father and role model. They began training at eleven and stayed under his tutelage for five or
cover the house. It would be uninhabitable, he said, for five days. I nodded. It would strain my budget, still recovering from the purchase of the minka and the land, but the alternative was unacceptable. I recalled the collapsing NHK minkas and shuddered. “We will call you in a few days,” Yochan said. Two days later, after dinner, Yochan announced: “I think I’ll take a look down there.” He took a flashlight, pulled up the tatami mat, and jumped into the crawl space. Three minutes later he
doesn’t enjoy doing so because people, not fish, were involved. One of them was a French winemaker settled in California. He wanted a guesthouse for his very modern winery. His Japanese wife suggested a minka. A Tokyo real estate company recommended Yochan and they duly visited my house on the Great Peak, expressing pleasure in what they saw. Yochan was delighted. When they discussed which architect to use, Yochan proposed the award-winning Canadian Arthur Erickson, an old friend. The project
visit to Shirotori, a favorite Takishita uncle known for his calligraphy had signed the date and place on it. Always the poet, I wrote: “This stately 120-year-old pine bridges two cultures, Japanese and American.” I signed my name, Waterville, Maine, and Shirotori, Japan. I had indeed begun to think of myself as citizen of these two small cities, a bridge between them. Kamakura, old and historic, now witness to both the Heike and Minamoto eras through my minka, was the halfway mark between my