Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Alex Kerr's beautiful old/new Japanese country houses and the movement to save traditional Japan

Great talk and breathtaking photos by author and historic preservationist Alex Kerr at TEDx in Kyoto on his mission to save Japanese country houses (minka).
Japan is so rich: the natural environment, the fantastic traditional culture, the wealth of beauty and materials and spirit of lifestyle that you find in these old places. It's there and it can be saved.
Kerr uses double-paned windows for energy conservation. If his country houses were updated for solar, renewable energy, that would be even more modernizing, given 3/11's call to shift, downsize energy usage.

The reason small towns in Japan (and elsewhere) are experiencing depopulation is because they were built around local (agricultural, fishing) economies that have been collapsing under the global food industry's drive towards ever-increasing expansion...Japan's food sufficiency is now at 39%; when Alex Kerr came to Japan as a child (1960's), the nation’s food self-sufficiency rate was around 80%.

Kerr's work to restore country houses is one facet of a larger grassroots-driven local revitalization movement that seeks to save traditional Japan's agriculturally-rooted, rural cultures.

Tragically, Tohoku, much of which was stricken by the 3/11 disasters, was the bastion of Japan's sustainable, slow life, organic and heirloom food movement.  Areas in Tohoku not affected by the catastrophes (Yamagata) continue pioneering these shifts.

Elsewhere, young Japanese people are leaving urban areas to return to their rural roots to farm and open organic retreats.  Japanese singer Yae and her mother Tokiko Kato (also a renowned singer) have a farming community in Kamogawa (near Tokyo) that opened during the 1970's.  It's a model of downsizing energy use, revitalizing traditional self-sufficiency, and cultivating simplicity.

During his youth, Alex Kerr fell in love with Japanese country houses and the traditional culture that make up their  landscapes.  He belongs to a distinguished tradition of foreign residents (Lafcadio Hearn, Ernesto Fenollosa...) who worked to preserve traditional Japanese culture because they found the passing of its richness and beauty unbearable.  One can sense this appreciation in the atmosphere of Kerr's restored and beloved country house, Chiiori, in western Tokushima, a prefecture in Shikoku, on the Inland Sea.

Kerr is now acting as an advisor to rural Japanese villages seeking to stem depopulation by building up local tourist economies through restoring country houses (for short-term stays) and revitalizing local culture.

Spurred on by different motives—profit-seeking (sometimes, but not always, mixed with sincere appreciation of Japanese architectural heritage)—foreign and Japanese investors who are renovating older homes for rental income are also part of the drive to save and restore older Japanese houses, especially in Kyoto and Kamukura.  It's great that these minka and urban traditional houses (machiya) are being preserved, however historic preservation springing from this limited motivation may lack the larger vision and quality of Kerr and others who appreciate the multidimensional contexts of traditional Japanese culture.


More about the country house that captured Kerr's imagination and heart as a teenager: "Bringing an 18th-Century Farmhouse Back to Life" (Liza Foreman, NYT, Dec. 27, 2012)

Chiiori: Alex Kerr's first Japanese country house. (Photo: Alex Kerr)

More about restoring Japanese traditional houses as a business: 

"Japan’s Forsaken Homes Restored to Historic Styles Yield 80%" (Kathleen Chu and Katsuyo Kuwako, Bloomberg, Nov. 20, 2012)

"Historic Homes in Tokyo Attract More International Buyers" (Desiree Quijalvo,,  Oct. 30, 2012)

1 comment:

David in Setouchi said...

Thanks for posting this.
Alex Kerr is a real inspiration.