You must have seen some of the many old, brilliant castles or modern buildings in Japan, and thought about how much you’d like to own one. Well, if you browse the websites of some Japanese real estate firms, you may now see a selection of old, wooden, rusty dwellings located in beautiful locations.
These once belonged to small agricultural workers, craftsmen, and people who used to do small, manual jobs. These houses in Japan are called ‘minka’, and there are now many of them (211,437 as of 2015), ready to be sold for thousands, or even millions of dollars in Japan.
People from abroad and young people from Japan with a taste for minimalist and retro living are relocating to different areas, buying these minka houses and renovating them. These people are the minority as most Japanese people aren’t keen on these unique but aged properties. Let’s find out why these traditional wooden houses are becoming increasingly popular internationally, but not yet in Japan.
You may have seen or heard of beautiful and dreamy snow capped villages such as Shirakawa-go and traditional neighborhoods such as Gokayama in Nanto City, Japan. Both of them are now UNESCO heritage sites and are known to thousands of people around the globe for their traditional housing.
Many of us may have pondered the thought of staying for a while in one of these cozy little houses called ‘Gassho-zukuri’, a stylized minka designed to look like two hands clutched together.
Different people belonging to the working class of Japan’s pre-urbanization era used to own these farmhouses, which are now mostly empty or occupied by their descendants. They look awesome with minimalist design, wooden interiors, plastered tiles, and thatched roofs, and have a really welcoming feel to them.
There are actually not many of these Gassho-zukuri minka houses left, as Japan has completely transformed itself since the Meiji Restoration. Some would even say modern Japan has become an offshoot of the western world. Indeed, the Meiji government used to send architects to Europe and America to learn about and borrow ideas from them to recreate in Japan.
Since the Second World War, a passion for modern, urban dwelling has totally changed both Japan’s rural and its urban area. This has left behind only a few thousand traditional homes, which are mostly abandoned.
A famous minka architect from Germany, Karl Bengs, spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the Japanese love to travel and appreciate different historical places in Europe but are not equally as interested in minka farmhouses which have slowly been forgotten.
There are places such as Alberobello in Italy, which is famous for its traditional ‘trulli’ farm houses and is a sister city of the famous minka area of Ainokura in Gokayama, which has a similar history to the minka homes. There is also Halsingland in Sweden, the Lake District and Surrey County in the UK that are equally as awesome as Shirakawa or Kyoto.
In fact, there is actually a growing demand among foreign buyers who would like to live in an existing traditional home such as a minka. Many estate agencies have started popping up all around Kyoto and other culturally rich areas, and are redesigning and renovating minka homes to sell to foreigners.
Even the government, together with the Development Bank is now heavily investing in minka housing, which seems to now be emerging as a lucrative market in Japanese real estate.
There is a famous real estate firm called Kanazawa Architectural Design Office, which helps you with everything you need to know about finding and buying a minka. They also assist with refurbishing, moving, decorating, selling and so on.
There is also an another firm called Atelier Tekuto, who emphasize that Japan’s post-war development has cost Japan a lot of its heritage, pointing to the neglect of the minka houses as one example of this problem.
Organisations such as the Japan Minka Revival Association, established in 1997, whose sole purpose is to popularize minka in Japan and around the world, are working with the help of banks such as the Minka Bank, and through events, international dialogue and publications.
There is a magazine that you can buy called ‘MINKA’ which is published by the association once every two months. You can approach them if you are considering buying a minka, and they can give you expert advice for a minimal cost as it is a non-profit organization.
If you are a foreigner or a Japanese person, what do you think of minka homes and their revival? Would you like to buy a previously owned one or design your new house like one? Whatever the reasons may be, minka has a lot of history and has the potential to give a real boost to the Japanese real estate business.