by Vladimir BelogolovskyFeb 22, 2020
Japan has a multitude of aesthetics. Within Tokyo itself one can move from the cute aesthetics (kawaii) of Harajuku, remarkably different from the Manga infused visual of Akihabara, and the ritzy streets of Ginza. My month-long sojourn to the country was part of a landscape workshop headed by Shin Egashira and linked to the AA Summer School. The workshop saw us travelling to Koshirakura, a tiny village tucked away along the mountainside of Japan, north of Tokyo. The trip to the little hamlet took over a day and included taking three different trains to arrive at Tokamachi, after which one had to take a local bus that commutes between the two sites only at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The train journey saw the high density and built environment of Tokyo slowly melt away into smaller hamlets before disappearing into a complex set of hills.
The workshop itself was set up as a response to the community’s dwindling population as a post-agricultural society. The village has a population less than 100, with an average age of over 60. The average age dramatically falls every autumn when close to 30 international students visit Koshirakura. The village itself is in varying stages of being: from near derelict homes that are in too precarious a position to completely demolish, to homes that look like they were ripped out of a Miyazaki film.
As we visited different homes, design details began to reflect the cultural practices of the village. It is customary to take off one’s shoes when entering a home, a practice we are familiar with in India. In Japan one would change into home shoes, which you would still take off before stepping onto a tatami covered floor. Entrances and passages are designed with this is mind. The biggest takeaway came in terms of understanding the tatami. A personal misconception was that the tatami mat was of a specific dimension; it is actually a proportion, the dimensions of which are usually guided by the dimensions of the space they are meant to occupy.
Nestled within these homes is an old abandoned school that functioned as the nexus of our activities and was our temporary home. The workshop has been part of the village’s yearly activities since 2006, with site-specific interventions throughout the rural landscape. A small, cantilevered outpost that overlooked a shallow valley, serves as an acute vantage point to look at the vacant home below. A hilltop behind the school was the site of a pavilion that was constructed using interlocking joineries.
Within the school, classrooms transformed into sleeping quarters and the school gymnasium into a material workshop where we built our own interventions. During our time here, we created furniture pieces to convert the school into a community space for the remainder of the year. The workshop overlaps with autumn festivals, allowing us to participate and engage with them. A community celebration at Tokomachi was an open performance night, where we scripted a play and created costumes for a community presentation. One of our groups even won the third place: the prize was 20 crates of beer.
The whole time we were at the workshop the one thing we were never short of was alcohol, beer, sake, soju and sometimes even wine. Another event saw us helping inhabitants from Tokomachi carrying an intricately constructed wooden shrine to different location.
The other was the ‘Maple Cutting Festival’, a yearly custom that the students get to participate in every year. The day began early with drive further up into the mountains to find the tree to cut for the year. Before cutting the tree, we gave thanks to the tree by offering it sake. The tree was then carried to the village centre where we helped ground it in the middle of the ceremonial space.
A priestess blessed us as well as tree, and the day ended with a nightlong celebration. But the festivities did not end there, the following morning the tree was carried to different locations and each place then served us a unique dish. When the tree arrived at the school, we served pizza from an outdoor brick-oven made during a previous workshop. In addition to these, we had various smaller dinner and activity days; it was like the school was in a constant state of re-negotiating it purpose.
The entire expedition culminated with a visit to a traditional onsen, before we headed back to the urban sprawl of Tokyo. (Side note: a hot spring is the best cure for a hangover). Culturally, soaking at the end of the day has been a common practice. Even the school had a bath with large tub. Most villages, towns and city districts have a public bath or at least access to one. The onsen we visited in Koshirakuro had an indoor and outdoor hot spring. Stylistically, the outdoor spring was constructed using natural material and surrounded by plants and wooden slats for privacy while the indoor section looked like a swimming pool.
As we made our way back to Tokyo, the hills were slowly replaced by built structures.
Sitting in my house for what feels like a decade now, this experience comes back to me. It’s not about the simplicity of a less busy life but a re-evaluation of what a functional society needs to stay occupied. As an architect, the experience created a significant shift in my understanding of design essentials and design luxuries.