Disclaimer: Like many countries around the world, Japan has taken measures to slow and contain the spread of Covid-19, including closing their borders to incoming travelers.
For years, Japan’s rural kominka houses have been gradually transformed into guest houses, cafés, restaurants, and community spaces. Once touted as a saviour for the country’s small towns, Ligaya Malones explores how the pandemic has forced kominka into a brave new world.
Knees crunch as I lower myself into the recessed space of the horigotatsu, the low table, towards my breakfast: Pearly and fragrant sticky rice, fresh steamed vegetables and grilled fish sit in small, individual dishes next to a pot of tea. Bacon, yogurt, and a thermos of coffee are also among this Japanese morning sustenance.
As my lacquered chopsticks flit across the table like a grasshopper, two fellow guests nibbling their own breakfast spread watch me, expectant. They’re curious to know if I think more visitors to remote regions will hurt or harm these small towns.
This was before the pandemic struck, of course, but as an older millennial with a soft spot for an interesting origin story and a distaste for absolutes, the answer is: That depends.
We’re in Uchiko (read: far from Tokyo), a small town in Ehime Prefecture surrounded by mountains. I gaze around homey accommodations in our kominka, and try to imagine it and its narrow, practically barren streets in the Old Town filled to capacity.
Across Japan, where an excess of vacant houses have prompted some communities to practically give them away, kominka—traditional centuries-old family homes—are transforming into guest houses, boutique hotels and cafés, with their distinct features intact.
An article on nippon.com reports on how the Mie prefectural government installed high-speed internet in tourist areas like Ise Shima National Park in May 2020 to make them more appealing as ‘workcation destinations’. Converting abandoned buildings and traditional kominka homes into work-friendly spaces is designed to appeal to those who have the means and flexibility to live and work in areas where many kominka are located, with homes renovated to accommodate this clientele.
Concerns over Japan’s rural decline have been widely reported due to a rapidly aging population, and as young people move away to flock to urban centers like Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima. The kominka movement seems like an encouraging countermeasure as its growing popularity parallels countrywide efforts to attract more visitors, which could accelerate as an effect of the pandemic.
“If we leave the rural town’s buildings or landscape as it is, we will lose it.”
And restoring kominka for commercial use infuses rural areas with new energy by appealing to younger entrepreneurs and families as a sustainable option to maintain a way of life outside of Japan’s major cities.
It’s part of the evolution of the kominka revival. Where many of these homes once sat abandoned and dilapidated, this movement to restore and preserve them has been gaining momentum in recent years. Some, like Chiiori house in the misty Iya Valley, with its thatched roof and wooden floors, offer the opportunity to bed down in a 300-year-old home.
At Oyado Tsukinoya in Uchiko, I’m not sure how old our guesthouse is, but I’m certain it’s got years over my seven-year-old apartment building at home in San Diego, California.
Instead of the open spaces, expansive windows, pebbly drywall and swinging doors I’m accustomed to, I’m wrapped in nearly windowless walls. Everything glides like silk—from sliding windows, closet, bedroom, to bathroom doors. Beyond these typical features, kominka display differences based on climate and homeowner’s occupation. For example, one is more likely to find a square-shaped irori (sunken hearth) and steeply sloped roof in Japan’s colder, northern regions; all the better to keep warm, and purge snowfall during winter, respectively.
“Farmers have a large doma (area where shoes are not removed) to process the crops harvested in their homes,” explains Shuhei Sasaoka, CEO of Wasab! Inc, a design firm specializing in old homes and buildings renovations. “In a merchant house, it is designed to separate the residential area and the business area. Samurai residences and wealthy families have tea rooms,” he adds.
My favorite feature is the engawa, the covered terrace that wraps around the home, bridging the indoors with the outside world. Like the Japanese, I too prefer to commune with nature in any way that I can, even just to step out on my balcony at home for a few minutes to gaze at the lumpy hills.
As I drift off to sleep on my futon one quiet evening, I wonder if I would have had as intimate an interaction with this space and others like it had they instead been reimagined as a museum—where one certainly can’t eat, drink, or sleep in; the eating part is very important. Or on the other end of the spectrum, left to rot.
I’d never stayed at a place quite like this before. And that is precisely the point, says Manami Kimura, from Value Management Co., Ltd, which operates several upmarket kominka hotels across Japan. In more sparsely populated areas, restoration is even more crucial. “If we leave the rural town’s buildings or landscape as it is, we will lose it,” Kimura says of the country’s housing surplus.
Their kominka hotel portfolio spans pre-war buildings with a unique sense of place, such as former merchant buildings and warehouses-turned Nipponia Hotel in Takehara. Located in Hiroshima Prefecture, the area once prospered as a salt mining hub during the Edo Period (1603–1867).
As the historically insular country continues to open itself up, checking in to its storied, traditional homes in its less-trodden locales remains a novelty.
Andres Zuleta, founder of US-based travel planning company Boutique Japan, says that a kominka stay is a singular experience for intrepid travelers seeking unique accommodations further afield. Meticulously restored kominka can be found in Onomichi, and Shikoku island (where Chiiori house is located) in the country’s southern parts. “One of their benefits is that so many of them are located in the countryside,” says Zuleta. And while it may still be too early to say for sure, Zuleta thinks there will be a trend in travelers wanting to spend more time in rural areas, whether it be to take a hybrid work and leisure trip (the ‘workcation’), or for pure pleasure.
Traveling to these locations typically requires an additional regional flight, after arriving in a larger city. From Tokyo, Kyoto is perhaps the most accessible area to experience kominka and, Zuleta adds, is the most popular spot, with numerous renovated kominka. They’re also scattered around Tokyo.
However, according to my tour guide on a separate visit to Japan, converted cafés from kominka are more common in and surrounding Tokyo proper, rather than accommodation: Places like the intimate craft beer hall pouring crisp lagers that I stumble upon in Yanaka, having just inhaling a dainty egg salad sandwich and a smaller-than-anticipated cup of coffee (in my American interpretation, more like a splash?) at a converted kominka café a few blocks away.
In 2021, Japan is scheduled to welcome the postponed summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, having successfully hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2019 (at time of writing, it’s believed they are considering hosting the games without overseas spectators). And cultural events like the Setouchi Triennale art exhibitions across multiple lesser-known islands also hope to stretch foot traffic beyond Tokyo’s metropolis.
“Tourism is an important pillar of our country’s growth strategy, and a trump card for regional revitalization,” said former prime minister Shinzo Abe, The Japan Times reported. Current prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who was elected to the role in 2020, is expected to place as much focus on bolstering the country’s rural areas.
As the historically insular country continues to open itself up, checking in to its storied, traditional homes in its less-trodden locales remains a novelty. And as we inch toward a post-pandemic world, perhaps kominka will be key to appreciating where we’ve been and where we’re going.