Late last year, we had a surprise visit to a traditional machiya (town house) in Tokyo.
I love houses made from hand-hewn stone, however those from carved wood hold a different sense of specialness. With wood comes delicate, warm aromas and a sense of shifting time – a settling and reworking pattern which occurs throughout each of our lives. Exposed, unique growth lines echo the climates and knowledge of decades. No other home has perfected the understated beauty of wood more than the Japanese.
Upon entering, through a low, wide panelled doorway we were sheltered by a spreading, stepped roof of ceramic tiles. Beyond stood tall elegant pines and low rounded bushes flanking a winding pathway of stones… I felt a little like I was peeking through the looking-glass. What treasures lay within this old house?
A small group of elderly ladies awaited with genial greetings. Two of these ushered us around the house imparting their wisdom about each feature as we went. Removing our shoes, we left them in the lower earthen floor ‘doma’ of the entrance porch, ‘genkan’. This tradition, to leave the dirt from the outside below the raised level of the house, always lends a feeling of renewal. It is as though you are stripping a wearying part of the day away, stepping into another dimension of the day.
Through the dimly-lit entrance way, sunlight was licking its way around the wood-beamed corners of the house – drawing us into it. Floating quietly, carefully into the main room, warm late-autumn sunlight streamed inwards. Illuminating the space, it is reflected in the room’s atmosphere – open, airy, understated. Air flows continuously through, with the sliding doors at the back of the room open onto a small paradise of green and stone. The ‘xin‘ shape of this stone marks the heart of the building. The tatami mat flooring glowed a creamy-yellow. Below, unseen, rows of long bamboo poles are tied together creating a sturdy floor. Developed during the Heian period (over 1,000 years ago) from former rough straw, the tatami mats comprise of tightly woven rush over thick cores of bundled rice straw. Antique blue-silver slivers of fabric running around the edges of each tatami mat catch your eye in playful opposition to the neutral surroundings.
A wide vista beckons mind and soul into its cradle, almost enabling you to dash across the tatami into the dazzling sunlight. What perfected, fantastical shapes and earthy colours await on tree branches and within mossy lawns. A scene of an almost-forgotten world in the centre of Tokyo, a fairy-ground of historical adventure. From an adult mind, a garden to respect, reflect upon and relax in, over the threshold of the machiya. Yet, how beautifully blended the inside and outside world. With the ease of a child’s step, you blink and are at once in nature. Boundaries dissolve. In a place that practices of such precision and restraint transpire, we are forced to question the mind of the creator. Is such openness a statement of the inhabitants’ refinement of character? Or is it suggestive of delight in the joys of a playful mind?
Despite its dissolution, you cannot help but notice the boundary itself. Deeply considered and perfectly crafted, seven layers of wall slide independently to connect or disconnect you to earth’s biosphere. All except the inner two walls are of solid wood (often fragrant cyprus – hinoki), the inner being of lighter-coloured, detailed wood frame (ita-shoji) and semi-translucent paper. One vertical plane of wood crosses over the horizontal, and on the next vice versa. It is near unnoticeable to the untrained eye, but a cornerstone for the architect. A mark of meticulous craftsmanship. The layers of washi paper are laid from bottom up, as wide as the rolls that they are supplied in (11 inches), and secured to the ita-shoji with rice-glue. These shoji walls are perhaps the archetypal image of the traditional Japanese house.
Inside again, blinds of loosely woven reed strips (sundare) filter the bright light from an unseen room at the back of the house. Around a corner into a dimly lit room, a complex arrangement of sundare, shoji and solid mud-plaster walls are divided into rectangles by thin bamboo poles and cedar panels. A feast of natural materials for the mind. Breaking free of the regularity of rectangles and echoing a more primitive time, the solid mud-plaster cries out in jaunty defiance. Rough strips of straw stand out at random angles against grainy honey-brown plaster. Layers of this mixed grained mud lie beneath the pretty patterned top coating, which has been expertly smoothed. Each layer becomes progressively coarser with depth, until underlying bamboo laths (komai) lashed with rope are reached. A journey through the particles of local soils and the fibre of their crop, down to the skeleton of the building.
This room holds another treasure. A lacquered panel of rich brown wood, commanding the eye, signifies the tokonoma. It lies in silent but stark contrast to the surrounding pale tatami, wood, paper and mud-plaster walls. Two tall beams of marble-textured wood (perhaps cherry, as are chosen to mark such areas) rise from its edge, closest to the centre of the room. Presently empty, its space leads you to question its purpose. Shadows of symbolic bonsai and ikebana are almost visible in the diffuse light. Or perhaps it is a butsudan or kamidana… the ghosts of Buddhism or Shinto house deities scattered upon the particles of faint light, awaiting their daily offerings within the space.
Detaching a rapt gaze from this small room’s multitude of tactile surfaces and organic forms, a spell-bound silence sweeps focus into the next room. Another bright, open space. Something is obviously different here, however. Feet feel it first – a soft cold sponginess – carpet! This is a modern addition to the traditional machiya, perhaps they are warmer come winter. Two open walls from knee-height draw green and golden-leaved branches inside. An inconspicuous square by the garden panorama kindles curiosity. It marks a removable table and below a space to warm cold toes by a hearth (the irori) in the floor, covered by a cedar grate. Nothing could be more perfect than reclining with toasty toes and a cup of ocha (Japanese green tea) against the gorgeous silhouettes of twisting, upward climbing trees and gentle sun beams.
At the left side of the room, large panels of polished wood forming part of the wall signify an enclosed space. Inside, neat rows of deep reaching shelves, perfect for the storage of many an elegant kimono, sleeping futon and other necessary household utensils. How gracefully efficient!
To the opposite side, seemingly floating sleek, single-panelled wood shelves hover adjacently. One is slightly raised above the other. ‘Usu-kasumi-dama’: ‘thin-mist shelf’, a wistful accompaniment to this idyllic room. They are attached at the overlapping end by a thin pole of wood (ebizuka), above which the top shelf ends in a curled flick of carving. An ornate necessity: to stop a paint brush from rolling to earth. Nestled beneath and gliding above may be found the dreamily named jibukuro ‘earth pouch’ and tenbukuro ‘heaven pouch’ cabinets. The sliding paper-covered doors of which may be delicately painted with landscapes of curled clouds around mountains, arching branches or unfolding petals.
Twisting back through peaceful rooms and small, cool darkened corridors, at the opposite end of the house sits a traditional tea room. Within this short space an unusual pyramidal cone erupts just above the lip of the tatami floor. Its cool pale wood catches the sunlight from the partially open walls. A hook lingers from the ceiling above, and you can almost hear the clink of the chain against an elaborately carved wooden fish as the height of a dangling kettle is adjusted. The ro, a hearth which is unique to the tea room of the house. Snuggled into the back corner, a second tokonoma with a raised tatami floor sits bare. Flickers of light seep on to its straw base through a translucent paper-covered window, behind which the faint outline of a roughly hewn wooden grid protects the opening. A chocolate-brown beam lies across this tokonoma’s entrance, announcing its presence in grand subtlety.
The real feature of this room, however, is the exposed ceiling. Controlled lines of thin doubled-up bamboo battens stretch over compact strips of reeds. The roundness and cool pale green of the bamboo contrasts upon the warm red-brown of the long perpendicular reeds above. Focus is drawn down-slope, to the russet bark of a long beam which divides the roof into two, near the outer edge of the room. This second roof slopes out to the garden, continuing past the wall of the teahouse. It’s patterns expose a more complex level of craftsmanship: doubled bamboo poles hovering above sweet-smelling cedar panels. A pale beam of bark-less wood runs along the connection of the roof to the wall, a pleasing contrast to the warm cedar. It is an intricate roof, with many textures, lines and hues. The brown-edging of the tatami mats wish not to shout out against the elaborate wood work.
The many half-openings and small passageways to the outside world give this house a feel of childlike adventure, asobi (play). Although originally, these were created to induce humbleness and bodily-awareness within guests before entering the tea house. A sense of awe ties together the realms of inside and outside, at once the boundaries are invisible and yet commanding in their complexities.
Through the cha-niwa (tea garden), stepping stones and ridges of roof tiles dug into the ground entreat a light-footed step, and a moment to meld into the earth. Necks bend around bushes and moss smothered wabi archways of the roji (‘dewy path’). Eyes catch on floating maple stars in a ground-level washbasin, to cleanse spirit and body before entering the tea house. The wide-open walls of the house across a mossy lawn invite wonder, and the three-stepped, curved roof of silver-grey ceramic tiles suggests understated grandeur, lent from the temples of China. A palace of play. Such an element of asobi is shown off in the architect’s vision.
It is a house of subtle harmony, and yet also of opposites, juxtapositions – of both child and adult, refined grandeur and humility. Tied together just as much as the inside and outside. If you possess both perspectives, the house is yours to enjoy to its fullest.
Town house of Yoshida Isoya
Address: 世田谷区成城5-12-19 / Setagaya-ku Seijo 5-12-19
How to get there: Take the Odakyu Odawara Line to Seijo-Gakuenmae Station and walk for 7min in Northern direction.
Open from 9:30 to 4:30
Holiday is Monday
Closed during New Year holidays