Sunday, February 20, 2011

Garden features.

This stone ornament would have been used to put candles inside at night:

Facing East, looking from the house:

A beautifully prepared bonsai.

A flowering tree:

A cherry blossom:

A Yuzu tree (A delicious fruit I'm told - but yet to try it!):

A Kaki tree (Delicious sweet autumn fruit):

Fungus growth in places:

My two greatest loves, with who I look forward to sharing the experience of making this Kominka a beautiful place to share our lives.

Interior features.

South side:

Floorboards have shrunk over the years and there are gaps that need to be chinked, or boards replaced. Sliding glass doors are not original, since the house would not have had glass when first built (Large wooden shutters to close at night).

Shutters for the South Eastern room (The best room - with entrance for important visitors) has an ornate storage for wooden shutters:

Shoji doors seperate the 2 south facing rooms:

Beautiful original wooden grille above the Shoji doors:

East facing view to the garden.

Same view with closed doors:

South facing Shoji doors need to have their paper replaced:

Original grilles located above the shutters (South facing).

House exterior:

Our close friends, the Rutt family had been planning to spend the weekend camping only 10 minutes away from the house, so we took the opportunity to join them, relax and get a feel for the outdoors in our future locality.

We relaxed lots, enjoyed the fresh air and although I'd Friday morning arrived with a hangover from last thursday's drinking with friends in Ebisu, by Sunday afternoon I was red cheeked with no bags under my eyes. Especially enjoyed walking our Border Collie under the brightness of a full moon surrounded by stars and spending a couple of ours in a rotemburo in conversation, followed by sitting around a roaring camp fire toasting marshmallows.

Our friends had mentioned to the campsite owners that we'd bought the house - and we soon learnt they too had a house in the same village and had been familiar with our new place for much of their lives! It's apparently the largest house in the area which had been built and owned by a senior family in the village about 150 years ago. Suzuki San, who has lived in the village all of his 73 years (Looks about 50!) was particularly keen to visit the house with us, so we went for another visit on Saturday afternoon.
His experienced eyes confirmed the main building is of excellent quality, but does need quite a lot of restoration.
A sign of quality of this house is the entrance on the South / East corner of the house which was for very special occasions or receiving important visitors, whilst the main entrance on the centre of the East facing part of the house was for normal day to day use.

Walking around the garden he suggested which trees & shrubs should be kept, as well as lots of other trees that should be removed to make more light, suggesting also that we might be better off having a lot od wood professionally removed and sold, then buy more timer as we need it with the proceeds.

He also spent time with us later offering his experienced advice on irrigation, tree root removal, roof maintenance, etc. and even showed us around his own family house which is around 110 years old, the very place he was born 73 years ago.

So we made some new friends locally - people Mark has known for about a decade & good people to know when taking on a project like this.

Whilst there, I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of trees and features.

The Kabuki gate:

This gate is huge. To give some idea - either side of the entrance there's enough space to park a car under shelter (Temporarily this is what I plan to do till the garage is built in a few years).

We hope to put some doors on the gate at some point, as there's a small door for people to get through. We'll look at other Kominka to find the design that will best suit then have these specially made & hung.

The Kabuki Gate's roof design will be the style we're hoping to emulate for the garage / workshop as well as the conversion of the outdoor barn to guest quarters, eventually.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The house is strongly built. Main beams aren’t as thick as some of these old farm houses – but much, much more stout than modern quick build houses. it’s solid enough to out last us.
Apparently the house is 150 years old, although there’s no exact record. Rooms are all large – which is nice if not a little unusual for a Japanese traditional farm house. Area of 160m2 doesn’t include the 15 tatami (Roughly 48 square metre) room upstairs.

We’ve got a young talented friend who is an excellent professional carpenter, who is 30 mins away, who will help us and there is another American carpenter Mark will introduce, so that’s good too.
Initial ideas include using our own Sugi wood to make modifications with (& later perhaps furniture too) - turning the two south facing rooms into bedrooms with wooden floors and a large closet at the back & possibly another - Storage is important to keep the house tidy.

My wife wants to keep the shrine located in the middle of the house, as it’s traditional. Provided I could get Yuko to agree, we’d move it to the wall other side of the bedroom – which would then leave a large 25 mat Tatami main room in the middle of the house.

In this central room for entertainment the low ceiling boards may be removed to expose the beautiful raw tree trunk above them.

A higher plaster board ceiling will be made to conceal the thatch (Which would make a lot of dust otherwise). We might later put a window in the roof to shed light down to this area if we can find something suitable in terms of material. It can’t be aluminium due to electrolysis. Wood is OK, but not perfect for long life, so we’ll see. . This way the ceilings of the main room can be made much more attractive and help display the beautiful beams, without dust coming down from the bamboo & rice straw thatch that insulates the copper roof. Will be a nice place for the wife & her friends to perform belly dance shows & events held at the house.

The 12.5 tatami mat space closest to the kitchen will become the dining room and the kitchen will also remain large, with lots of drawer & cupboard space with a centrally positioned table – custom made by Yuki, possibly. The 4 mat pantry will remain but be closed off – good for storing foods in a cool dark place. Entrance (Genkan) of 15 mat size will also remain.
The original dirt floor will be covered with wide floorboards from our land also. Upstairs 15 mat room will be turned into a guest area with lots of futons stored in purpose made storage along the back wall. Should sleep 6-8 people comfortably. Ceilings feature attractive low beams which some taller people will need to watch their heads under – but as these would be guest sleeping quarters to be used occasionally, that wouldn’t be asignificant problem. The roof is high enough upstairs to allow a false ceiling above the beams using plasterboard, to keep it relatively dust free or even planks, to build more storage (Wood is free! J).
Thatch needs care with regard to fire hazards & heating + electrical rewiring - but it’s not difficult to work out safe ways to do this. Perhaps a sprinkler system is one possibility. We’d like an open fire in the main living room – after all, we’d have more wood than we can easily burn – possibly in a lifetime. Bathroom will also be completely remodeled & modernized. The toilet may possibly be enlarged, or another installed – although it’s OK for now. The 6 mat back extension room would be turned into a conservatory, where plants can be sprouted / herbs / tomatoes, other small vegetables, etc. Part of zone zero of a yet to be carefully thought out permaculture design.

We’re planning on heading to India for the end of this year to meet with old school friends in Jaipur. I can already see ourselves with overweight luggage in efforts to bring back furnishings which are so beautiful from and other sources of beauty.

Not a lot of woodworm on the house itself. I checked that carefully & found no significant rot on the house, except for just a couple of minor cosmetic places – but a good hard poke with a screwdriver didn’t reveal significant weakness and it happened a long time ago – no structural problems at all. There is woodworm damage to the Japanese styled store house outside which will need replacement of ceiling and floor, but the building is thankfully sound. I’ll restore first and make this into my office, then later turn it into a guest quarters with en-suite bathroom / Rotemburo. Wood for restoration will initially come from cedar trees that are dotted around the SE perimeter. Some of our trees are quite thick. I’ve been looking at the Logossol M7 chainsaw mill. A very cleverly designed & developed modern portable sawmill which you take to the tree as you fell it. A bit expensive, but I’m sold on it already ($4000 USD).
I like the idea of a lot of land and useful wood for building with, which would cut our development costs considerably. Also having our own wood mill equipment means no problems with transport & paying for wood mill work, although of course there’s costs such as the chainsaw and other woodworking equipment. I’m keen to learn how to make buildings in traditional ways, that’ll be really enjoyable. The shack roof to the North will make a good place to stack and dry wood for the time being, but will eventually be removed – to make way for vegetable patches as part of our permaculture design.

I’ll build a spaceous 4-6 car garage / workshop where the old shelter is is currently (Eastern most building) & have doors east facing, so the activity in the garage is out of sight. Upstairs, I’ll build an office – so that eventually the other office building would become a separated guest quarters.

Land’s pretty flat compared to most places we’ve seen. The majority of the forest’s trees are Japanese Sugi, which is a fast growing softwood (Japanese Cedar). It’s mostly well spread out so a lot of it’s pretty tall & thick which is good.

It’s apparently much the same wood that’s been used to make the house about 150 years ago. The estate agent told us the previous long term owner’s business used to be in the supply of Sugi. I’d use wood from our own forest to restore and create buildings, furniture, equipment, etc and replace the perimeter trees (Over time) with stronger harder wood which will shed it’s leaves over colder months, to allow more light to the house. The forest area is very large. I only realised just how how much land there is we hadn't even seen yet as we gawped at the land schematics just before putting our Hanko stamp on the contract!

The Garage/ Workshop I’ll want to make in the same style as the rest of the house & keep it period looking, with the same style tiles as the large Kabuki entrance gate. The office / guest house would also have similarly tiled roof to replace the current steel covered one. Naturally the garage will be built very strong, so I can fit hoists to the ceiling to be able to remove engines and dig 2 pits in the floor too, which can easily be covered when not in use. Cupboards, storage, etc. will also be cleverly designed in. Garage / Workshop is important of course… I have visions of 2 pits with good lighting and enough space to open car doors fully and walk between at least 4 cars, I’d like 3-phase electricity if possible with a metal working lathe, milling machine, mig welder with stainless wire, aluminium wire, steel, compressor, spray equipment, hydraulic press, polishing equipment, woodworking machinery, work benches, shower in the corner, lots of storage, etc, etc. All so I can make things, work on wood and perhaps someday completely restore a car or build my own from steel tubing, etc. Cars could also be stored behind the house under shelters made of pine with cheaper but strong and durable roofs that could be walked on to clean off old branches, etc. as they build up from time to time. I will finally be able to import my bike & RX-7 from the UK as they’ll have a home. This year I’ll masho all of my personal cars except the M3 and get carry numbers when I want to use the rest to save on shaken & road tax costs. Perhaps in the future I’ll make a trailer to carry cars. I could ask my friend Obata San to help get it complianced.
I may sell the Tornado Catamaran if there’s a willing buyer, as I don’t think I’ll have much time to use it for years to come & storage is 90,000 Yen a year at Yamanakako, or I could store it on the land at home – Not decided yet if I can bear to part with it, but I don’t want to keep paying storage with it 2 hours away and so much work to do in my spare time.

The forest’s large & mostly flat. Eventually after using wood for various projects, heating, etc. we’ll lose of some of the the existing Sugi that’s blocking the south western afternoon light and plant more fruit trees, possibly hardwoods, oak, etc.
Behind the house’s forest there’s a field with rows of chestnuts, which is quite pretty. The existing garden will be changed. A large & deep pond or several interlinked ponds on the southern corner of the house will have some large rocks with water trickling down, pumped & filtered. Water source will be mostly the large roof of the house, then eventually of the workshop too. The house already has a well dug (Apparently 150m)… Sanbu is known for it’s good water and Sugi. There’s no sign of polluting farms, industry or homes around the region that would contaminate our well water, which is encouraging. Still not decided where We’d put a small pool (chemical free, possibly with water flow used for drip irrigation of the land. I’d also like to build a pyramid roof shaped BBQ porch overlooking the pond(s).

We’ll need a used good quality digger / leveler to help make all the heavy land moving work easier. This is available through our friend Mark who exports such used machinery to South Africa & we can sell it after a few year’s use, or just keep it.
Some of the ornamental trees in the garden may go to make way for orchards for fruits and lower growing shrubs, with vegetables grown where there’s more sunlight, but I suspect we might like them too much to take them out. The previous keepers (Which we hope to meet someday) took a lot of care over the garden.
There’s a large forested area behind the house – which is mostly flat and quite well spaced to walk between trees. There’s been some (not magic!) mushroom farming there, I think – a good sign of soil quality, but forests are usually good soil. Lots of space there to develop further...

We figure all of this will take around 5-10 years to complete, as and when time & money are available. A lifetime’s occasional work, if I can call a hobby - work.

My wife is a little concerned about a lack of a Steiner school in the area for our 2 year old daughter. We’re thinking about possibly building a small school house in a few years where 6-8 children could share an education using Steiner techniques and also learning about permaculture, making things with wood and of course growing up in a place with an abundance of nature.

We couldn’t find another place with as much potential, flat land, convenience of location (20 mins from the Pacific too – nice for Windsurfing, maybe!) and a house so large, so we bought it!

Now the project begins. Dreams turning into reality at a realistic pace.
OK, so no prizes for guessing - Yesterday we completed the contract Hanko requirements (Japanese Signature stamp) & paid a deposit, then took the documents straight to the bank!

House is sold on the realtor's site!

We have our new home at last and I spent much of last night sleeplessly excited, so I wrote my thoughts to post here..

First off thanks to those of you who have been praying for our success in making this happen, a lot of signs along the way have pointed at this place as right decision.

Below is a sharing of our basic plans. We’re under no illusion all of this will take a lot of time & considerable expense well into the next 5-10 years. Wanting to have a healthy family life too, We’ll need to do it slowly & as we can afford – the house is livable in as it is, albeit old and deserving of love & attention.

I plan to do most of the work myself on buildings and heavy stuff. Yuko & I will both do permaculture and plan everything together. Arina too, as she grows older in years to come of course & we have some strong young friends who may be willing to help sometimes too.

We’re very excited about creating our own permaculture & eco home project, something I’ve been studying for the last few months.

Here’s a short video to show what is Permaculture!
The house needs some cosmetic works inside & out (Not structural). Our plans include erection of a workshop (Most of the land is zoned for building), making deep ponds (with water collected from the huge roof and grey waste water – filtered through wetland area) for plant irrigation through swales We’ll be carefully choosing trees and shrubs to co-exist after learning to design a properly working permaculture system including honey bees (Great for pollination), chickens for selective weeding and ducks (In the fish farm pond)… a goat for milk and grass cutting, etc.

This house is a rarity not just for it’s age but also the large relatively flat land (Most country homes of this nature in Chiba we’ve seen seem to have mountain land, which isn’t always useful). Without any doubt in my mind this was definitely a better investment for us than a new build, which neither of us were keen on. We prefer the charms of old homes – unrestored, so it’s cheaper of course, but also gives us the freedom to make it just as we want whilst allowing us to take time to find the best solutions.

According to Yoko San (the owner of the estate agency we went with), this sort of project & DIY doesn’t appeal to Japanese as much as to foreigners. There are some Gaijins in Chiba who have had similar ideas. I’m also told there are people in Chiba doing permaculture, so so we hope to meet new friends and share & learn along the way. For certain, this is a far more depreciation proof investment in Japan and whilst houses in Japan aren’t known for appreciating (One reason I hadn’t bought in Japan since moving here..), there’s a growing interest in homes like these for good reasons and restored properties go for roughly double what we’ve paid. We’re not in this for the purpose of making money though, this is going to be an investment for our health & future and our daughter’s too – but it’s nice to know that if we should decide to sell someday, it’s a desirable property. There was another buyer wanting to purchase, but fortunately we got there first and Yoko San was as good as his word, when we asked him to take it off the market.

Our Ideas aren’t set in stone yet, we’ll probably come up with better possibilities as we spend more time thinking & learning before doing – but I’m not daunted or afraid of the many challenges ahead. I’m relishing them!
Yuko’s a bit unsure as she doesn’t have experience, but she has faith in me as she saw the house in the UK I restored before moving to Japan, which we sold just before UK property prices began to drop 3 years ago, so...

In many ways I see parallels with restoring buildings & building my own cars in that way. We’ll need to properly think through & plan every aspect of improving the home before we get stuck in. For the land well be using maps to carefully choose locations of zones and changes after making records of weather patterns, temperatures, shade, etc.
For the 1st year we won’t change the landscape much as we also want to learn just what fruit & flowering trees are growing in the garden. The house will get most work first, naturally.
More photos - These too are from the real estate agen't website:

The Driveway.

Path to the house.

Path to the gate from the house.

Path to the forest behind the house.

Unit sizes of houses are Tsubo, which equals the space 1 Japanese tatami mat takes up ( Approx 3.2m2). The property has about 4,000 Tsubo It’s in Sanmu-Shi, not too far from Narita (Not under flight path so no sound pollution problems) and 20 mins from the pacific ocean. It’s 4km from the Togane highway which will be joined by a new highway to connect it to the Aqualine in around 18 months time. A JR train station is only 1 km away. The property is located at the end of a quiet road, so no traffic going by – and only one neighbour. There's lots of parking for visitors on our own driveway (10+ cars) with more space past the gate. Our only immediate neighbour is at least 200m away from the house. Location is good.

The property has with 12,400sq metres of land (over 3 acres) including forest and flat lands with the possibility of building on most of the land (It’s not designated farm land in other words, most of the land can be built on, which is good in investment terms). Land tax is inexpensive, since the local govermment considers such an old house to have negligible value, with only the land with it's building rights retaining value consistently. So this is an inexpensive way to own a lot of land.

The overgrown bamboo next to our driveway:

The images below are from the real estate agent's website.
House Schematic:

Property schematic (Only shows area with building registration, not the major surrounding forest. Total land area is 12,400m2!

After a good solid & suitable home, the main & primary ingredient are of course suitable land.

So when I spotted this house on Jyu Han’s website freshly uploaded my wife & I went to view as soon as possible, later returning with wise & experienced friends for a second opinion. It took me a few days to help my wife realise this was without a doubt the place with the most potential we’d seen yet and price was very reasonable...

Only in the last 10 years have old traditional Kominkas started to come on the market, as traditionally these homes were passed down to younger generations, kept in the family & never sold (This is one reason it’s been so hard to find places in Shizuoka of this nature). This house is a rarity not just for it’s age but also the large relatively flat land (Most country homes of this nature in Chiba we’ve seen seem to have mountain land, which isn’t always useful). Without any doubt in my mind this was definitely a better investment for us than a new build, which neither of us were keen on. We prefer the charms of old homes – unrestored, so it’s cheaper of course, but also gives us the freedom to make it just as we want whilst allowing us to take time to find the best solutions.

I'm staggered that most Japanese people don't seem to realise how much more value for money & quality of life there can be in traditional kominka than modern buildings that go up in 3 months and typically last 40 years before needing to be torn down & replaced!

Check this site for inspring ideas on kominka restoration / improvement! Kominka Saise Network.

How it all began...

Back in 1998 I moved to Japan with the intention of staying 6-12 months in order to set up business here but the longer I stayed, the more I fell in love with this beautiful country and it's gentle natured people. After some years I met the girl who would become my wife and my future in Japan became sealed.

Despite our dislike of concrete jungles for the sake of convenience for work we lived on the outskirts of Tokyo for 10 years, but eventually we decided it was time to move and live a healthier life in the countryside.

It was hard to find a suitable house to rent, but eventually, just days before our daughter was born we found & rented a house in Oyama-Cho, in Shizuoka, very close to Gotemba, Yamanaka Lake and just a few minutes from Fuji Raceway (My other love is cars, so this was a bonus of circumstance).

We rented so we’d be able to try living in the country and deal with the logistics of our business now being about 75 mins from Tokyo. This would allow us to study the local areas without having to travel from and to Tokyo on weekends and possibly find our future home. Weekend road travel in the direction of the masses is to be avoided in Japan, so living in the countryside is essential if you want to enjoy nature at it's best!

Motosu Lake:

Living in Shizuoka was a great improvement to our lives. Regular views of Fuji mountain, cooler summers, fantastic lakes to enjoy (Motosu is our favourite of the 5 lakes, not least because it's a fantastic place to snorkel, camp & windsurf) and we learnt that traffic was generally never a problem, as we'd almost always be travelling in the opposite direction to the greater flows of traffic.

At first we looked at homes 10-25 years old, but after looking closely & learning of the consequences of relatively weak standards of build including the home we were now renting (Modern Japanese homes are a model of inexpensive material use & only designed to last around 30-40 years max) we eventually decided there was no way we’d want such a used house.

Being brought up in England, I’ve always preferred the charms of old strong houses anyway… The older the better, in some cases.

For over 2 years we tried to find places around Shizuoka & Yamanashi. We had no success at all in finding a classic Japanese classic style farmhouse with large land (Kominka). We narrowly missed one beautiful looking example that needed complete restoration near Motosu (Our favorite lake in Japan!)...It wasn't meant to be, I realise now.

After 2 years we found just one cheaply built, but well kept 30 year old Kominka with 700 Tsubo next to a beautiful temple in Oyama-Cho, but it was unfortunately very close to the Gotemba highway services! We tried to tempt ourselves as it was inexpensive, but we couldn't fall in love. Fortunately we didn't follow through despite visitting it several times and considering it as a possible project before it quickly went off the market.

Reluctantly we finally concluded there’s nowhere relatively accessible to Tokyo with land large & flat enough except Chiba, which offers much more attractive properties, albeit without the beautiful views of Fuji we've grown used to but will never tire of.

Only in the last 10 years have such old Kominkas started to come on the market in Chiba as traditionally these homes were passed down to younger generations, kept in the family & never sold. We found websites that had sprung up in the last 10 years offering classic properties and kept a close eye on what was coming on the market.
When we saw something that looked interesting, we went to view and continued learning as we saw more.

These are the 3 best sites to check:

Whilst looking at Chiba’s larger Kominka properties (Over 500 Tsubos of land) we learnt that larger places with flat land (not mountain designated)tend to have clauses that require farming licences, etc. This meant we’d have to rent land to (permaculture) farm on. Whilst this is a possibility & inexpensive it takes time and carries certain conditions. Some parts of the country are also difficult to get licences in order to buy farm land, so our natural preference veered towards finding our future home where we’d own all the land outright, preferably non farm land. Some would say this is a tall order and at times it seemed all but impossible...