Zen and the art of living

Alex Kerr’s renovation of his 18th-century rural Japanese home has blazed a trail in the preservation of traditional architecture, says Lisa Freedman

The exterior of Chiiori, the first Japanese house renovated by Alex Kerr
The exterior of Chiiori, the first Japanese house renovated by Alex Kerr | Image: Alex Kerr

Japanologist Alex Kerr dreamt of owning a castle when he was just six years old. His father told him that “he could buy one when he grew up”, he recalls. Kerr fulfilled his childhood fantasy in his 20s. His “castle”, however, was not a turreted fortress but a decaying thatched-roofed farmhouse in the Iya Valley, nestled in the remotest reaches of rural Japan. The restoration of his country retreat and guesthouse, which he named Chiiori (House of the Flute), set Kerr on a journey to illuminate a traditional way of life on the edge of extinction. 

He’s since become a champion of vernacular architecture, the rural landscape and Japan’s arts and culture scene. “From the mid-1960s, Japan witnessed an economic boom unprecedented in history, making it one of the richest countries in the world,” he says, reflecting on the shift that saw an acceleration of migration from rural areas to large cities. It saw millions of houses like Chiiori left abandoned – today they are known as akiya.

Kerr began his mission to help preserve what had been left to decay almost half a century ago. To date, he has renovated 44 traditional houses, transforming most into rental properties to help boost the local economy around them. As such, the American-born author has become a crusader in someone else’s land. But it has taken time to gather widespread support: he published his first book, Lost Japan, a personal lament on the loss of the country’s native culture in the wake of modernisation, in 1993. 

This room inside Chiiori has a traditional floor-sunken hearth
This room inside Chiiori has a traditional floor-sunken hearth | Image: Alex Kerr

The son of a naval officer, Kerr first arrived in Japan in the 1960s. “In winter, you would see women wearing kimonos on the streetcars, and I would fall asleep to the clopping of wooden geta sandals echoing through the streets,” he says. Even then, the 12-year-old was fascinated by period houses, many still occupied. “Outside, the huge walls gave no indication of what you would find indoors. Each house was designed to reveal itself in stages, like unrolling a handscroll.” When his father’s posting ended, Kerr went back to the US, going on to study Japanese Studies at Yale, then Chinese Studies as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He returned to Japan in 1971, becoming an exchange student the following year. “I hitchhiked across the country, which was when I was taken to the Iya Valley, one of the deepest gorges in Japan,” he recalls. “The towering cliffs looked like carved jade, mist boiled up from the valley and thatched-roofed houses were dotted against the steep mountainside. It looked like a scene from a Song-dynasty ink painting.”

The Iya Valley, once called the “hidden land”, lies on the eastern side of Shikoku, the least visited of Japan’s four major islands. Its remoteness is sealed by mountains blanketed with forest. It became a natural citadel for political refugees from the 12th century, and remained relatively isolated until the first public road was built in the 1920s. When Kerr encountered the island in the early 1970s, much of its traditional way of life was still intact, even though “the flight to the cities”, as he calls it, had already begun. “People working in the fields wore the woven-straw raincoats you see in samurai movies, and cooking was done over an open hearth sunk into the floor.”

Kerr spent six months house-hunting – or, dare one say, housebreaking, as he viewed many of the properties simply by loosening the unlocked wooden shutters and peering inside. “Everything that had been a feature of life for a thousand years had become irrelevant overnight, and there were some unbelievably magnificent houses left to rot,” he says. “One indigo-dyeing mansion had a two-metre-wide veranda surrounding the entire house of a type you’d only see today in Nijō Castle in Kyoto. The floorboards were over 10cm thick, all cut from precious keyaki wood.”

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Eventually he came across an 18th-century farmhouse in the hamlet of Tsurui. It had everything he’d been searching for: burnished black-plank floors, a sunken hearth, a vaulted ceiling and a thatched roof. He bought the land for just $1,300, as the house was considered of no value, and began its arduous restoration in 1973. 

His first critical decision was how to make the space liveable. “Traditional architecture was almost completely without walls, like an open-air pavilion through which wind and light pass freely,” he says. “To keep out the cold and protect privacy, the spaces were frequently divided into small rooms by shoji or fusuma sliding paper doors. When I bought Chiiori, the black wooden doors were so heavy you could hardly move them to segregate the rooms. Taking them out enlarged the space dramatically.” Kerr likens the reorganisation of the interior to working on a crossword puzzle, but was guided by the Japanese approach to light. “Old Japanese houses are character-istically dark; anyone who has lived in one knows that you feel as if you’re swimming underwater,” he says. He used low-watt lanterns at floor level to retain the traditional chiaroscuro, but, in a more recent concession to modernity, he took advantage of modern double glazing to introduce floor-to-ceiling windows that today provide a spectacular year-round panorama.

Despite the spare minimalism typical of Japanese interior design, Kerr – a connoisseur and collector of Japanese art and antiquities – initially struggled to exercise the necessary restraint. “Iya provided a treasure trove of castaway folk handicraft and I filled the house with old saws, tansu chests and carved-bamboo implements,” he says. “But I found the fewer things I placed in it, the more beautiful it became. Eventually, I had no choice but to give up decoration and surrender to the serenity of emptiness.”

A vine bridge in the remote Iya Valley, where Chiiori is located
A vine bridge in the remote Iya Valley, where Chiiori is located | Image: Macduff Everton

Repairing the structure of the house was laborious – the materials had to be brought in on foot from an hour away – but it was the renovation of the dilapidated roof that proved most troublesome. Kerr discovered that it would cost 30 times his original purchase price to replace the 1,440 bundles of thatch. In the end, it proved cheaper to buy another abandoned house, dismantle its roof and carry it in bundles to Chiiori. 

Japanese roofing-thatch is made of high-growing grass known as susuki. It is beloved by poets and painters and features in countless screens and scrolls. Cut and bound to a roof, it is called kaya. When such roofs predominated, every village had its own grass field and thatcher. “Thatch is not inherently expensive, but when roofs began to be replaced with tin or aluminium, the price skyrocketed. Today, thatched roofs are generally seen only on temples, teahouses and cultural landmarks,” he says. “The irony is that thatching did not die out because it’s expensive – it’s expensive because thatching died out.” Thatchers, like many of the country’s craftspeople, are increasingly hard to find, and Kerr worries about the long-term implications for restoration. “All the craftsmen I know – for kimonos, lacquerwork, ceramics and scroll-making – are in their 60s and 70s. There’s no next generation to come.”

Kerr’s renovation of Chiiori was an amateur labour of love, carried out piecemeal as funds permitted. In 2004, however, having gained experience working for American real-estate developer Trammell Crow, he began a more viable restoration business, restoring old machiya townhouses in Kyoto – not as historical showpieces but fitted out with modern conveniences for visitors to rent. “I am not a curator. I’m interested in valuing traditional space, but bringing the houses into the modern age,” he says. “That’s the only way they can live.” 

Kerr in the Iya Valley, 1973 – the photograph was taken the day before he discovered Chiiori
Kerr in the Iya Valley, 1973 – the photograph was taken the day before he discovered Chiiori | Image: Courtesy Alex Kerr

Similar concepts existed in Europe and the US, but people doubted that his plan would have a market: at the time most tourists in Japan stayed in western-style hotels. “We were told the Japanese would never come, but today 80 per cent of our guests are Japanese,” Kerr says.

If there was scepticism that the concept could succeed in a major cultural centre like Kyoto, there was outright incredulity about its prospects in an isolated location like Iya. But Kerr was determined to start his work in “sustainable tourism”, his attempt to stem the decline in rural areas, so in 2006 he began restoring eight houses to rent in Ochiai, 20 minutes from Chiiori (tougenkyo-iya.jp). “Iya was completely off the map, but, by restoring houses and renting them out, it now attracts 3,000 visitors a year. It helps sustain the local economy and attracts younger people willing to live here,” Kerr explains.

The steady flow of local and international visitors to houses that Kerr has restored in Kyoto, Iya and the even more remote Ojika Island, in Nagasaki, eventually attracted the attention of the authorities. “The government believed that by making the countryside modern, building roads and monuments, it would thrive. It didn’t, unfortunately. Finally, someone asked me, ‘Why are all these people coming here?’” Kerr’s response has always been the same: “It’s the appeal of nothing special.” 

Chiiori’s kitchen, tansu chest and shoji doors
Chiiori’s kitchen, tansu chest and shoji doors | Image: Alex Kerr

Kerr calculates there are now hundreds of restored houses countrywide. Not only has he blazed a trail in the preservation of domestic architecture, he has fought equally strenuously for the restoration of a landscape despoiled by concrete, neon and pylons – a subject highlighted in his 2001 book, Dogs and Demons. 

His fighting spirit goes on. In his most recent book, Kanko Bokoku-ron (Destroying the Nation with Tourism), co-written with Yumi Kiyono and published last year, he denounced the impact of mass tourism on Japan’s environment, stressing the importance of “quality over quantity”. It’s a message he will continue to hammer home. “Look at Japanese manufacturing, which was once a terrible polluter. They got that under control and still managed to produce high-quality products. Tourism should be the same. We have to impose controls on cultural pollution.” he says. “For decades, I was this voice in the wind. Now, very late in my life, I feel the time for change has come.” 

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