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  A Way of Living
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Life in Nature

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Kominka - Traditional Japanese House

The house that knows the warmth of a family

Birds build their nests with twigs and soil, and they raise chicks there. The parent warms the eggs and never leaves them. After the mother bird hatches her baby chicks, she struggles to find food for them. Wherever she goes and whatever happens to her, she never loses her way back.

In the nest, the parent birds and chicks give love to one another and share a peaceful existence. When the chicks leave the nest, the nest's important role is over. It becomes empty and eventually it returns to nature.

A home should serve the same role as a nest. It has always been true that, during the daytime, the family members worked hard, toiling on their farms or in their paddies near their home. After sunset, the family members gathered underneath the same roof and had a discussion about the events of the day. They sometimes stayed up till late at night, having a pleasant chat.

A home warmly binds the family together and strengthens their ties. To the people of the past, it would have been unthinkable for family members to leave home and live separately.

When and how on earth did we lose such a way of life?

In “Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato”, old-style houses are built of grasses, wood and soil. These houses know the blessings of nature and the warmth of a family.


The house and the people live together.

On the spring breeze, the softly drifting petals of cherry blossoms waft into the house. On a summer night, you fall asleep to the chirping of insects next to your pillow. In autumn, golden stalks of rice wait outside to be harvested. In winter, you snuggle under a quilt at the first hint of snow on the roof.

While thick stone walls separated houses from nature in Europe, Japanese old-style houses were connected to nature. All materials such as leaves, wood and soil of which the house is constructed are alive and breathing.

An old-style house soon deteriorates unless people live in it. Even the pillars, shining black, which have supported the house for several hundred years, fall into miserable decay.
In the last half-century, a lot of old style houses have disappeared. Losing such houses means that we lose touch with our heritage and with nature, and we will never be able to get it back.

The houses in Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato might have suffered the same fate as those others. But, through the enthusiastic efforts of many people two of these old houses have come back to life. Houses breathe.

These two houses tell us this without words.

The Origin of Ishii family and Oka family homes

The two traditional style houses that have been reconstructed in Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato once belonged to the Ishii and Oka families. Originally, they were built in Asai, northeast of Lake Biwa, during the Bunka and Bunsei periods of the late Edo Era.

The layout of these houses was known as Ikadachi-type at that time. As you entered the house, there was a large area with a dirt floor. Inside the house, there were three rooms including a parlor and a room for sleeping. For their daily life, the family mainly used the dirt floor space called Niuji. Initially, they laid up to 10cm of rice chaff on the floor and then covered it with a rush mat.

The family did some farm work, had their meals and twisted straw in the Niuji, and at night, the children slept there. There were many cases where families covered the earthen floor with wooden board. That's one of special features of these old-style houses; you could change your house as you liked.

After these two old style houses were purchased, they were reconstructed side by side. Later, learned that an ancestor of the Oka family once married into the Ishii family. Today, these two old homes that once belonged to the Oka and Ishii families stand beside one another. We can't help feeling they are linked by fate.

Reeds are a symbol of Japan.

The first thing you'll notice about a traditional house is the beautiful, thick thatched roof. The two houses standing in Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato are thatched with reeds from Lake Biwa.

Reeds and the Japanese people have a natural bond that has existed since ancient times. In "A Record of Ancient Matters"(the oldest Japanese history book in existence), Japan is described as the country where reeds grow profusely and the stalks of the rice plant stand strong and vibrant. In ancient times, reeds, as well as rice, were the representative plants of Japan. Reeds were also used for traditional Japanese musical instruments such as the Shinto flute and the Hichiriki.

Reeds are waterside plants. They are cut in the winter and afterward the place where they grew is burnt off. In spring, they sprout fresh shoots and grow vigorously. Reeds and people have lived together like this since the beginning of time.

A thatched roof, which is 80 cm thick, protects people from rain, wind and snow for about 30 years. After its role is over, it becomes useful compost, and finally it returns to the soil.

The tree lives.

As you enter into the traditional house in Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato, you’ll probably notice the thick beam in the ceiling. The trunk, which has weathered the hardships of several hundred years, still keeps its magnificent curve, yet its appearance has been transformed into a deep shining black from having been permeated by smoke and soot of the Irori fireplace. Looking at it, you can’t help but feel its vital energy. But, if used in a wrong way, even a thick beam will produce distortion.

It is said that an expert carpenter, hears the voice of a tree and sees into its character just by touching the tree. A skilled craftsman was needed to work, not against nature, but with it, because the tree continues to live, even if it loses its roots and leaves. Many Japanese people know this and are able to feel the warmth of the tree and admire its spirit. Trees are a vital element in our civilization.

We find their wood used everywhere in our daily life, such as for chopsticks, bowls, desks, chests, structures of houses and so on. Even in the present age, with our drastically changed lifestyle, we find a natural sensitivity to trees inherited in us from our ancestors, who once lived closely with the forests. It is still alive within our hearts.

Therefore, when you see the thick beams in this house, you’ll probably feel the quickened beat of your heart, acknowledging the living presence.

The flexible bamboo and the sticky soil

Bamboo is the most crucial material for building a traditional Japanese house. The underpinnings for the roof and walls of such a house are made of crossed bamboo slats. The bamboo enables the house to stand with more flexibility. Like the beam, the bamboo used as a crossbar of the roof is permeated with smoke from the Irori fireplace, and it becomes distinctively glossy over the years, which is called Susudake or soot bamboo.

To construct the wall, workers first render the wall’s material, called Heshitaji, made by the way of Komai-gaki with the dirt which Susa is kneaded into. Susa is the finely shredded straw of old Tatami or Igusu reeds. By adding Susa, the dirt becomes stickier, which prevents the wall from cracking. Next, the middle coat is layered to complete the clay wall. The wisdom of our predecessors about the workings of nature is really amazing. For the middle coat of the walls of the traditional houses in Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato, the soil carried from the local thicket is used. The soil that can be used for the middle coat has to fulfill the strict requirement. After having sought for the appropriate fine soil all over the place, we found it right here in the Shumei Natural Agriculture Shigaraki no Sato.

Constructing, weaving, knotting

A reed roof has an average life of about 30 years, enabling each generation to assume responsibility for thatching the roof. In the old days, thatching was a joint endeavor in the village, and all the villagers helped thatch the roofs of each house in its turn.

In an old-style house, the structure consists of a main pillar in the center, and wood and bamboo are knotted with straw to surround the sides of the house. The roof is thatched with reeds by knotting them together, and then a mud-like substance is applied to the walls.
People gave beautiful name for each process involved in the construction. For example, the work of constructing the wall by knotting with straw ropes the points where bamboo slats cross was called komai-gaki. Words like this convey to us how important house building was to the Japanese of those times.

By constructing, weaving and knotting the blessings of nature, we are given a dwelling place for our soul. Essentially, humans can acquire nothing by themselves except the blessing of nature. Old-style houses seem to tell us this.




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