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Gallery: the merchant houses of Takayama

The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it.

Teiji Ito (architectural historian) – sign outside Yoshijima-ke

There was something special about Takayama. I could feel it in the air as soon as I stepped off the train – crisp, fresh mountain air, so refreshing after the heat of Kyoto. This mountain town captivated me with its lively morning market, friendly locals, and beautifully preserved old houses.

During the Edo period this was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side.

Yoshijima-ke

Yoshijima-ke was built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings. The light inside is beautiful; and the combination of the heavy dark beams, the paler lacquered wood used for door and window frames, and the translucent paper screens is captivating. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.

  • Japanese rooms with fireplaces
  • Japanese room with fireplace in the centre
  • Japanese interior
  • Simple Japanese interior
  • Japanese room with screens
  • Japanese screen and garden
  • Japanese window and screen
  • Japanese paintings and ornaments
  • Alcove with Japanese painting and ornament
  • Stone oven

Kusakabe mingei-kan

This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is has a more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen it described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.

Like Yoshijima, this is a two-storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region, who are famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry. Its most noticeable feature is the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi.

Unlike Yoshijima-ke, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms are various exhibits of household items that would have been traded by this merchant family.

  • Japanese room with fireplace
  • Iron pot hanging above a fireplace
  • Large hook hanging from wooden beams
  • Garden seen through Japanese window
  • Sleeve of blue kimono, embroidered in gold
  • Two hair ornaments

There are plans, descriptions and more images of both houses on the Oriental Architecture website: Yoshijima-ke and Kusakabe

I visited Takayama in 2013

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