Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Building on the past: restorations in Otaki

Walking through the village the other day I had a chance to see a couple of renovations that are underway in Otaki.

The first are two small homes that were purchased recently (for change) by I-san. The homes were built in the post-war period using local wood. This, for I-san, was crucial. Structures built with local wood, he suggests, will outlast their more contemporary counterparts that consist of foreign timber. Looking at the shape of the two homes, while considering their long neglect, I tend to agree with I-san.
In the past these homes where belonged to the forestry agency and were used to house employees. About a dozen more of these homes sit in the Nakagoshi section of the village, where the largest forestry agency office in the Kiso Valley was once located. There's been talk of the village buying those homes, but economically it might not be feasible. I would like to suggest that the national government just give the homes to the village, rather than simply letting them slowly rot away.

The second rennovation project I had a chance to peak in on is being undertaken by my good friend T-san. The structure is a ryokan 旅館 or minshuku 民宿 (there is a difference between these terms, but with this particular structure the distinction is a bit ambiguous) that sits in the eastern part of the village. I'll refer to this particular structure as a minshuku.
The minshuku was owned and operated by the family of T-san's wife, but fell into disuse as tourist numbers began to drop. In the past, the majority of customers to Otaki's minshuku were members of the Ontake-kyo 御嶽教 religious sect, who make pilgrimages to Ontake-san, which they view as being a sacred mountain. Otaki itself was, and is, seen as the first stage of the mountains ten physical and spiritual stages. Because of this past, minshukus like T-san's are somewhat lack-luster, as most guests were content with just a place to lay their head before making their ascent of Ontake-san. At the same time, this gives the buildings an open and communal feeling, as individual rooms are usually few in number.
I'm not exactly sure what T-san has in mind for his renovation, but he's working independently with a team of builders and carpenters, which should allow him the freedom to be creative. Also, he plans on using all local materials. Unfortunately, in one of those quirks of our modern globalized world, foreign timber is must cheaper then domestic, with local Kiso timber being among the most expensive. Still, I think the investing in local materials will pay off in more ways than one. T-san agrees.
T-san plans on finishing the renovation of his minshuku by the end of next summer. It promises to be a beautiful place. He's hoping to use local onsen water for the baths and the location offers great views of the entire Otaki River Valley. Perhaps the most attractive feature is that T-san's wife will be preparing the food for the minshuku. Her meals are hands down some of the best I've eaten in Japan, and she's a master at using local ingredients. Also, T-san is a hell of a fisherman, which means fresh river fish. . .good god!

T-san is friendly and extremely knowledgeable about Otaki and the surrounding environment; plus, he speaks English! So, start making your travel plans today. Feel free to contact me at otakimura@gmail.com with any inquiries.



zac said...

Was just reading this, it's indirectly related to your post I think.

Repopulation - Migration to the Japanese Countryside:

jan in nagasaki said...

hi, just wanted to say hi, I live in Nagasaki. I saw your comment on an article in Mother Earth News (on Japan...) and checked out your blog. I will read some of it and come back later.