“Kominka cafes, Kominka guest houses, Kominka galleries, Kominka used as shared offices, Kominka renovations……Recently, Kominka (the Japanese word referring to the traditional Japanese house style) scattered about both rural and urban areas throughout Japan have received significant attention. But what exactly is it that qualifies a house as a “ Kominka”? The Chinese characters used to write the words give us a literal understanding of these houses, ko, meaning old, min, meaning “of the common people,” and ka, meaning house. Yet it still leaves use lacking a solid definition.

This piqued my interest, so I checked some dictionaries.

Daijisen : A Japanese style house built around 100 years ago. It includes samurai residence. The age of the home is not defined precisely.

Daijirin (third edition): The private houses, such as farmhouses and merchant houses built in former times.

Meikyo Kokugo Jiten: Not listed

I see…

By this, we can see that there isn’t a specific definition for Kominka.

But, looking at the first character, ko, meaning old, just how old is “old”? In modern Japan, houses built over 50-60 years ago are referred to as Kominka according to the standard of registered tangible cultural property. Those that incorporate a traditional Japanese style of building, or reforms in accordance with this style were also called Kominka.
(In actuality, houses built with a Kominka “style” are also simply referred to as Kominka.)

Kominka are classified into these four categories.
1) Nouson minka (private farmhouses)
2) Shoya yashiki (residences of village headmen)
3) Machiya (merchants’ houses)
4) Buke Yashiki (residences of samurai families)

Below, I give a simple explanation of these four styles

1) Nouson minka (private farmhouses)
This style house includes doma (earthen floor) and are typically laid out according to the shape of the Chinese character 2×2 grid. There are kamado (cooking stoves) and irori (hearths) for cooking. Family members would gather around irori to have meals, with the family head seated on one side to create a happy family circle. In later years, the Japanese-style drawing room was introduced. The 2×2 grid layout was very useful when many people came for ceremonies, increasing the amount of usable space by leaving the fusuma or shoji (both types of sliding screens) open. Minka (the house) and work were closely connected: doma were used also to make ropes; the engawa, or veranda, for weaving; and silkworms were raised in the attic. Materials used for roofing, such as kayabuki (thatch), sugikawa (cedar bark) and kawara (tiles), differed depending on the region.

2) Shoya yashiki (residences of village headmen)
Syoya yashiki were houses in which shoya (headmen in the local) lived. In eastern Japan, shoya were often called nanushi. Shoya would inform lords of petitions on behalf of village people, collect taxes, and supervise public works, such as irrigation ditches. Shoya yashiki are bigger than general farmer’s houses because shoya were administrative officials. Nagayamon (a gate set up along with a stable) and warehouses that stored taxes were established alongside Shoya yashiki. In some areas, these houses were even bigger than samurai homes. However, the material used the create the roof was more indicative of status than the size itself. So the material of shoya yashiki roofs were not tile, but instead made with thatch.

3) Machiya (merchants’ houses)
Merchants used to live in homes called machiya. Machiya are small in width at the entrance and long in depth, often with a passage running through from the front to the top. They were often built facing the road. The reason for most of their small width is said to have come from the law when taxes were imposed in accordance with the width of the entrance of house. Strip-shaped premises with the short side on the street are commonly seen in a lot of areas. In general the room closest to the street was used as a shop for work, and the residence area and warehouse were at the back. These kind of homes are often seen at post towns or castle towns.
The following cities are well known for their machiya.
Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture
Omihachiman City, Shiga Prefecture
Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture
Takehara City, Hiroshima Prefecture

4) Buke Yashiki (residences of samurai families)
The original form of Buke Yashiki (Samurai houses) were residences of court nobles, built in the manner of Heian era palace architecture. During and after the Kamakura era, the samurai class gained power and Buke Yashiki were improved and adapted to better suit the new modes of the Samurai lifestyle. The features of this were to establish facilities to defend against enemy attack and facilities to allow vassals to congregate. In the time they were built, the houses of lower-level samurais were not referred to as Buke Yashiki, but rather Samurai Yashiki. However, these days, Samurai Yashiki are typically categorized as Buke Yashiki. After the Meiji era in which the status of samurai was extinguished, most samurai house were extinguished as well.

On the site below, various kinds of Kominka are introduced from all over Japan. For example, there are the warm houses made by the Ainu (former inhabitants of Hokkaido) making use of the traditional Japanese spruce and abies sachalinensis in the north. There are the cool houses made by the Ryukyu’s (the ancient kingdom of Okinawa), which incorporate bamboo and thatch in the south.

Every Kominka has various features adapted to the era, the climate, the owner’s occupation and their lifestyle, and thus tell us of the deep wisdom of the people of the past. Some foreigners in Japan have taken a deep love of such Kominka, purchasing, repairing, and living in them. One such person is, Mr. Austin Moore, from Massachusetts, U.S.A., living in a Kominka in which a merchant used to live 150 years ago. This house is located in Hino Town, Shiga Prefecture, one hour far from Kyoto by car. The lot is around 2200 square meters. So big! Mr. Moore came to Japan in 1984 to teach English in Yamaguchi prefecture and moved to Shiga prefecture later. There, he met and purchased this house at 14.5 million yen. It was featured as a “Samurai house”.

Some foreigners feel uneasy to live in the countryside of Japan, afraid he/she may be seen as a stranger. But the relationship developed by Mr. Moore and neighbors prove this to be nothing more than a bias. Some neighbors told me “thanks to Mr. Moore, we were reminded of the splendor of Kominka”.

We would like you to see the same value in Kominka, from which Mr. Moore felt strong charm and attraction!

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