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Saving Traditional Japanese Farmhouses, Or In Praise of Thatched Roofs

Saving Traditional Japanese Farmhouses, Or In Praise of Thatched Roofs

Explore the disappearing traditional farmhouses with thatched roofs in the Japanese countryside and the efforts of architect Hirosuke Suzuyama to preserve them. Learn about the symbiotic relationship between the thatched roofs and the occupants' daily lives, as well as the meticulous care and maintenance required to sustain these historical structures. Discover the beauty of Saga Prefecture and its traditional ways, as well as Mr. Suzuyama's mission to save this invaluable slice of Japanese heritage.

As I've traveled through the Japanese countryside I've occasionally come across magnificent old farmhouses with roofs made not of clay tile, but of thatch. I say occasionally, because, as I learned recently, these old buildings are quickly disappearing from the landscape here. A couple of weeks ago I took a drive with an architect who's made it his mission to save these traditional farmhouses. This remarkable man, named Hirosuke Suzuyama, is committed to preserving not only the buildings but the know-how to maintain these old homes as well as their antique wood.

On a glorious Sunday, Mr. Suzuyama drove me through rural Saga Prefecture on Kyushu Island to visit his preserved farmhouses. Saga is one of my favorite parts of Japan, a place I keep returning to because of its breathtaking beauty, traditional ways and magnificent pottery in Karatsu and Aritsugu (see my Karatsu story in Gourmet from a few years ago). As we toured our first farmhouse, over 150 years old and preserved by a lovely young family, Mr. Suzuyama pointed to its thatched roof. Called kusabuki in Japanese, it's constructed of tightly packed reeds (ashi) that do more than just keep rain and snow out of the living room. Mr. Suzuyama explained that these roofs act like a huge baffle -- and are integral to cooking. How?

In these traditional farmhouses, cooking was originally done in an irori, a charcoal-fired hearth. The roof absorbed the gases from these fires like a giant sponge, filtering them to the outside and keeping the air in the house clean. Moreover, these roofs naturally helped maintain a steady temperature inside the home, keeping comfortable during winter or summer. So this humble straw roof developed a symbiotic relationship with the occupants going about their lives under it.

But these kusabuki roofs demand care and maintenance -- it's not a case of build it and forget it. In fact, the entire roof has to be replaced every three decades (one piece every ten years), a task carried out by specialized artisans who are now mostly old and near retirement. So Mr. Suzuyama is now restoring these roofs with the help of these craftsmen as well as young people who share his passion for preservation, thus handing down a deep historical knowledge -- only learned by doing -- to a new generation.

As Mr. Suzuyama explained to me, thatched-roofed farmhouses are fast disappearing. And not only thatched-roof farmhouses. We visited his amazing warehouse, stacked with massive antique beams hewn from single logs, and piles of other wood -- building material he saved from houses collapsed or destroyed. Mr. Suzuyama is also now moving entire farmhouses to new locations -- a painstaking process, but another important effort to preserve this invaluable slice of Japanese heritage.