Kominka (traditional Japanese houses) (古民家)

The term kominka refers to traditional Japanese houses, especially ones built a long time ago.


Kominka are not defined by the period they were built or how old they are, but usually the term is used when referring to houses built before the World War II, and especially to those built before the Taisho Period. Also, in many cases, the term specifically refers to buildings built using traditional Japanese methods of construction in which such elements as nails are not used. Recently in Japan the rationality and durability of these traditional Japanese construction methods using wood as the main material are being looked at again and there have been an increasing number of attempts to preserve kominka on the verge of demolition. Reasons for this include an increased consciousness in recent times on the part of many Japanese in relation to the loss of traditional typical buildings and houses along the streets, environmental problems and issues surrounding Japanese identity.

There are many styles of kominka architecture depending on the purpose, period, region, climate and other factors, and there is considerable variety just within their function, being used as farm houses, the residences of village headmen, ordinary urban houses, mercantile houses, residences of samurai families and so on. In the Magariya (a L-shaped house having a staple block) found across the Tohoku region centering on Iwate prefecture, and in the multistoried "gassho-zukuri" (a house built of wooden beams combined to form a steep thatched roof that resembles two hands together) in Shirakawago we can see specific and unique kinds of Japanese traditional house.

Most of the roofs were originally thatched, but some were specifically thatched with grass. In recent years, there has been an increase in kominka with a zinc roof over the thatched roof, ones roofed with tiles, ribbed-seam roofed houses and those with an entirely zinc roof. However, many of those that have become dilapidated or with elderly owners who can no longer maintain them have been destroyed.

In contrast to the simple and easy methods used by typical present-day construction companies, the timbers used in building kominka have specific types used in specific parts of the construction. For the perishable parts, zelkova, chestnut and Japanese cypress are used, for the joists strong varieties of pine, and for the interior sections timbers which have simple and beautiful grain or ones which are not affected by high humidity. For this reason, as long as they are reasonably maintained kominka were built to last for 200 to 300 years. Also, the timbers are thoroughly weathered by the smoke from the irori fireplace (open hearth) and their colour changes and becomes enriched as time goes by, and the effect of the light where the light from outside becomes weakened when entering the room is a familiar aesthetic of Japanese culture, as typified in the work "Inei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows)" by Junichiro TANIZAKI.

[Original Japanese]