Noto Architecture 1

On the streets of Wajima
I arrived in Noto on 3rd June this year to begin a month long stay.  The following day I decided to walk some of the streets of Wajima, which would be my base camp for the duration of my stay.

Walking the streets to look at local architecture was not new to me.  Toward the end of 1979 and at the beginning of 1980, I spent a great deal of time walking some of the old highways, especially in the Kanto region centred on Tokyo.  I was looking for traditional timber built shops and business premises in towns that historically had been post towns or castle towns during the Edo period in particular.  At the time I was gathering material for my Masters thesis in Architectural History at Tokyo University of Art and Music.

Although many old buildings had been destroyed by modern urban development and fire as a result of earthquakes and/or bombing during the Second World War, it was surprising to see just how many fine traditional buildings had survived, especially away from the centres of these old settlements.

I was mainly looking for timber structures which had a feature not unlike jetting—the extension of an upper floor beyond the line of the floor below.  In Japan this way of increasing the area of an upper floor while also providing some shelter at a low level had, strangely enough, developed about the same time as jetting had come into use in England during the medieval period.  It seems that it may have been a common solution to an increase in urban population.

This example of segai-zukuri is in Ninohe in the north of Japan.  It is particularly unusual as there is a double layer of bracketing, which has been taken over by swallows and wasps.
In Japan, however, it was not only upper floors that were extended.  Eaves along a street frontage in particular were extended for functional reasons—to provide some extra protection from wind, rain and snow.  The bracketing system to support deep eaves, however, was in some cases purely for show.  This practice can be seen in many areas of Japan and the custom continued into the 20th century.  The bracketing system is called segai-tsukuri and may originally have been a device borrowed from maritime practices.

In Noto, however, I have not seen a single example.  Many of the traditional timber built houses and business properties along many streets and side roads do have relatively shallow eaves, which are supported by a simple rail.  If the eaves do not face a street then it is a gable end of the building that presents itself to the thoroughfare and there is no unusual extension of the eaves.

Generally speaking the style of traditional building in Wajima is much more like that of farmhouses in rural areas roughly south of the Noto peninsula.  The gable ends of these farmhouses often display a series of uprights and horizontal elements interspersed with areas of white plaster.  Similar features can be seen on buildings in Wajima but the proximity of the sea, strong winds and rain are often combated by protective weather boarding.  The timber is quite often a type of cedar called Hiba and it is generally untreated and almost never painted.

The weather boarding here is probably protecting a daub rendered wall.  The auxiliary eave is at first floor lever and the roof eave is out of sight above.

Join me on a short excursion around some of the streets of Wajima to see what architectural features can be found.

Delicate lines
Note the delicate detailing and line of the sill below the sliding screens at street level and the windows on the upper floor.  This detail can be found repeated on other buildings in Wajima.  It may mean that the same carpenter was responsible for the work.  Or it is the result of something called “marrying detail”—following or copying for the sake of harmony.  There is a chance, too, that it could easily have been copied or mimicked in homage of its originator.

Hierarchical development?
Can there really be a good reason to have this many roof-ridges and gable ends?  The cladding at least is understandable and is modern.  It may have been the result of repairs made after the 2007 earthquake.  It would be interesting to see the interior spaces below these roofs.  Was it all a bit of fun or more likely was it done with reason and in the hope of creating an aesthetically pleasing result to a difficult problem.

Steadfast and secure
The design of this restaurant borrows from storehouse design and construction.  But the effect is softened by the planting and dull red painted elements.

Protection and pattern
Part of the same restaurant again borrows from storehouse design.  The raised plasterwork around the tiles is often on the diagonal and is call namako-kabe, literally a “sea cucumber wall”.  The more or less random arrangement of the tiles makes it less severe, although the sturdy mullions of the openings above are a feature of castle design.  The creeper?  It has just been allowed to run wild.

Keeping out the weather
The weather boarding here is the main cladding and it is painted.  The style is reminiscent of late 19th or early 20th century style of buildings erected in Japan, when western architectural methods were being adopted by indigenous house carpenters.  Hence there is an element of status attached to the style.  This one houses a medical doctor’s practice.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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