Wajimaya Zenni One of Two

The narrow facade gives no hint of actually how deep the site is.  The gable end with a lean-to extension is typical of machiya in the region.

Wajimaya Zenni—Architectural Gem
Japan is made up of four main islands and some 4,000 smaller ones.  In area it is only marginally larger than the State of California and only a little bigger than Italy.  The amount of land which is readily habitable, however, is small.  Roughly 80% of the population live on 18% of the land area and most of that is along a coastal strip.  The population of more than 126 million is living at a density of some 347 people per Km2 (897 per mi2), almost all in urban areas.  Compared to the Netherlands where some 500 people live on each square-kilometre, Japan is better off but do any of these statistics help to explain why the traditional buildings in Wajima are built so closely together?  The Japanese themselves do often refer to their country as being semai or “small and narrow”.  So is that one of the reasons?  Do they all feel that every speck and spot of available land must be used to the greatest effect?  Sometimes it certainly seems so.
A plan of a typical machiya  to be found in Kyoto combining a domicile and work-place.  The street is to the right and the most private rooms are to the left at the back of the site.  The three openings ensure that the interior is well ventilated, well lit with natural light and has pleasing views into garden spaces.

The sliding paper screen door gives access to the corridor, which extends to the back of the property.  It would be used by household members but the main wooden door would only be opened for the privileged or to bring some large object undercover.

In old, well established villages, towns and cities all over Japan many buildings conform to historical plot lines and are very close together.  In some places land taxes were based on the width of frontages, which gave rise to a distinctive urban building plan.  Resigned to a narrow frontage there was, however, nothing stopping householders building premises reaching far toward the back of a plot.  This can famously be seen even today in the more traditional districts of Kyoto.  Buildings with such plans are called unagi no nedoko meaning the “place were eel’s sleep”.  Such buildings are often homes as well as places of business and are generically called machiya.  Literally this translates as “townhouse” but the term in English refers to a “tall, narrow traditional terraced house with three or four floors”.  Unlike a machiya, townhouses are seldom homes and places of work.

Toward the back of the property a simple garden
characterises the open space in front of the main storehouse 
to the right.  Here too light and air gain access to the interior.
The narrowness of the plots is, of course, a drawback.  During the hot humid summer months in particular any breath of air is welcome and openings in the plans of machiya facilitate this.  Wajimaya Zenni machiya is no exception.  Built in 1910 and having fallen into disrepair, it was extensively renovated in 1990.  Its overall plan is typical of a machiya—closed in on both sides, narrow and long—and punctuated by open spaces, which at least provide some welcome air and daylight to penetrate the interior.

The rooms of traditional buildings are generally illuminated by the light which ducks under the eaves and is then reflected off the lightly coloured tatami matting.  With this particular building the builder has sort to maximise what little light enters one of the “garden courtyards” by using a white plaster plinth at ground level to reflect a little more precious light into one of the main reception rooms.

The delicate screen-work helps demonstrates the status of the space and also provides a degree of privacy—the interior was a stage of whispers and animated silhouettes, which might only have had form but no identity to most members of the household.
The white plastered plinth at ground level helped to reflect what little light there was on a dull day into a reception room.
The elements of this simply designed garden would be as actors on a stage, changing their appearance with the light through the day and seasons, taking on a new guise with a shower of rain or flakes of snow.  The garden is an encapsulation of nature framed by screens and openings, and different every time it is visited.  Like a camera we capture a moment in time and leave something of ourselves there to be visited at a future date.

This particular garden courtyard is dominated by a large lantern, very little planting and flat boulders.  The flat stones are a common feature in each of the open spaces within the plan and are most effective—not too overpowering and yet they contribute to the character of these open spaces into which rain and snow may fall.

A composition of true lacquered timbers and plaster—the more public space flanking the partitioned rooms extending to the much more private spaces toward the back of the site.
Being a “house of true lacquer” most of the exposed timbers are lacquered.  The interior glows and with soft natural lighting the overall impression is restful and calm.  The sense of space is considerable despite the narrowness of the site.  This may be due to the way that each of the spaces are only partitioned from each other with fusuma—paper covered sliding screens.  Also, the loosely enclosed spaces arranged one behind the other from the front to the back of the property are all flanked by a space like a thoroughfare with a lofty ceiling.  From the main front entrance footwear can be worn in this corridor acting as a passageway for household members and for those engaged in the workshop toward the back of the site.

The location is special and the limitations of the site were used to advantage.  The building is a gem.

Wajimaya Zenni is open from nine till four except Wednesdays and from 29th December to 3rd January.  It is located close to the waterfront at 1-82-3 Kawai-machi, Wajima City.  The main building is not open to the general public, although special viewings can be arranged. There is, however, a gallery where products can be viewed.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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