Don’t Judge a Building by its Colour

The pine tree is as much an indicator of the age of this property as is the weathering of the timber.  Note that there is a formal entrance from the street to the garden and reception rooms.
Younger than it may look
The layout of the buildings of this saké brewery in Wajima are a little unusual.  Many traditional street-side shops and other business premises in Japan are built with there eaves toward the street.

More often than not the fronts can be opened to the street and a deep wooden beam spans the entire opening.  They are usually made of zelkova wood (Zelkova serrata), which is a figured timber similar to elm.  True lacquer is used to enhance the appearance of the grain with the purpose of “drawing customers in”.

These traditional shops with their open frontage can still be found all over Japan, many of which are over one-hundred years old.  Such shops are sometimes accompanied by a small plastered storehouse but with its gable end facing the street.

Here at the Hakuto Saké Brewery, however, it is a business block which faces the street under a tiled variation of a hipped and gabled roof.  To the right of this is a single storey building housing reception rooms and higher roofs further back.  The reception rooms face a wide shallow garden fenced off from the street.  The way a substantially “trained” pine rises over the boarded fence is a common feature of traditional urban properties, whether they are dwellings are some kind of business premises.  In this case, however, the pine is much bigger than most of its kind.

So often a “front” garden such as this becomes a buffer between private and public space—remember that the hot humid summers in Japan make it necessary to keep windows and screens open for ventilation at the expense of some privacy.

Narrow slats of wood and a setback from the edge of this building in Wajima afford some privacy to the areas behind, despite flanking a public thoroughfare.

If there is no space for a garden to provide an open air “buffer”, privacy can be preserved with a wooden grill or screen to cover openings, especially when they open directly onto a public thoroughfare.

Coming across the brewery one day when I was in Wajima, I was reminded of a conversation with a Japanese friend soon after moving to Japan in 1976.

We were driving through a suburb of Yokohama on our way to China Town.  We passed some shops that I took to be “old” simply from their appearance—dark unfinished weathered timber, fine details and ceramic tiles on their roofs.

“How old are those shop?” I asked as we drew to a halt at some traffic lights.  To my surprise my friend said “Oh, very old.  About forty years old I should think”.

In my ignorance I had imagined them to be at least one-hundred years old.  I immediately realised our perceptions of “old” were considerably different.  Also, it was wrong of me to judge the age of a building by its appearance alone.

Wood, of course, ages a good deal more quickly than other materials, especially if it is untreated or painted, but this process can be accelerated by being near the sea.  The difference between summer and winter conditions will also be a contributive factor.

The characters spelling out the name Hakuto are written in a heavily stylised manner mimicking a calligraphic rendering.
Hence buildings in Wajima can easily look much older than they are.  The present buildings of this brewery date from the early part of the twentieth-century.

This saké brewery has been in business since the later part of the 19th-century although it was a shipping company and pawnbroker before that.  Today, along with its pine tree, it is a gem of traditional urban architecture.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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