The Revival and Future of a Beautiful Village
When you climb the fluvial terrace of the Sabaishi River at the base of Mount Kariwa-Kurohime, you'll come across a charming circular village centered around rice fields, known as Oginoshima Ring Village. I had the pleasure of visiting this village 26 years ago, when my friend the designer Terutaka Suzuki invited me to stay in a renovated thatched house with designer Makoto Umebara and architect Kengo Kuma. This certainly showed foresight on the part of the town of Takayanagi, which, considering the future potential of this depopulating area, developed a system for welcoming visitors and utilizing local vegetables and mountain herbs in a traditional thatched house.
Takayanagi Town, which has now been made part of Kashiwazaki City, was ahead of the rest of Japan in creating a vision for the future. While today traditional "minka" houses offering accommodation are everywhere, back in 1988, when Takayanagi envisioned using its own culture as a resource for the future, Japan was still basking in the glow of its bubble economy. In Takayanagi, the "Hometown Development Council" was established, and Toshio Kasuga, who was then in charge of the Regional Development Division, was tasked with shaping the area's future vision.
By visiting various places, such as Wiesbaden in Germany, several towns along the road connecting Rothenburg and Munich, and the mountain resorts of Yugoslavia, Takayanagi’s development team was introduced to the European way of using an area’s unique culture as a resource to create a local economy that welcomes visitors. With the guidance of Shimane University professor emeritus Ikutsune Adachi, a leader in Japan's regional revitalization efforts at the time, the team was able to create a vision for the future based on the landscape view of a thatched-roof community.
Built where annual snowfall tops two meters, these old minka, with their sturdy columns and thick pillars, where one can sense the wisdom of ancestral life around the hearth, have captured the hearts of Japanese people, who sensed they were losing their traditional way of life. Just like in any community, change can be met with resistance, but it is possible to achieve creative and practical planning initiatives by positively incorporating traditional values. In Takayanagi, although residents hesitated at first to embrace the new ideas, their feelings softened as more and more days passed with lights on in the revitalized accommodations.
Terutaka Suzuki has a unique nickname, "Mitsubachi Sensei" or "Honeybee Teacher”, for his tendency and ability to fly around the “blooming flowers” in the area, carrying “pollen” and bringing about “pollination”. Makoto Umebara, Kengo Kuma, and I are all Suzuki’s pollinators. Umebara, Takayanagi’s first pollinator, designed two important products for the town, an eye-catching poster featuring the phrase Jyonnobi [lit. “relaxed and comfortable”] Village, as well as a bag featuring harvested rice hung on hasagake racks and dried in the sun in the traditional way. Kengo Kuma made innovative and extensive use of washi (Japanese paper) created in the neighboring town of Kadoide by the washi artisan Yasuo Kobayashi to renovate an old minka in the area.
It’s been 31 years since the initiation of the Oginoshima Ring Village project. Over time, even outstanding visions are destined to encounter challenges. Where once the center of culinary hospitality was the local cuisine prepared mainly by women in their 60s and 70s, due to the aging and depopulation of the area, the community faces a shortage of human resources to support the project. This shortage is preventing the reuse of the rising number of vacant houses in the village. The community is looking for new business concepts that can cater to the era of global tourism and nomadism.
The old minka house Kenga Kuma designed and in which he used the local washi paper, was deteriorating for a time, but it’s now been restored with new Japanese paper, and in 2022 was transformed into a cozy weekend café. The café is run by Kazuaki and Shino Hashimoto, a couple in which the husband works on weekdays as a thatcher. Their cold brew coffee and delicious chiffon thatched house-shaped cake exceeded my expectations. The washi paper space was bathed in gentle light. The young couple who settled here have a two-month-old baby.