Kominka: Discover the Enduring Beauty of Traditional Japanese Houses

Kominka are beautiful and traditional Japanese houses, most commonly found in rural areas of Japan. Constructed using a number of ingenious yet practical design techniques, kominka were often both a place of work as well as a home, and usually built to a grand scale to accomodate a number of uses. Many kominka still stand today, having been built with such technical skill and high quality materials as to survive numerous natural disasters and earthquakes. Today, these traditional Japanese houses are seen as a part of Japan's cultural heritage as well as wonderful examples of traditional Japanese architecture. In this article we will explain what exactly kominka are and explore the history and the typical features of kominka, as well as where in Japan they can still be found today.

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What is a Kominka?

The word “kominka” literally means "old house" and the term generally applies to a certain style of traditional Japanese house built before World War II. Kominka homes are built entirely from natural sources, including wood, clay, and straw, and typically share a handful of specific design principles. 

Usually the most noticeable feature of a kominka home is a huge sloping thatched roof. The interior of these traditional Japanese houses also have a number of unique features. Often homes to farmers and merchants, kominka were designed as a place of work as much as a family home and needed to be utilitarian and multifunctional, as well as homely. 

The History Of Kominka Houses

The earliest kominka homes were built over 300 years ago and can be traced back as far as the Edo period (1603 - 1868). Both practical and beautiful, traditional Japanese houses were built in towns and villages throughout Japan. Often located in rural or mountainous regions of Japan, these marvels of traditional Japanese architecture were designed to endure each of Japan’s distinctly different seasons, from the fierce cold winters to the high temperatures of hot summers.

Traditional Japanese houses were also often a place of work as well as homes, and needed space for storage and an area that could be used as a shopfront. Kominka were usually homes for artisans, farmers, or merchants, as well as wealthy families. The multifunctional interior of these traditional homes meant that there could also be a space that could be used to conduct business or as a store for selling goods.

Though these traditional Japanese houses share many characteristics, kominka were built throughout the country with many regional variations and styles depending on the local climate in the areas they were built. For example, kominka built in Hokkaido or Aomori in the north of Japan were designed to withstand the huge amounts of snowfall that comes each winter. Kominka built nearer to a coastline or an area prone to typhoons would often need to be strong enough to cope with dangerously high winds.

The Traditional Features of a Kominka

Kominka houses typically share a number of ingenious yet remarkably simple design features that ensure that they are perfectly suited to the household's needs as well as its geography and climate. 

Kominka are very sturdy structures, and the huge frames of these traditional Japanese houses are made from thick beams of wood. The beams of a kominka are usually made from the trunk of enormous oak or cypress trees that could be up to 200 years old. Kominka were constructed by expert craftsmen and builders who developed techniques in which the entire frame of the house could be built without using a single nail, instead the pieces fitting together like a puzzle. 

From the outside, the most noticeable feature of a kominka is its thick thatched roof. This is usually on top of an A-frame that towers over the house and is a striking example of traditional Japanese architecture. The long sloping roof protects the house from thick snow and insulates the interior during the winter. The same roof also keeps out the heat from the sun during the hot and humid summers. Building these stunning roofs is no easy feat, and they usually need to be rebuilt every 20 - 30 years.

Typical Features Found Inside a Traditional Japanese House

The interior of kominka were deliberately designed to be highly multifunctional in order to play several different roles. Whilst the design of a kominka always allowed for the interior of the house to be as flexible as possible, they typically shared a number of common features. 

At the entrance of a traditional Japanese house is the “doma.” The doma is a multipurpose area with a hard floor that acts as the connection between the inside and the outside of the house. The hard floor allowed the doma to be used as the kitchen or as a workplace during wet or colder weather. The doma was also used as the shop space for those who had goods to trade.

At the heart of the house is the “irori,” the open hearth that provides heat for the house as well as acting as a stove. A kettle filled with water usually hangs over the hearth from a cord from the ceiling, providing a constant supply of hot water to the house. The irori was also used for cooking, and families would sit and eat or entertain guests whilst sat around hearth. The floors of traditional Japanese houses are often laid with tatami mats, and apart from the doma, the ground floor is typically built at a raised height of around half a meter from the ground. This allows for the hearth to be built into the floor and utilizing the small space beneath the house. 

Originally occupied by large families, and in some cases with added space for a few horses or cattle, there may be as many as four or five stories to a kominka home. However, there are usually very few internal walls inside a traditional Japanese home. Instead, rooms are sectioned off by sliding partitions called “shoji” and “fusuma.” This gave the interior a huge amount of flexibility and allowed kominka to be incredibly pragmatic and multifunctional. By sliding open the shoji or fusuma, a room could double in size or suddenly have a different shape, opening it up for an entirely different use.  

Many traditional Japanese houses also featured an “engawa,” or an outer corridor that circles the outside of the house. Some of the sliding partitions would open onto the engawa, which allowed residents to move to any other part of the house without having to walk through any other rooms.

At the very top of the house, the eaves underneath the kominka's enormous roof were often used to grow silkworms, especially in farmhouses. The heat that rose to the top of the house would provide the perfect environment to cultivate silkworms, which in turn would be used to produce silk. Silk could then be used to make clothing whilst also a valuable commodity.

The Decline Of Japan's Traditional Houses

Over the past few decades, the number of kominka in Japan has declined. Following the rapid industrialization of Japan after the Second World War, many from younger generations left rural areas and traditional agricultural jobs to find better paid and less physical work in newer industries in large cities. It's believed that there are around 120,000 kominka homes left in Japan today.

The migration of younger people to the cities has left an aging population living in many of Japan's rural areas. In many cases, kominka homes often became a burden to family members in line to inherit them from their parents. Property in Japan typically has very little resale value. Instead, the land that a house occupies is the asset, and that land is worth a lot less if there is a house (and all of its contents) still standing on it.

Often, property that has been left to younger members of the family goes unclaimed, as the cost of demolishing the house, plus the inheritance taxes that are to be paid when taking ownership of a house, are seen as too much to take on. As a result, many traditional Japanese houses have typically been left uninhabited and fallen into disrepair, often to the point where they are close to collapse.

The Rediscovery Of Kominka Houses in Japan

In recent years, however, there has been a growing appreciation of kominka in Japan, as well as a concerted effort to preserve and celebrate those that remain. Increasingly cherished as beautiful examples of traditional Japanese architecture, kominka are admired not only for their beauty but also their durability. Their location, usually deep within Japan’s breathtaking countryside, means that such traditional homes are often seen as the perfect place to escape from the daily grind of urban life.

Despite their age, these traditional Japanese homes are marvels of engineering and have proved to be incredibly resilient. As already mentioned, property retains very little value in Japan, and this applies as much to new housing as it does to traditional kominka homes. There’s a common saying that homes in Japan only last for thirty years as modern houses aren’t built to last beyond a generation. But many kominka still stand 200 - 300 years after they were first built. Their simple but ingenious design means that the majority have survived many natural disasters, such as the numerous earthquakes that have affected Japan over the past few hundred years.

Today, there are a wide variety of preservation groups and businesses attempting to restore and often repurpose traditional Japanese houses. Recognizing the cultural importance of kominka, as well as the huge potential in such well built and spacious properties, kominka are enjoying a resurgence in appreciation from younger generations of Japanese people willing to breathe new life into historic Japanese homes.
 
There are many examples of kominka that have been renovated and restored as cafes, restaurants, and even hotels throughout Japan. Some people are even buying and renovating kominka as modern family homes. However, the expense of buying and then renovating a kominka, combined with the almost non-existent return on investment, means that this is still a relatively uncommon labor of love for those who can afford it. Yet the reward for those who do take the plunge is living in a beautiful, historic, and spacious home in Japan's breathtaking countryside.

Where To See Kominka Homes in Japan Today

Mostly found in rural areas of Japan, there are plenty of places where traditional Japanese houses can still be found today.

Shirakawa and Gokayama

By far the most famous kominka in Japan are in the neighboring areas of Shirakawa in Gifu prefecture and Gokayama in Toyama prefecture. Both areas are home to numerous villages that feature gorgeous traditional Japanese houses famous for their steeply thatched roofs, known as “gassho-zukuri,” which are known for resembling two hands touching as well as allowing snow to easily fall off the roofs.

Shirakawa and Gokayama have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites due to the number of beautiful traditional kominka homes that stand amongst a spectacular rural landscape, many of which are over 300 years old. Both are particularly beautiful during the winter months when the kominka are blanketed in several feet of thick snow.

Ouchijuku

Another traditional town famous for its charming Edo-period traditional houses is Ouchijuku in Fukushima prefecture. Ouchijuku is a former post town that was home to a number of restaurants and inns during the Edo period. Post towns were used as a place to stop and rest by weary travelers, and today Ouchijiku’s streets are lined with beautifully maintained kominka. The Ouchijuku Town Museum, housed inside a grand former inn, is a great place to see how the interior of a kominka would have looked during the Edo period. 

Miyama Kayabuki no Sato

Around thirty kilometers from Kyoto is Miyama Kayabuki no Sato, a beautiful old village with around 40 traditional Japanese homes. Though a little hard to reach, almost all of the kominka in Miyama Kayabuki no Sato are still private homes, and wandering around this tranquil village set in the beautiful Japanese countryside is like stepping back in time. Here too you can explore the interior of a kominka at the Miyama Kayabuki no Sato Folk Museum which is laid out in the traditional style of the Edo period.

Nihon Minka-en

You can also see a vast collection of beautifully preserved traditional Japanese houses at the Nihon Minka-en in Kanagawa, just south of Tokyo. At the Nihon Minka-en is a huge number of impressive kominka that have been relocated from towns and villages all over Japan in efforts to preserve them. Each house has been carefully restored and rebuilt in its original style that reflects how they would have looked and been used in their original locations.

Old-World Charm Updated For Modern Japan

Due to their charm and beauty, traditional Japanese houses are enjoying a resurgence of interest. Built as the ideal work and living space, whilst being able to withstand a wide range of tough rural climates, today kominka are as admired as spectacular examples of classic Japanese architecture as well as for their cultural heritage. In many areas throughout Japan, these traditional houses are enjoying a new lease of life, updated for the 21st century as hotels, home-stays, and cafes, allowing younger generations to fall for the old-world charm of the classic kominka.

Title image credit (left to right): Kat KTM / Shutterstock.com, Javarman / Shutterstock.com

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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