2021 NO.31


Taking a Little Break, Japan-Style


The Kominka Experience:
Recharging Mind and Body

Kominka stand quietly in villages nestled in the mountains. Bringing back feelings of warmth and nostalgia, these traditional homes are a study in relaxation.

Photos: Kurihara Osamu, PIXTA

Tougenkyo-Iya Mountain Village - Fusho, a traditional kominka inn built at the highest point in Ochiai Village, presents magnificent mountain views.

Kominka are old residences built with traditional Japanese construction methods, and it is not uncommon to come across one more than 100 years old. Carefully repaired and handed down over generations, some are even considered highly prized items of cultural heritage in Japan.

An increasing number of kominka are being restored and repurposed as cafes or restaurants, perhaps because these spaces, steeped in history, exude a sense of comfort. In many places, especially rural areas with ever-dwindling populations, kominka have been a catalyst for promoting tourism. Take, for example, the kominka converted into inns in Ochiai Village in Tokushima Prefecture’s Iya Valley. Here, the age-old mountain village landscape remains undisturbed. Traditional homes with thatched roofs made of Japanese pampas grass or other materials have been reborn as charming lodgings that are becoming more and more popular as travel destinations.

The interior features a high ceiling and wooden floor.

Meal served around the irori sunken hearth.

Enter a kominka, and step into a space where time stands still. Sunlight stays at the outer edges of the rooms, leaving the interior bathed in shadows. The colors of the original pillars, beams and mud walls are organic and muted, and the floorboards have been polished to a shiny black. These well-ventilated rooms encourage the flow of natural cool air, leaving visitors rested and relaxed.

The heart of a kominka is its irori sunken hearth. A square is cut from a portion of floorboard and a pit dug in the soil below then lined with mixed mud or concrete, to create a place for a fire lit with wood or charcoal. This is where the family gathers, sitting around the hearth to eat and keep warm.

In the past, the hearth was kept burning year round. During the rainy season, the fire would act as a dehumidifier, and in the summer, it would create airflow that brought cool breezes in through the windows. The rising smoke would also protect the thatched roof by making it more insect- and water-proof. Traditional Japanese people truly knew how to create comfortable, long-lasting homes.

Of course, kominka are no longer just old houses. They are now well equipped with electric equipment such as modern kitchen appliances, baths, and air-conditioning. These inns blend historic charm with just enough modern convenience, for the ultimate in comfort. The perfect spot to gaze out on the countryside and ponder life long ago, while savoring local foods, the kominka quietly restores mind and body.

The house is believed to have been built around the 18th to 19th century.

Ochiai Village is dotted with kominka scattered across the mountain slope.