FIELD / CITY 

Innumerable disparate factors cooperated in producing the modern Japan that we admire today. For many, the island state resembles an amalgam of different inputs, a sponge into which cultural concepts from nearby shores like China, and nations as far flung as Greece, India and Persia, have been sapped. As a consequence of chronologically staggered circumstances Japan has interacted with external forces in a way that has remodelled her topographical, social and economic landscape, producing a testing ground for global culture spanning many decades, which remains in a perennial state of flux. With due recognition of her role as an assimilator, Japan is now undergoing a process of cultural exportation. Re-evaluations in divergent nations have proliferated interest in the Japanese architectural and social concepts, many of which are adopted (in some cases ineptly) throughout the western world. I am keen to scrutinise the process leading up to this reversal and to what extent, if at all, westernisation was conducive to this outcome.


My role as observer is naturally challenged by axiomatic shortcomings; geographical detachment, absence of long term cultural immersion, reliance on potentially erroneous source texts - western interpretations in particular. Indeed, the very mantle of 'the observer' is a self-referential allusion to my potentially fallacious interpretation of Japanese culture, concepts and architecture as a young, western student. However, these blemishes in legitimacy contribute to the rationale behind addressing such a topic. The air of mystique that has surrounded Japan for centuries is largely indebted to a distinct, self-inflicted isolation from other nations until the Allied Powers following the United States occupation of 1945 terminated national privacy. Soon after that date, a glut of accounts, souvenirs and analyses were exported to every corner of the world in an attempt to sympathise with, if not to understand, the Japanese way of life. A noteworthy study by Edward Morse, titled Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, detailed examples of domestic architecture and catalogued the array of household items found within, committing to paper design approaches that would later act as stimuli for Western interpretations. By recognising the wealth of resources now available to me and by also acknowledging the dearth of factually accurate examples, I am optimistic in being able to offer a sober examination of my time spent in Japan and the possible ways her culture has been imprinted upon over years of diverse societal interactions.
Koshirakura/Tokyo is a visiting school organised by the Architectural Association School of Architecture as part of a visiting school program. Split into two locations, the workshop aims to express the social, cultural and economic diversity of Japan. Having been running for sixteen years, initiated by AA tutor Shin Egashira as a means to explore cultural sustainability in the rural setting of Koshirakura, participants are encouraged to engage with the community, landscape and local materials in order to construct informal additions to village life. The latter half of the visiting school takes place in Tokyo, acting as an opportunity to test large-scale design strategies within a chaotic urban context in collaboration with Maeda, a development corporation based in the city centre. I spend a little over two weeks attending the workshop before travelling for a further week around various cities in Japan.

In beginning my journey to Koshirakura I board a flight from London Heathrow to Narita International Airport, some 9,500km away. My arrival in Narita is slightly marred by jet lag, having travelled for 14 hours without being able to sleep, and my perception of my time there will have been skewed. Collecting my luggage, I encounter my first perplexing experience with a Japanese public amenity. After waiting for a toilet stall to become vacant, made perceptibly imminent by the choice of frosted glass instead of a solid door, I enter. Fumbling with buttons set into a panel on the wall, aware that I should become accustomed to this process for fear of breaking something for the next visitor, I manage to activate a number of features that I had previously been unfamiliar with. It strikes me that, had I not been so adventurous in testing, I may have been unsuccessful in using this service at all, as there was no translation or images tailored to foreigners. I will have to make a 3½-hour journey to reach my destination in Koshirakura, first withdrawing ¥40,000 in order to cover my travel costs, an amenity experience which was comparable to my first. In searching for the metro from Narita Airport to the centre of Tokyo I am able to meet with a friend, who is recognisable by his luggage amongst the throngs of people entering and exiting the JR line. The process for using the Japanese metro system, it seems, relies upon adherence to a number of rules with the aim of making the travelling experience comfortable for both oneself and for those around you. Markings on platforms delineate the positions of queues, assigned carriages and those reserved for women only. At regular intervals, teams of uniformed cleaners swamp sections of steel balustrade and proceed to polish every part; each individual assigned a different element. The process takes seconds as they advance incrementally out of sight. Signs encourage politeness to other passengers with slogans written in Japanese and English, such as ‘Please do it at home’ and ‘Please do it on the mountain’, with regard to carrying large bags similar to my own. Commuters are encouraged to sleep in specific positions so as not to irritate others – a rule I sense was adopted in reaction to the salary men who I will later observe riding to work daily on the first morning train and returning on the final evening service. Interestingly, despite an apparent disdain for the actions of foreigners, these signs adhere to 横書 or yokomoji (horizontally-written letters) as opposed to the traditional 縦書き or tategaki, which is an adherence to western modes of writing. This is furthered when dealing with specific terminology, where gairaigo (words of foreign origin) are adopted by younger generations in favour of traditional Japanese, an example being kissaten (meaning coffee shop), which has been supplanted by kōhi shoppu.

My journey is punctuated with an interchange at Tokyo station to board the Shinkansen bullet train, which traverses swiftly and silently from the city centre into the urban sprawl and suburbs as areas populated by high-rise buildings are increasingly interrupted by ‘urban wasteland’, unused spaces and buildings. The extent to which urbanisation has gripped Tokyo becomes apparent as I travel outwards, cutting a section through the cityscape. The general height created by skyscrapers is reduced as we leave the commercial districts, replaced by a denser three-storey datum of residential apartments, hotels and houses. Billboards, logos and slogans cover adjacent properties giving sights a graphical, information-heavy ambience. This, coupled with the bulk of urban fabric, requires me to remind myself continually that I am observing a city with real inhabitants. The next interchange sees a reduction in the number of passengers and only my travelling companions and myself remain in our carriage, each fighting the urge to fall asleep as we take turns counting stops. By this stage in my journey, a cursory glance through the window expresses the flat, green rice fields of the Tokamachi Prefecture, interspersed occasionally with garages, shops and houses. Flat areas of land appropriated for rice farming are introduced through a process called Segai, which diverts river water via carved bypasses through mountainous areas. On the occasions that we stop, the doors open onto views of nearby traditional residences, a reminder of the reason for the construction of the bullet train lines in linking rural and urban. Due to increased prospects of work within cities through urbanisation, an exodus from rural areas began. By the 1960s, entire communities had flocked to Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo as an imbalance formed between rural and urban population. Overcrowding had started to become a problem in major cities, whilst greener areas lay deserted. In the 1970s, the government proposed an infrastructural railway construction project, named the 'Japanese Islands Rebuilding Plan'. The installation of high-speed bullet trains were intended to allow rural and urban areas to feel more connected by constricting the distances between (a micro-globalisation), in particular along the route from Tokyo to Niigita. The result was a physical embodiment of the growing disparity between the two ways of life and the weakening role of rural communities.

'He glanced round and caught sight of me. He did not register shock but he vanished immediately. Then there was a silence and, shortly afterwards, a soft thunder of tiny footsteps…the rustle of innumerable small voices murmuring the word: 'Gaijin, gaijin, gaijin' (foreigner), in pure, repressed surprise. We spy strangers.'

My arrival in Tokamachi coincides with a group of schoolchildren alighting the train on their journey home. They disperse after exchanging sideward glances in my direction, assumedly commenting on either my appearance or luggage, which is slumped awkwardly around my feet on the platform. The train station at Tokamachi accommodates a nearby bus stop, which will take me to Koshirakura. The next service is in an hour, encouraging exploration of Tokamachi. Mediating a balance between being culturally prepared and having inadvertently developed preconceptions proves difficult. My first impressions during a brief excursion around the city paint a scene devoid of public life, conjuring potentially misinterpreted assumptions of rural exodus to the city, a work ethic that keeps inhabitants away from home or adherence to the notion of the Japanese private sphere. All of which could be true, or entirely false.

I meet with others travelling to Koshirakura and board the bus, beginning the 30km final leg. The distance travelled from Tokamachi correlates with a further decrease in the denseness of property. The journey takes us past hardware shops and supermarkets amongst irrigated fields, representative of the rice economy that has allowed prefectures like Niigita to survive as modernisation grips centralised areas of Japan. Koshirakura emerges as the terrain to the left of the road drops into a valley punctuated with a cluster of red-roofed houses. A single road forms the backbone, making obvious the entrance of visitors. Shin Egashira, the AA tutor in charge the workshop greets me, later explaining that the steepness of roof pitch acts as a signifier of affluence.

Shallow pitched roofs require paid maintenance in the winter months and many property owners will save money by constructing steeper pitches, preventing snow from resting. Once a year the population of the village will pay collectively for one roof to be renovated to avoid collapse through snow damage. This system lessens personal financial anxiety for residents and is a circumstance unique to the combination of location, weather, community and economy found in in the remote village. This is not by any means an assumption that Koshirakura is a self-sufficient society, nor that it can continue to survive for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, the connection that the agricultural towns and villages occupying the Uonuma region have with 21st century Tokyo is cherished more for its nostalgic charm and contrast to city life than for its economic and social worth. Koshirakura's population, which is currently below 80 inhabitants, has declined since the 1980s by over 60%. With an average age of over 60, Koshirakura and the surrounding Kawanashi region is experiencing such significant decline that 2005 saw the name removed from maps and merged with Tokamachi. Indeed, the term Furusato (meaning "Hometown") for many Japanese conjures up halcyon memories of rice fields, fireflies and a simpler way of life that is now confined to fading mountain districts. Interestingly, the Ministry for Education composed a song titled ‘Furusato’ in 1914 for elementary schools referring to nostalgic childhood memories, which would have been misinterpreted by students at the time, but may have more relevance today with the disappearance of the towns that those children inhabited.


I am shown around the concrete school building, which will be my accommodation for the following two weeks. The entrance well is piled with shoes and slippers, temporary and permanent additions as alternatives to walking in bare feet. To the right of the entrance is a small communications room accommodating a microphone, which can be switched to output through every room in the school or from a large speaker on the roof to the entire village. Two classrooms follow, acting as storage for children’s furniture, blackboards and tables. In the kitchen a vast amount of utensils, cutlery, glasses and cooking equipment sit around and underneath an industrial steel preparation surface. Upstairs, the corridor splits into two with one branch leading to the school gymnasium and another to classrooms. The stairs continue upwards a further 3 floors, but are cordoned off, presumably as the workshop only requires and can provide maintenance for a certain amount of space. I am shown to the first classroom as another entrance well steps onto a raised tatami mat floor, which will act as sleeping space once futons are laid out.

The school gymnasium, comprised of a sprung wooden basketball court and proscenium arch stage, is in very good condition considering its annual disuse. During the rest of the year the school is empty, but maintained by locals. Several attempts by local government to have it repurposed for industry have been thwarted by the community who, I surmise, see it as an image of youth and life. During our stay, they comment on the joy of seeing light emitting from the windows of the school in the evenings – an event that lasts only two weeks per year. In Japanese, the character for window is written as ‘between something’. A window would exist ‘between outside and inside’ or between two supports. Looking out over the village, I consider what ‘between’ the windows of the school represent in this instance.


The community is very welcoming of the visiting group, with an average age some 35 years younger than the locals. Koshirakura is one of the many communities that show visible and societal effects of urbanisation most prevalent after the Pacific War. In order to bolster the Japanese economy and rebuild a largely destroyed Tokyo, the government generated jobs through construction and reconstruction of property in the city. The attraction of employment prompted many young people to leave rural areas in search of work, abandoning property, land and families. As a result, many rural villages like Koshirakura have a higher average age and weakening connection with the city. Exploration of the town during the day can be completed on foot, with many paths leading away from the road up steep inclines to hidden vegetable patches or down to connecting properties. My presence is noticeable as I walk through the village and receive greetings and offers of food. Occasional glimpses of people provide insights into daily life, which encompasses physical tasks like gardening, tending to rice paddies and collecting resources on scooters. The average age is over 60, a statistic that becomes more salient when observed in conjunction with such physical chores.

My stay in Koshirakura is fair weathered, but incomparable to winter conditions with snowdrifts that erase the road and tear buildings apart. One local, Michihiro Eguchi, lives at the top of the village in a house that he occupies with his wife and mother. He runs a business from the ground floor, growing fresh produce and performing maintenance work on previous projects constructed during past AA workshops. At 62 years old, he is responsible for the care of his mother, his family shrine and for his wife, all of his children having left for the city.

A cyclical process of purchase, inhabitation, and then demolition in the post-war years succeeded in bolstering a flagging Japanese economy, but likewise precipitated a remarkable circumstance referred to by Taro Igarashi as 'The Great Invisible Earthquake', whereby houses less than 50 years old were demolished for new development to create jobs. Newly developed areas attracted young families brought to urban suburbs by work ties in the city, splintering the traditional extended family model into multiple units. Husbands would commute into central business districts, whilst wives ‘stayed at home doing housework and raising children’. Traditionally, Japanese domestic formats span three generations, incorporating grandparents, parents and their children. The house, commonly situated on a large detached plot, will be large enough to comfortably accommodate the entire family. The eldest of the children is entitled to inherit the house on the condition that he or she accepts responsibility for the care of the parents and maintains both the internal and external shrines upon their death. This privilege is also a restriction however, as one is obligated to remain with the property. The change in family dynamic was caused in part by a pull towards the city for work, but also by a perpetual rise in inheritance tax, which financially restricts most heirs from retaining property. As of 2011, for examples, property worth over 300,000000 Yen (£24,000) will be subject to inheritance tax at a rate of 50%. As a result of this, inherited property is often sold in favour of rentable accommodation, which reached 45% of urban employees by 1970.



'Every house, though rather small, represents all the problems of our society. It is obvious that a house reflects the way of life and through of its inhabitants, but it is no less important to consider its relation to the changing environment and the influence of industry on the production of a house.'
Michi’s property is emblematic of the houses in Koshirakura. Constructed predominantly of wood, it represents a pragmatic response to the surrounding landscape. Each element can be replaced if needed, and small details suggest the harshness of the colder seasons. Snow shutter hooks adorn every opening, including upper windows and the front entrance. This addition features on every building in the village and allows for wooden boards, usually stacked in garages, to be placed externally if houses need to be barricaded against heavy snow, creating a collection of fortresses during the winter. Modern commodities, such as air conditioning units and satellite dishes punctuate the front of the house, a digital connection to the rest of the world. Michihiro is the only person in the village with access to the Internet, albeit a slow connection, so visitors are welcomed almost every night from the AA group to contact friends and family, emblemising the distinction between notions of connectedness in the Japanese hosts and their western guests.

Inside, the main house is accessed via a stairway to the first floor. A mix of plaster walls, fixed and sliding screens (fusuma and shoji) make up the living, dining, kitchen, toilet and bedrooms. Cream- coloured mats (tatami) line the floors, whilst ceilings are constructed of stained wood. In many western publications, photos of Japanese residences will occasionally appear upside down, due to assumptions that the lighter plane must be the ceiling. Kazuo Shinohara wrote an essay series, in the first of which he stated 'No concept of 'space' ever emerged in Japan', an assertion that has ambiguous implications and appears to question the inherent ability of Japanese craftsmen to design spatially. The rooms in Michi’s house that are delineated by shoji appear to have multiple roles. In Japanese, ‘space’ means a situation that has no function, but that possesses the potential for any activity to take place. The word for ‘concept’ denotes an intention as an implied reaction to a feeling. The social areas in Michi’s house are dining spaces only for the period in which we are dining in them, after which they become bedrooms for guests. Perhaps then, with regard to differing western and Japanese philosophies of space, this statement refers to perception rather than creation, for which Shinohara is asserting that concepts of space can be and often are imported by other cultures.

Traditionally, Japanese housing format uses an “enfilade” layout without internal corridors. In the case of Michi’s house, a combination of enfilade and western is apparent, with three fusuma-divided rooms occupying the front of the house and a corridor leading to solid plaster-walled rooms occupying the rear. This hybrid domestic arrangement is an example of a general leaning toward western integration in response to issues such as hygiene and light. Adaption interestingly occurred in what can essentially be broken into four phases; the traditional Japanese house, the Japanese style house with a western addition, the western style house retaining a Japanese room (washitsu) and finally the traditional western house. Michi’s house situates itself in the area between phases two and three. That is not to say that it will continue any further toward the western model, as change is based more so on necessity rather than style.


Food is served on the floor around a low-slung table in the centre of three rooms, each with sliding divisions fully opened. Michi smokes as I eat homemade sushi and sashimi with Koshirakura rice, drinking beer and Sake, toasting the hosts and guests. Michihiro sits at the table with his wife as his mother dines on a separate table in the background. Once the meal is finished, empty plates are brought to the kitchen where helping to tidy is out of the question, a lesson I learn after being ushered out multiple times. The group is divided into separate male and female rooms where futons are laid out and shoji are drawn shut. In the morning light, the family shrine is visible in the corner, Michihiro’s father represented in a framed photograph wrapped in black and silver ribbon with portraits of ancestors strung above. This area is deliberately organised and very tidy in contrast to the rest of the house, which is, as one would expect from a family home, in a state of disorganisation. In western publications, Japanese houses are presented as pure, empty places despite the evident reality that they are dwellings filled with possessions. Indeed, in many cases, furniture is brought from house to house and will not match the style of a new build.

On one occasion, a dinner is hosted in the school gymnasium for the population of Koshirakura. Each member of the AA group prepares a dish representative their nationality. I prepare hand-cooked fish and chips amongst other dishes and present them in cones made from local newspapers. The party sits on the sprung floor around long, thin tables, enjoying Sake and a variety of international meals. I sit opposite two old friends who spend the evening mocking each other for losing their hair whilst continuously topping my glass with beer. I learn through this repetition the etiquette of drinking in Japan. It is bad manners to pour myself a drink, so I must offer one to everyone in the conversation and wait patiently for someone to return the favour. I raise my glass and finish whatever remains before receiving a fresh beverage, at which point the group toasts with ‘Kanpai’. After the meal, drinking games are taught to the men of Koshirakura who eventually exceed the skills of their young tutors despite their collective ages.


In the following days, a large tarpaulin is spread over the floor of the basketball court and an array of resources and materials are laid out, transforming the space into an ad hoc workshop for the remainder of my stay. Despite the ‘one-use’ design of the hall, it is capable hosting of disparate activities. I note that space appears to be defined by imposed rather than implied use. The collection is made up of left over materials from previous years, Japanese tools such as handsaws, and bulky industrial machinery from various countries. A collection of free lumber in numerous piles sits in an empty plot at the lower end of Koshirakura, a mass that is representative of a recently demolished house. A flatbed truck visits from a nearby lumberyard in order to transport selected timber, with pieces ranging in size from snow shuttering boards to vast loadbearing columns. Once cut to size, these are stored in the gymnasium. The technique used in design and construction is simple and efficient, using chiselled joints, the constant pull of gravity and certainty of the weight of winter snow to strengthen structures. Adhering to contemplative themes of reflection, solitude and relaxation, idiosyncratic responses to the landscape and community are defined, such as snow shuttering and pitched roofs, interpreted differently through upward sliding doors and asymmetrical sections. A majority of wooden joints are used with guidance from Shin Egashira, and then elements are prefabricated in the gymnasium and brought to site. Wood was a traditional building material prior to the 20th century and represents Japanese architecture for most, but was widely eradicated following the firebombing of World War Two, which caused almost total destruction of many Japanese cities. The opportunity for me to assemble new structures using this material is significant. Timber is pre-cut by hand, but adjustments are often made onsite to accommodate miscalculations. In one such instance a wooden member requires a steel foot, but to allow a tight fit the timber must first be planed. It is interesting to note that, in the United Kingdom, the blade of the plane is pushed away from the craftsman, whereas in Japan the blade is pulled towards the body. When asked, Shin Egashira explained that this was due to a Japanese belief in hurting oneself before others. The construction process takes a little over a week before the structures are presented to the villagers at a ribbon cutting ceremony.


A mosquito bite on my foot, exacerbated by a short fall into a koi pond, results in a trip to the local hospital with Shin Egashira, who is happy to take me. We spend the car journey discussing family and in particular his unborn child who is due during the workshop, so there is the possibility that he may have to leave urgently should he receive an important call. I arrive at the hospital where it is customary to remove shoes and wear hospital-provided slippers. I surmise that perhaps the remoteness of the service from the city is the reason that they do not supply slippers over a certain size. I squeeze into the first slipper, which reaches the arch of my foot. My already vastly inflated left foot hangs forlornly by the toes from the other slipper as I shuffle toward the doctor’s room. Once inside, Shin explains my symptoms in Japanese and the doctor performs a series of checks. After a period of silence he calls in another doctor to examine the foot. Two nurses enter to watch and they continue talking. The process lasts a quarter of an hour at which point I realise that neither practitioners have addressed nor glanced at me. Shin leads me out of the room and explains that I require some mild antibiotics, which can be purchased in the pharmacy next to the hospital. I shuffle back to my shoes and replace the slippers before exiting as the population of the waiting room watches me.

During my final evening in Koshirakura, as both a celebration of completion and as an opportunity to relax, the group pays a visit to a local Onsen, constructed through government funding atop a natural hot spring. The journey is undertaken in Michihiro Eguchi’s family vehicle, along with his wife and other students. Upon arriving I am asked to remove my shoes and place them in a locker before being handed two towels, one large and one small. The group is guided to the changing rooms where men and women are separated for the duration of their time in the Onsen. Inside, there is a policy of nudity, which serves to test new friendships and reveal inhibitions unapparent in the locals. A series of hot and cold baths, steam rooms and sitting showers occupy the tiled space. Doors lead out to an open-air bath, which is naturally heated from underground. We gather outside as Shin Egashira explains the effect of winter on the experience of the Onsen, which remains hot regardless of snowfall. In fact, money is spent reducing the heat at which water emerges from the ground. The experience is hugely relaxing and I find it interesting to note that there is abundance of all ages and generations.

Before I leave for Tokyo, I am given a bag of home grown rice by Haro, a member of the community. It is a unique gift, emblematic of numerous aspects of Koshirakura that I will stay with me. I purchase tickets to Tokyo from the Tokamachi Station and board the train with other members of the Koshirakura workshop, a number of whom I will be traveling with for the following days. The group checks into a hotel provided by the Maeda Corporation for the second part of the workshop. Considering the density of Tokyo, the amount of space inside the ground floor of the hotel is astonishing, with a large open-plan dining hall, seating area atop polished marble floors, reception foyer and banks of lifts. A short flight of steps leads to a triple height glazed atrium, which accommodates a large fountain and rental advertisements for weddings. A white, wooden alter occupies a corner of the room and mounted canvas prints of recent newlyweds adorn the walls and communal spaces of the hotel. I am initially nonplussed at the service and hospitality offered by the Maeda Corporation, but later learn that the workshop takes place on an upper floor of the neighbouring office beyond the atrium. The workshop forms part of a proposal to extend a female only university campus, linking remote existing buildings within the city centre, which is followed by a survey of the streets encompassed in the development.


I am able to examine the streetscape of Tokyo, taking photos and noting building typologies as I traverse a number of roads. One house, noticeable amongst neighbouring properties for its diminutive size and aged appearance, inhibits complete redevelopment of the area. When taking photos, a member of the Koshirakura workshop is harassed by the owner, who accuses him in Japanese of a number of things, hastily translated by a native speaker. Further surveying exposes more examples of apparent plot isolation. Upon pressing representatives of the Maeda Corporation it seems that the owner of the property refuses to move, having lived there for a number of years. With a disappearance in neighbouring properties, the residence is in stark contrast to an area that it would have originally blended into.



My design process within an assigned group focuses on linking existing buildings visually and through a reformatting of public space. I look at ways for outside space to be transformed into miniature public spheres, in order to bring students out of the campuses and into the urban environment. The group presentation is met with praise, but it becomes apparent that there is opposition to the notion of public interaction. I am told that the campuses act as safety measures for the female students, who reside behind lockable gates and security personnel. The group interprets comments and proposes a second scheme that aims to blur the boundary between inside and outside, using glazing as a mediator between the two. It is explained that a stepping in of the ground floor to allow for public access and thoroughfare will imply a sense of contact without actual, physical interaction. Different ideas are contested, but discussions are brought to a close for the end of the two-day workshop. It is unclear whether the student input will impact on the design of any future adjustments. Following the workshop, the group attends drinks with younger members of the Maeda Corporation in a bar and restaurant nearby. Filled with youthful faces in suits, the establishment provides the largest glasses of beer I have encountered since arriving in Japan, equivalent almost to that of an English pint glass. I order food based on recommendations from two young Maeda employees opposite me, toasting and eating as dishes and drinks arrive consistently throughout the evening. Japanese businessmen, or ‘salarymen’ (会社員 – Kaishain) are common in Japanese culture, often leaving school or university and working in a single company until retirement. ‘The salaryman has security, not through his own savings or power, but through the company…If a salaryman wishes to entertain his family on a festive occasion, he may use company contacts to rent inexpensively a room in a Kaikan, a special building for just such purposes.’ It strikes me that the young men opposite me, the same age as myself, are beginning careers that are likely to see them through their working lives.


With freedom to explore the city following the culmination of the workshop, I visit St. Mary’s Cathedral, located in the Sekiguchi neighbourhood of Tokyo. Designed by Kenzo Tange to replace a wooden, gothic style building after destruction in World War Two, the building is representative of the Metabolist school of thought in the 1960s, with vast sweeping planes of steel and concrete. I am unable to find an open main entrance to the building, and for fear of not being able to see inside, I enter through a small side door, which leads me along a number of dark corridors and into a large communal crypt. The concrete room is top lit by skylights and adorned with numerous portraits. Realising my mistake I leave to find another entrance, pondering on the juxtaposition between the harsh, industrial material and tranquillity of the space. Once inside the main volume of the cathedral, I become aware of a formidable silence hanging in the air, reminiscent of an English church. The intense atmosphere generated by the intimidating scale of the internal form acts as a reminder of the nature of the 1960s in producing such monumental Japanese architecture. During the post-war decades, Japan experienced an unprecedented economic upturn as "prosperity returned with a bang" or more pertinently with a boom. The first of three successive economic growth periods occurred between 1955-57, known as the Jimmu Keiki, followed by a second (Iwato Keiki) between 1958-61 and third (Izanagi Keiki) between 1965-70. The architectural generation created during the 60s possessed the freedom of a buoyant economy, during which the prospect of two disparate environments emerged: the possibility of anything and then later nothing (brought by the recession). Emerging opportunities for large-scale projects at the beginning of the boom allowed architects with ‘paper aspirations’ to connect with the city on a vast scale, creating monumental edifices which were then filled with newly procured western art. Architects were invited from abroad to design within the burgeoning expanse of Tokyo as the government promoted Japanese culture to a new western audience.

Fumihiko Maki in "Investigations in Collective Form" stressed that Metabolist "group-form" stood in opposition to the inflexible and functionalist "megaforms" of European designers such as Archigram, who both impacted upon and learnt from the Metabolist style. It can be speculated that this exemplifies notions of Japanese collectivism as opposed to Western individualism. However, I perceive St Mary’s Cathedral to be an expression of megaform, which is perhaps due in part to its accommodative design for the religious community. Still, it is visually and spatially represented as a singular unit. Perhaps a clearer example of collectivism (or at least micro-collectivism) can be found in the less spectacular capsule hotels that pervade streets throughout the city.


During my time in Tokyo, I check into a capsule hotel with the remaining members of the workshop. Placing my shoes in a locker, I am guided to the third floor. The female member of our party is guided to the fourth. I climb the three rungs that lead to my door and, drawing the blind aside, clamber into a white moulded plastic space, which accommodates a shelf, radio, light and television. Once inside, it becomes apparent that there is a singular purpose for being here. The room has the sole requirement of providing a place to sleep. My feet extend beyond the entrance hole as I manoeuvre into various positions, testing the quality of the service. Once content, I leave in the same fashion that I enter before taking my luggage to a locker on the floor below. My companions do the same, each experiencing these personal but identical spaces anew as businessmen check in and banks of plastic portholes begin to snore around them. News of an in-house Onsen sparks enthusiasm in the group as a way of soothing muscle fatigue from travelling and I proceed to the second floor to utilise it. The inner city Onsen differs from Koshirakura in many aspects. Two rows of sitting showers envelop a central tiled bath, unheated, with a warm bath beyond. This example does not possess an exterior pool, presumably a consequence of tighter plots and electric heating, nor does it have the feeling of community that I experienced previously, which I surmise is a result of the predominantly business oriented, male clientele who employ these establishments.

During the evening I take a trip to the Akihabara Electric Town, the central consumer technology and shopping district. Despite the late hour, the streets are alarmingly bright as light spills from large, open shop entrances, signs and streetlamps. Walking the pavements, the atmosphere generated evokes memories of the Las Vegas Paris Hotel, with its faux-sunlit ceilings and 24-hour streetlamps, resulting in a constant state of pseudo-daytime. Venturing into a shop promptly encourages feelings of nausea whilst my eyes adjust to the fluorescent light that bathes the interior walls and shelves of products. I revisit Akihabara the following day to discover that the artificial glare continues to pervade shops, albeit disguised at street level by daylight.

I leave Tokyo for a brief stop in Osaka with the last remaining members of the Koshirakura group and check into a hostel. The streets of Osaka nearby my accommodation are adorned with lanterns, figurines, wooden statues, and awnings, creating a colourful representation of Japanese life. I find this strange character to be out of keeping with my experience so far and wonder if it is an imagined self-conscious effort to portray daily life in a more vibrant mode for visitors, considering the proximity to hotels. I walk the length of alleyways in search of somewhere to eat, but am disappointed by the offerings, eventually returning to a place that I had passed without noticing. The room is cramped, slotted into the plot with just enough space to allow for movement amongst customers to and from the entrance door. The jiguchisen (urban frontage tax) antiquated planning law, levies a property tax calculated based on the width of the street boundary, rather than the square footage of the entire site. So two identical sites with the same surface are can vary hugely in cost depending on whether the longest side is adjacent to the road or another property. The common name for a long thin plot is unagi no nedoko (eel's nest), which is represented in the sushi bar. If there is a reaction to my presence it is unapparent. I sit at the wooden bar and glance around, noting the locals conversing casually with the chef, who stands in the middle of the room. I am astonished at the contrast in atmosphere between the interior of the sushi bar and throngs of tourists outside, the two separated by a thin layer of glazing. The cramped conditions offer a type of public intimacy that I have not experienced since Koshirakura. A member of my group orders a selection of sushi that is familiar to him. As I bide my time, waiting for a hint of speciality from local meal choices, a man to my left recommends in Japanese that I try what a neighbouring customer is eating. I order and watch the chef prepare the individual items before placing them on a wooden block in front of me; a selection of sushi aligned in a grid accompanied by a cup of tea. Later, I visit a convenience store for supplies and am reminded of the Akihabara. The character is quite remote from the sushi bar, despite their short distance away from one another. The light inside is blinding as it reflects off the products packaged in plastic. Colour is used extensively to highlight different sections, which results in everything being read as white noise. Fresh produce is encased in tightly wrapped plastic film giving it the appearance of trinkets. Indeed, the experience is reminiscent of a toyshop designed in deafening colour and light to attract children and I leave without purchasing anything.

'I can touch the walls of the houses on either side by stretching out my hand, but the fragile structures somehow contrive to be detached, even if there is only a clearance of inches between them, as though they were stating emphatically that privacy, even if it does not actually exist, is, at least, a potential.'

I travel to Kyoto, a city far removed from Osaka and Tokyo, to stay in an apartment situated within a labyrinth of tight-knit streets and alleyways, each partially covered by the eaves of properties and strewn washing lines. Houses open onto the paths via sliding doors with no dividing gardens, which gives the area an intimacy reminiscent of Koshirakura. Many properties are left open during the day, which allow glimpses inside. I pause for a moment, watching a crouched man spinning clay bowls before stacking them to one side to dry. The apartment is accessed via a set of stairs leading to the third floor, leaving the ground floor space to park a car and display flower boxes. Inside, it comprises an entrance lobby, a small kitchenette, a bathroom and a larger room, which functions as a multipurpose space for both sleeping and living. The bathroom is comparable to the capsule hotels of central Tokyo, manufactured entirely from white plastic. The ceiling moulds into the wall, then the bath, then the floor, before returning upwards to form a sink. This unit is representative of many small residential dwellings in Japan, intended for the educated, affluent middle-class, rather than as social housing. Every aspect of properties can be mass-produced, from light fittings to entire room shells, and then selected from large catalogues of components, colours and even walls. Japanese house maker laws require a 10-year guarantee that houses will remain habitable. Misawa homes offer a 20-year guarantee. Homes in Japan are regarded to only have a 30-year lifespan, due to inheritance laws and plot worth. Shigeru Oshima of Misawa Home argues that notions of prefabrication in the west are unlike the Japanese example. Japanese prefab is of high quality, whereas Westerners often perceive them to be produced of cheap, temporary materials. It seems odd then, that despite an average lifespan of 30 years, Misawa homes does not offer a 30-year guarantee. This standardised style is promotes as the home for the man and his nuclear family, encouraging interaction through living, dining and kitchen spaces – the nLDK system. Aspects of the modular, programmatic approach adhere to western example, such as lockable doors on separate bedrooms (where families traditionally slept in a single room) and breakfast bars as a place to congregate, but there is an overarching historic continuity to the process of component-built housing in Japan. Taking Koshirakura as an exemplar, it becomes apparent that Japanese buildings have utilised modular components (tatami, shoji, shuttering) as a means of reacting to weather, economy and age and continue to do so. During a discussion of 'House in Plum Grove' conducted by Rem Koolhaas, Kazuyo Sejima stated that she decided the number of rooms 'not according to the number of family members but the number of their acts', which highlights the essence of emotion driven design in Japanese construction. The rooms are formed of 16mm steel panels, which can be moved to create one large room, harking back to the traditional format, but distinguished by a 'privacy-no-privacy' format of rice paper doors and walls, which remove visibility but allow noise to carry - a western/Japanese compromise.

'In essence, chaos contains a portent of ruin. Yet in so many places of this vast village of a city before us, the streets are full of vitality. Tokyo has now become one of the most exciting cities in the world… In the design of a single building, the method of expressing anarchy as the theme can be established as an architectural logic.'


Outside, a balcony offers views above the roofs of nearby properties to the hills beyond, which makes visible the many planning laws that govern Japanese cities. . The Japanese term Shakkei, or ‘borrowed scenery’, refers to the ability to insulate oneself from the chaos of the city by framing views of the sky and distant hills, cropping out urban intrusions and making the inhabitant feel closer to rural furusato life. During the 1980s, architects led a retreat from the city into the home creating fortresses that shied away from the streetscape. This was in part due to the 'chaos' prolific in major Japanese cities at the time. Perhaps, this visual noise is to urbanites what snow is to the community of Koshirakura, forcing them to fortify against and disconnect from the outside world.

Despite the density of buildings in Kyoto, none are physically connected as terraces, but rather remain at around one metre apart as an earthquake measure. The roofs of buildings slope dramatically, presumably to afford light to neighbours in compliance with regulations, but telegraph poles accommodating several cables at a time weave nets through every street. These intrusions seem unhindered by restrictions; despite their affect on the views to the sky. Despite the ostensible entropy that I have become aware of in the Japanese cityscape, every intervention is spun through an invisible web of regulations, sight lines, volume limits and height restrictions. I am certain that if one were to imagine an overlay of the delineations and guidelines necessary to produce each building, an unmistakable logic would emerge. Japanese planning laws share vast similarities with the 1916 New York City Zoning Resolution. Hugh Ferriss published a book in 1929 that hypothesised what the future would look like governed by these planning regulations, entitled The Metropolis of tomorrow. The Japanese version was actually instigated in 1950 around the time of the occupation, so weirdly the entire city is potentially governed by Western regulations transmitted from America. The legally defined diagonal planes, known as shasen seigen, that govern seemingly unreasoned wedge-shaped offices actually allow for a maximisation of volume. Rather than stepping new development, as is common in London (Vauxhall’s St. Georges Wharf taken as an example).

I return to Tokyo with an aim to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market before my flight to the United Kingdom. It is regarded that the best time to visit is during the Bluefin tuna auction in the early hours of the morning, so I stroll through Tokyo with a friend stopping only occasionally to purchase sushi boxes and caffeine drinks. Tokyo late at night is a peculiar place with a clientele that seem to suit the nocturnal hours. Businessmen, emerging from restaurants after drawn out company meals swarm through bars as dinner-suited gentlemen guide glamorous women into expensive cars. Street vendors continue to sell hot food into the social hours, which I speculate is due to their going unnoticed amongst the throngs of commuters during the day. Stopping for a moment at an Irish themed bar, I witness a pair of Kaishain attempting and failing to fraternise with a group of girls. I arrive at the fish market with quarter of an hour to spare before being handed a high visibility jacket and promptly ushered into a waiting room along with thirty or so other westerners. The group is shown a dated video describing how to behave and move through the market, which is a challenging to absorb at four in the morning. I am brought into the auction area where buyers are each inspecting large frozen carcasses displayed in lines for quality and am allowed to take photos before being guided out of the auction room and back to the main gate. I cannot help but feel as though we were shown a carefully selected and condensed version of the market and its auctions. The process is brief considering the time spent waiting and I remark on the incongruity of the group appearance in comparison with the surrounding community, which are mainly locals and fishermen.

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THOMAS WING-EVANS
LONDON︎SYDNEY
2018©