Why rustic hamlets are home to some of Japan’s most eye-catching modern architecture


The Japanese architecture generally brings to Think of one of two images: hypermodern structures filling overcrowded metropolises, or calm wooden buildings hidden in quiet rural surroundings. For some remote areas of Japan, however, these architectural worlds collide with bold, modern designs thrown deep into the landscape. Perhaps best known among them is Yusuhara, 3,400 residents who functions Hotels, museums and public buildings by famous architect Kengo Kuma, the designer of the impressive new National Stadium in Tokyo, which was built for the 2020/2021 Summer Olympics.

The humble city of Yusuhara is 825 miles south of Tokyo in Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku Island. The city itself is not uncommon for a rural Japanese community. It offers a lush mountain landscape –over 90 percent of the city is forested– and humble industry.

It is part of a broader pattern in Japan of sleek, stylish structures that find a home away from the big cities. According to Japanese architecture expert and Kengo Kuma Contemporary Azby Brown“There is an opinion among city guides that we need something that gets noticed and that we can be proud of.

The Yusuhara Community Library supplies a city with a population of only 3,400. Courtesy of Yusuhara City

Notable among the more typical rural architectural dishes is Yusuhara City Hall made of wood and glass, an unusually stylish building for the world of Japanese officials. In fact, the city office is known for turning heads from visiting bureaucrats. “When I meet employees from other cities, they say, ‘It’s great to work in such an elegant building,’” said a spokesman for Yusuhara’s planning and finance department in an email. Officials from outside Yusuhara are particularly fond of the ubiquitous smell of wood in the office.

A folktale-inspired outbuilding of a city-owned hotel and market, complete with one richly thatched exterior, as well as a nearby museum, are other notable Kuma-designed buildings in the city, which themselves are called “Living museum“To the work of the architect.

The Yusuhara city office is often visited by officials.
The Yusuhara city office is often visited by officials. Mitsumasa Fujitsuka / Courtesy Kengo Kuma & Associates

Perhaps the most striking of these structures is the Yusuhara Community Library. According to the nickname of the community “City above the clouds”” the library is known as Kumonoue no Toshokan– the “library above the clouds”. With almost 21,000 square meters Inside and 35,000 books in the open stacks, it was built with a range of native woods and even has one Boulder wall on site.

How can a sleepy, otherwise inconspicuous city in rural Japan use the services of a world-famous architect? The city spokesman explains: “Yusuhara-za was the catalyst for the connection between Kengo Kuma and the city.” Yusuhara-za is a wooden structure that was built in 1948 as part of the post-war reconstruction of the city, and the only remaining wooden theater in Kochi Prefecture. Over the years it has hosted plays, kabuki performances, and film screenings, and its preservation in 1995 spurred a movement to build similar wooden structures.

The preservation of this wooden theater put Yusuhara on the architectural map.
The preservation of this wooden theater put Yusuhara on the architectural map. Courtesy of Yusuhara City

According to Kuma, in a video produced by the city museum about his work, he visited in 1992 as a junior architect at the urging of a colleague involved in the conservation of Yusuhara-za. The atmosphere of the city’s “secret garden” immediately fascinated him. That first visit eventually led to a total of six buildings in five locations, designed and built between 1994 and 2018.

But Yusuhara isn’t the only remote place in Japan with seemingly incongruous modern architecture. It’s something of a trend. Scattered all over the landscape are examples of striking designs that one might expect in posh corners of Tokyo or Osaka. According to architecture expert Brown, during the heyday of Japan’s bubble economy and beyond, “a lot of government money was being put into infrastructure such as museums and libraries, and some projects got in the way. Opening.”

Naoshima, a small headland on an island in the Japanese Seto Inland Sea, home to numerous museums, luxury accommodations and homes designed by the architect Tadao Ando and various artists. The collection developed by Benesse Holdings – best known for its Berlitz travel guides – includes the Chichu Art Museum, which was built largely underground in 2004 to preserve the surrounding natural landscape and only as a Collection of geometric shapes from above.

The mountain town of Karuizawa is home to a number of architecturally significant houses, including the Ring House, here outside (left) and inside (right), designed by TNA / Takei Nabeshima Architects.
The mountain town of Karuizawa is home to a number of architecturally significant houses, including the Ring House, here outside (left) and inside (right), designed by TNA / Takei Nabeshima Architects. Edmund Sumner-VIEW / Alamy

About two hours northwest of Tokyo, the mountain city Karuizawa Nagano Prefecture is home to its own architectural marvels. A dozen sleek, elegant houses are scattered across the landscape, all designed by eminent Japanese architects as rural getaways for wealthy clients, including the imperial family. Polygon house, a “quasi-brutalist geode made of aged steel and glass” and the Hoshino wedding chapel—no right angles, according to The New York Times– are two examples in this hilly city with only 20,000 inhabitants.

In Kanna-machi – a mountain village where more more than half of the residents are 70 or older and Japan’s second oldest city — a 15,000 square meter sports hall made of glass and steel is located on the grounds of its only junior high school that can be used by students and the community. Designed by Architects Studio NascaLike the one in Yusuhara, this structure uses wood from the region and complements the adjacent town hall, both of which were built as part of the merger of two villages in 2003.

Numerous elements drive the desire to place slim modern structures in sleepy rural cities. “All of these cities want their story to be heard, and they have realized that architecture can help them do that,” says Brown. “People appreciate that their story and their story is embodied in these buildings.” Brown also cited the departure from Japan somewhat unsentimental Post-war attitude towards old buildings in favor of greater recognition of the historical and cultural value of the preservation of these buildings.

Traditional cultural factors also play a role. The concept of your own rustic parent house in the countryside still has a nostalgic appeal among the Japanese, even as remote regions Lose residents to big cities. Modern structures in remote locations are like the opposite of a traditional park in an urban setting – both serve as bridges between these worlds.

The Benesse House Museum of Modern Art in Naoshima helped make the rural island a tourist destination.
The Benesse House Museum of Modern Art in Naoshima helped make the rural island a tourist destination. Photononstop / Alamy

A practical consideration also plays a role here: Many of these designs drive local tourism. Take the architecture of Naoshima, for example attracts more than 800,000 tourists each year. In Kanna-machi, the modern city office and high school / community center were designed to attract and retain younger residents. “[Towns] feel the need to do something big and new to keep young people, “says Brown,” to reassure them that they are not missing out on the best of modern life. “

Yusuhara’s spokesman also names the city’s unique wooden buildings as the driving force behind tourism. “Thanks to Mr. Kuma, who mentioned Yusuhara in interviews, we were visited by a lot of people from all over the country … and from overseas,” said the spokesman.

Japan’s major cities are no shortage of stunning modern architecture, but its humble landscape is increasingly asserting itself and teeming with hidden architectural gems.


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