Tranquility to those who enter, happiness to those who depart
When I think architecture, I think of cathedrals arched and spired, skyscrapers glinting in the sun, and temples weathered and brown. But the truth is that any building is architecture, even our homes. Although I don’t think many people would be impressed by my beige mid-nineties apartment, even a home just 100 years old begins to take on the quality of “true” architecture. So it is with the Nakamura Residence, the family home of a rich farmer constructed in the mid-18th century.
It was raining when we went, but warm—very unlike the rain that would have been falling at home in Oregon at the time. I hadn’t expected the rain, so as we made our way up the path from the car I ducked under plants and into the lees of buildings trying to escape it. I hadn’t thought to bring a jacket. Okinawa is supposed to be warm, and it was, but also just very wet. I was relieved when we got our tickets and were finally able to get to into the house.
The house immediately made its unique quality noticed. A massive stone wall surrounded it, blocking it form view, and as I followed the wall around I realized that the yard house was three-quarters dug into a massive hillside, the arms of the hill encircling all but the entrance almost as high as the roof. The reason for this became obvious the moment we walked through the gate: although the wind was hardly a gale, it stopped completely within the yard, blocked from almost every angle by earth. Although almost every part of Japan gets typhoons, Okinawa gets the most and strongest—naturally it made sense to put a house inside a wall of earth where the effects of those winds would lessen. As low into the earth as the house was, it seemed that only the shiisa on the top would have to brave any wind at all.
We walked across the yard to the house, where almost every door was thrown open. This was a very Japanese bit of architecture: while Western buildings have solid walls on all sides, Japan’s humid climate makes it preferable to be able to remove almost every wall so that the whole house can air out and take in whatever cool breeze is available. The big wooden shutters that protect the house at night and during storms were stacked neatly in their alcoves along the few true walls in the house. Here and there the paper screens were closed, but mostly they were open to show the tatami mats, art, and airy beauty of the house.
We slipped our shoes off at the veranda and stepped onto wood smoothed by thousands of feet and onto the tatami mats. Small signs here and there explained the function of each room: the standby quarters to house the king during royal visits, a “living room” where the head of the Nakamura family would go to read and write, the “treasure room” where the family’s art is kept in big cupboards. We even discovered a (now decommissioned) a toilet room. The whole house felt sleepy and nice; it was a bit warmer than the outside, and the sound of the rain pattering in the yard and on the tiled roof was like a lullaby. The house smelled like wood and straw, the air scrubbed clean of all other smells by the rain. We shuffled between rooms exploring the insides of cupboards and feeling the tatami on our feet and being quietly happy.
We went to the kitchen next, which was full of old cooking utensils: drop lids and metal pots and sake jars and bamboo steamers, the things themselves quite similar to what’s still used in Japan, their seeming modernity striking next to the hand-carved oven and stove. Since this was an area that would have held more servants and less royalty, the tiny details of the construction became more obvious, particularly the way that some pieces appeared to be held together like a puzzle box, the secret of taking the pieces apart or putting them together locked in the mind of some genius.
We walked around the house where the flowers were blooming in the garden, the view to the road and the rest of the island fully blocked by a mass of trees forming a windbreak to further aid in dispelling typhoon wind. Is was around the back that I noticed the deep grooves cut into the ground at intervals: small drainage canals to shuttle the water away from the house and protect it from flooding.
We explored the stables and sties, now empty of animals, and the storehouse with its door ten feet above the ground, then made our way to the visitor’s center. The shop owner made us hot sanpincha, Okinawan jasmine tea, that warmed me through and gave us little pieces of mocha to snack on. We shopped lazily through the ceramics and glass and pretty little things for a few minutes before making our way lazily out, sleepy and warm despite the falling rain.
Address: 106 Oshiro Aza, Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa, Japan
Price: 500 yen for adults, 300 yen for 12-15 year olds, and 200 yen for 5-11 year olds
- Tea and snacks are complimentary with the purchase of a ticket; don’t miss them!
- Wear easy-to-remove shoes so that you can easily slip them on and off as you enter and exit the house.