Across Japan, kominka houses – some dating back more than 300 years – are being converted into holiday homes, complete with paper partitions, tatami rooms and a full Japanese breakfast.
Shikoku offers some unique accommodation choices, and among these, the kominka ranks highly as the sort of place visitors want to stay. A kominka is an old, traditional Japanese house, typically a farmhouse or merchant’s house (ko = old, minka = home). They often date back one hundred years or more, and the farmhouses tend to be in remote, mountainous locations.
The world’s awareness of kominka is largely thanks to Alex Kerr, whose almost desperate wish to preserve Japan’s heritage led him to buy and refurbish an Edo-period farmhouse in the depths of Iya Valley in Tokushima, one of Shikoku’s four prefectures. Bearing in mind the modern traveller’s need for comfort, the house was equipped with a beautiful wooden bath, the latest toilets, and underfloor heating to provide respite from the winter cold in the mountains.
Kerr called his old-new accommodation Chiiori, and established the Chiiori Trust to market the property, and as an organization for rescuing and reusing other beautiful but redundant old homes in the sticks. The first major project of the Trust was in Ochiai Village, again in Tokushima. On the steep slopes of a triangular-shaped mountain, ten or so old houses have been refurbished, with most of the mod cons, including double glazing. Since there are no restaurants for miles around, elderly ladies from the community visit these vacation rentals and prepare dinner using local ingredients for a very reasonable fee. It makes a memorable experience for visitors from overseas. The feeling of receiving special hospitality is overwhelming.
But Chiiori isn’t the only kominka option available in Shikoku today. Owners of other old properties have decided to throw their cap into the omotenashi (hospitality) ring. With authenticity at a premium for today’s travellers, the latest kominka are being offered largely ‘as is’, without extensive refurbishment. Modern baths, toilets and Wi-Fi are considered essential, but the thinking goes that old-time style homeliness, good food, good sake, and some warm bedding is enough.
Kondoke in Toon, central Ehime is the home of a rich landowner, built 120 years ago. The materials used were of the highest quality, and they’ve stood the test of time, despite the rigours of many cold winters in the mountains. Tsukinoya in Uchiko, southern Ehime, presents an interesting contrast. It stands in a street of old merchant houses, and the view from the second floor guestrooms reflects the fantastic wealth accumulated in Shikoku earlier centuries.
In these kominka, you’ll find many authentic old features like butsudan, the Buddhist shrine to the family dead, and izumi, a basin of crystal-clear mountain water fed by a pipe that provides the water for the household. You might find a cowshed on the premises, where the bullocks used for ploughing the rice fields used to be kept. The irori, an open fireplace with a pot hanging from the ceiling, is a typical feature. Shikoku Tours can introduce you to kominka where the family will start your dinner preparations by blowing on the charcoal through a bamboo tube. This is a real taste of slow life and slow food.
We’re constantly discovering these kominka around Shikoku and adding them to our itineraries. Please let us know if you want to incorporate this unique accommodation in your trip with us.