A House in Japan
This is our home when we return to Japan. This house is where my grandparents lived until their death, and where my mother lived until she was 29, when she left to marry an American and start anew.
It is not-so-affectionately known as 虫家, “mushi” house, meaning house of bugs; the total opposite of MUJI house. Since I was a child, my mom warned me of giant centipedes that could crawl through the cracks and trained me to grab the insecticide spray and hammer that sit ready in the corner for protection. We had a futon warmer to heat the bedding to a temperature that would kill any pests in it. There is a giant spider “kumo-san” the size of a dinner plate that enjoys the moisture while you bathe. It’s a little girl’s nightmare.
It is a long haul to get there from the states, traveling through San Francisco to Kansai (Osaka) ~14 hours, then the Hanshin airport limousine bus to Sannomiya (downtown Kobe) ~65 min, then the JR local train south about 9 stops to our local station ~35 min, and finally the last trek up the hill ~20 min walk depending on how much you have to carry. Upon entering, it is far from a respite after a long journey; hardly welcoming with its fluorescent lamps, banging kitchen door, screaming water pipes, and headers so low, it forces you to crouch when moving between rooms. Without central heat, we end up scooting around in the cold on worn tatami. The small shanty sags with too many memories, untold stories of unspeakable acts and things I’ll never understand. The emotional burden feels typical of old Japanese samurai dramas, suffocating you quietly in your sleep.
Last year, we started to imagine what it would be like to tear the place down and start fresh. We dreamt of what it would be like to repair not just the building but our family’s tormented relationship to Japan. We spoke with fancy homebuilders, the landowner, and I drew up plans (left) of a Kobe Katsura (castle). It was a unifying, terribly optimistic time for us.
As I learned more about Japanese landownership, zoning, and construction process, the prospect of creating a cute Portland-themed eco-house Airbnb guest getaway seemed slim. We found out that the “street” the house is on is not legally wide enough for equipment, and the antiquated utilities run exposed down a cliff behind the house. There was a lot more work than anticipated, and unfortunately I don’t speak legalese or Japanese or legal Japanese to be able to help navigate my mom through these challenges.
And yet, I remain optimistic about one day reviving this scarred site. “Minpaku,” or short-term rental as a concept is still new to Japan and I am hopeful that new construction technology like flatpack homes and modular buildings will allow our tiny house project to come to realization. Anyone who knows me knows that I won’t give up that easily. Whether I can do it in my parents’ lifetime to enjoy together, may prove difficult, but I will follow my heart to Japan where I long to belong- in a refuge of my design- to make peace with the past and bring my own family home someday.