Why are tourists flocking to this Japanese village, which only has two B&Bs?
An hour’s drive from Kyoto, the Miyama region draws visitors to marvel at villages with traditional thatched roof houses, now preserved as cultural heritage sites.
With very little in the way of accommodations and dining options, Miyama, or Beautiful Mountain in Japanese, isn’t exactly what you’d call tourist-friendly. But this countryside town sees its fair share of out-of-towners popping in, ranging from day-trippers and architecture aficionados to historians.
You understand the allure of this place once you’re physically there. Time slows to a standstill – it’s nothing but you and the tranquillity of country life. Residents go about their business tending to their gardens and vegetable plots, turning a blind eye to curious onlookers.
Visitors are free to rent bicycles or walk around, enjoy the cool, fresh air, and take pictures of traditional thatched houses, juxtaposed against a mountainous backdrop. The idyllic, rustic scenery matched by stunning architecture is a refreshing and soothing change from the bustle of Kyoto’s city life.
Miyama is a living village where the majority of old houses are actual homes for the residents. “I hope visitors can immerse themselves in the countryside and appreciate the scenery we have to offer,” said a resident.
Once a common sight in the Japanese countryside, now only around 200 thatched roof houses remain. Thirty-nine of them can be found in Thatched Roof Village, or Kayabuki No Sato, located in the northern sector of Miyama.
These cottages are characterised by a distinct, four-sided hip-and-gable architectural style, roofed with bamboo struts and dense layers of dried plant matter called Kaya.
“Kaya… represents the eternity of the soul that is the basis of Japanese culture. And this is represented in the form of the thatched roof,” shared professional roof thatcher, Haruo Nishio.
Nishio moved to Miyama 25 years ago to be part of a group of professional thatchers who live and work there to maintain the ancient houses.
“A thatcher like me is a profession that is said to have a history of 5,000 years. The techniques have been passed down from a long time ago. I feel happy that I can be part of this long history,” he enthused.
Thatched roof houses require extensive maintenance to preserve their original conditions. The high cost of building materials and manual labour have also added to their decline.
The oldest house in the village was built in 1795 during the Edo period, and the largest is the Hanabusa – a 150-year-old cottage, which features an open hearth in the centre of the house where people traditionally gather for dinner, drinks and a chat.
Recognising the cultural value and heritage of these buildings, the Japanese government designated Miyama a Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings in 1993.
“I think that came just in time. If it came any later, I think this area would have been rebuilt into tiled roof- or other types of houses,” remarked resident Tadaki Nakano.
Despite being earmarked as a cultural heritage site, the villagers unanimously agreed not to let over-commercialisation ruin their hometown. That is why there are only two B&Bs, two cafes and one museum – Miyama Folk Museum – which curates items to depict a century-old Japanese house. One of the highlights of a museum visit is to see the iconic thatched roof up-close and discover its engineering marvels.
To share his passion for Kayabuki No Sato, Nishio rents out his own cottage for overnight accommodation, giving guests a fully immersive experience of thatched roof living, complete with tatami floors, futon beds and an open hearth.
“Guests who are not professional thatchers or cottage owners can enjoy my cottage as though they’re the owners.”
It is Nishio’s wish to build as many as 100 thatched cottages in the near future.
“The theme of the thatched cottage is eternity. I hope to preserve it forever to the point where I can tell people that they can rent my cottages even after 100 years.”
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living (Season 3). Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.
Disclaimer: This video was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic.