I arrived in Miyama in the dead of winter and under the cover of darkness. As I entered my accommodation for the night, a 160-year-old thatched-roof house called Hanabusa, I was struck by its warm appearance. The natural tones of the wooden fixtures and earthen floor were soothing, and I was immediately drawn to the rectangular hearth at the heart of the house where a cast iron pot was being heated over fiery embers.
It was not until the next morning, though, that I got my first glimpse of Hanabusa’s impressive roof, the very reason I had chosen to stay here. As I walked out of the front door, craning my neck, a steep, triangular carpet of brown-grey thatch with patches of moss on it filled my vision. The roof was so large that it seemed to gobble up the rest of the building, and I was grateful for the rare opportunity of sleeping in a structure seldom found in the Japanese countryside these days.
For at least five millennia, Japanese communities have constructed roofs from grass, reeds or straw. However, only a few clusters of this architectural style remain. Some are rural dwellings, while others are places of worship. Thatching, in fact, is closely related to Japan’s Shinto religion, with the imperial family at its head.
At Hanabusa, the hearth is at the centre of the house (Credit: Mara Budgen)
“When the emperor accedes to the throne, a thatched building is created specially for this occasion,” explained Haruo Nishio, one of Japan’s last remaining thatchers, and the owner of Hanabusa.
Nishio recounted that the sound kaya, which means “thatch” in Japanese, forms part of the name of a god, the mythological father of Japan’s first emperor, who was born in an unfinished hut made from thatched cormorant feathers.
To Nishio, thatching is more than just a profession; it is a ritualistic practice connecting him to Japan’s roots. In the mid-1990s, aged 23, Nishio moved from Kyoto to the rural Miyama region, a 50km drive into the mountains north of the city, to become a thatcher at a time when this craft was nearing extinction. He bought Hanabusa, which is registered as a Tangible Cultural Property in Japan, and lived there with his family for seven years.
The experience was profound.
“Thatched roofs… create a space of nothingness, including invisible energies,” Nishio recalled. “Perhaps this isn’t a house, but a place of worship, and it was built out of gratitude for God, Buddha and our ancestors.”
Kayabuki no Sato, one of Miyama’s 57 villages, has the highest concentrations of thatched roof houses in Japan (Credit: Kyoto Miyama Tourism Association)
The Nishio family eventually moved out and opened the doors to their former home, and several other renovated houses in Miyama, to overnight visitors. Their business, Miyama Futon & Breakfast, aims “to welcome visitors to experience our hometown’s wonderful lifestyle”, as Nishio explained.
The night I spent in Hanabusa didn’t connect me to a higher being, at least not that I’m aware of. But as I looked up at the thatched roof, stepped onto the raised wooden floor with the hearth at its centre, and noticed the absence of fences around the house – which, Nishio explained, represents the “open-mindedness” of the people who built Hanabusa – the thatcher’s vision of a sanctuary, rather than a house, resonated with me.
Fittingly, Miyama means “beautiful mountain” in Japanese. This 340-sq-km densely forested, mountainous expanse is dotted with 57 villages that 3,400 people call home. For most of their histories, these settlements remained cut off from the rest of the country, with the once-arduous journey to Kyoto transformed by modern roads just 60 years ago. Therefore, the most elderly of Miyama’s residents grew up living exclusively off the land, and they, together with their descendants, have kept rural traditions alive.
Wedded to a culture of self-sufficiency, many continue to rely on agriculture and forestry, and live in wooden houses with thatched roofs shaped in the “hip-and-gable” style. Typically, in Miyama, the roof’s ridge is adorned with a tree trunk intersected by X-shaped ornaments whose number (always odd) once signalled a family’s social standing. The roofs are preserved by a community of thatchers, masters of this 5,000-year-old craft.
Cut off from the rest of the country, Miyama residents traditionally relied on agriculture and forestry (Credit: Kyoto Miyama Tourism Association)
Many settlements here maintain the “typical characteristics of traditional Japanese villages”, said Noriko Kamisawa, a local English-speaking guide who owns Thyme, an inn located in an artfully renovated rural home. “The view is the same as it was a century ago,” she added. In this respect, Miyama is a well-preserved example of a Japanese satoyama, which literally translated means “village” and “mountain”.
“This term is used to describe landscapes that comprise a mosaic of different ecosystem types including secondary forests, agricultural lands, irrigation ponds and grasslands, along with human settlements,” explained Maiko Nishi, a research fellow at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo. “The core notion of a satoyama is of societies in harmony with nature.”
By building roofs with this plant, we’re telling the story of eternity
In the past, the raw material for thatch, a type of silvergrass known as susuki, was cultivated and managed collectively by Miyama’s community. Today, some susuki has to be imported from other parts of Japan; nonetheless, “it grows as long as there is sun, soil, air and water,” Nishio pointed out. “So, by building roofs with this plant, we’re telling the story of eternity.”
Kayabuki no Sato’s fire suppression system is tested twice a year during the Water Hose Festival (Credit: Kyoto Miyama Tourism Association)
If thatch gives Miyama its charm, then its jewel is Kayabuki no Sato, whose name means “thatched roof village”. This settlement is home to one of the highest concentrations of thatched roof houses in Japan, boasting almost 40 thatched buildings, the oldest erected two centuries ago. It was declared a national heritage site in 1993 – which led to the government subsidising 80% of thatching costs. The village is also fitted with an automated fire suppression system: 1,000 tonnes of water are stored in 62 fire huts that are tested twice every 12 months during the rather popular Water Hose Festival.
The thatched roofs need to be replaced every 20 or so years (with the old thatch recycled as fertiliser and mulch) and Kayabuki no Sato’s heritage status has helped keep Nishio’s profession alive. Miyama’s 15 artisans work in other parts of Japan, too, Nishio explained, as few thatchers are left in the country. In general, apart from a few exceptions, thatched houses aren’t faring well either.
When Nishio was 26, he worked with a thatcher in the UK. He was surprised to see that traditional houses were highly valued there and that there were many young artisans and even thatching schools. In contrast, he said that in Japan, “wooden houses lose almost all their value after 30 years”, often leading to their abandonment.
It isn’t just thatching that is under threat; so is Miyama itself. “Every year, the population, which is mostly elderly, decreases by about 100 people,” said Takamido Waka, executive director of the Kyoto Miyama Tourism Association. As a result, the area only has one clinic, one elementary school and one junior high. “We also have two kindergartens, but next year, the number will drop to one,” Waka added.
Visitors to Miyama can experience life in these rural villages and learn skills like thatching (Credit: Kyoto Miyama Tourism Association)
Nishi, the research fellow, confirmed that satoyama’s decline is widespread throughout Japan, a nation with one of the world’s oldest populations. In this context, “sustainable tourism is one of the major strategies to revitalise these landscapes”, she said – and one that is being embraced by the government.
For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has created the Countryside Stays programme to promote overnight stays in Miyama and other parts of Japan, allowing visitors to experience rural villages, “each with their own history and unique traditions, culture and way of life,” said Yoneda Taichi, who heads the programme’s promotion office.
As well as boosting income, Miyama’s tourism influx – with an estimated 3,000 overnight visitors coming from overseas in 2022, signalling a return to pre-pandemic numbers – has helped improve services; for example, the bus to and from the nearest train station has doubled in frequency.
Thirty years ago, people were embarrassed to say they were from Miyama. Now, they’re proud of it
Tourism has also broken the cycle of property devaluation that, in Nishio’s view, endangers thatched houses’ survival. And as past connotations of rural poverty have been shed, residents’ view of satoyama life has been transformed, Waka explained. “Thirty years ago, people were embarrassed to say they were from Miyama. Now, they’re proud of it.”
Interest in local crafts, traditions and landscapes has also given impetus to their preservation. Travellers to Miyama can experience anything from thatching to organic farming to making crafts from locally harvested bamboo, as well as visit the Little Indigo Museum, home to the workshop of one of Japan’s indigo dyeing masters, and Ashiu forest, one of the largest primary forests in western Japan.
(Credit: Mara Budgen)
During my stay at Hanabusa, I met with Toranosuke Nishio, Haruo Nishio’s son, who works in the family business. As he was feeding the chickens who live behind the house in a coop (also brandishing a thatched roof), we discussed why Miyama is uncharacteristically open to outsiders for such a remote community.
Toranosuke mentioned that rural villages used to welcome travellers in the past. Miyama was along the ancient saba kaido, or “mackerel road”, a seafood trading route connecting Fukui prefecture to the imperial centres of Kyoto and Nara. According to Toranosuke’s father, villagers broadened their horizons through their interactions with travellers.
“I believe a place’s charm isn’t defined by its buildings, but its culture and its people,” Toranosuke said, “and today, we’re still interested in what kind of people we can meet and forge relationships with.”
As the chickens pecked the earthen floor around us, snowflakes started falling on Hanabusa’s thatched roof, glinting in the early morning light. I observed each snowflake dance in the air until it posed itself delicately on the thatch. Perhaps this is what the deities of Hanabusa wanted to tell me: we experience the passage of time through nature’s elements, if only we stop for a moment to notice their beauty.