Tetsuo Yamaguchi’s home is located just steps from the “office,” a sake brewery founded by his family 180 years ago in the Japanese city of Kurume.
And like the fermented-rice beverage, the Yamaguchi home is steeped in tradition. The family’s presence in Kurume, Kyushu, dates back to 1737 and the home to about 1800. That’s when Rishichi Yamaguchi, a rice distributor and banker, had the home erected by local craftsmen. Back in its 19th-century heyday, the traditional, cedar-beamed house bustled with domestic and commercial activity.
Sited on the same lot as the brewery, five of its 30 rooms were used to billet sake-brewery workers, their extended families and live-in help. Five kitchens kept both family and staff fed. “There were a lot of kids and grandparents,” says Tetsuo Yamaguchi, the 11th-generation heir.
Now, just Mr. Yamaguchi, his wife and two children, and his mother, Reiko, live there. Only five of the original 15 bedrooms remain, the rest converted for other uses. In the late 1960s, when Reiko came to the home as a new bride, westernizing old Japanese homes was in vogue: exposed roof beams would be concealed with drop ceilings, tatami-matted floors and earthen walls were covered.
The Yamaguchi family, however, kept its Japanese-style decor. (Today, by contrast, families with traditional homes “want to treasure them and keep them as they are,” says Mr. Yamaguchi, who is 48 years old.)
Where most traditional Japanese homes have just one rough-hewn central pillar, or hashira, Mr. Yamaguchi proudly notes his home’s five cedar pillars. These were traditionally erected first, followed by tie beams and the roof. The pillars are still considered objects of beauty—proof of the carpenter’s craftsmanship. Polished to a high gloss, they are a focal point of the main tatami-matted sitting/dining room.
In homes with more than one hashira, the pillars had to be spaced widely enough apart so that if the area flooded, boats could navigate through the home and around the pillars. Their symbolic significance is contained in another name for them: daikoku bashira, meaning “head of the household,” or “the person who supports the family structure.”
The largest pillared room hosts formal occasions, such as the dinners for 50 that the Yamaguchis hold occasionally for guests and clients. But when the family is alone, they gravitate to the kitchen. There, Mr. Yamaguchi points out the family’s cherished 100-year-old wood-burning stove. Concessions to the modern age go only as far as an electric rice cooker, says Reiko, who is famous throughout the region for her expertise in culinary arts and crafts.
She has perfected the art of cooking over the many geothermal vents in the area, dehydrates and preserves food, and produces a line of her own artisanal and disaster-relief food products. Reiko, who is 72 years old, is also renowned for her skills as a quilt designer and teacher. It was a craft she picked up as a new bride, she says, wanting to offer something “hand-crafted and from the heart” as traditional New Year’s gifts to clients and distributors. “They were not popular,” she says wryly. “People wanted department-store wrapped gifts.”
Mr. Yamaguchi says he doesn’t know how many sake-brewer’s houses remain in Japan’s Fukuoka Prefecture, just one of the many regions in Japan that produce top-quality sake. There are very few, he ventures, that are still home to three generations, as his is.
Old sake brewery houses like his “are very much in demand,” he says, sometimes for dismantling and rebuilding elsewhere, or to be plundered for prized “old wood” to incorporate into new construction. Mr. Yamaguchi says he has been offered large sums for his home, offers he declines because of his belief that “in Japan, when homes are over 100 years old, there are gods that dwell in them, and family ancestors have left their mark.” He adds, “You can’t exchange gods for money.”
The only time sake-brewery homes come up for sale, he adds, is when the brewery itself ceases to operate—a common occurrence across Japan as the overall sake market shrinks even as global appetite for premium sake rises.
The Yamaguchis have no plans to move from their small craft brewery, Niwa No Uguisu, named after the nightingales that once flitted about the courtyard. Here, the family produces 20 different kinds of small-batch sake using locally grown rice and spring water.
Future renovations are in the offing, although limited to making the home more user friendly. One plan is to have dedicated areas where shoes do not have to be shed—still the norm in Japanese homes and even inside the brewery, where street shoes are traded for sanitized rubber work boots.
“As much as possible,” says Mr. Yamaguchi, “we want to hang on to traditional ways, and preserve this space.”
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