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Kusuo Yasuda House and Garden in Sendagi

Not entirely sure I should write about this house, because I suspect the Lonely Planet hordes haven't discovered it yet, and if there's one thing we have enough of in Tokyo right now, it's tourists. Let me reiterate: I have nothing against solitary travelers [hello, self!] or small groups. I do loathe, with an exponentially growing intensity, tour buses vomiting forth one obnoxious group after the other.

God help the Former Kusuo Yasuda House and Garden, to give it its full English name, if those buses ever arrive.

The house is a Japan National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage Conservation property, and I'm going to plagiarize / summarize shamelessly from their brochure:

"Located in the quiet Sendagi residential district, the house survived both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the WWII air-raid bombings. The house was built in 1919 for Yoshisaburo Fujita, a connoisseur of traditional architecture. He sold the house in 1923 to Zenshiro Yasuda. When the latter's son, Kusuo, died in 1992, his widow could not afford the inheritance. She donated it to the National Trust instead."

The house has a zig-zag style which means the garden can be seen from every room. When I was there, the Japanese maples had just started turning red. It should also be particularly beautiful in spring, thanks to a massive weeping cherry tree in front of the second-story formal reception room. It's a gorgeous home. Well. Everything except the bathroom and the squat toilets. Western-style living room crammed full of western furniture, a fireplace, a piano and a movie camera, but no western toilet. When did …waitabit, I need to Google.

Western-style toilets and urinals started to appear in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, but only after World War II did their use become more widespread, due to the influence of the American occupation… in 1977, the sale of Western-style toilets exceeded the sale of traditional squat toilets in Japan. Currently western toilets are installed in 81.2% of Japanese households.

OK, the Yasudas squatted, clearly.

I can anticipate your response: Yes, I'm aware of the fact that squatting has health benefits according to some studies. You're welcome to use Japan's squat toilets whenever nature calls. Good luck. I'll be over there in the western one being unhealthy.

I've also decided, and I apologize if this is heresy, that a traditional Japanese house is beautiful to look at, but -- to my savage uncultured unsophisticated self – damn uncomfortable to live in. Cozy it's not. I love the almost seamless integration between house and garden, the fact that you can see straight through the house, the sliding doors that enlarge open spaces … but given Tokyo's climate, you'd be able to leave those doors open maybe three months a year. The rest of the time you'll be freezing to death or swatting mosquitoes, cockroaches and who knows what else.

Quick summary of the rooms:

The western-style formal reception room has no books. Since the house was restored to its former glory, right down to the original Axminster carpet, I assume there were never any books.

The Japanese-style formal reception room (there was a lot of formalling and receptioning in the old days) has a massive tokonoma for the family's "treasured collection of splendid dolls". If I were you, I'd ignore that and focus on the glorious garden outside. It used to have a waterfall, now it's just rocks, but it's still painfully beautiful in autumn. (There's also a bomb shelter under this room. We weren't allowed in, but make a mental note for those North Korean missile strikes … )

The living-dining room next to the kitchen is small and dark, but it also has a beautiful view of the garden.

The kitchen is HUGE and "quite modern by Japanese standards of a century ago". It has a sky light and an island-style cluster of a massive sink and a cooking unit, as well as countertops that provide generous working surfaces (a rarity in Tokyo's tiny contemporary homes). The brochure says "cement, an expensive new material when the house was built, was generously used for the entire foundation contributing to the house's long life". It's very visible in parts of the kitchen and bathroom.

The bathroom has an old-fashioned hinoki (Japanese cypress) bathtub, but it looks cold and very, err, cement-y. I assume when it was in use, with towels and whatnot, it looked a bit friendlier.

The Japanese-style formal reception room on the second floor is gorgeous. It just needs books. Lots and lots of books. I'm not entirely sure what you're supposed to do in this room. Be served tea, look at the garden and compose haiku. I think. Ah, ignore me, it's a lovely cold empty symmetrical room with a view. Quoth she with an evil grin, but it really needs books.

It also has the softest tatami mats I've ever walked on. According to the brochure, the straw padding underneath the plaited surface sheets is original work from 1919. "During the house's restoration, which involved replacing all the surface sheets of 156.5 tatami mats (why half?), workers discovered a signed pad in this area. The old tatami craftsman left his name, Tsuneshichi Shibazaki, 12 April 1919, on the pad's narrow wooden rims."

A few odd comments to end off with. With which to end off. With which to off end.  With which to offend."This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!"

National Trust

I never even knew there was such a trust until I discovered this house, but there you go, it's based on the National Trust of Britain. They have a very tiny English site and a very comprehensive Japanese site and a better English version … as a PDF. Why PDF? To print and fax?

Japan and rules, always rules and more rules

I had an awkward encounter with rules at this house. I'd read about the house before I went, and was mainly interested in taking photos. (Look, people, I'm *not* the guided tour type.) The guides at the house had other ideas. I wasn't allowed to go in by myself. I *had* to take a guided tour of 40 minutes (!) before I could go around again, by myself, taking photos. "There are many rules in this house. You must do a tour."

So I joined a small group led by a Japanese guide, but she largely let me do my own thing: fall behind, duck into corners, return to a room we'd already left, etc. I understand why they're careful. Visitors could damage tatami, fall through paper screens, steal small keepsakes, etc. As I've already mentioned, I hope for their sake the tour buses don't discover this place. I doubt it, though: nothing to buy.

Rules for the sake of rules? Necessary precautions?

The garden

The garden is usually closed to visitors, but I was lucky: purely by chance – I didn’t know this before I went – it was open on that specific day.

Highly recommended

Despite my usual snark, I highly recommend this house. It's beautiful, their brochure is one of the best I've seen (faultless English), and it's interesting or amusing, depending on your perspective, to see how wealthy people used to live. If you go, don't go at 10:30, when it opens. Everybody's waiting and everybody wants to start early. When I left at 12, there were zero guests. The afternoons might also be quieter.

I suspect private group tours are possible. I arrived early, in front of a closed gate, but once I was inside, there was a small German tour group who'd obviously already done half the house. I haven't researched this myself. Go forth and Google.

The tour is a bit of a schlep if guided tours aren't your thing, but the guide will open unexpected cupboards and storage spaces and sliding doors, so what the hell, go for it.

PS: This one's for my niece. Thanks for staying in touch and also loving Japan. :)

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