Natural by design - Issue 9 - Magazine | Monocle

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Picture a simple wooden house surrounded by plum and persimmon trees and a vegetable-filled garden. In front, there is a sun-baked deck; jazz wafts in the background and a wind turbine purrs in the breeze. The smell of home cooking fills the air; there is not a power cable or telephone wire in sight. Welcome to Lemming Hut, an eco-friendly house in the hills of Nagano that has captured Japan’s green imagination and proved kindness to the environment and stylish living are not mutually exclusive.

It is the weekend home of Yoshifumi Nakamura, a professor of architecture and furniture design at Nihon University in Tokyo, and his wife Natsumi. As early as 1990, Nakamura proposed in a Tokyo exhibition his idea for a house powered entirely by nature. The caption for his imaginary house read: “This is a plan for my own recreation hut with sloping grass… plenty of sun and a constant sea breeze. I will enjoy a humble life without using much energy. I will stop using the lifelines of civilisation – electricity and telephone wires, and pipes for water and gas. I’d like to use only natural energy: wind power for electricity, rainwater for drinking and solar power for heat.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2007 and Professor Nakamura’s dream has become a reality. Minus the sea view, it’s just as he envisioned: a Japanese Lohas (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) fantasy brought to life. The house is made of natural materials – cedar walls, pine floors, tatami mats and yoshizu sun blinds, made the traditional Japanese way. The garden, fertilised with kitchen compost, is full of rucola and indigo plants grown by Natsumi, a retired arts-and-crafts teacher who weaves her own fabrics and experiments with home-grown dyes.

The house is in Miyota, a hilly area covered with vegetable gardens and fruit trees, not far from Karuizawa, the genteel mountain resort favoured by Japanese royals and smart weekenders from Tokyo. Nakamura discovered it as a dilapidated (but still occupied) farmhouse and persuaded the family to sell it to him. He kept the basic footprint of the house and built his new cedar structure around it.

Japan’s slow-life Lohas magazines – crunchy publications awash with brown rice and linen smocks – are going wild for the house. It has no outside sources of power, with all of its electricity coming from two solar panels and the windmill.

The water used in the house – from the toilet to the bath – is rainwater that is drawn down the sloping roof, filtered (using a system by Wisy of Germany) and stored in an underground tank. To get the water flowing from the taps, it is pumped by hand to a higher tank made from a recycled whisky barrel.

When fully charged, the hut’s Zephyr Alternative Power generator can last for three to four days. There are just two light bulbs in the house, which are pulled across the ceiling to wherever they are needed. The lavatory is a special model that uses less water than average. Instead of an energy-draining fridge, the Nakamuras have created a makeshift version – a polystyrene box packed with ice. Natsumi dishes up a tasty organic vegetable hotpot cooked on a basic-looking charcoal hibachi – the house’s only means of cooking. The food is served on a long oak table designed by Yoshifumi.

Nakamura has travelled widely and been heavily influenced by visits to the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky. “I learnt a lot about the way they used things,” he says. “The Shaker way of life is very efficient. I hate impractical design that looks good but doesn’t really work – design for design’s sake. When I designed our wood-burning stove, I thought about the function first, and the design followed from that.”

He has added a small freestanding bathhouse that’s surrounded by hinoki (scented Japanese cypress), with a cast-iron bathtub inside called a goemonburo (at one time a common feature of Japanese homes). This cosy outhouse doubles as Nakamura’s study or as an extra bedroom if required. The house sleeps up to 10 – more for anyone willing to sleep in tents or on the deck – and Nakamura’s students are regular visitors.

Nakamura doesn’t want to be seen as a spokesperson for the Lohas movement, which has become a thriving industry in Japan. “I’m not completely negative about it,” he says. “We all have to think about the earth and I want to avoid chemicals as much as possible. I’m not on an ecological mission. Some people are fanatical about it – I’m not. I just enjoy the lifestyle.

“When I see big, luxurious houses, I’m not impressed. I like small houses where people live happily. This house doesn’t have all the conveniences but, in its own way, it’s a luxury.”

Simple pleasures

Walk into any Japanese bookshop and you’ll see Lohas publications. This concept – an acronym for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability – has caught on like wildfire in Japan. Dozens of magazines (Ku:nel, Sumu, Ecocolo) extol the virtues of simple living, and new journals emerge every month devoted to all things rustic – from vegetables to home baking – and featuring enticing zakka (stuff) for accessorising your earthy lifestyle. Most readers will still spend their mornings jammed into a carriage on the Yamanote Line – but it’s nice to dream.

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