Built originally from locally harvested materials – from the timbers to the thatch (kayah) - a home like this once was a regular feature of the rural Japanese landscape. Sheltering animals along with the farm family the home would have featured a central fire vented through a hole at the peak of the roof. As the smoke rose it would also dry the additional grass (kayah) stored in the rafter for future roofing needs. The flexible structure and simple design (a box, really) also made it possible for friends and neighbors to literally push it back into shape if an earthquake struck or heavy snow caused it to slump. These same neighbors would also pitch in (a community effort referred to as yui) to rebuild or rethatch as the need arose.
The angle of the roof paired with the natural insulative quality of the kayah makes a nearly ideal roof. Rain and snow melt quickly run off while with some minimal care and patching, a thatched roof can last anywhere from ten to forty years. The wide eaves send offer shade and send water away from the foundation. Grown in communal fields thatch renewed itself each year for easy restocking and drying as needed.
Harvested from nearby fields the previous fall (by another group of volunteers), the kayah stood more than six feet tall. We shaped it into bundles the professional thatchers wove into place with wire and one of the biggest needles I've ever seen. The final (quite literally) step had us all standing in a line and stomping (and I mean STOMPING) the kayah into a tight, insulative layer.
As we worked along and later rested with warm tea and mountain vegetable tempura I marveled at the burst of energy and enthusiasm brought to this little hamlet, and how beautiful as well as efficient our final product would prove to be. Yui, in a slightly different shape, but still alive and well.
This little booklet about thatching in Devon, England offers good examples and diagrams of thatched roof construction, and this Japanese organization dedicated to thatched roofs offers very in-depth information about the tradition, tools, materials, and process from past to present. And here's a presentation done at Kyoto University in 2007 comparing traditional and modern home construction that was thought-provoking.
Markedly better photos than those here (or ever found here from my camera) can be found at this stunning blog done by Kevin over at One Life. You won't be able to help enjoying yourself.