Dotted around rural Japan are black and white buildings known as dozō kura, writes Surendra. Most of these pictures come from the Azumino area of Nagano, where he lives.
Although similar to each other, they stand out uniquely from the houses around them. These structures usually have white walls with one or two small, elevated windows and black roofs. Their main distinguishing feature is the striking, black and white chequered pattern that adorns the bottom halves of most. Although with large, extended families and small houses, storage buildings have always been common in Japan, these particular storehouses were built to last. They arose in the Edo period when one dynasty ruled Japan for an incredible 265 years, between 1603 and 1868.
After an equally lengthy epoch of uncertainty, social upheaval and conflict, known as the War period, Japan became socially stable and got down to business. Kura could be seen to reflect the sense of security, predictability and conservative nature of that age. They housed valued family heirlooms and items for special occasions: paintings, calligraphy, furniture, kimono and tableware. They were even occasionally used to keep errant children in check: an afternoon in a dark interior full of strange objects could be scary. More spirited kids reported finding it exciting to poke around amongst strange objects in the dim light.
In the absence of social disruption, the dozō kura instead were built to withstand the natural disasters of earthquakes and ubiquitous fires that spread through towns and villages. The Japanese are an alert and fastidious nation. However, with open hearth cooking, wooden bathtubs heated by fire, bamboo matting and homes made largely from timber, some conflagration seemed inevitable. Only a few azekura made entirely of wood have survived. The farm storehouses with outer clay and straw finish have fared better. Once the dozō kura were perfected, however, they really did their job. There are photographs and verbal accounts of many fires and a few earthquakes levelling entire built-up areas, except for the kura, standing in upright and indestructible glory amidst the flattened debris.
The renowned Himeji castle was called The White Heron. In contrast, the contemporary Matsumoto castle (pictured above) with its dark woodwork was known as The Black Crow. Both held strategic positions and were built for defence. The keep at Matsumoto was constructed at the end of the War Period. Equally built to last, the adjoining towers, added very soon after, had no defences. By then, it was the beginning of the peaceful Edo period. Large hemlock logs connect with the foundations and are covered by lofty, natural stone walls. On a much smaller scale, many builders of dozō kura borrowed from these techniques. Vault-like qualities were achieved by a solid foundation of compacted, levelled rocks. A timber frame made of huge logs was then lined inside and outside with bamboo laths. On top of this, layer upon layer of clay was laboriously applied, sometimes as many as twenty-four coats. An inner roof and ceiling was made in the same way. This created a virtually fireproof box. A plaster finish inside completed the whole process which could take as long as two years. Outside, a coating of lime and ground eggshells provided a white waterproofing.
Japanese craftsmanship is not only outstanding in its accuracy, it is very thorough in approach. The doors and windows were almost as thick as the walls. They too included layers of clay and their edges were stepped to make them almost airtight. On top of that, firemen who knew their stuff carried buckets of plaster and added the final sealant to the kura windows and doors as part of their service. Even so, in Japan, technology alone cannot be trusted to fully prevent disaster. Appeals are also made to unseen forces. Like castles and grander houses, many dozō kura sport mythical, ceramic fish/lions, or shachi, on either end of the roof ridge to help summon rain in the event of fire.
Because kura were highly durable, dark and able to maintain stable temperatures and levels of humidity, larger versions were built for the production of fermented products such as miso and sake. These particular ‘factory’ kura were respectively known as misogura and sakagura.
The predominance of clay was great for fireproofing but not ideal for fending off rain and snow for generations. To cope with deep snow and long-term weathering, traditional black roof tiles were added to the lower half of the exterior usually in a diagonal pattern. For further protection, joints were made from thick wads of white cement. These reminded people of sea cucumbers or namako and became known as namako walls.
An aesthetic family crest, or mon, placed high up on the gable, completed the striking and iconic appearance of the dozō kura.
Another intriguing detail was several hooks in a row protruding from bosses along the sides. Although many farmers now use them for hanging their ladders, the original intention was apparently to check the level of the building for subsidence. With four major fault lines under its surface, Japan is subject to more tremors and earthquakes than most places.
As can be imagined, this fastidious construction came at a price and these expensive kura acquired the reputation of status symbols. There was the saying that ‘if a man did not have a kura by the age of forty, he was not a real man’ and the phrase kura o tateru, to build a kura, became synonymous with financial success. Some families, particularly in urban areas, even built several kura to advertise their vast fortunes and all the valuable goods stored inside. Oh, well….
“And all the success of the world means nothing compared to the failure that finally you are going to face, because ultimately only your inner self remains with you. All is lost: your glory, your power, your name, your fame – all start disappearing like shadows….
In India it is common wisdom that the world is like a waiting room in a railway station; it is not your house. You are not going to remain in the waiting room forever. Nothing in the waiting room belongs to you – the furniture, the paintings on the wall….
You use them – you see the painting, you sit on the chair, you rest on the bed – but nothing belongs to you. You are just here for a few minutes, or for a few hours at the most, then you will be gone.”
Kura still abound, well maintained or not, in rural areas. Some kura have been converted into homes, shops, offices, restaurants or cafés. A renowned company handcrafting high quality mouthpieces for saxophones chose to convert a dozō kura to ensure stable temperatures and humidity for their precision production. If you have enough money, you can even build a lookalike from scratch: a few enterprising companies have revived the style, both in Japan and overseas. Whatever their purpose and the original intentions of the owners, nowadays, the stunning black and white dozō kura add a unique architectural presence to the Japanese landscape that I have tried to convey in these photographs.
Quote by Osho
From Darkness to Light, Ch 2
Text, photos and © by Surendra – a slightly altered version of this article with a few more photos has been recently published by the website Asian Historical Architecture – orientalarchitecture.com
A former Reichian therapist, British Surendra took sannyas in 1976. He lived in Osho’s communes in India, USA, UK and Japan from the early 1980s on. In Pune 2 he looked after the painting work in Lao Tzu House, and then worked in Osho Publications. From 1991–1997 he taught at Ko Hsuan in Devon, UK, and after a sojourn again in 2001 he also became a passionate photographer. In 2013 he relocated to the Japanese Alps with his partner, Amrapali. All articles by this author on Osho News. surendraphoto.com