SUJIYA-CHO THE MERCHANT’S MANSION
When I was travelling in Japan a couple of years ago, our guide was a guy named Bodie. He gave us each a copy of a book he had translated called ‘Lost Japan’ by Alex Kerr. I read the book and even listed it in the reference pages of Nomad. Kerr owns a company that restores and treasures traditional houses in Kyoto which you can rent out for your stay. There are many to choose from, of different shapes, sizes and locations. We stayed in an old Kyoto mansion. Originally owned by a ship designer and after that a lumber dealer, it has had many incarnations, the final being a soybean merchant. The house fronts the street with a wood façade. You enter into an open room on street level dedicated to the wheelings & dealings, (& bean counting) were conducted. This is where our bikes lived. TIP #1: Kyoto is lovely & flat & easy to get around. Rent a bike form J Bikes and have it delivered to your door. 1000 yen plus delivery.
Into the shoe removal room, up two stone slabs with your slippers on (preferably leather ones from Truck) and into the eight-tatami matted room that overlooks a shrined & mossy garden. Timber framed glass sliding doors for access. This is where our wheelings & dealings went down, we lounged on the floor drinking brown rice green tea n the low tables & mapping out our bike route.
Shoji and bamboo screens manipulate the space by closing in areas to create corridors and rooms and change the function of the space. This must have been a technique to manage the weather in summer and winter. The kitchen spills into a dining area with a beautiful lacquer ware cupboard. A wooden slatted board sat at the bottom of a huge, deep sink as a simple staircase led upstairs to the servants quarters, sight unseen. The downstairs bathroom is set up as a traditional bathhouse on a mini scale. Fill the very deep, rectangular, straight sided bath of stone right up to the brim & sink in after a long day bicycling. The taps are bamboo.
Seeing as we’re not staff, access the second level via the main stairs. Soft wood under bare feet, preferably small as the stairs are very narrow and extremely steep. These are fun! Each staircase has a beautiful round wooden bannister, brass-capped, sitting horizontally at the top of the stairs for a safe descent. The upstairs space is broken into seven rooms. I stayed in the tatami mat room set with two futons and marshmallow quilts overlooking the garden. It could have slept many more. The smell of tatami mats is a combination of toasted brown rice, hay, tea- a lovely scent to fall asleep to. I’m putting it in my fragrance range. Floor lanterns made of paper & bamboo created beautiful light. Even overhead was soft, flattering & romantic. Above the stairwell was lit with pressed glass lights that hung from cloth covered cords.
From my room, a passageway created by shoji screens and sudare blinds leads to the old servant quarters. Up another steep wooden staircase are two small rooms, simple & almost puritan. It was unusually airy and light for an attic space, more of a mezzanine as there was an open space from here all the way to the kitchen. Perhaps this was so servants would hear if they were summoned.
Soft bamboo blinds hang on the exterior of the building to filter the morning sun & prying eyes. There is something lovely about these blinds being fixed only at the top. When the wind blows the whole house sways and trembles as if it is alive and breathing.