Rediscovering Lost Japan: Tsumesho Mikuni and Mikuni En



Mikuni was once a node on the Kitamaebune shipping route up to the rich but sparsely populated islands of Northern Japan, and the legacy of the wealth of that trade is preserved in the handsome townhouses and shops that are being repurposed by locals and entrepreneurs. Tsumesho Mikuni, built in a former pharmacy welcomes a limited number of guests to experience modern comfort in a traditional home.

  • Perhaps the best way to introduce the guest house is with a few words about Alex Kerr, who was responsible, through his company, Chiiori Co. Ltd., in part, for this renovation. Kerr, an American, has been lamenting the loss of Japanese tradition and culture for decades now. Although he is not the sole progenitor of the movement to renovate townhouses and old shops, and preserve vernacular architecture—rather than exclusively castles and temples—he has become the most vocal supporter of that drive. Kerr and his company and associated non-profits have helped preserve hundreds of structures that likely would have been bulldozed or left to moulder—Tsumesho Mikuni is one such building.

    The guest house is divided into two separate and distinct accommodations, the first called Koun (行雲:Moving Clouds) and the second, Ryusui (流水:Rushing Water). Both poetically named spaces have their own particular attractions but are similarly equipped with modern appliances and a kitchen. The layout in both spaces in spacious, spread across the main building and the former pharmacy’s renovated storehouse. Both spaces have access to and views of the property’s gardens. Tsumesho Mikuni splits the difference perfectly between hoary traditional ryokan esthetic and slick modern hotel style. Only two groups can book the accommodations at a time, meaning that it’s often booked in the busiest months of the year.

    It would be a shame to stroll the streets of Mikuni Town, wandering the rows of old townhouses, soaking up the atmosphere of the old port town, only to return to a soulless business hotel or jump on the first train out of town. Why not stay a while? Tsumesho Mikuni is located in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by private homes, and it does feel like returning to a temporary home, of sorts. After checking out of Tsumesho Mikuni, one could be forgiven for having fantasies of finding an unloved townhouse not too far away from the water, and turning it into a summertime retreat from the world.

    Not too far from Tsumesho Mikuni, and reportedly under the same ownership as the guest house, Mikuni En is the result of the work of the Mikuni Minatomachiya Project, which has provided support for renovating townhouses in the area. Mikuni En is home to the workspace of Shimomura Yoshikatsu, a master of the bonsai, as well as a gallery and shop, showcasing his work. Mikuni En can be appreciated by connoisseur of the artform, as well as bonsai neophytes who can take part in workshops and demonstrations. Mikuni En is one of the best examples of what can be done when aging buildings are preserved and turned over to the next generation.

    What Alex Kerr mourned in his Lost Japan in 1993—the replacement of tradition with a shabby modernity, bulldozing the old to put up the new—is still taking place, of course, but the steps taken to preserve Mikuni Town are a sign of progress, perhaps. While tourism has destroyed the charm of the traditional quarters of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is saving peripheral places like Mikuni, with projects like Tsumesho Mikuni and Mikuni En. A visit to Mikuni is the perfect chance to experience an atmosphere that’s rare in the larger centers of the country.

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