In Tokyo, building tiny (and living well)

Stylish, green, and close to the action, Japan's microhouses gain appeal in a city that has made them a necessity.

By , / staff writer

The Japanese are fond of miniaturizing things. They did it to trees to create bonsai. They did it to electronics to usher in a new age of technology. Now they are doing it to homes.

An adventurous and innovative group of Japanese architects is making necessity the mother of invention and finding ways for people to live on the tiniest plots of land imaginable – which in Tokyo are the only sort of plots any normal person can afford.

"If you want to live in central Tokyo you have to think about how to use space efficiently," says Satoshi Kurosaki, an architect who helped launch the "microhouse" movement 10 years ago with a house he built on a 250-square-foot piece of land.

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Matchbox homes

For Kei Hirata, a university administrator who built his family a matchboxlike house five years ago, that means storing his clothes in canvas boxes squeezed onto shelves that reach all the way to the 15-foot-high ceiling of his living room, and needing a ladder to reach them.

The end result, though, delights them. "This place is smaller than the flat we used to live in, but it feels more spacious" because of its open-plan design and high ceilings, says Mr. Hirata.

For Tadasuke Shiomi, a 20-something Web consultant, and his wife, Chisato, it means sharing a bedroom with their 3-year-old son – and with the washing machine, tucked into a built-in cupboard.

"We've got a space we designed ourselves and now we are living closer to museums and galleries," says Mr. Shiomi, sunlight flooding into his kitchen/dining/living space through an enormous window that takes up more than half of the wall.

Buildable land in Tokyo is extremely scarce, horribly expensive, and often oddly shaped. Enter the kyosho jutaku as it is known in Japanese, which means "narrow small house." Some are long and thin; others have a normal facade but turn out not to have any depth; all of them pose special challenges to an architect.

"How to get light into the house, how to put a stairwell in, how to stop people feeling enclosed, these are the problems we have to solve," says Mr. Kurosaki.

Kurosaki and his fellow micro-house designers have pretty much done away with hallways, entranceways, and other elements of a traditional house such as walls. "We try not to put barriers up within a house," says Kurosaki, as a way of spreading all the available light and creating larger spaces.

Who are mini houses for?

"Larger" is relative. "I would not recommend living in a house like this to people who are physically active," says Hirata. "It suits people like me, who like to read books."

That does not yet include Hirata's 6-year-old son, Ryo, who started complaining a year ago, his father says, because there is no room anywhere for him to lay out his train set. Hirata has told his boy that "his Wii, the television, and a computer are the best ways for him to utilize the space he has," but he admits that Ryo is not convinced.

The new breed of tiny houses – stylishly modern, green, close to the bright lights, and competitively priced against apartments – appeals particularly to "couples in their 30s and 40s with no kids," says Shigeru Kimura, a real estate agent who specializes in plots of land suitable for micro-houses.

"Ten years ago, it started with trendy design types," he adds. "Now ordinary business people are also getting interested."

The architects' need to create a sense of space where there is little room means the microhouses are full of mirrors and skylights and glass partitions but make less use of walls and doors. That, Kurosaki acknowledges, makes privacy problematic. But less problematic in Japan, perhaps, than it would be in America or Europe.

"The public and the private are completely separate concepts in the West," he says. "In Japan, the individual feels closer to the group" so shared spaces are more acceptable.

Masaru Ito, a venture capitalist who asked that his real name not be used to protect his privacy, moved into his compact Tokyo home with his family last spring. After life in a cluttered, Western-style suburban house, he says, the spare modernity and economy of his new abode is refreshing.

"Adjusting to a smaller space, we had to get rid of a lot of our belongings," says Mr. Ho. But he does not regret it.

"It was like going on a diet," he explains. "It feels good."

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