Monday, 8 November 2010

How to create beauty - lessons from a Japanese Farmhouse makeover

Last weekend two special people arranged sponsorship for me to come up and give practical permaculture workshops. Ma-san and his wife Rie Morimoto have taken on an old Japanese farmhouse, and are steadily turning it into an eco-paradise. Its a home for a family of 4, a vegan guesthouse, eco-goods shop, vegan cookie business (Rie), and office for culture creating events and business consulting (Masa).

As part of my workshop we wandered the property, brainstorming ingenious ways to increase yields and lessen wastes, using permaculture.
As a guesthouse where people paid money to be inspired, we decided that visual beauty was an important yeild.

Here are some of my tips for how to Create Beauty

Find whats already working well. Expand this.

The gently-rusted plate by the door reads 森本 'Morimoto' the family name.
This little arrangement strikes me as beautiful. It will take very little effort to cultivate and spread this particular brand of beauty over the whole property - like a wildflower, its in its element.
So looking carefully, what makes it beautiful? What exactly is it we will reproduce?

  • Using a 'Family' of colors - different from but related to each other, making each other look good. A natural earthy palette.
  • A 'Family' of materials - stone, wood, iron, render, and some vintage glass, like the surface of a frosty pond. It looks pre-industrial, and evokes a faraway world. There is some aluminium in there, but its keeping a low profile.
  • Using the five elements - wood (timber) earth (render), fire (in forged, rusted iron), air (generated by the foliage), water (in the vase, in the pond below). Humans find this innately pleasing, because that's the balance that makes an ecosystem a home, deep back in our history. Their presence says 'you have everything you need to survive.'
  • Gravity-friendly - heavy and dark things below, light smooth things above.
  • Light on dark, dark on light, for contrast, like in my illustrations.
  • Balance of the enduring and the fleeting - the little bamboo vase might have a different flower every few days, the family nameplate will be there forever.

More Wabi-sabi, literally 'rusty and lonely', the beauty of the unpretentious and impermanent.

  • Using things that are both useful and beautiful. The rice from their fields dries in the sun, and this sight makes us happy.
  • Stick to one way of using lines. The whole is a composition of restful verticals and Horizontals, maybe the very ones that got Modrian and Frank Loyd Wright all excited. If these lines are used throughout the whole property, it will give it a World-of-its-own aura, restful, ordered, lively. The circlet of vines looks natural, a charming visitor. Round its its nature. Just don't use naturally straight materials, such as bricks, to make curves. Respect their nature.

Introducing Ma-san, Mr. Morimoto. The beauties of his character would take a while to list, but the most striking one for me is the absence of excuses and evasions. I think it comes from an ability to do this: start doing things BEFORE you know how to do them. Make mistakes, fix them, proceed onwards. Invite people to help. Cherish their contributions, act on them when you can, don't argue for your limitations.

Whats jarring in this photo, needs to be removed?
The yellow bags, the metal rack, and the poster and boxes are gone now.

Light. The Glassed-over North side of the house is filled with lovely sunshine. I recommend placing more seats, eating spots, paths and arranging for activities so that this becomes the place where people spend their time, bathed in winter sunshine.

Pig. This pig is not for eating. He is the welcome committee for guests, to make them feel they are in the country. The family want to move him from this place by the door, so he can spend time out of the harness. I just hope we find a way to do it so we always see him - the chickens are a decorative, rather than useful laying breed, but are hidden away, and that's a waste.

Replace 'stored objects' with 'in-use objects'.
To keep this Zone 1 doorstep area a clear, flowing current of activities, you can't choke it up with rarely used, unbeautiful things, so we started a declutter session.

These rice husks are used as winter fuel for the ancient stove by the doorway.
I knew we could find something better than the over sized grey metal barrel, that was a visual intruder in the lovely doorstep-scape.
Something square would dominate less space, something wooden would snugly fit the 'family' of materials.
Here our WWOOFers Asuka from Taiwan and Moja from Japan put their find from the shed into use, a vintage barrel.

The shed, it turned out, was full of good things from the previous owner, things that would solve many of our problems. But the first problem was ....

We couldn't reach very far inside.
So we gave up decorating Zone one, and just focused on Decluttering the shed.
I put hundreds of little plastic planter pots into plastic garbage bags, to go to the incinerator. Yes, it was hard. That's where rubbish ends up in rural Japan. And that's a key to why a lot of beautifying was still to happen - we couldn't reach the good stuff for the homeless junk that was in the way, that people just couldn't bring themselves to deal with.

How to throw away junk

Lay everything out in 90○ angles
It looks more manageable that way, and true junk is more easily recognized when everything is treated with respect.

Label All things in storage, use high-quality easy access shelves and transparent boxes. If your object is not worth this respect, you probably won't use it.

Give yourself permission to throw things away
Kind and resourceful people see potential value in every cracked and crazy thing.
Throwing it out may be a waste, but if you can't find and use things in the mess, they are already lost to you.
On top of that is buildings and space you cannot use, clarity and beauty lost, wasted.
Its already wasted. You are only gaining by letting it go.

Put a date on it
So, you say you'll use it one day...when, exactly?
When you put a date on things, in your dairy, it forces you to tell the truth - most projects you will never get around to, and never really need to. Let it go on to its next life, and let yourself go on to yours.

Calculate its cost.

Re-buying things you threw or gave away - string, bits of timber, dregs of paint - will cost you how much, over a lifetime? Less than $100. In the right size, right color, and without a few hours searching.
A study sponsored by IKEA estimates the average western house spends $100, 000 of its mortgage on space for things they never use. Clear one room, and you can rent it out for a few hundred dollars a week. Then spend the money

Just because its there doesn't mean you have to use it
Cinder blocks, plastic bags, white polystyrene boxes, cardboard. Its true that they are somewhat serviceable. If you don't find a use for them, they'll go to the rubbish bin.
But if you do use them, you whole home becomes a kind of rubbish bin.
Guests won't feel they are in a special world were everything was put in place with care, love and freedom of choice.
They don't feel that they are special, worthy of effort and fitting things.

Alternatives to these containers and materials doesn't mean you have to spend your money on consumer goods at the hardware store - this doesn't look more thoughtful or beautiful in the end anyway.

If you search, ask around, hold out for something that fits the visual 'family' of your place, you will find it, and it will be happy to be there.

It took five minutes to replace the Cinder blocks with nice wood found in the shed, a goza mat to hide the plastic pigpen, and a scattering of autumn leaves from the yellow plastic bag to hide the bald patch of dust.
Free, and just a few meters away.

Happy pig, things are getting better.

Cardboard boxes from the shop are used to line paths, keep the weeds down.
Convenient, but not beautiful, not easy to walk on.
We discussed options:
  • Trading something the Morimotos have (I found 50 beautiful, useless terracotta pots) for a big pile of chips from the many neighbouring wood mills
  • Chipping the cardboard - it would look less recognizable.
  • Cutting up and scattering rice straw - but it would still fly away, and not last long
  • Keeping our eyes open on car trips for something useful to lay - husks, pebbles, bark

But once we excavated the shed, we found a huge pile of these old goza mats, looking very long-term unemployed.
Cut up and layed carefully, they would be beautiful for looking at and walking on, suppress weeds, and eventually compost back to become plants again.
They were their the whole time. There was just no access path into the shed, and no question being asked, with the answer 'goza mats'. Keeping unanswered questions, unfulfilled desires at the top of your mind creates a vacuum for good things to flow into. Don't fill that space with cardboard.

Just because its there doesn't mean you have to use it

This is true of our emotions as well as our building materials.
The impulse to be whining, angry, frightened or indolent are as common, as close at hand as rustley torn plastic bags and polystyrene.
But we don't have to use them. Our lives can be special, and people who come into our lives can feel special and honoured.

When I resist the impulse to use crap in my surroundings, it strengthens me to resist it in my emotions, and the other way round too.

You cant do it by yourself though, everyone needs a team of helpers.
The Morimoto family are geniuses at attracting the helpers they need, and keeping them well-fed, entertained and happy.

Natural materials

Traditional Rucksack for harvesting from the mountains.

Yuuta, a genius artist, with our dinner, vegan sushi. I couldn't believe its deliciousness.

Another genius of care and deftness. Kenta makes a tower.

Dinner with the Morimoto Family, WWOOFers and guests. Behind me is the woodfired stove, and after dinner, the woodfired bath.
"Mori-no-ie" is written 森の家, and translates as 'House in the Woods'.
So, can you guess which pictogram is means 'woods'?

Lovely Language, Lovely culture, and lovey family in the woods.


  1. Wow! I love this work you are doing. Attention to beauty is one of the things that nature does that is kind of ignored by Permaculture in general. I would love to quote you and introduce you on my blog:

    Thanks again for what you are doing.

  2. You are welcome!
    If you ever put into practice on of my ideas, or get encouraged to act, I would LOVE to hear the story. Then I know my words are worth writing.
    We dearly need more permaculture poets, we have many innaccurate words in Permaculture, and they are leaking out power. Help us here.

  3. I just found this blog. Sometimes help comes exactly when you need it.
    Many thanks for this gift.