Image above: MUJI Hut courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku
MUJI’s consciousness of smallness has kept evolving, and came to embrace even more potential achieved by condensation in the form of agility. Rikyu made a 3.6 square meters chashitsu (tea hut) that became almost a cockpit to carry you to the vast universe of inner-space. Condensation can alleviate physical constraints and unleash your otherwise dormant potential to experience a breakthrough.
In 2017, MUJI unveiled the “MUJI Hut,” a small, semi-permanent dwelling unit that came in a size as tiny as 9.1m² (and 3.1m² engawa porch) – only marginally larger than a typical chashistu of 4 ½ jyo. If Rikyu created the small Tai-an to enable imaginary journey, the MUJI Hut was designed to take owners on a real journey of their dreams. Conceived in response to increasing demand from users – including millennials – who wanted to invest more in order to spend time in their favorite non-urban location, the MUJI Hut was designed with minimum size and focused on functional details so that it could be placed anywhere people would want. Freed from many restrictions associated with large houses, the MUJI Hut achieved unique agility that would let owners escape from the busy, stressful urban life with less hassle.
The concept of the hut is “live in where you like.” You can place this hut where you want to spend good amount of time, but not as a complete tourist or a stranger. For example, you spend weekdays in urban Tokyo where you have your primary house and work. Then, on the weekend you take off to the beach where your hut is located, which is about 2 hours from Tokyo. Maybe you can tele-work once a week to spend more time at the beach, which is an old town rich in nature and heritage. You can enjoy surfing, mingle with local people learning about the fishery, growing vegetables or even becoming involved in community revitalization projects.
This is actually how the first batch of MUJI Huts were introduced in Shirahama-cho, Chiba, a small beach town about 2 hours from Tokyo. The MUJI Hut is part of the community revitalization project called “Shirahama Kosha.” As the name “kosha (school building)” indicates, the project leverages an old elementary school campus that had to be closed due to the decrease in local population. As a matter of fact, many rural areas in Japan are now suffering from population decrease due to the economic slump that has been plaguing rural communities. Industries that cannot keep up with global competition decline, and young people cannot stay because there are not enough jobs.
But this does not mean that there is nothing to see in these areas – actually, it is the opposite. There is beautiful nature, rich history, skills, craftsmanship and knowledge that local people have accumulated living in the countryside. Shirahama Kosha attempts to revitalize the local community, leveraging their assets that just could not shine in an efficiency-driven economic market.
At Shirayama Kosya, the old school buildings are used for shared offices, vacation rentals and restaurants. About a dozen MUJI Huts have been built in the old school yard so that the owners can mingle with the local community, grow vegetables in the yard, living as if they are as semi-locals. As of January 2017, about a half of the huts are already sold. People are excited about the idea to own a second house, to get involved and experience the local environment, rather than retreat and enjoy private time disconnected from the outside world.
The same concept applies to the collaboration between Airbnb and Japanese architect Go Hasegawa’s called the “Yoshino Cedar House” – Airbnb’s first listing operated by a local community. The project was initiated to revitalize the nature and heritage-rich, but economically distressed rural town of Yoshino-cho in Kansai, Japan. Located in the vicinity of the ancient capital Nara, Yoshino-cho has been supplying high quality cedar (Yoshino-sugi) for more than thousand years, playing a critical role in Japanese architecture. However, today the Yoshino timber is struggling to compete in a “cheaper-the-better” global market, and the community is shrinking. Airbnb and Yoshino-cho started this project to attract visitors, hoping that they will re-discover Yoshino’s beautiful forests and tradition-rich timber industry and culture.
In order to fulfill the goal, architect Go Hasegawa designed a small, narrow and minimalist two-story house that stands by the beautiful Yoshino river. It used sustainable cedar from the forests located in mountains nearby, and was built by local master carpenters and craftsmen.
The first floor is a community space which is occupied by a long, narrow table. This area is open to local people, who may stop by to have tea in the middle of the walk along the river. The second floor houses two guest rooms that are located at opposite ends. One room is called Sunrise (imagine how the morning sun will penetrate through the triangular window), which is for 2 people, and the other room is called Sunset, for another 2 people.
Very similar to the MUJI House, this small accommodation has very few partitions. There are no walls that completely separate the Sunset room and the Sunrise room, and there are no explicit boundaries that divide visitors from the local people. Hasegawa hoped that many spontaneous encounters would take place in this place, multiplying the potential for people’s experience. And a small place with condensed personal distance was a prerequisite for these encounters to happen. If you stay in a conventional hotel, you are completely isolated in your room with no access to the surrounding environment or local people. Even if someone local has great tips or advice to make your stay more exciting, there would be no way for you to meet them. But at the Yoshino Cedar House, you are automatically connected with other visitors and locals. You wake up aware of the weather outside, hear people talking on the first floor and learn about what is happening that day. There may be some local people who volunteer to take you to an interesting destination that only locals know, or invite you to a private event.
Small places condense peoples’ network and information. Once you are inside the loop, your trip suddenly becomes agile and spontaneous with many more opportunities, because you now can leverage real information from local people, information you could never access through the internet.