Saving Japan's throwaway homes: Simon Hollington meets an Englishman with a passion for a vanishing tradition

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JAMES GOATER is something of an institution in Nagoya. Cutting a dash with his handlebar moustache and colourful neck scarves, this English artist can often be seen riding his bicycle along the banks of the Horikawa river to the accompaniment of cheers and greetings from children playing baseball. In Japan's third city foreigners are still a rare sight.

Goater is now attracting a much broader spectrum of interest through his passion for traditional Japanese architecture. His widely published pen-and-wash drawings and newspaper articles are not only studies of Edo-period houses, open-fronted shops and bath houses, but a record of a fast-disappearing way of life.

In marked contrast to the British, the Japanese have shown little interest in their historic architecture (except the temples and palaces) and the timber buildings from the Edo period - a time of great feudal stability stretching from the early 17th century to the late 19th century - are rapidly being replaced by American-style Post-Modern shopping malls and multi-storey car parks.

Typically, the Edo period houses are condensed two-storey box-like structures with supporting pillars of cedar, and softer woods for the slatted sides. The romantic, if roughshod, exteriors give way to delicate interiors fitted with sliding paper doors - so that rooms can be made larger or smaller at will - and softly cushioned matting.

'The old wooden buildings were made by Japanese craftsmen unaffected by foreign culture,' says Goater. 'There is real human warmth in them. This dimension is missing in the concrete apartment blocks that have replaced them in the never-ending suburbs.'

One reason why the Japanese are indifferent to the fate of the old buildings is that, as Goater has discovered, in a land of earthquakes, typhoons and astronomically high land values, land has always been valued more highly than the buildings on it. Traditionally these were rebuilt by each generation.

Goater, a former teacher who went 'bumbling around the world' before settling in Nagoya 11 years ago, now works for the United Nations, editing publications for its regional development programmes. He spends his spare time sketching old buildings to the accompaniment of bulldozers ploughing up whole areas of the city. His minutely detailed plans of surviving Edo streets are a door-by- door account of how architecture and society once interacted.

Japanese cities and architecture are becoming more like their Western counterparts, but, as Goater's drawings show, they were never as neat or as ordered as Paris, Milan or even London. During the current period of transition, the cities are almost anarchic in their layout. Temples exist cheek-by-jowl with neon-lit 'love hotels'. Imagine a brothel tacked on to the side of Westminster Abbey and you get the idea. Above the whole ensemble of temples, burger bars, 7-Eleven supermarkets and parades of screaming vending machines (one for every 25 people in Nagoya) hangs a cat's cradle of electricity cables. Until very recently, suited executives would make deals over lunch in five- star downtown hotels then return to sleep in drafty, unheated wooden houses in the old quarters. The cluck of a chicken in the equivalent of Chelsea is a reminder that in the middle of the city a grandmother clings to some sort of link to the land, perhaps even holding on to her wooden Edo-period house.

Another feature of traditional Japanese city life that is fast disappearing - along with the hedonistic bath houses - is the red-lantern bars. These architectural follies are timber working-men's drinking houses - long and low with Chinese-temple roofs - which turn on their red lamps at sundown when it is time for sake and beer. They play a key part in Goater's latest drawings, which will be shown at an exhibition to be held in Nagoya next month.

The last relatively untouched area of old Nagoya is Hijiecho. Here Goater has made a study of the Endoji shopping arcade, which has existed since the early 17th century. The shops - open to the streets - have survived together with the Chokyuzan ('Eternal Mountain') temple built in 1654, a dilapidated noodle restaurant, a traditional sake store and tea-house and a red-lantern bar.

'When all is said and done,' says Goater, 'long roof houses are impractical: small, dark and cold in winter, hot in summer. Yet it is a great sadness that the sheer beauty of these old structures has been overlooked in modern Japan. I can claim some success in accentuating the small degree of regret among the Japanese that these buildings are fast disappearing.'

'It is ironic,' he says, sketchbook in hand, 'that to the authorities in Nagoya, the notion of conservation means preserving architect-designed concrete buildings of the last 80 years. Nearly all these are based on contemporary Western models.'

Nevertheless, he plans to continue his lunchtime sketching tours, exhibitions and newspaper articles in the hope of halting the bulldozers. While the Japanese are flooding Britain with new technology, James Goater is trying to sell the Japanese a hearty dose of good old- fashioned British conservation. But there is a long way to go before Japan becomes as obsessed as Britain with its architectural heritage. No wonder the kids of Nagoya think him odd.

(Photograph omitted)