Seven years ago, photographer Yoko Inoue moved from Brooklyn to the Japanese countryside with her husband, Daniel, and son, Motoki. They expected to stay for only a year or two, but ended up building their “dream home” 10 minutes from her parents. They now have another son, Keito, and two golden retrievers, Sunny and Boomer. Here’s a look inside…
How did you approach building your dream home?
My vision was pretty clear. I had gotten so much inspiration from a book I photographed while living in Brooklyn years ago — Brooklyn Modern. During that project, I was lucky to see so many amazing houses and learn about architecture and interiors. Although I couldn’t afford to own a beautiful house in New York City, it was possible in Japan. It took a lot of effort since our taste is so different from typical Japanese, but it was worth it!
How does your taste compare to the typical Japanese aesthetic?
Our house is VERY different from other houses around here. When it was under construction, the neighbors didn’t even realize it was going to be a house! The outside is all black, but the inside is all white. Our ceilings are much higher than most Japanese ceilings, and our steps follow the American standard size rather than the Japanese. My American husband always complained that Japanese stairs were too low.
What was the design process like?
Our architect designed a simple layout. From there, we chose the size and placement of the windows, the light switches, the door knobs… Each small detail was important to the overall cohesive design. We chose a grey oak flooring for the downstairs and a white stained oak for the second floor.
Do you go out on the pond?
It was originally a reservoir for the rice fields, but now nobody uses it. When we first moved in, we thought we might be able to play in the water, but there are leeches! Yuck. There aren’t any fish, but there are huge bullfrogs that are super noisy in the spring and summer. A lot of ducks and herons visit. It’s a peaceful and interesting view for us; we enjoy BBQs on the deck.
Tea pot: Tsukiusagishirushi.
How do you like having a wood-burning stove?
We were surprised and excited when our architect suggested we put in a wood stove as we didn’t think it was possible in Japan. Since my husband grew up in Vermont, he was very familiar with the advantages and challenges of wood stoves as many Vermonters have them, along with a big stack of firewood. We wanted a modern-looking and clean-burning stove and chose one from the Danish company Scan. Okayama winters aren’t very cold, but the stove is so nice that we keep it going from December to March.
Chair: vintage. Art: Ben Leenen for Elephant Press.
Do your kids work at the sweet desk in the living room?
My nine-year-old son, Motoki, does his homework at this desk. He gets one page of Japanese and one page of math a day. It takes him about 30 minutes.
Wooden mug: Takahashi Kougei.
What traditions do you enjoy?
We mix both Japanese and American traditions. We do Thanksgiving, Christmas and have American BBQs, but we also celebrate Japanese New Year and other cultural events. I always cook a mix of different foods — Japanese, American, Italian, Mexican. For breakfast, we usually have coffee and toast and sometimes pancakes and sausage, but Motoki likes to have rice, miso soup and grilled fish for breakfast sometimes, too.
Your lunch with your friends looks like so much fun!
One of my goals for this house was to have a place where friends could relax. Because the typical Japanese house is very small, people around don’t host a lot of parties. But I love inviting friends over! After moving here, it took about four or five years to make friends. But finally I have a nice group of friends that I see regularly, and I host lunches almost every month.
Pendant lights: vintage. Sailing kite: Haptic Lab.
Would you ever share that cake recipe?
It’s just a carrot cake, but my Japanese friends had never tried carrot cake before! I added coconut flakes and raisins soaked in rum.
Your bedroom has such a calm vibe.
I wanted the room to be very peaceful and quiet. I usually take a bath before bed, which is a Japanese tradition, so one’s body is clean and relaxed.
Tiles: Heath Ceramics.
I LOVE the tiles in your bathroom? How did you decide on the pattern?
We originally planned to stay in Japan for only a year, so we put everything into storage. After we decided to stay long-term, we had to go back to the U.S. and rent a shipping container to move our furniture here. Then we came up with the idea of going on a big shopping trip to find items that we’d always dreamed about having but would never be able to find in Japan. One of the biggest purchases we made was from Heath Ceramics. We both loved their tiles so much, so we planned our flight to New York so we had a layover in San Francisco and had just a few hours to go to Heath’s showroom in Sausalito. There, we selected several hundred square feet of tiles for our bathroom. To keep within our budget, we chose from their overstock and seconds inventory. We needed a lot of tiles, so we had to mix and match colors to have enough. Luckily, the tiles made it to Japan unscathed. I spent so much time planning the layout of the bathroom, and my husband spent a month doing the tile work, but it was totally worth it.
Desk: vintage. Rocking chair: Eames. Black cupboards: custom.
Where do you shop for furniture and other household items?
We brought many items from our old loft in Brooklyn — like our sofa, chairs and toys. We also bought a lot of stuff at IKEA in the U.S. (Japanese IKEA items all seem to come in smaller sizes). My mother has an antique shop and she goes to Europe to buy antiques once a year, so I joined her on a buying trip to find some items, like light fixtures, a firewood bin, etc. Those things really made the house unique and gave it both vintage and modern touches.
Bunk beds: custom. Fish mobile: Flensted.
How long have your boys been sharing a room? (I love the little window on the top bunk!)
Many Japanese families sleep on futons on the floor. The whole family will share the same room and put away the bedding every morning. We actually slept this way for a few years when we were renting a house. But we missed having beds and mattresses. Now the boys share a room — although since we got the dogs, our older son has been sleeping with them!
What are the boys into these days?
Motoki is really into Kendo martial arts. He is very good at it and practices all the time. This year he placed second at a big tournament of fourth graders. He is also into go-karting and takes lessons once a week. Little Keito loves food and playing with toy cars and trains. He has so many Tamiya mini race cars and Tomica diecast cars — he always brings them into the bath!
Pendant light: Muuto.
What do you guys do on a typical weekend?
Most weekends we either have go-kart practice or a Kendo tournament. If we have a free day, we might visit a hot spring, go shopping or explore small towns. In the winter my husband might take the kids snowboarding. Often, though, we just relax at home.
The upstairs bathroom wallpaper is so cool.
The kids draw on it — we should add more photos, too! My husband’s father gave us the toilet paper holder that he made from a tree branch in Vermont.
What is the story behind the handle of the front door?
My mother blows glass as a hobby. She makes beautiful pieces that she just gives away to her friends. I think she should show more to the world, so I’m planning to take photographs of her work and put them on my website. The front door handle is a design that I asked her glass-blowing teacher to make for us.
You have such a beautiful family and home. What’s it like raising your family in the Japanese countryside?
When we were shown this plot of land, we know it would be perfect since it’s on the edge of a pond and near a mountain, but also walking distance from a train station. Sometimes I miss the excitement and energy of New York, and of course friends, but now our focus is on raising our children so Japan is ideal. Our kids have the opportunity to be bilingual and bicultural. And it’s so calm and safe. I like to be able to let my older child ride his bicycle without my watching and the neighbors will always look out for him.
(Photos by Yoko Inoue for Cup of Jo.)