In 2015, Elmar Weinmayr and his wife Fumie were looking for a new space for their Nichinichi Gallery and stumbled upon a traditional townhouse in the historical center of Kyoto, just on the east side of the huge park surrounding the Imperial Palace. The beautiful old building came with an attached kura, or treasure house, making it an ideal location for a multi-use space. They enlisted architect Koichi Futatsumata of Case-real to blend traditional style with contemporary design, and the result combines a gallery with a tearoom, Toka, a garden, and a small guest house, kura298. We caught up with Elmar to find out more about the project.
Elmar Weinmayr, what brought you to Japan?
EW: “After finishing my study of European philosophy and Western thought, I was interested in whether this kind of thinking is universal for all mankind, or whether it is something specific and typical for our European occidental history and culture. I was keen to live and to do research in a non-Western country. By chance I met some Japanese people who turned my interest to Japan. As a result, I came here in 1985 to research modern Japanese philosophy and Buddhist thought at Kyoto University. In the end I found more philosophy in the world of Japanese artisans than at university. This was one reason why I quit academics and started the gallery.”
Why did you choose this particular property?
EW: “In 2014, we decided to relocate our gallery from Tokyo to Kyoto, where it was started more than 20 years ago. We thought about finding a contemporary semi-industrial place, like an abandoned warehouse or a workshop with concrete walls, etc. But we couldn’t find a suitable place in a nice location. One day, a real estate agent brought up this property. It was completely different from everything we were looking for, but the place had an energy and an atmosphere which attracted us at once. It took us not more than 10 minutes to make our decision. For us, it feels like the house chose us, and not we the house. Our projects here are only answering the call of this house.”
Can you explain what a kura is?
EW: “In the event of fire, traditional Japanese houses, built mainly from wood, burn down very fast. So, in former times, almost every wealthy house or family had a storage house or warehouse, in Japanese kura. In the kura, the family stored everything which they needed to start again after a devastating fire, like the seeds for the next years sowing, important family documents, and precious clothes. These kura houses are built with thick limed clay walls. They have only very small windows for circulation and a heavy door fortified with ironwork. Our house was built by a quite famous painter. We think maybe he built the kura to store his paintings.”
We love the concept of a live-work space with multiple uses. What was your thinking behind that?
EW: “The concept of one space having multiple uses is very common in traditional Japanese architecture and lifestyle. When you have a living space divided by sliding doors with tatami mat flooring and almost no furniture, you can change the size and layout of the rooms according to your needs. If you put tables in the room, it will become a dining room. If you put futon mattresses on the floor, it will become a sleeping room. If you put cushions for sitting on the floor, you can make it a lecture room. Sometimes we expand the gallery into the guesthouse. Sometimes kura298 is a place for an artist-in-residence. And vice versa – the gallery space and library are open to our guests staying in kura298.”
How else do these worlds overlap?
EW: “We think of kura298 as a home where you can experience the taste and the aesthetic of our gallery. The guests can use lacquer and ceramic dishes and vessels from the gallery. It is about the joy and the experiences you have when you use high-quality and well-designed things, handmade from natural materials, in your daily life. Sure, we make our living from selling these wonderful things, but for us the gallery is not a shop, but a place where people come together, meet and touch things, make new experiences and widen their horizons.
“This is the same with our tearoom. In collaboration with a tea farmer, we produce organically-grown green teas as other people produce wines. Teas from special fields, different varietals and different years, teas with and without fertilizer, we experiment with different ways to brew the tea. The tearoom is a kind of laboratory for a new approach to Japanese tea culture. And our guests in kura298 are invited to participate and enjoy the teas.”
You restored the house to its original character but added sisal flooring and furnishings from other places and times. What was the concept behind this?
EW: “We feel great respect for tradition, and believe that tradition only stays alive through development and changes. Each tradition enriches itself through encounters with other cultures. My Japanese wife and I experience this often in our daily life. In our eyes, the contrast between the restored original parts of the house and the more modern designed parts of the house, stresses the quality and character of each at its best. The restored clay wall in the kura and the vintage chair from Denmark, they might come from different times and places, but they share the same respect for natural materials, the same wisdom about functionality and beauty. And they are done with similar effort by great craftsmen, who share the same spirit.”
You talk about the garden of kura298 bringing a “deeper connection to the essentials of life”. In your opinion, what are these?
EW: “There are as many different ways to live your life on this earth as there are individual persons. Everybody has to find his essentials. In our times we are inundated with information from companies, religions, politicians, or just other people. All of them try to impose their ideas about what should matter for us. We tried to create a reduced, simple and quiet space, where you are free to connect to yourself and feel clearer about what is essential for you.
“We ourselves believe humans are just a tiny part in a much bigger universe, the wisdom of which we hardly understand. Staying in a house that is older than most of our lifetimes, looking at the slowly growing, but vivid moss, the weathered trees, being surrounded by things carefully made with greatest regard for nature and its creations. All this brings a mood of humbleness and serenity, the luxury to stay simple.”
To find out more about kura298, click here.