Rice paddies glisten in the spring sunshine, dotted with the odd thatched farmhouse, whose straw is now covered by tiles, their upkeep proving too pricey to leave at the mercy of the elements.
I arrive to Casa Miyama to a stoked fire and the stillness that comes with wintery mizzle. It’s quiet, save for the wind blowing through a knot of trees in the garden. Mountain water trickles into a nearby basin bejewelled with small blue-green tiles, the first of a few Spanish touches environed by the traditional Japanese aesthetic. Immersed in the solitude of the mountains, I’m welcomed by photographers Toru Morimoto and Tina Bagué, creators of Casa Miyama, a regenerated farmhouse that offers visitors a slice of rural life in Japan.
Accomplished photographers, Tina and Toru, have spent years traveling the world in pursuit of their projects. Toru, having previously been, amongst other things, a documentary photographer for the New York Times, lived and worked for three years in Nairobi and Abidjan in the nineties, capitalising on his university degree in Swahili and African Studies. Tina too, is a photojournalist shooting travel stories. They met over 20 years ago in Madrid, settling later in Tina’s hometown of Barcelona where they opened a gallery and sushi restaurant. Inspired to move by a year spent traversing the countryside of Japan in a campervan ten years ago, shooting people and places of interest, they found Casa Miyama after a five year search on an online akiya (vacant home) bank, finally relocating to the mountains in October 2019.
Tina and Toru designed the property themselves. They poured their hearts into sketching layouts, relocating rooms, and incorporating a deep-soaking cedar bathtub. The kitchen is decorated with similar blue-green tiles to those seen outside, surrounding a sink of muted Spanish marble, a piece that I’m told required much effort to relocate, but one that now in situ, is achingly perfect. Much of the furniture, gathered from their 20 years of travel on assignments in Japan, is combined with pieces from their former restaurant space, Akashi Gallery. The irori (traditional sunken hearth) dining table was custom-made in Spain, based upon the design of one they had previously seen in Japan, the chairs are from Denmark, and antique Japanese ceramics that were left behind by the property’s previous owners in the kura (traditional storage house) are stored in a wooden cupboard from India procured in Barcelona. Here, guests are encouraged to feast on locally-caught deer and wild boar, famed Miyama chicken, and nutritious vegetables, proffered in hampers to be cooked over the fire.
Beyond the kitchen, sliding screen doors open into tatami-matted spaces with fusuma (sliding panels) and shoji (screened doors) made of decorative washi paper handmade in Kurotani in nearby Ayabe. Some are embossed with leaves, some embedded with dried flowers and some inscribed with hand-written kanji (Chinese characters used in written Japanese). The house is a coalescence of Japanese and Spanish cultures, and an expression of organic matter and traditional craftsmanship in which original, natural materials have been repurposed to rebuild any damaged elements they came across during the refurbishment.
The concept of Casa Miyama is more than just a stay in the mountains. It’s also an homage to the medium that Tina and Toru love the most - photography. Setting up a studio in their kura, they offer guests an opportunity to capture their memories of Miyama in physical form. Tina and Toru’s work can be seen in the gallery on the upper floor. Below, the dark room and studio offer a setting where Toru can create wet plate collodion images, a technique first used in Japan over 100 years ago, around the same time that Casa Miyama was constructed. Hikoma Ueno was the first practitioner of the method in Nagasaki, photographing famous samurai like Ryoma Sakamoto, a fitting inspiration for Toru, who was the 10th winner of the Hikoma Ueno photography award. The process uses complicated alchemy to create images on a metal plate - a product of light exposure reacting with a delicate blend of chemicals that Toru mixes in the dark room, before allowing guests to see their image take shape in the fixing bath. Further focusing on analogue photography, Tina and Toru aim to introduce guests to a number of rarely seen methods and mediums, from polaroid to gelatine silver photography shot with film. Each is a lasting gift, hand-printed on exceptional photographic and washi papers.
A complete shift of pace from that experienced in the city, Casa Miyama is quite simply, an artistic expression of life in rural Japan.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies