The Flute House


Chiiori House. Iya Valley.

The pathway to the house seemed perilous, worse even than the roads that got them there. So they went down first by foot. When they reached the house they were surprised with what they saw: a woman, American, and her Japanese husband, just up the road with their car and young boy. The boy was batting at the grass with a long stick. They had come all the way from Nagoya—nearly three hundred miles away—hoping to stay at the house. There's no one here, she said, bemused. They told her the house required reservations. When did you make them? she asked. Oh, months...months ago. She shrugged and wished them well.


But there was someone there. Adjacent to the house was a second, this one modern and plain. A man answered. He was to take their reservations and show them ChiioriAre you the owner? they asked. No, no, he said with shyness, masking it with a laugh. He told them the owner, an American, had many houses around the world. From the 18th century, this one. From an older way of life. There were other houses nearby, up the road and down a bit, none though with such a heritage. Pure seclusion against the hillside, against time itself, within the trappings of the trees. 


For its age, though, the house was deceptively modern. Keyless entry behind a small wooden door. The paper walls of its engawa facade replaced with glass. An inductive stovetop with a flip-out touch panel. Japanese toilets with heated seats. And—most deceptive of all—in-floor heating. Most these things would go unnoticed upon first pass. But that was the point—technology at Chiiori was there to support, not distract. It was there because it knew its occupants would want to come home, enjoy a hot meal, and warm their toes. 


At the edge of the entryway, above where shoes were put, was a little stack of books, magazines, and guides. They found a book written by the owner of the house. It told of Chiiori's history and they took turns reading it. Being in the house reading of the house—surreal. A renovated thatched roof of grass and straw, gathered by the owner himself over five grueling years. Look up, there it was. Antique tools left there by early occupants. Tools once used—likely on this very plot of land—and now dispersed throughout as decor. It brought to him an unmatched depth to Chiiori's story. He felt the house, its history, its heritage, all of it—simultaneously.


Check-out was at 10. Two women appeared, early of course, and waited at a polite distance of twenty or thirty feet. They appeared as mother and daughter and they chatted, undistracted, while he loaded the car with luggage and a few plastic bags of snacks and bottled drinks. The name Chiiori was peculiar sounding, even to the natives. Wanting something that sounded more special, the owner had chosen less common pronunciations for the words flute and house. And in that the spirit of the house was encapsulated: simple but special.

At 10 they departed. The two women bowed and shared a gracious smile.

travel, interiorsJonathan Rowell