Amy Dunn Moscosco and Will Marquand visit the vacation homes that became a foreign institution
* The Okayama villas except for Shiraishi Island International Villa have now closed, 2008
The Okayama Villas were a refuge for Kansai's foreign community for almost 20 years.
Spread across the mountains and islands of Okayama Prefecture, the traditional houses have built such a strong reputation for comfort, style and economy that they can be considered a must-do on any foreign resident's itinerary. And for those who go once, a second trip soon begins to feel obligatory.
Established in 1988, the International Villa Group is a non-profit organisation designed to give foreigners the chance to enjoy rural Japan, with the added bonus of giving support and publicity to an area many tourists will only see as they pass through on the train from Osaka to Hiroshima.
The villas, which are styled as homes away from home, consist of five houses located throughout the region, each with its own unique design characteristics and atmosphere. As the project is subsidised, nightly rates are a very reasonable 2000 yen - 3000 yen per person. Each house has four or five Western or Japanese rooms and visitors share common living facilities.
Fukiya International Villa
Fukiya is one of seven areas in Okayama designated as a "furusato village." While the architecture in many towns is often an ugly mishmash of styles, the old homes and stores in this former copper mining town from the 19th century are built with a distinct mustard and red bengara, a protective cladding on the sides of the buildings, and red-tile roofs.
The villa is modelled after a soy sauce storehouse (shoyu-gura) and has spacious rooms, each of which are named after a traditional Japanese material.
Inside, the natural wood features give it the feel of a mountain retreat.
Ushimado International Villa
Nestled amongst the olive trees in the hills overlooking the sparkling Seto Inland Sea, Ushimado brings to mind the houses and towns sprinkled across the Mediterranean.
A traditional fishing village, Ushimado dates back to the eighth-century Manyo era and the steady stream of boats passing by has brought prosperity to the region. The villa here has vaulted ceilings and large plate-glass windows that offer wonderful views of the sea.
A supply of bikes at the house make getting around easy.
Takebe International Villa
Designed by local architect Ishiyama Osama, Takebe Villa is a contrast of modern and traditional touches, which create a unique aesthetic.
Best of all, it is located next to Takebe Onsen and is thus the place of choice for hot-spring lovers.
Shiraishi Island International Villa
Accessible by ferry, secluded Shiraishi Island has beautiful beaches and clear blue sea that ensures it is a popular choice for those after a summer break.
There's a little something here for everyone. The energetic can take a walk up the mountains into the island's centre, while idler souls can loll on the beach or wander round the old-fashioned fishing village.
The gentle, relaxed pace of the island is mirrored in the easy-going atmosphere of the villa, which features a covered patio perfect for whiling away the balmy nights.
The bus to Hattoji Villa winds up a steep narrow road bordered by rice paddies, thatched-roof houses and towering old trees.
In the distance, the green mountains roll on for miles. Sometimes it feels like you have to travel a long way to break away from the urban sprawl; out here it feels like you've finally made it.
Over 1,200 years ago, the area thrived as a centre of Sangaku ('mountain') Buddhism. Dating from 728, the base of Mount Hattoji is dotted with a series of temples and monasteries. Today, the area seems like a throwback to a more innocent time and the still, peaceful atmosphere inspires a meditative mood.
Hattoji Villa itself is an enormous old farmhouse with a low-hanging kayabuki (bamboo-thatched) roof, yellow, mud-plastered walls, and perfectly manicured grounds.
Because the villa has retained its classical appearance, it was used as the setting for Imamura Shohei's 1989 film Kuroi ame (Black Rain), which shares an English title but nothing else with the Michael Douglas thriller.
It's easy to see what drew Imamura here, as the rustic old house lodged amongst the terraced rice paddies never feels less than cinematic.
Inside, Hattoji has been adapted for modern use. There are four tatami rooms which can accommodate up to twelve people as well as kitchen, lounge, and bathing facilities.
The owners have worked hard to maintain the agrarian feel of the property. Supplementing the well-equipped kitchen is an old irori (open hearth) fired by kerosene heaters which adds great atmosphere to evening barbecues. In the bathroom, a goemon-buro (wooden bath) is the perfect place for a relaxing soak after a day spent roaming the surrounding mountain forests.The nearby village of Hattoji has more similarly designed buildings and the residents are very welcoming to visitors.
Following the paths into the mountains, you soon find stone steps that lead to the hushed grounds of an ancient Shinto shrine. From here, a track leads up the mountain to a lookout platform, which gives a view of the mountains and valleys stretching out in every direction.
The region gets a lot of sunlight and when the sun sinks low in the sky, a beautiful red-golden light falls on the house and fields.
Further out across the valley is a small folk museum, with free admission, Hattoji Furusato Farm, where you can stock up on seasonal produce, and Hattoji River Dam Park. There are a few local restaurants and at Hattoji Furusatokan, you have the chance to make your own soba.
Administration of the house is simply handled with each guest responsible for their own food and mess. In the evening, the friendly caretaker stops by to accept payment and answer any questions. It all just feels so smooth and effortless as you sink into the homely mood unadorned by the clutter of modern life.
Information & Access
Okayama is about an hour away by Shinkansen from Kansai's transport hubs and the villas are one to two hours from Okayama city. It is easiest to travel by car, but public transport also works.
The villas are open to non-Japanese and any Japanese accompanying them. To book accommodation at the villas, you need to take out membership, which costs 2,500 yen and is valid for two years.
Members and guests can stay for 2,000 yen per person per night and non-members for 3,000 yen per person per night.
Reservations can be made by phone, fax or the Internet up to three months in advance. Exclusive group bookings can also be made.
Web: www.harenet.ne.jp/villa (no longer active)
Hattoji is approximately 90 minutes northeast of Okayama. Exclusive bookings can be made for eight people for 18,000 yen per group per night and for up to 13 people for 30,000 yen per group per night.
Bath, toilet, kitchen and lounge facilities are all communal.
Images courtesy of Okayama International Villas Group
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