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The complete guide to Japanese kura storehouses

By Don Kennedy  |  In DIGITAL LIFE  |  20min

When traveling through Japanese cities, especially towns in the countryside, you will probably notice the distinctive storehouses called kura (written as either 蔵 or 倉). And although there are many types of kura, the most common type, called dozo, are generally white ones with earthen walls, designed to be fireproof and insulated. In the countryside, these are primarily used for storage of goods and farm equipment, but in the past, in large cities such as Edo (Tokyo) families built kura to protect their valuables. They were a way for merchants and samurai – including daimyo (lords) and even the shogun – to flaunt their wealth. Having a kura showed they had valuable things to protect and enough money and land to actually build a storehouse. In fact, there used to be a Japanese idiom, “kura wo tateru,” which means “to build a kura” and basically meant “to make it financially.” In Kitakata, Fukushima Prefecture which has the highest concentration in the country, they say that if you haven’t built a kura by age 40, you’re not a man yet.

Distinguishing Features

Although the lines are blurred these days, with many kura being repurposed as restaurants and art galleries, traditionally there are two types of kura: the ones used strictly as storehouses, and the ones used as storefronts, or misegura (見世蔵).

As mentioned earlier, the earthen walls provided insulation and fireproofing. The stable temperatures inside won’t disrupt the fermentation process, so kura are useful for making sake, soy sauce, miso and indigo. To ensure an airtight seal, the shutters and doors employ a 3 tier stepped and recessed interlocking shape called janbara (蛇腹) which was developed in the Edo Period.

Traditional decorative roofs built with ceramic tiles called kawara (瓦) add another layer of fireproofing and help to disperse rainwater away from the walls. It’s common to find onigawara (鬼瓦), demon tiles, guarding the sides of the rooftop. You may also see rows of pegs known as mizukiri (水切り) or additional eaves designed to keep too much water from accumulating on the walls.

More expensive kura tend to feature a black and white criss-cross diamond pattern called namako kabe (海鼠壁), meaning sea cucumber walls because the white semi-circular parts resemble the shape of the creature. Believe it or not, this design is more functional than decorative as it further helps to throw water off the surface to protect the walls. Namako kabe originated in southwestern Japan, but is almost universal these days.

In the Kanto area, it was popular to copy the style of rich merchants in Edo who often painted their white kura black, an expensive and high maintenance process. The association was so strong that this process is called Edoguro (江戸黒), Edo Black. Many of storehouses of this style can be found preserved in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.

Lastly, it’s not uncommon to see a row of hooks wrapping around the second story. These are for attaching scaffolding when maintenance or repairs are need to be done.

Construction

As mentioned earlier, in the Edo Period, kura were status symbols because it meant you actually had valuable things to protect. Furthermore, it took time and money to build and maintain them. Let’s take a look at the construction process of these fireproof storehouses.

First, lay a stone foundation.
Build a rigid wooden frame with sturdy logs.
Add bamboo or palm lathing called komai (木舞) in that shape you want the walls and ceiling to take, sort of like drywall in a modern house.
Apply layer after layer of wet clay and straw on both sides of the lathing (roughly 16 times in Kanto) until you have the desired thickness of the walls
Wait about 2-6 months for the clay to dry.
Carefully apply a traditional white plaster called shikkui (漆喰) to the outside surface. You’ve seen this plaster if you’ve ever seen a Japanese castle.
Apply Edo Black, if you roll like that.
Construct a wooden frame across the roof and attach the roof tiles to it.
In the country, the insides were usually unadorned, but in cities the insides were often decorated with cypress; recent renovations that you see today may have quite elegant interiors.

Once you had finished building your storehouse, you had to maintain it. The floor was regularly swept to keep dust out, and items were kept in traditional chests of drawers called tansu (箪笥). Furthermore, a few times a year, items would be removed and aired out, lest they get musty. Interestingly, when some famous temples and shrines aired out their kura, people would come from far and wide to view the treasures that were usually hidden from sight.

The Dark Side

As you can imagine, kura are very dark on the inside, especially before the advent of electricity, and so there are people who are afraid of entering them. Sadly, in the Edo Period, family members with mental illness were sometimes imprisoned in kura to keep them from embarrassing the family or running out and committing crimes.

In fact, the fear of kura was so pervasive that until a generation ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear of parents locking up misbehaving children in the family kura as a punishment. There was even a book and movie called Kura no Naka (蔵の中), Inside the Kura, about a girl with a contagious disease who was forced to live in kura so she didn’t get the rest of the family sick. She has only picture books and Noh masks for entertainment.

The Light Side

Actually, it’s not all grim stories about locking people up in dark, musty storehouses. In some parts of northern Japan, traditionally they believed that a kami, spirit, would inhabit kura and any family member that attracted its gaze would be rewarded with good luck.

More importantly, as the population declines in rural communities, people are buying up old abandoned farmhouses as second homes and often these estates have kura still filled with old family heirlooms accumulated over time. These are a boon to historians with hitherto unknown documents, works of art, and samurai armor waiting to be rediscovered.

Where to find kura

You can find kura all over the country, even in central Tokyo, but there are a few spots around Japan that are particularly famous for having large concentrations of these traditional storehouses.

If you’re in Nagano, you might want to check out Nawate Dori and the Nakamachi district of Matsumoto. These areas have many preserved Meiji Period kura that have been converted into cafes, shops, and boutiques. The historic atmosphere of the area is perfect for a leisurely stroll before visiting one of Japan’s most majestic buildings, Matsumoto Castle.

Tochigi Prefecture’s Kuranomachi – literally “kura town” – is less than an hour from Tokyo by train and home to many historic storehouses that are used as modern shops selling everything from soba to souvenirs. It’s a great escape from the big city for day trippers and photographers looking for a taste of “Old Japan.”

Another great day trip option is Kawagoe which is located in Saitama and is also less than an hour from Tokyo. The city bills itself as “Little Edo” because of its large number of misegura, storefront kura (which were actually built in the early Meiji Period, but that’s just between you and me). Most of the kura in Kawagoe are fine examples of storehouses that make use of Edo Black, so it really does give you a feeling of street life in the merchant district of the shogun’s capital. The city also has one of the few remaining honmaru goten (本丸御殿), the main palace of a Japanese castle, and a section of Edo Castle that was moved to the temple, Kitai-in, by the 3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.

But of course, the motherlode of all kura towns is Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture. Depending on who’s counting, there are between 2,000 to 4,000 kura in the city. And yes, this is the town where if you don’t have a storehouse of your own by age 40, you’re not a real man. Kura aren’t the only reason to visit this city, there’s also a ramen museum dedicated to the much adored local variety – typified by soy sauce and thicker, wavy noodles. It’s a nice place to visit if you’re exploring the Aizu Wakamatsu and Koriyama areas.

Lastly, if you want to check out some kura in Tokyo, there are two across the street from Tokyo Tower. Just come out of Akabanebashi Station and head to the temple, Myojo-in. The storehouses are located to the left of the main hall. And if you feel like heading out of the city center, you can jump on one of the last remaining tramways, the Setagaya Line, which will take you to the Setagaya Daikan Yashiki – the residence of a family of town magistrates in the Edo Period. On the premises, you’ll find two kura and a local history museum. Actually, you can find kura all throughout the city, but sadly they tend to be covered in aluminum siding because it’s cheaper than maintaining them properly. As a result, you may not even notice even if they’re right in front of you.