The American who built a supersized Japanese aerie from abandoned parts
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The American who built a supersized Japanese aerie from abandoned parts
The Buddhist temple, right, and the bell tower, part of the compound owned by Brian Heywood in Kamakura, Japan, on April 18, 2024. Heywood and his architect, Masataka Sakano, found this abandoned Buddhist temple in a village about 220 miles away. Local residents and the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect granted permission to relocate the structure after a Buddhist decommissioning ceremony. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

by Tim Hornyak

KAMAKURA.- In the hills above Kamakura, the ancient samurai capital of Japan, Brian Heywood is overseeing 12 workmen as they put the finishing touches on his new home. Framed by blossoming yamazakura cherry trees, the sprawling aerie looks west over Sagami Bay, with Mount Fuji in the distance.

“I wanted people to be transported to another world when they drive in,” said Heywood, 57, on a recent afternoon.

The property, covering just over an acre in this seaside town about 30 miles south of Tokyo, has been a feat of negotiation and preservation. Shozan, as Heywood calls it, is a curious fusion of three centuries-old wooden houses, a decommissioned 150-year-old Buddhist temple and other cultural treasures — all meticulously disassembled, moved here from their original sites, and reconstructed over a five-year period. Their aesthetics and basic designs have been carefully retained. But the structures now have modern amenities such as in-floor heating, and Western proportions like higher ceilings and bigger doors, reflecting the American who owns them.

Heywood sees Shozan as an act of conservation, and one that connects to his conservative worldview. Some of the buildings had been abandoned or set for demolition by their owners, who opted to give them away rather than have them restricted as “cultural properties” by the Japanese government. Meanwhile, as he completes his nature-centric compound in Kamakura, Heywood is spearheading a fight to roll back climate change laws in his home state of Washington. His efforts, he said, align against what he sees as “government intervention disguised as virtuous programs that in fact take money from those who need it while providing no benefit.”

Heywood was born in Arizona and first came to Japan in the 1980s as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I fell in love with the temples and the houses and the gardening from the day I arrived,” he said. “In Osaka, we visited old country homes where they would have rows of bonsai sitting outside, and they would tell that some of the trees were a hundred years old, which meant multigenerational cultivation and protection of beauty. That is an unheard-of concept in the Western U.S.”

After decades of working with and investing in Japanese companies — Heywood now heads a Japan-focused investment adviser firm based in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland — he wanted to build a traditional home here as a counterpart to his 40-acre farm in Redmond, Washington.

Shozan sits in an upscale neighborhood close to the Great Buddha of Kamakura, the 44-foot-tall bronze statue that has sat facing the sea for seven centuries. A large wood plaque hangs over the front door with “Shozan” in calligraphy — the characters for “camphor tree” and “mountain.” The former refers to three camphor trees that tower over the property and remind Heywood of the giant camphor that is home to the titular forest spirit in the 1988 anime classic “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Like that film, Shozan plays with fantasy — a constructed fantasy of Japan.

The main residence comprises a pair of stout tiled-roof farmhouses, each about 200 years old. Heywood and his architect, Masataka Sakano, found them in the snowy mountains of Toyama prefecture, hundreds of miles away, with the help of the head miyadaiku (or imperial contractor) for the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism in Japan.

The farmhouses, like many older buildings in rural Japan, were uninhabited when Heywood found them. Their owners were considering demolition, but it still took many rounds of discussions before they warmed to the idea of parting with family assets passed down through generations. Heywood, who is fluent in Japanese, assured them he would act as a caretaker. When he finally earned their approval, a team of about 20 specialist shrine and temple carpenters disassembled the farmhouses, numbered each plank — including a colossal ushibari beam nearly 43 feet long — and trucked them to Kamakura. Heywood acquired the buildings for free, paying only the cost of clearing the land so it could be used again.

The two houses were then merged into a single L-shaped building of unusual size and luxury for Japan. Past an imposing genkan entrance with a 15-foot ceiling, there’s an airy family room and kitchen with a spacious marble-top island, a restaurant-grade gas stove and a dining table fashioned from two slabs of zelkova. The highlight is a steel-and-glass extension to the kitchen that opens onto a wide wooden balcony with views of the camphor trees and the distant Pacific.

Stairs ascend to the primary bedroom through an extra-large door, which came from a traditional kura storehouse. Under a nearly 20-foot ceiling, the king-size bed sits on a raised platform beside a work area where Heywood’s wife, Rochelle Heywood, paints watercolor portraits of geisha and samurai. Mount Fuji sits on the horizon outside the windows.

“I’m a super visual person, and Brian is more of a thinker, doer and maker,” said Rochelle Heywood, 57, who has three adult children with her husband. “Shozan is my place to come back and breathe in Japan.”

The house’s hybrid features include extra-large Japanese cypress bathtubs and traditional tatami-mat bedrooms adorned with decidedly nontraditional touches such as beanbags and plush armchairs. Like the doors, the corridors are bigger than usual — the better to accommodate Brian Heywood’s 6-foot-3-inch frame.

“The essence of this project is a collaboration between U.S. and Japanese culture. My main job was to balance them,” said Sakano, 50, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and played saxophone professionally in New York before becoming an architect.

“Japanese traditional culture has so many kata,” or ways of doing, Sakano said, “but it goes beyond what Japanese think it is. Before the Kamakura period, houses were so different, and with a wide-open feeling. So, we have more than what people think. This project is about rebuilding that.”

For a guesthouse, Sakano and Heywood discovered a roughly 400-year-old merchant home, or minka, in the Lake Biwa area, 185 miles west. The house was still in the hands of the original family who built it “about 27 generations ago,” Heywood said. Having been dismantled and rebuilt, it now combines traditional elements, like ranma carved wood panels over fusuma sliding doors and a central irori hearth, with modern electricals and toilets.

Toyohiro Nishimura, an architectural conservationist, advised the home’s previous owner in the negotiations with Heywood. “We want to preserve our old minka, but it’s difficult due to depopulation, and repurposing them as home-stay accommodations is expensive,” Nishimura said. “The house was symbolic of our neighborhood, and locals are happy that it won’t be lost, but will continue for another 100 or 200 years in Kamakura.”

Heywood navigated the strict permitting process with nemawashi, the Japanese practice of building consensus before a proposal is formally made. (A spokesperson for Kamakura City Hall said it could not provide any information about the project.) And when, as construction got underway, some neighbors worried that a Buddhist cult had taken over the property, Heywood organized a mochi-making event, a traditional neighborhood gathering to make sticky rice, to explain the project and allay their fears, he said.

“I was hearing stories of people tearing their houses down because they didn’t want the government to declare them cultural heritage — if they did, they couldn’t change anything,” Heywood said. “If you can’t sell it because you can’t change it, the land is worth nothing, so the smartest thing for you to do is to destroy the house. You’ve got government intervention perversely incentivizing the destruction of beautiful things.”

Heywood has a history of challenging what he considers government overreach. In Washington, he is the primary funder of several active ballot initiatives, including the repeal of the state’s new capital gains tax on high earners, and of the Climate Commitment Act, which seeks to combat climate change through a cap-and-trade system, but which he blames for high gas and food prices. His efforts have infuriated Democrats, who say these laws help fund education, renewable energy and health care in the state.

“I’m a Republican, and no Republican is going to say, ‘We want the air and water to be dirtier,’” he said. In his view, the current law “doesn’t do anything for the climate at all. It’s strictly a money grift.”

Stuart Elway, a longtime pollster in Washington, noted that the state Legislature had already passed some of the initiatives supported by Heywood, and that the others will be on the November ballot. “If any or all of those pass,” Elway said, “I expect we’ll be learning a lot more about him.”

As Heywood tells it, he was born into a poor family in rural Arizona, where the terrain was “tumbleweeds, lots of wind and scrub brush,” and worked his way to Harvard, where he pursued East Asian studies. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he wanted to proselytize in the Soviet Union but was dispatched to Japan instead, and learned the art of communicating and negotiating in Japanese. He forged a business career before founding Taiyo Pacific Partners in 2001. In 2014, the company supported a management buyout of Roland Corp., a popular maker of electronic musical instruments. He and Roland’s CEO at the time, Jun-ichi Miki, took the company private and restructured it. Roland was re-listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2021.

Miki has been a guest at Shozan. “When everyone said, ‘That’s impossible,’ or ‘It’s never been done before,’ Brian was able to achieve a wonderful result through repeated negotiations due to his strong feelings for old folk houses that are second to none,” he said.

Heywood articulated a vision of controlled nature in small spaces that could reflect what he called “the beauty of God’s majesty in the macro.” When he bought the property, it was overrun with bamboo grass, Japanese creeper vines, Asian giant hornets and poisonous giant centipedes. This wilderness he regarded with missionary zeal.

“Pure chaos is not necessarily pretty,” said Heywood, who declined to reveal the cost of his project. “Structured chaos is interesting. That’s the art of Japanese gardening — trying to make something so intricately planned look as if it just naturally occurred.”

The garden details at Shozan were directed by Isao Kawauchi, a landscape artist with deep roots in Kamakura, who sought to preserve all the viable plants on the property while adding features such as mizubachi water cisterns and toro stone lanterns, some of which date to the late 17th century. “I don’t use anything new, only historic stones, without which there’s no atmosphere,” said Kawauchi, 74.

But the jewel of Heywood’s paradise is the Buddhist temple that he found near Shirakawa-go, a historic village of thatched-roof farmhouses about 160 miles away. The temple had been abandoned, like thousands of others across Japan, its elegant curved roof in danger of collapse from water damage.

Local residents and the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect granted Heywood permission to relocate the 150-year-old structure to Shozan after a Buddhist decommissioning ceremony. A Shinto ground consecration was then held before its reassembly, complete with a massive bronze bell from a temple outside Tokyo. Now, restored and equipped with air conditioning, AV equipment, beanbags and exercise gear, the temple serves as movie den, yoga studio and corporate retreat.

“You take someone like Sakano-san, who has a Japanese sense of beauty and fine craftsmanship, and you put him with an American who doesn’t believe there’s any boundaries,” Heywood said. “Cool things can happen.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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