Building a home suited to Nikkei roots and personal tastes

The Inaba residence in Southwest Sacramento, a home that fuses Japanese and American aesthetics and built to suit its homeowners needs. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The Inaba residence in Southwest Sacramento, a home that fuses Japanese and American aesthetics and built to suit its
homeowners needs. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At 8 years old, Don Inaba watched as his new home in Fresno, Calif. was constructed from the ground up. His father, Hitoshi Inaba, had been raised in Sacramento, Calif., but moved to Fresno to start a grocery store to expand the family business. Hitoshi Inaba was one of the three “Inaba Brothers” who started North American Food Distributing Co., Inc., a wholesale distributing company of Japanese foods established after World War II.

“My mother told me as we watched the house getting built, ‘that’s architecture,’ and I guess I got hooked,” he recalled.

Now, 54 years later, Inaba is vice president of Hayashida Architects in Emeryville, Calif. He graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1976 and joined a one-man firm in Sacramento. Inaba wanted to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, so in 1979, he found a job working for Kutzman and Kodama in San Francisco. Inaba’s former boss introduced him to Hayashida Architects, and he started working there in 1983.

“When Sady (Hayashida) got busy and needed some help, I was sent to Hayashida on loan and I guess I never left,” he said.

The firm mainly deals in commercial real estate developments, according to Inaba. Inaba said they designed the first Beverages & More! (now BevMo!) store and have gone on to design more than 100 locations since then. The firm also worked on the Jodo Shinshu Center for the Buddhist Churches of America in Berkeley, Calif. and numerous residential projects.

Designing a Japanese American Home

A Japanese-style ofuro (bath), photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

A Japanese-style ofuro (bath), photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

In 1988, Inaba’s parents asked him to design a new home for them in Sacramento. Upon retiring, the late Hitoshi Inaba had asked his son to design a home that mixed both Japanese and American aesthetics, which also included features the couple wanted for their personal needs
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The home in Sacramento’s Greenhaven area features a courtyard garden with a walkway and the front entrance is emblazoned with the Inaba household seal. The house features a Japanese-style bath that is big enough to seat three or four adults.

“Mom wanted a Japanese-style ofuro (bath) in the house, so did my dad. But he loved to fish, so he wanted the bath to be big enough so that he could come home and take a bath with his fishing buddies.” While his mother, Misao Inaba, objected to the idea of such a large furo, Inaba designed the bath to comfortably seat three, as well as contain two showerheads.

The house also features a tokonoma, an alcove in the living room featuring a wall scroll and various dolls.

“A typical tokonoma is made from oak, sometimes cedar as well,” Inaba said. “They must all be custom-made and there’s a few rules on how to make them, like which way they’re facing based on the Japanese version of feng shui.”

The house also features sliding shoji screen doors that separate the family room from the dining room. The family room looks Western, but features shelving with a place for the butsudan (Buddhist altar) and a Japanese-style entryway with a cubby for shoes. The house combines these Japanese features with three Western bedrooms and a large garage that used to house the late Inaba’s fishing boat.

While Inaba’s parents asked for a house heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetics, Inaba himself does not have a certain style or signature motif in his designs. “We (Hayashida Architects) typically work with our clients on what they want.

After all, we don’t have to actually live in what we build,” he said. “Typically, clients will have an idea of what they want. If they want a Japanese style, we can look into that.”

Inaba said when his parents asked him to build them their new home in 1988, he took some influence from his old home in Fresno.

Looking back at the home he designed for his parents, Inaba said he was proud of the project.

The living room in the Inaba’s house features a large Japanese-style display cabinet for his mother’s collection of miniature Japanese figurines and the garage has a special sink his father used to clean fish after returning home from fishing.

The house for two has been a gathering place for the Inaba family since its completion. Inaba, who is the youngest of six siblings, said 10 or so family members would stay at the house for the new year.

The Essence of Japanese Aesthetics
Inaba said most of the residential projects his firm works on are through word of mouth. Some Japanese-style remodeling projects are included among the projects.

“What’s popular are the shoji screen,” he said. “We occasionally get requests for building a traditional ofuro.”

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Don Inaba. courtesy of Don Inaba

For Inaba, being raised in a Japanese American household with strong ties to Japan, he grew up appreciating the serenity of Japanese aesthetics and the incorporation of landscaping and natural building materials such as wood frames. These constructions, however, are not without their own challenges in the United States.

“We had Japanese building joiners work on some projects, but that was hard to convince the building departments that they were safe, since the rules for construction are different from Japan,” Inaba said.

A typical project, he explained, takes anywhere from six months to two years in planning and another four to six months for construction.

“The permit process can cause a headache, but there’s always an enjoyment in seeing your creations made a reality.”

Another challenge in creating a Japanese-style house is working with existing structures when remodeling. Whereas building a new structure from the ground up gives more creative freedom, Inaba said it is hard to create a Japanese-style house through remodeling an existing structure.

“It’s very difficult to incorporate a fusion of design if the elements are not present,” he said. “You rarely have a building that naturally suits Japanese aesthetics. … It all depends on a case-by-case basis.”

Inaba advised that potential clients would expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot for their designs, depending on what they would like to do.

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