The Shōya House: A 320-year journey back in time to Edo, Japan

AN EDO ERA HOME IN SAN MARINO, CALIF. — The Japanese Heritage Shōya House at its new home. photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

SAN MARINO, Calif. — Since last October, thousands of visitors have been totally immersed in the sights, smells, culture, history and beauty of Japan — all without having to go to Japan.

It’s called the Japanese Heritage Shōya House, a magnificent 320-year-old, 3,000 square-foot house brought to America piece by piece, and then rebuilt on three-quarters of an acre at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in Southern California.

Located in The Huntington’s 113-year-old Japanese Garden in San Marino, the house was the ancestral home of Yohko and Akira Yokoi, who donated their home originally located in Marugame, Japan to The Huntington in 2016. From beginning to end and a global pandemic in between, the project took seven years to complete.

Back in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), Yokoi family members served as village administrators, known as shōya, of a farming district in Marugame located in Kagawa-ken. Their residence functioned as the local town hall, village square and collection center for farmers’ taxes.

“The village administrators were responsible for preserving each year’s seed crop as well as organizing and managing the community,” The Huntington’s Website states.
Generations of the family lived in the house, including Akira, a 19th-generation descendant who lived there for more than 10 years as a child. When his grandmother, the last inhabitant of the house, passed away, it remained unoccupied for 30 years.

In the meantime, the Yokois had moved to Los Angeles and traveled to Marugame twice a year to maintain the house. However, as the couple aged and maintenance costs kept rising, the Yokois thought about preserving their family heritage by converting it into a museum. But then they met Robert Hori, gardens cultural curator and programs director at The Huntington, and began exploring a new option: Donate the house and have it relocated to Southern California.

Once the donation was made, professional carpenters with 30 years of experience studied the house in order to figure out how the ceiling beams and other wooden features were assembled. The house was disassembled on-site in Japan, transported, and then restored and rebuilt in an airplane hangar in Matsuyama to ensure proper fitting before being disassembled again for the move to California.

AN EDO ERA HOME IN SAN MARINO, CALIF. — The Japanese Heritage Shōya House at its new home.
photos courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Fast forward to today, and there it is in all its glory: The gate house, the main house, the courtyard garden (featuring more than 820 original stones and large rocks collected by Yokoi ancestors over the centuries from neighboring islands around the Seto Inland Sea), the dry streambed, koi pond, stone bridge, stone lanterns and a hand-washing basin.

With the addition of rice paddies and other crops outside the house, the property also educates the public about Japan’s agricultural roots and centuries-old methods that focus on reusing and recycling, which resonates with current discussions about sustainability and environmental stewardship.

This educational aspect of the project appealed to the Yokois the most as architects, scholars and general public visitors are now learning about wood beam construction and Japanese building techniques such as constructing buildings without nails.

If all this sounds like a lot, it is, and the public is absolutely loving it.

“When we first opened in October, we were entertaining a thousand guests a day, and it remains popular to this day,” said Andrew Mitchell, curator of material objects at The Huntington. Mitchell traveled to Marugame to meet with the Yokoi family, and took photos and measurements of the property to present to The Huntington community for approval.

“People are amazed. They’re inspired. They’re very interested and they ask a lot of questions,” Mitchell said. “This house has brought a lot more dimension to the Japanese garden. We see families. We see groups and individuals spanning the demographic spread. And when children have been exposed to this we’ve experienced their excitement as something out of a fantasy cartoon relative to martial arts or anime.”

Along with the popularity of anime, Japanese foods, J-Pop, and the recent FX premiere of “Shōgun,” the timing of the Shōya House’s opening couldn’t have better for The Huntington, and according to Mitchell, the sky is the limit as to what the house can offer future guests.

“For example, we can have someone in kimono seated on the floor talking to the guests. She could show samples of their tally books, writing tools and abacus, and the tools the clerks used to do transactions in that room. Or we can have someone dressed as a cook demonstrating Japanese cooking techniques in the kitchen.”

But for now, a docent-guided tour and walk through the house has been enough for guests to be “just ebullient in how much this house inspires them,” said Mitchell, “as they take in the house and the smell of the tatami and just say, ‘Wow!’”

The Japanese Heritage Shōya House at The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108. For info and reservations, visit https://huntington.org/.

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