Yusuhara is a small town in Kochi Prefecture with a population of a few thousand people. This in and of itself is not terribly noteworthy, as there are thousands of little towns around Japan that, on paper, seem very similar. What sets this charming mountain town apart is the presence of six dramatic buildings designed by the world-famous architect Kengo Kuma.
The most recent of the six is the Yusuhara Town Library, which is known in Japanese as the “library above the clouds.” Completed in 2018, this book-lover’s haven is perhaps the crown jewel among the six buildings. Its airy structure is open to book-lovers and curious visitors, and glows with polished cedar surfaces. The ceiling looks like an upside down forest, with crisscrossing beams that create an interplay of light and shadow.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes at door, much like one would do at home in Japan. The multiple levels and cunning little dioramas create an environment that encourages exploration. While there are few English books, visitors are welcome to bring their own reading material and relax at the small cafe’ inside. The library is open all day, and is clearly an important meeting place for members of Yusuhara’s community.
So how did this remote hamlet come to be home of such an illustrious architectural gem? Yusuhara’s former mayor happened to be good friends with the architect. Kuma was just starting to gain notoriety outside of Japan for his minimalist, concrete-based structures, and the mayor asked him to create a building for Yusuhara featuring locally sourced wood, as forestry was one of Yusuhara’s major industries. Kuma took up the challenge enthusiastically, and through the process came to discover the beauty of using natural materials, drawing inspiration from the local wooden kabuki theater. It is said that his time creating Yusuhara’s structures was a major turning point in his designs, which have since become famous for their abundant use of wood.
Besides admiring the library, visitors can stay in two different hotels designed by Kuma. The more budget friendly option is Michi-no-eki, which serves as both a hotel and a community market, and is sided with thick layers of straw thatch. The pricier option is Kumo-no-Ue-no Hotel, connected to the massive wooden bridge-shaped art gallery also designed by Kuma. The remaining Kuma-designed buildings are the Town Office and an elegant welfare facility tucked behind the library.
Yusuhara is also home to a shrine with a rather lovely long bridge, and a hiking course that retraces the escape route of the local hero Ryoma Sakamoto. The high altitude and clear skies also make for some great stargazing, and in the nearby mountains is Kamikoya, where visitors can learn how to make handmade washi (Japanese paper) from a master of the craft.