Jikka, the fairy tale dwarf home for Japan’s seniors

Story highlights

Jikka, a collection of five huts in Japan, is a private home built in 2015

Nobuko Suma and Sachiko Fujioka live and operate a service offering the elderly lunchboxes

CNN  — 

Viewed from afar it looks like something magical: A fairy tale village, a group of dwarf houses, or a tiny music festival. But in reality, this cluster of five hilltop teepees in Japan’s eastern Shizuoka prefecture, 115 miles (185 kilometers) from the capital of Tokyo, is actually a private retirement home.

Dubbed Jikka, meaning “parents home” in Japanese, it belongs to Nobuko Suma and Sachiko Fujioka, two women in their 60s who decided to build their dream retirement home.

“We were worried that in the future someone would have to take care of us,” Suma tells CNN.

“Considering we were like-minded and had worked together in the past, we started talking about how our two families could help each other out and care for the elderly.” In 2014, they commissioned Nobuko’s son, the Tokyo-based architect Issei Suma, to build them a multi-purpose home, with architectural quirks to help them live out their days in style.

Old friends

Suma and Fujioka met 25 years ago, and for a decade worked together in the welfare sector in Tokyo, where they made and delivered lunch boxes to handicapped people.

While taking a drive in the Shizuoka area 15 years ago they came across a plot of land that was up for sale. They had already been thinking about building a retirement home outside the city.

The Jikka home in Shizuoka.

“Our intuition told us that ‘this is it’, so we decided it had to be here,” Nobuko says.

Shizuoka is famously home to Mount Fuji, and renowned for its tea production. In the 1980s and 90s it became a sought-after retreat for city-dwellers looking to escape Tokyo, while more recently it’s also proven to be a popular retirement spot for the baby boomer generation.

“It’s warm, the air is fresh, the water is delicious and there are plenty of vegetables,” Nobuko says. “The land is old, but there are a lot of people who emigrated here so there are a lot of aspects about this place that charmed us.”

Building for the future

Construction of Jikka began in 2014. The complex covered 20,451 square feet (1,900 square meters) and cost $535,000. Work was completed the following year.

The design took into account their residents’ future: there are no stairs in the property, while the spiral-shaped bath was built with a ramp for wheelchair access.

The bath's spiral design, pictured from above.

Extensive cooking facilities were also included – because Suma and Fujioka haven’t fully retired just yet. For the past two years, they have been running a food delivery service for elderly people. A dining room sits in the heart of the five huts with a 26-feet (8-meter) high ceiling.

Nobuko spends her time baking cakes and breads as well as growing flowers, while Fujioka focuses on preparing meals for the elderly.

A lunch prepared by Suma and Fujioka.

In the future, the women hope to open up their property to the community.

“Perhaps 10 or so years from now, the elderly could stay here to be cared for,” Nobuko says.

“I think it’s a trend (in Japan) for younger people to move outside of the city and have a happier life outside of the city,” Issei Suma tells CNN. “One thing I can imagine is that, after my mother, younger people can run the facility. If it’s good for older people it should be good for (others) too.”

Suma says in order to save space, he designed the jacuzzi to accommodate wheelchairs.

“I came up with the spiral shape which enables you to use a wheelchair and go down it. At the same time, it’s a great pool for kids and it’s going to be a great jacuzzi for couples, too.

“That’s my idea of universal design – it’s something that makes every generation happy.”

The dining room at Jikka, pictured from outside the home.

A different kind of senior housing

“When they approached me about this house and their concept, they told me this was going to be their final abode,” Issei says. “They were going to serve the community and live here for the rest of their lives.

“They told me they did not want anything fancy – nothing embellished, (or) trying to be cool – but something that is down to earth.”

Issei felt particularly inspired by the term “down to earth”: it reminded him of Stone Age pit dwellings that are often found across Japan. “That to me is un-embellished living,” he explains.

Jikka's unique exteriors have led to it being nicknamed "big dwarf house" by some, says Issei.

The “back-to-nature” ethos is reflected in Jikka’s design.

The unusual shape of the home echoes the mountain ranges it’s surrounded by, while the use of wood is intended to blend in with the 820-feet (25-meter) high zelkova trees that encircle the site.

“I like the idea that … the wood will be weathered and over time it will dissolve into the landscape,” explains Issei.

High ceilings and airy rooms flooded with natural light is a major feature in the home.

“Chapel-like” high ceilings not only bring in an abundance of natural light into the space – for the architect, they are also symbolic of old age.

“In that sense, it might make sense that a person that might move out here and live here in a primitive hut – by the end of their life they can somehow grow up to the roof to the ceiling to the sky.

“And maybe to heaven.”