Yoshida-ryo: Dilapidated, decrepit and downright dirty

Yoshida-ryo: Dilapidated, decrepit and downright dirty

A peek inside the Kyoto University dormitory first built in 1913 that still houses student squatters for the ultra low price of ¥2,500 a month. No wonder it looks like this
The satellite view of Yoshida-ryo on Google Earth shows the overall structure of the dormitory.

At the southern edge of Kyoto University's Yoshida Campus in Kyoto lies a tree-shrouded, sprawling and ramshackle wooden building. It is decrepit and sometimes even interweaved with overgrowth. But this building is no ruin. It's the Yoshida-ryo dormitory -- a bewildering anachronism in a city based on the idea of living history.

Nearly a century old, and looking every day of it, Yoshida-ryo is very likely the last remaining example of the once common Japanese wooden university dormitory. This building was built in 1913. Organized from the very beginning to be self-administering through a dormitory association (寮自治会), the students themselves have been responsible for selecting new applicants for residency. This autonomy, however, came under full-scale assault in 1971, when the Ministry of Education began a policy of regulating or closing dormitories, which were seen as "hotbeds for various kinds of conflict." University authorities first tried to close Yoshida-ryo completely in 1979, and after failing to overcome opposition over the next 10 years finally closed the Western Yoshida-ryo across the street.

With the death of Japan's violent student activism, the campaign to close the dormitory subsided for a time, but in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake there were new calls to replace the poorly aged building, which had already seen its maintenance neglected for decades by a university that had wanted to demolish it.

At present, the future of the dormitory is unclear. While residents have performed some minor upgrades over the years, such as the haphazard stringing of Ethernet cables through the halls to each room, they have only recently begun discussing the possibility of performing serious repairs themselves. There has even been some discussion of bypassing the university and applying for historical building preservation funds, although the building may be considered too far gone for proper restoration, particularly while still being lived in.

The university has recently been fairly insistent on their plan to replace it with a new, safer structure, which fits in with their aggressive earthquake-proofing campaign. But the current administration seems unlikely to take extreme action along the lines of Tokyo University's demolition of Komaba-ryo in 2001, when its residents were literally dragged out of the building by over 570 private security guards and university staff in the midst of a raging typhoon.

Originally only housing male undergraduates, Yoshida-ryo went coed in 1985, started accepting foreign students in 1990, and since 1991 has accepted any sort of Kyoto University affiliated student, including graduate students, with some current residents living there from their freshman year all the way through the end of graduate school.

While the facilities are sub-par by modern standards, the unbelievably low rent of ¥2,500 per month (technically ¥400 rent, ¥1,600 utilities and ¥500 to fund the Yoshida-ryo Residents Association) and bohemian atmosphere make it an attractive living place for financially challenged students (including a large number of self financed students, both Japanese and foreign, many of whom are from China).

Visiting Yoshida-ryo

Yoshida-ryo is located on the northeast corner of the intersection of Higashiyama and Konoe Streets in Kyoto City. As Yoshida-ryo is a working school dormitory and not a museum, visitors should not wander around the interior of the buildings, but students hanging out near the main entrance are often willing to give a quick tour of the public areas if asked politely.

For the frugal and adventurous traveler, it is often possible to sleep on the floor of one of the large (and admittedly pretty filthy) common rooms for a nominal fee of ¥200 per night, although at the beginning of the semester these areas are sometimes used to temporarily house new residents before rooms are assigned and may not be available for guests.

The front entrance to Yoshida-ryō.

PA system in the reception room. Although it seems to be powered, I am not aware of it having been used in recent memory.

While little of the building is in as poor a state of disrepair as the front wall of the cafeteria, this is a striking example of how badly repairs are needed for Yoshida-ryō to survive. This is also the first area that residents (and former residents) will try to repair themselves, as a pilot project to see if the plan is at all realistic.

The architecture is fairly typical for similarly utilitarian buildings of early 20th century Japan.

The plumbing works, but it could use a paint job.

The videogame room is one of the many common areas in Yoshida-ryō. Others include the mahjong room, manga library, billiards room, cafeteria, and of course the entrance area.

Another view of the videogame room.

Rooms may be small, but there are decades of accumulated entertainment media to amuse those who can''t find the space to keep their own.

Despite the mess, fresh groceries are a common site in Yoshida-ryō.

The mahjong room.

The area surrounding the dormitory is also not maintained by the school.

Electrical wiring, and of course Ethernet, is a later addition. The hallways are used for appliances and other storage to save space, and cooking stations are located there.

The exposed veranda and large number of windows reminds us that this dormitory shares the same approach to airflow as traditional Japanese homes.

A typical room, currently unassigned. Notice that it has doors leading to the inner hallway and directly outside.

Same room, inside. The floor area is six tatami mats, although the actual tatami in some rooms has been removed to expose the bare wood.

A cooking area can be seen on the right hand side of the frame.

A temporary food/drink tent set up just outside Yoshida-ryō during one of their festivals.

College students building robots in the cafeteria of a century-old decrepit Japanese dormitory is a scene that should be in a William Gibson novel.

The kitchen of the old cafeteria is now mainly used as a band rehearsal space. There is a sign-up sheet by the door, and reservations can also be made by non-residents with advance permission.

A scene from a play, on a stage erected in the old cafeteria. The space is frequently used for parties and performances.

Roy Berman hails from New Jersey and has worked and studied in Kyoto and Taipei for most of the period since 2002. He is currently a graduate student at Kyoto University, studying the history of education in Japan and Japanese colonies. He is founder of and contributor to the Japan-focused Mutantfrog Travelogue blog.
Read more about Roy Berman