Have you ever just wanted to make something on your own? I'm guessing you have, but I'm also guessing that on your list of possible options you never included 'apartment building'. Kanou Sawada (1927-2003) is probably in the minority of hobby apartment builders in the world, and Kochi is lucky to have such a unique building, called the Sawada Mansion, as a result of his dream.
The construction began in 1971, and it seems to be a neverending work in progress. This imperfect looking white building, composed of awkward angles and plant life that appears to be built right into the structure, represents an incredibly independent spirit that many Kochi locals take pride in. The almost ironic juxtaposition of the Starbucks and Tsutaya DVD Rental across the street only enhance the unique qualities of Sawada Mansion. It also highlights the rapid exchange of trading individual thoughts with the prepackaged concepts of globalization.
Sawada Mansion houses about 100 people, 80% of which are now elderly. When asking my guide how the lack of elevator affected the life of the aging community, he simply replied that the ramps leading up to every floor have only become great rehabilitation for most. They have never had an injury (which is surprising given the combination of elderly, young children, and the number of obvious dangers the moment you start looking around).
The other 20% of residents are a much younger, artistic bunch, taking great pride in what Mr. Sawada accomplished. One resident makes amazing ivory carvings and is usually commissioned out by big clients—one being the Imperial Family of Japan. Another artisan, a carpenter, has his workshop on the top floor and is known for making free furniture for residents in the apartment when they need something. He cuts the wood and brings it back himself.
In addition to the artistic vibe of the building, also stopf by to enjoy a small cafe called Chubby's, a little gallery featuring all of the activities of the Sawada community, and the aikido dojo in the basement.
Other interesting features include a very large roof-top garden where they grow everything from rice to vegetables and even raise chickens. Next to the garden is a pond with ducks, positioned under a large, hand crafted crane (seriously, it's made of random metal items welded together) that's used for lifting heavy items up to the roof for gardening or other building tasks.
As far as activities goes, it is a very lively community, and there are some families with young children there, so they try to plan fun activities for them. This includes having curry night for all the families to come out and enjoy, arts and crafts, or even turning the dojo into a movie theater.
Usually during the last weekend in August, there is an event gaining popularity called Sawada Sonic. Last year they had some fairly famous musicians and comedians down, as well as a portable shrine (like those that are carried on shoulders during other Japanese festivals)--the only difference being that this shrine was carrying an enormous, green block of jello. 1500 people made it out this year, and I will definitely be with them next year to catch this bizarre sounding event.
The residents are also very used to having random people come walk around the apartment building and are very welcoming and friendly. Also, if there's anyone in the gallery, they will offer to guide you around the place for free (no English, unfortunately).
Sawada Mansion should be on your list of places to see when you come to Japan. It really is amazing, and the community there is something for the rest of us to aspire to.