An orange traffic cone is the only clue that there's a driveway on this rural road in Aptos - and the driveway appears to soar into space. What a surprise it is then, once you've navigated the sharp downhill turn, to find a Japanese country home tucked in among the trees at the head of a valley. Although new, it seems to have always belonged here.
""We wanted it to honor the site and be reflective of the environment,"" Cindy Rubin says of the ""green"" house she and husband Brian Rosenthal built. The sleek style of their new home is a departure for the couple, who had lived in a 1920s Saltbox Colonial in Los Altos for 23 years. They traded their traditional furniture and double-hung windows for Asian artifacts and shoji-like windows and doors. ""It was time for slowing down and a simpler way of life,"" says Rubin, who had dreams of moving to the country.
The property on Trout Gulch Road was the answer to that dream, although they still commute over the hill. She is a public affairs consultant for Santa Clara County and UC Santa Cruz; he teaches biology at James Lick High School in San Jose. However, he took two years off from work to help build their Japanesestyle house. They chose this style of architecture because ""it speaks to peace and simplicity and a reverence for beauty and nature,"" Rubin says.
Architect Clarke Shultes of Santa Cruz cautioned them to ""keep the house honest,"" and they did. For example, they gave up the idea of an interior water wall because it was ""contrived."" The house is built of natural elements - slate, granite, marble. ""There is no tile anywhere,"" Rubin says. The radiant-heated floors are black Brazilian slate, which, in some light, appears almost graygreen. Because the slate flows to the outdoors, the house and patio appear as one. The goal was to create ""a transparency between inside and outside."" Honed Absolute Black granite is used for kitchen surfaces, honed slate for bathroom countertops and travertine marble for bathroom walls.
With the exception of the bedrooms, the house essentially is one large open space, visually divided into ""rooms"" by the ceiling treatment. The entry has a flat ceiling, much lower than that of the living area. ""It's like entering a typical Japanese home,"" Rubin says. But there's nothing typical about the wood-framed vaulted ceiling that draws the eye into the living area from the entry. From it hangs a copperchandelier, hand crafted by Chris Brightman of Santa Cruz and based on a Japanese wall hanging. The ceiling is covered with crushed bamboo - a renewable resource - and illuminated not only by the chandelier but also by soffit lighting that makes the bamboo glow. Crushed bamboo is also used on bedroom ceilings.
A stainless-steel hood, suspended over a large island with a Viking cooktop, delineates the kitchen; a wood beam sets off the dining area. Japanese-style wood lattice serves as a transition between the open area and the hallways leading to the bedrooms. One of the hallways is similar to an engawa or walkway that's a transition between indoors and out: The length of one side opens to an outdoor dining area. The warm cinnamon-colored wood used throughout the house is fir, ""what you'd see in a typical Japanese home,"" according to Rubin.
The built-in fir cabinetry on one wall of the entryway is especially striking. The tonsu-like unit, which houses a coat closet and cabinets, has hand-forged wrought iron pulls that are copies of antique tansu hardware. In lighted recessed areas above the cabinets, Rubin has displayed some treasures - a carved Buddha and an heirloom geisha doll. Opaque glass that resembles rice paper lends a distinctive touch to kitchen cabinet doors. The cabinets have lights inside, providing an ambient glow.
Speaking of lights, Rosenthal designed and installed the computerized lighting system. ""You don't just turn on the lights, you turn on a scene,"" says Rubin, who says she wishes she had an operating manual for the house. Rosenthal als helped with the plumbing and wiring. The general contractor was Greg Howerton of Santa Cruz.
Perhaps the pièce de resistance of the house is the sliding glass doors that telescope into the wall of the living room area, leaving no wall at all. It is open to the woodsy glory of the outdoors. A cast concrete fireplace adds warmth to the room. The doors, as well as the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining area, resemble shoji screens with their wood frames and detailing. There's another special touch in the dining area - a Japanese plaster wall with imbedded straw in it for depth. Peter James of Artisan Finishes was the plasterer. The master bath has a Japanese spa-like feel. Stone pebbles form the floor of the shower, which has a glass wall separating it from an easily accessed deck and hot tub. A stone slab serves as a ledge in the shower.
Rubin attributes her passion for the Japanese aesthetic to her father, who was part of the post-war occupying force in Japan and, as such, developed an appreciation for its culture. ""Here he was a cavalry officer from Brooklyn, riding a mule in Japan,"" she says. His riding boots are in her office closet.
Because of its location, the exterior of the house is stucco for low maintenance and as a nod to the environment. The garage doors are covered with copper sheeting, rather than paint, because of their southern exposure. Solar panels provide energy. Landscaping is drought-tolerant and supposedly deer resistant. But given the wooded surroundings in this very private space with its view toward the Pacific, it's unlikely that the deer will resist paying a visit.