What Does A Traditional Japanese House Look Like From The Inside-out?

Japanese culture and home architecture has always fascinated me, the idea of a simple and yet perfectly refined dwelling space.

Of course, you can find tonnes of modern buildings in Japan but the ones I am in interested in are classically inspired and based on the best of Japanese traditional style.

Here are some fascinating facts about Japanese housing.

Image by: Rennet Stowe

A temporary deal

Did you know that most Japanese buildings were actually built to be temporary? The general lifespan for a traditional wooden building is only twenty years, and thirty for the concrete ones.

What sets these houses apart from others is that there are only a few rooms with a designated use – the general entrance area, known as a ‘genkan’ in Japanese, and the bathroom and kitchen areas.

The Japanese do not differentiate between rooms such as the bedroom, living room, study or dining room because in Japan the whole ‘living room’ (or i-ma) is seen as a space to be lived in. They achieve this by clever use of paper wall partitioning, called ‘fusuma’.

So, the i-ma is just one large space of a traditional house and the designated rooms serve as little extensions off of the main room.

Sliding doors

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The ‘fusuma’ is a simple sliding door made from a frame of wood and paper, they are easily portable and can be arranged in a variety of ways to alter the structure of the house on a temporary basis.  A whole mini-section of the house can be partitioned off to make a spare room or study for example. Further, the walls are also portable.

Because of the wide range of uses for the rooms, a lot of the necessary furniture is super-movable – that’s why you won’t find any heavy oak dining tables or grandfather clocks in a Japanese house! The furniture is often stored in a large closet area called an ‘oshiire’.

Running along the edge of most houses are thin corridors called ‘r?ka’ and these are partitioned from the i-ma by different kind of sliding doors, called ‘shoji’. The paper used to make shoji is much thinner than that used to make the fusuma; this is because the fusuma also acted as “windows”, and thus had to let in more light.

At night, the roka are filled with portable wooden boards to make the house secure. A traditional house would have a distinctive roof, extended outwards to ensure protection from the rain, but during typhoon season, the house is usually sealed off completely with wooden partitioning.The roofs themselves are made of clay and wood, and on top they can be either tiled or thatched.

Under your feet

On the floors inside the dwellings, you would find a mat called a ‘tatami’, made of straw, although more and more now they are being replaced by tiles and also wooden flooring. For many, it is considered rude to step onto the tatami with shoes so it’s best to remove footwear when inside a Japanese house.

Despite bitter winters, most traditional houses would not have anything resembling our central heating systems. They use oil, gas and electric ovens and air conditioning units to heat each room, as required. They are pretty eco-friendly in the traditional way, as they only tend to heat the area they need and are always switched off at night.

The ‘kotatsu’ is a heated table around which people sit for meals, and is a very popular piece of furniture with the Japanese during winter time!

Now I want to know from you:

Have you ever visited Japan? – What is it that you loved about the place?

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Gavin Harvey adores travelling and learning all that a specific region has to offer. He has travelled all over South-East Asia, Australia and Japan and writes about what he sees via his blogs. He writes for a number of clients such as the Great Furniture Trading Company.

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