10 Features in a Traditional Japanese House

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Japanese carpentry has been developed for more than 1000 years. Here are 10 common features that you can find in a traditional Japanese house.

Unlike western home plans, apart from the bathrooms, entrance and kitchen area, any other rooms in  a traditional Japanese house can be used as bedroom, dining room, living room and study room.

1. Made of wood

photo credit: https://www.toriikenchiku.com/

Traditional Japanese houses are made out of wood. Japanese prefer natural materials for construction and they select wood as the material to keep the houses cool during summer. Kenko, who is a Buddhist monk and author, said that “A house should be built with summer in mind. In winter it is possible to live anywhere, but a badly made house is unbearable when it gets hot.’’ It’s an interesting fact that instead of building houses to enjoy a warm winter, Japanese build houses to enjoy a cool summer.

Another interesting fact is that the construction of traditional Japanese house is totally nail-free; there is no a single nail used for the entire building. With high-qualitied woods that are carefully selected, the skilled carpenters use a joinery technique called Kanawa Tsugi (金輪継) to join the wooden beams together. It might sound unbelievable but the traditional Japanese buildings made by this technique last for centuries and centuries untill today.

Refer to the video to watch how Japanese carpenters use this Kanawa Tsugi technique to join the wooden beams:

2. Tatami 畳

The flooring material used in traditional Japanese houses is called tatami. Tatami are long mats made with woven straw used to filled up the rooms. The colour of a new tatami is green, and as time goes by it can turn to yellow or brown. Tatami also carries a consistent and natural scent of freshness from its material, rice straw, which is very comforting. Tatami is a perfect flooring material for its natural features to keep the house cool during summer while keeping the house warm during winter.

Gentle reminder: remember to remove your shoes before entering a room with tatami.

3. Shoji 障子

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Shoji are sliding doors which function to separate between rooms or as window covering. They are made with a layer of translucent Japanese paper covering one side of the lattice bamboo frames. The Japanese paper used in making shoji is very unique that it allows the soft glow of light to enter the room yet not transparent to see through. Unlike fusuma, shoji are generally plain white without any paintings on it. However, the paper on shoji can be easily torn and can be a bit costly and troublesome to repair.

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4. Fusuma 襖

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Fusuma are sliding doors which function to separate between rooms. Fusuma are made with a few layers of Japanese papers and lastly covered by a fusuma paper or fabric. Unlike shoji, fusuma are thicker. They are generally opaque and painted with sceneries such as forests, mountains and animals in a light background. Usually a fusuma consists of a minimum of four doors and when it’s closed it looks like a big picture of beautiful scenery. If you go to castles or temples in Japan, remember to observe the beauty of  fusuma’s art.

5. Genkan 玄関

photo credit: https://www.motom-jp.com/2020/05/23/

Genkan literally means the entrance hall that serves as an area to remove your shoes before stepping inside the house. Genkan is generally located inside the building just in front of the main door. There are usually shelves at the side of it and its often one step lower than the main level of the house.

6. Engawa 縁側

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Engawa is a hallway that surrounds a traditional Japanese house. Its function is to separate the interior from the garden outside of the house. It’s a space made with wood or bamboo and without tatami mats. Engawa can be either totally enclosed or totally opened.

The side of engawa facing the front yard is usually opened and serves as a space for guests and family members to relax, have snacks and drinks, take a rest, or just simply enjoy the weather and the garden view. It can also serve as a space for other casual events. If you have noticed, it’s quite a common place for Japanese drama or anime’s scenes to take place.

photo credit: http://blog.livedoor.jp/nichirou/archives/53676114.html
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7. Oshiire 押入れ

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Oshiire is a closet with sliding door. Its function is to store the bedding, pillows and other things. It is normally divided by a shelf in the middle. Unlike a normal western closet, oshiire can be very deep and spacious, it can store a lot of things.

If you have watched Doraemon, it’s a space where Doraemon likes to sleep in. However, in real life, it’s not designed as a sleeping space.

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8. Ofuro お風呂

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Ofuro means Japanese bath or bathtub. Ofuro is one of the important cultures in Japanese’s lifestyle, it’s very rare to find a Japanese house without ofuro. However, in Japan, the purpose of taking a bath is not for hygience but for relaxation. Usually, Japanese take a shower to clean themselves before taking a bath. Unlike a western bathtub, ofuro is very deep which the water level can usually reach one’s shoulders.

9. Futon 布団

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Futon is a traditional Japanese bedding that consists of a mattress and blanket. It’s used on the floor in a traditional Japanese room as a bed. Its soft enough to be folded and stored inside the oshiire during day time, and only unfolded and set up during night time, so that during day time the room can serve for another purpose.

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10. Kusaridoi 鎖樋

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Kusaridoi can be translated to rain chain. It can be found in traditional Japanese houses and buildings such as temples. Kusaridoi serves as a downspout to distribute the rain from roof gutter downwards to a drain or container to gather for later use. It is typically chained vertically. Kusaridoi can come in different designs but usually in the shapes of cups or chains. Kusaridoi is both functional and decorative. It’s something very attractive to see on a sunny day while elegant to see on a rainy day.

Refer to the video below for a kusaridoi on a rainy day: