Japan House, Home & Garden
Japan's Interior & Exterior Architecture
Find features on the interior and exterior architecture of the Japanese home & garden including everyday, domestic artifacts such as the kotatsu heated table and tatami mats as well as the special characteristics of Japanese buildings and gardens found in temples, shrines and castles such as stepping stones, senbazuru and stone lanterns.
Tatami. Few scents conjure up "Japan" so readily as that prevailing when one first slides open the doors to a tatami-floored room. That scent has hints of warm summer days and cool autumn nights, and something too of a sweet-scented drying hay-crop about it.
New tatami have the stronger fragrance of their finely woven green rush covering. Old tatami have that lingering scent of hay, which is suited to their now tawny yellow appearance, combined with a slight, but pleasant mustiness.
Tatami are rigid board-like mats, used for the flooring of traditional rooms in Japan, twice as long as they are wide; they measure not quite two metres in length (180cm) by just less than one metre in width (90cm).
Kotatsu. The kotatsu is a low table frame, over which a thick quilt is spread, over that a table top is placed, and under which there is some form of heating. In the more distant past this was some kind of charcoal burner, while now it is more typically an electrical element or heat lamp that produces a low, but generous enough heat to keep the feet and legs warm.
Two types of kotatsu are in common usage in Japan, in both restaurants and homes. The first sits directly on the floor, the second (hori-gotatsu) sits over a pit or recess in the floor, providing a space of about 40 cm or so in which to dangle one's legs, more like sitting on a chair. The kotatsu is a cosy place to sit and read, or to chat and to munch mikan (small Japanese oranges), or even to nap.
Kusari-doi Rain Chains
Kusari-doi Rain Chains. As an attractive and functional alternative to the closed downspouts so commonly seen for example in Europe, in Japan there are Kusari-doi. A common quest of overseas shoppers during journeys around Japan, Kusari-doi are not to be found in the likes of souvenir shops here, instead they are to be found only at specialist garden supply shops in Japan, though they are well-represented at on-line stores in the west and in Japan.
The beauty of the Kusari-doi is that it gathers water from the roof and conveys it to the ground whether in a trickle or a flood, and does so artistically, transforming a dull, enclosed downspout into a visually and auditory delight. The chain may consist of chain links or a series of linked cups. In gentle rain the Kusari-doi glitters and flashes with the falling water, and provides a soft trickling sound as accompaniment. In heavy rain, individual trickling droplets are replaced by a rushing of white water. Watching water descend the chain is a pleasant distraction, both relaxing and soothing.
Tokonoma. On entering a traditional Japanese-style room (washitsu) the focal point of the room will not be a hearth or fireplace, as it might be in a western room, with a framed photograph above the fireplace, nor should it be a flat-screen television; no, the focal point is an architectural feature, known as the tokonoma, unique to Japan and redolent with the minimalist art of Zen.
The tokonoma is a classic feature of a tatami room (see above), as is the oshiire, the sliding doors and the paper covered sliding windows or shoji.
Quite simply, the tokonoma is a raised alcove providing a very special space, in which important items are displayed - such as ikebana, bonsai, a favoured piece of pottery, or an artistic or calligraphic scroll.
Japanese Stepping Stones. Stones feature prominently in pathways in Japanese gardens. These stones are typically uneven. Such stone paths force us to walk slowly, with care, to contemplate our path and to admire the ground, and the texture and colour of the stones.
Walking an uneven stone path in a Japanese garden, particularly of stepping stones, makes for precarious footing. That precariousness forces us to slow down, to pause, to look carefully. While stationary, we look around to admire the view, but to proceed we must above all focus on the path itself.
In doing so, we lose sight of ourselves; we become more engaged in our surroundings than in ourselves.
Stone Lanterns. Stone lanterns, or Ishidourou, serve to add to the balance, harmony, and enduring nature of the Japanese garden and have become almost iconic in their significance, and are now popular items even among western gardeners.
Gardens were not, however, the origins of these stone lanterns. Stone lanterns were first used as votive lights. They were introduced to Japan from China via Korea at some time during the 6th century as part of the arriving Buddhist tradition, with the light held in the lamp representing the teachings of the Buddha that help overcome the darkness of ignorance.
As such the lanterns represented important symbolic offerings to the Buddha.
Maneki Neko. Maneki neko, (Beckoning Cats) are depicted with either the right or left paw raised, though occasionally both are shown raised.
Typically placed on a shelf facing the entrance of an inn or restaurant, business owners use them as a good-luck charm to attract in customers and their cash.
Some believe that a Maneki-neko with its left paw raised will draw in customers, whereas one with its right paw raised attracts good fortune and money; though some associate the raised left paw with bars and pubs, and the raised right paw with shops of other kinds.
The matter is further confused because in each case some people believe the opposite. Perhaps that is why some establishments use Maneki-neko with both paws raised - to save any confusion and to attract all kinds of luck, for drinkers and non-drinkers, cash and customers.
Ema. Offerings at shrines used to come in many forms. The wealthy donated horses the symbolic vehicle by which the gods rode down to the shrines, but the expense of that practice led to its demise. The offering of living horses was replaced by offering symbolic horses, painted on rectangular wooden tablets known as Ema (literally 'e' and 'ma' mean a picture horse), shaped as if the angled upper edge is a roof over the horse.
Today, one can find many other animal images depicted on ema, though horses still predominate. The other animals are typically those of the 12-year zodiac : rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar, and each one becomes abundant in turn, depending on the year.
The visitor purchases the ema from the shrine attendants, and so contributes financially to the shrine, and the attendant not only sells it but blesses it too. The illustrations on the front of the ema are done by hand in water-colours, or screen printed, but some are sold blank so that the shrine visitor can produce their very own, unique ema.
The visitor then writes a prayer, though perhaps its better interpreted as a personal wish, on the reverse side of the ema and hangs it, with countless others, on a frame specially designated for that purpose, and from which the kami, the enshrined deities, receive them.
Genkan. However modern the home though, one element of traditional Japanese living is invariably retained, and that is the genkan. The genkan is to be found to this day at many hotels, ryokan, minshuku and pension, at doctors' clinics and dentists' surgeries, at many companies (though rarely shops), at some schools, in traditional restaurants, but most particularly of all at homes of all sizes and styles, whether of the rich and famous or of the low-paid part-time worker.
The genkan is, simply put, where one leaves one's footwear on entering. Like so many elements of Japanese culture, while appearing simple, there is nothing simple about it.
The necessity of removing one's shoes before entering a home, and the tendency to sit on flat cushions on the floor beside low tables, are elements of the past that live on very strongly in modern Japanese lifestyles. The genkan solves the problems of both where to remove one's shoes and where to leave them.
When the front door of a Japanese home is opened, one is greeted first by the host, and indirectly by a rough-floored rectangle, beyond which a low step offers entry on to a carefully floored or carpeted surface. Technically, the genkan , that lower section of floor just inside the door, is a token of 'the outside', whereas when one takes a step up into the home proper, that is 'the inside'.
Omiyage. Gifts in Japan may be given with careful attention paid to the recipient’s interests or needs, though they may also be given out of duty and obligation.
Thus it is common for workers to return from a business trip or a holiday either domestically or overseas with small gifts for their colleagues.
A carefully chosen gift as a memento or keepsake conveys a personal connection in any culture and is much appreciated, but giving a trinket, an ornament or an object places the recipient under the pressure and perhaps even stress of what to do with it (especially if the recipient doesn't actually like it!) What a dilemma!
Senbazuru (One Thousand Cranes)
Senbazuru. Senbazuru literally means 1,000 cranes and refers not to the wild bird, but to its delicate manifestation in paper, in origami.
The challenge of completing a lei of one thousand folded paper cranes is a great one, but said to be rewarded with a wish. Folding a thousand paper cranes on behalf of an ill person indicates the maker's concern and care for the sick person.
A lei of a thousand cranes strung on a thread is a colourful object and is traditionally presented to the ill person so that they may hang them in their room, or given as a wedding gift by a father to his daughter, wishing the newlywed couple a thousand years of happiness.
Slippers. Various establishments, minshuku, pensions and some hotels, will have a line of slippers at the entrance all pointing inwards for ready use. This is a welcoming sign, and there is something very relaxing about trading outer footwear for slippers that is akin to changing out of one's street clothes into yukata - it is both a physical and mental transition towards relaxation!
If you are greeted with a line of slippers, don't be surprised if however many you try on none of them seem to quite fit. Don't even bother asking whether they have larger sizes. I have seen the largest plate-footed sumo wrestler and the most delicately-footed Japanese beauty slipping into identically sized slippers, its not about foot size, its about technique.
Kan Yasuda. As if a minimalist haiku has been transcribed into marble or bronze, Kan's extraordinary pieces seem to create sacred space around them; the subtlety and the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of his work speak loudly. They seem totemic, in keeping with animistic Shinto's sacred sites ringed with plaited straw Shimenawa. Landscapes and observers are drawn in to these sculptures, resting on them, posing within them or viewing their surroundings through the structures and their apertures seems entirely natural. It is no coincidence that Kan's pieces, all on large scales, are erected in public places where visitors are not merely viewers but inter-actors.
There is now a superb sculpture park in his home town of Bibai in Hokkaido about 40 minutes from Sapporo.
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