Japan House & Home: Tokonoma
Japanese Culture: Tokonoma 床の間
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, 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. It is not, as some foreign guests have mistakenly assumed, the place to set one's suitcase; nor is it a place to sit or stand; no, this recess borders on the sacred.
The fact that the tokonoma is raised slightly from the floor, in much the same way that the floor of the room is raised above the level of the entrance or genkan, is an indication of its higher status, within the architecture of the house, and is perhaps direct evidence of its early religious connotations.
Prior to about 1190, the focal point of a priest's home was a private altar or butsudan; such a feature can sometimes be found in homes even today, though it is reduced in scale and often on a shelf up high, close to the ceiling.
During the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), the narrow butsudan alcove, with its altar table, flowers and Buddhist scroll, was adapted and transformed into a more popular alcove in which works of art could be displayed. Gone was the incense burner, and the votive candle, and these were replaced with treasured items of art.
The focal point, provided by the tokonoma is not fixed through time, unlike the prized picture that may hang over the mantel piece in the west, the art displayed in the raised alcove will be changed, perhaps as regularly as the seasons, while the flower arrangement will be changed more frequently, perhaps placed there only very temporarily for a special occasion.
Another architectural feature of the tokonoma, however modest in its construction, is that on one side it will be bordered by a pillar or raw trunk of wood often with distinctive grain or slightly protruding texture.
Today the tokonoma is much abused, and not only be foreign guests. Some hotels use it for the telephone, others for the television; in some homes it is used to display replicas of the pairs of swords worn in the past by samurai, and for oversized children's toys. Traditionally though, it remains a vital part of domestic architectural design.
Although the focus for the room, Japanese people are, and wish to appear, modest, and so, despite the tokonoma housing perhaps their finest artworks, visiting guests are politely seated facing away from it, so that the hosts do not appear to be immodestly showing off.
The art, in displaying art in the alcove, is not to clutter the space; its uncluttered nature serves instead to create a sense of space. Seated on the floor beside the alcove, the natural elements of the room, the rush-covered tatami, the wooden pillar, the paper shoji, the byobu screen, all provide links through their materials or their imagery to archetypal nature.
This nature is the managed nature of Japan, so exquisitely revealed in the arrangement of a traditional garden by a master gardener, not the raw nature of Japan, which in contrast is found in the mountainous landscape.
An uncluttered room, however small, and an uncluttered tokonoma, create a sense of spaciousness that is further refined by the view out to the garden (where one exists) just beyond the room, suggesting that what is in the room is merely part of the larger world outside.
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