Why Japanese Architecture Is How It Is

In Asia, Stories
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There is no shortage of things to rave about in Japan — from the fresh fish to the epic skiing, it’s a country everyone should be fortunate enough to experience — but one of the most intriguing parts of the dynamic island is the architecture, and, in particular, the Japanese houses.

Architecture guides around the world will take you on detailed and mind-blowing tours of their city’s most interesting buildings, but while architecture guides in Spain focus on the fascinating Sagrada Família, a large and unique Basilica in the heart of Barcelona, architecture guides in Turkey take you to the iconic Hagia Sophia, a former Greek-Orthodox-church-turned-imperial-mosque.

Architecture guides in Italy leave you jaw-dropped with informative trips to the likes of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral and Giotto’s Campanile, a free-standing bell tower, to name just a few specialists and locations. Sightseeing guides in Japan will show you traditional houses that, although simple in appearance, embody great meaning.

Architectural tours are worth your every while, but just like Japanese cuisine and the Japanese community in general, there’s something special about Japanese architecture. Read on to learn some fascinating tidbits pertaining to the design decisions behind traditional homes in Japan. Next, hire a guide in Japan; on your adventures together, you’ll learn all sorts of fascinating facts pertaining to the country’s unique constructs.

The Floor

Japanese houses may be simple, but they do not lack precision; each element is well thought out to create longstanding, headache-and-hassle-free dwellings. To begin, the main floor is elevated to avoid the ground’s damaging moisture, an architectural trick that also helps to keep the interior warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. But interesting facts about the floor of Japanese homes don’t stop there: did you know that kitchens and hallways traditionally have wooden floors, while living rooms and hallways — rooms where people sit — have tatami floors, or floors covered in mats made of woven rice straw. Why tatami? It all boils down to comfort: since people in Japan typically sit directly on the floor, as opposed to in chairs (side note: this is why it’s customary to wear slippers in place of street shoes indoors), original builders wanted to introduce a material that was both durable and soft. Another fun fact is that tatami mats aren’t just for flooring; because they are of a standard size — 5 feet, 10 inches by 3 feet in and around Tokyo, and 191cm by 95.5cm in Western Japan — they’re used to advertise the size of rooms in real estate listings. For example, a sale listing may read, “One six-tatami Japanese-style room.”

The Frame

The frames of Japanese houses are wooden, and their main intention is to support the large roofs and deep eaves, two features that protect the houses from the roasting rays of the summer sun. At first, the frames were constructed with horizontal beams and vertical columns, but, thanks to technological (and architectural) advancements in foreign countries, they now include diagonal braces.

The Walls

Today, walls are mostly made with plywood, but before efficiency became the name of the game, they were made of woven bamboo plastered with soil on both sides. Instead of having many delineated rooms, as is the case with Western homes, houses in Japan contain many sliding doors (made of wood and paper, the latter of which is is very thin to enable outside light to pass throughout) that act as partitions, and they’re simply removed when more space is needed. Only the kitchen area and bathrooms are made with solid walls.

The Roof

As is the case anywhere, roofs in Japan come in all shapes and sizes, but they’ve all got one thing in common: a slant, allowing rainwater to flow off easily. Besides that fun tidbit, it’s interesting to learn that, historically, roofs were covered with shingles or straw, but these days most are covered with tiles, and largely for the sake of reducing fire-risk. Similarly, to reduce the risk of fire, framing columns are now encased in walls, a move that started in the Meiji era.

The Genkan

Contrary to what you may think, genkans are not Japan’s version of gherkins, or those small pickled cucumbers. Rather, they’re the recessed entry areas into Japanese homes, the areas where shoes are removed before entering the home. The genkan is a crucial part to any Japanese house because it is customary to switch into slippers before proceeding further into the interior; since seating is often restricted to the floor, it must be kept clean of street-dirt.

The (Infamous) Bathroom

The most important thing to know about Japanese toilets is that, upon entering the room, one must switch out of his or her house-slippers into a pair of bathroom-specific ones. Another fun fact is that the shower and bathtub are separate; the shower is used for washing one’s body, while the bathtub is used for soaking, and the water in the tub is usually reused for washing clothing.  If you’re looking for more interesting architecture, why not check out a treehouse?

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