Modern buildings in Japan are mostly a mish-mash of uninspiring styles, squashed closely together and often shaped according to the land space available. However, as the top international architectural magazines indicate, Japanese architects can also produce world-leading designs to provide striking exceptions to the rule. Traditional Japanese architecture, used in the design and construction of houses, temples, shrines and castles, is a clear sign of humans responding to their natural environment, with its hot, humid summers, heavy rainfall during the rainy season and cold, dry winters. For those with the financial means to afford it, the traditional style of architecture is still the residential building style of choice.
In olden times building materials mostly comprised earth, wood and paper, with some stone supplementing wood for foundations when available. Modern homes built the traditional way still feature these three main materials. Wood is more suited to the vagaries of the seasons, as well as being better able to withstand earthquakes, but in the past was very susceptible to fire. Earth or a clay plaster on lattice is used to make external walls.
Most internal walls comprise either the fusuma or shōji sliding doors, the former covered with an opaque washi paper, the latter with a more transparent white washi paper that allows some light penetration, but obscures vision. Keeping these sliding doors open provides an efficient way of cooling and ventilating. Many such homes also have sudare screens, hung from the eaves to prevent the sun’s rays from entering the home. Heating in these old houses was provided from a centrally located sunken hearth, irori, which often tended to become the focal point of the home.
These building styles and materials mitigate the harsh effects of Japan’s weather extremes: in summer, moisture is absorbed into the earthen walls, the paper sliding doors and the straw tatami mats; in winter, this moisture is released into the room, helping to alleviate the all-pervading dryness of this season. Not only do these materials help improve the internal living environment by counteracting the harshness of weather’s extremes, being all natural they don’t cause any indoor toxins, as can be the case with synthetic materials. Furthermore, when these dwellings reach the end of their useful life, they can be easily demolished and the materials burnt or buried.
Through these design features, even today a traditional style home can provide better protection from the elements than most modern homes, which have poor ventilation, little in the way of insulation and rely mostly on air conditioning for internal climate control. Traditional residences, especially if surrounded by a garden, can convey a wonderful impression of old-world Japanese life.
The historical separation of outside and inside is of architectural significance in the design of Japanese dwellings. Not only was the entrance (genkan) the place where these two spaces were physically separated and shoes removed, it was also the point where thoughts of the outside were shed. The expression used by occupants to greet visitors as they enter the genkan, o-agari kudasai, ‘please step up’, explains both the physical act needed to enter the main part of the home, and the feeling that only then, after stepping up, does the visitor truly enter the premises. As is the case today, flooring in the genkan was always of a kind easily washed and kept clean, such as rock or stone.
Another part of Japanese homes of importance architecturally and culturally is the o-furo, the bath, its nightly use by everyone essential to achieve the highly desired goal of cleanliness, which in Japan equates to something akin to godliness, and the prospect of achieving a state of enlightenment.