A traditional Japanese house is a one- or two-storey wooden architectural construction. When we enter one of these houses, we pass the genkan, where we take off our shoes.
The latticework sliding doors shōji and the tatami floor, made from natural materials, are fundamental elements of a Japanese room and allow for the extensive use of small spaces, making it possible to intelligently adapt the room to the different variations of the Japanese climate. They are houses with good ventilation, although they have their drawbacks when the cold winter arrives.
The place where we take off our shoes
The lifestyle in a Japanese house is marked by the peculiarities of each of its traditional elements: the corridor (engawa) from which you can see the sunny garden, the tatami floor made of reeds, and the fusuma sliding panels that divide the rooms.
The custom of taking off your shoes in the genkan when entering the house has survived even today, despite the increase in the number of Western-style houses. It is in other countries where more and more people are adopting this custom. In the Japanese genkan there is an area known as tataki where you go barefoot.
Traditional Japanese houses have adapted to the frequent earthquakes, typhoons and torrential rains that occur in the country, among other natural disasters. For this reason, the floor inside the house is usually raised above the ground, higher than the genkan, as a means of protection against flooding and abundant humidity.
In the tataki, one can sit on the floor of the house to remove one’s shoes or put them on more easily, and there is also a space known as getabako (literally, the geta box) where shoes are stored.
Japanese houses are also prepared for the rainy season and typhoons. Water falling on the roof slides down the eaves (nokisaki) and is led to the ground or a drainage system through gutters (amadoi) that end in metal boxes attached to chains through which the water slides gently, a typical feature of traditional Japanese architecture. This measure prevents the house from deteriorating due to rain.
Controlling humidity with the tatami, fusuma panels and sliding grille doors shōji
A traditional Japanese room, like those found in samurai movies or in mangas like Botchan no jidai (In Botchan’s time), has fusuma sliding panels and lattice doors shōji made of wood and Japanese paper (washi) that act as walls and are not locked.
To enter the room you first ask permission from outside and then drag the shōji or fusuma with both hands. The fusuma is used to establish divisions between the rooms and can be removed when necessary. Unlike walls, these panels allow you to freely configure the space in the room.
The shōji doors with their wooden grating frames and the Japanese paper that covers them allow screened sunlight to enter the room while preventing the inside of the house from being seen from the outside.
This element, which was created as a measure to adapt to Japan’s hot and humid climate, allows the home to be easily ventilated and is useful for protection from humidity. There are also several types of shōji, a popular one being the so-called yukimi shōji which has a small glass window from which the garden can be viewed.
A tatami, whose raw material is reeds, measures 1.62 ㎡ and is capable of absorbing about 500cc of water, a moisture it releases when the room is dry. When you enter a room with a tatami, the first thing you notice is a faint smell of reeds. The elasticity given to the tatami plant makes it very comfortable to sit or lie on, and not only that, this same natural material also purifies the air in the room.
Every living room in a traditional Japanese house has an important space known as a tokonoma designed to entertain the view of the guests in which a scroll displayed with a calligraphy or a painting is hung, and there is a vase with an ikebana flower arrangement, a censer, or a ceramic, a set that must be representative of the season.
There are no longer so many purely Japanese style rooms, although on the other hand today the Japanese style is very successful within Western-style designs, with small tatami floor spaces to be able to lie down, shōji replacing the curtains and lamps that use Japanese paper. There are many orders from abroad for this type of element.
The furo is separated from the rest of the bathroom
Japanese bathrooms are not like most Western bathrooms where everything is in the same space. In a traditional Japanese bathroom the furo and the toilet are in separate rooms. In the furo part there is a bathtub to immerse the body in hot water and a space to wash the body. Under no circumstances do you enter the soapy bath or wash your body in it.
Immediately outside the furo there is a room to change clothes. In Japanese homes it is common for the whole family to share the bathtub water in turns. If you are invited to a Japanese home, it is important to be careful not to use soap inside the tub or to remove the stopper after using the hot water.
As for the toilet in a separate room, it used to be the squatting style, but today, Western-style toilets with heated cups and high technology are on the rise.
Sleeping in a wood and paper house wrapped in a futon that smells of sun
Although today more and more people sleep in beds, a survey conducted by Nifty also revealed that still 50% of people sleep on futons on tatami, so the number of users of this traditional mattress remains large. Sleeping on a futon allows us to have more space in the room for the rest of the day, since it can be folded and stored in the closet when not in use.
Cleaning the futon is very simple, as it only needs to be taken out into the sun to dry, disinfect and become soft and smooth again. During the winter, which is especially cold in traditional Japanese homes, in addition to using the kotatsu or stove to warm up, it is common to jump from the ofuro to the futon, which has been preheated by a hot water bottle so that it does not get cold.
Staying in old houses restored and converted into hotels or ryokan allows us to travel and enjoy the natural materials and feel how life was in Japan in the past. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience for yourself this hand-made style with wood and paper that has an ancient tradition, a place of rest and peace.