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Ultimate Guide to Traditional Japanese House

Guide to the Traditional Japanese House

By Norie Matsumoto | November 24, 2021

If you're interested in Japanese culture, you probably want to know about traditional Japanese homes. Historically, architecture in Japan was influenced by Chinese architecture. Traditional Japanese homes are called Minka 民家, "house of the people". You may have seen them in anime or television shows, they are characterized by sliding doors and elements of nature. 

Nowadays, in urban areas like Tokyo, houses have become more modernized but there are still many traditional structures remaining. In this article, you will become familiar with the variety of traditional Japanese houses, what they’re made of, and how you can have one like them yourself. 

This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on living in Japan.

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    What are the unique features of a Japanese home?

    Japanese traditional houses have some distinct features that set them apart from any other. Here is what you should look for, to identify them:

    • 障子・Shoji - Surprisingly, Japanese houses didn’t really use glass in their builds. Instead, natural lighting came in from sliding panels that were made of semi-transparent paper on wooden frames. They were used both indoors and outdoors as doors, walls, and windows. It diffuses the natural light from the outside so it gives a nice soft glow indoors. These Shoji are quite delicate, something young Japanese kids sometimes do, including me when I was a kid at my grandma’s house, is poking the paper panels with a finger so that it makes a hole in it. Definitely don't try it yourself because you’ll get in trouble! 
    • 縁側・Engawa - This is an outside corridor that goes around a traditional Japanese house, this was done in the past to keep space between the fragile Shoji panels and rain. Not all traditional Japanese houses have these but more expensive ones do. 
    • お風呂・Ofuro - This is Japanese for a bath. This is in almost all traditional Japanese houses as many Japanese people, especially older ones love taking baths over showers. The Ofuro is usually separate from the toilet and has a dressing area by it. The bathtubs are short and deep with a separate shower area where you completely clean yourself for getting in. Bath time for Japanese people is a time to relax after a long hard day and loosen the muscles. Many Japanese families will not drain the bath after each turn and just use the same water, it may seem a little strange, but since everyone cleans themselves before getting in, it’s like going to a pool or onsen. 
    • 襖・Fusuma - These are other types of doors and walls that are sliding panels. Fusuma is different from Shoji in that they are sturdy and do not let much light through. They can have art on them such as trees or dragons. They act as doors, walls, and art pieces. 
    • 屏風・Byobu - These are Japanese folding screens that act as room dividers or partitions. They fold up and have beautiful artwork on them such as decorative paintings or calligraphy. 
    • 囲炉裏・Irori - This a traditional Japanese recessed hearth where people can sit around cooking food and warming up in cold months. There’s a stone-lined pit in the middle where a pot can hang from the ceiling over a fire. I stayed at a hostel with this feature and if you look for it you can find it at accommodations in more rural areas. 

     

    hearthstone hearth japanese japan
    • 神棚・仏壇・Kamidana/Bustudan - Kamidana literally translates to “God cabinet”. This is where little Shinto shrines are kept for remembering ancestors and family relatives that have passed. Butsudan is a Buddhist altar, which usually has incense, flowers, and offerings of food around it. People pray in front of it after lighting incense. If you want to know more about Japanese religion and shrines, Ultimate Guide to Shrines and Temples in Tokyo.
    • 炬燵・Kotatsu - This is a low table with a built-in electric heater with a futon blanket over it. This is used during the winter when it gets cold so that residents can keep their legs warm while eating or working at the table. Cats love sitting under there for warmth too. 
    • 畳・Tatami - Possibly the most iconic feature of traditional Japanese houses, this flooring is made of rice straw. They are soft and have a specific smell to them, especially strong when new. It’s important to not get it wet as it is very absorbent and can mold. 
    • 雨戸・Amado - These are storm shutters that are used to secure a house, especially important during common typhoons. They are made of wooden planks or metal and add an extra layer of security to Shoji or Fusuma doors. 
    • 押入れ・Oshi-ire - A hidden storage space where futons and clothes are kept when they’re not in use. In the popular children’s anime, Doraemon, the titular character lives inside one. It is essentially just a Japanese-style closet. 
    • 屋根瓦・Yanegawara - These are roof tiles with decorations depending on the region. These have different shapes, materials, and designs. The common colors are black, red, and blue.
    • たたき・Tataki - This is the lower level at the front door of a traditional Japanese house where you take off your shoes, it separates from the outside and the inside. In history, it was made of packed dirt but now it is made of concrete. 
    • 床の間・Tokonoma - This is a slightly elevated decorative corner that typically has a hanging scroll with beautiful art and an ikebana flower arrangement. It is used to amuse guests that come to visit and it is usually placed where everyone sits and eats. 

    There are even more features of Japanese traditional houses, 17 Classic features of Japanese Houses.

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    Modern Japanese house vs Traditional Japanese House

    As our technology and society progress, so does architecture. Tastes have changed since the first traditional Japanese house in the eleventh century and the way our buildings look has evolved rapidly. Nowadays, you can see many houses in urban areas adopting western-style architecture and they look almost unrecognizable in comparison to the long-established traditional Japanese houses. But what are the differences, which is better?

    Practicality in Modernity

      • The greatest change that has come from modernizing the Japanese house is how convenient and accessible the houses have become to respond to the times. Old Japanese houses were more open, so they needed room dividers for privacy, now we just have separated rooms.
      • Can you imagine Japan before having bidets in every bathroom? The horror! In the old Japanese houses, they used squat toilets often called 和式 washiki or Japanese style. These were a type of toilet in the ground, used in a squat position rather than sitting, they were made of porcelain and could even sometimes be just a hole in the ground. There are some older people who still use this type of bathroom as it’s what they are familiar with, you can even find these in some public bathrooms still, they must have joints made of steel! 
      • Additionally, many features of the Japanese house have become outdated with modern times, such as having the Tataki was for back in ancient Japan when people traveled in a type of man-powered transport basket called 籠 kago, and the area was used as a space to set this basket down. However, now we use cars. Also, tatami and paper panel walls were too delicate and were replaced with more resilient wood flooring and doors.
    transport transportation genkan
    • Western influence - Western influences such as Europe and America have brought about new styles of housing that have steadily replaced the early Japanese styles. Minimalistic white houses have become commonplace. They have simple designs indoors and outdoors.
    • Flat roofs - In recent years, roofs have become flat and have terraces that can be useful for hang-drying laundry on sunny days, which is still a common practice in Japan despite all the advancements in technology and plenty of high-tech dryers. This is because the natural power of the sun is thought to be effective in killing bacteria and dryers take too much electricity. 
    • Balconies - Another good spot to dry your clothes, you can find comforters and clothes hanging on them whenever you are outside walking in Japan where there are modern homes. 
    • Glass - Modern Japanese houses now make use of glass and bright natural lighting is sought after. Glass is stronger than Shoji so it has fast become a customary factor when building houses today. 
    • Nature - A feature that has been unfortunately lost quite a bit in the transition to modern homes is the connection of the indoors to the garden. In older Japanese homes, the house was usually made of doors so it was always very open and facing the garden where there were trees and flowers. Nowadays, houses are more closed off and less connected to mother nature. 
    Traditional Japanese House tatami flooring and shoji doors with lamp

    Do traditional Japanese houses still exist?

    Short answer, yes! Don’t be disappointed if you come to Tokyo and only see modern-style houses, there are plenty of places where you can experience traditional Japanese houses all over Japan. Here are some of our favorite places:

    • Minshuku and Ryokan - 民宿・旅館. If you have the means for it, while in Japan, it is definitely recommended that you stay in a Ryokan over a typical hotel. They are a type of traditional Japanese inn that features tatami rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors can wear a Yukata and talk with the owner. 

    If you don’t know about traditional Japanese garments, Yukata vs Kimono. They are in a traditional Japanese house and have most of the features that were mentioned before. It will be like going back in time!

    They also usually serve delicious classic Japanese dishes so you get the full experience. The difference between Minshuku and Ryokan is that the Ryokan can be in either modern or old structures while Minshuku tends to be in older structures. Minshuku are typically a bit smaller and managed by a local family and the rooms are somewhat more basic and the service is less formal.

    • Tea master’s house - You can go to a tea ceremony or 茶の湯 chanoyu, to visit a traditional Japanese house and also drink tea following traditional customs. They are usually located in scenic locations and are very open so that you can enjoy the tea along with nature. Learn about tea ceremonies and types of tea in our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Tea.
    • Kyoto Machiya - Kyoto has many elegant Kyoto-style machiya, or merchant’s townhouses. Kondaya Genbei, located in the center of Kyoto is a famous one, built in the 1730s and it is a residence and a shop selling kimonos. It has been passed down for generations. 

    The culture in Japan is complex, learn more about it, Guide to Japanese Culture.

     

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    Etiquette when visiting a traditional Japanese House?

    If you are thinking of visiting a traditional Japanese House while you are in Japan, it’s important to know the etiquette to follow so you can be respectful to the owners of the home. There are lots of different Japanese customs to learn about, Guide to Japanese Customs.

    • Announce your arrival - Once you enter a Japanese home, it’s good to say お邪魔します Ojamashimasu, which basically means, excuse me for disturbing/interrupting you. 
    • Taking off your shoes - Much like the rest of Japan, the first thing you should do once you’re at the front door at the 玄関 genkan, an entrance hall before you walk into a home, is to take off your shoes. This is a common practice in most of Asia as a means to keep the inside of the house clean without tracking outside dirt or germs indoors. But this is especially important in a Minka as most have tatami flooring which is made of woven straw and can be more sensitive to elements than other types like wood or tile. You can keep your shoes in the 下駄箱 getabako which is a cabinet to store shoes. Typically you will exchange them for slippers. It’s best to be wearing socks and keep your shoes organized together. 
    • Sitting down - When sitting down for a meal or for tea, you will mostly sit at a ちゃぶ台 Chabudai, a low table, on the tatami floor with a 座布団 Zabuton which is a Japanese cushion. You should sit in the seiza style where you kneel with the legs tucked under you, and the tops of your feet resting on the floor, but they are also used cross-legged. Traditionally, women sit with their knees together while men have them slightly apart. If you aren’t used to this way of sitting and it becomes painful, you can either sit with your legs bent to the side or crisscrossed if you must. 
    • Eating a meal - If you are eating a meal at the house, before you begin to eat, it is advised to put your hands together and say いただきます Itadakimasu which is a polite and humble way to show appreciation for the food. 
    • Staying over - If you are sleeping the night in a traditional Japanese house or a 旅館 ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, you will most likely sleep on a futon which is a thin mattress laid on the floor. After you wake up, you should fold the futon up if you are staying over at someone’s house.

    More manners to know when visiting, Traditional Japanese Houses

    Traditional Japanese House in winter while it's snowing next to a lake

    Seasonal Differences in Japanese Traditional Houses

    In the times of traditional Japanese houses, there was no air conditioning or heaters, summers were hot and humid while the winter months were cold and dry. During the summertime, houses were susceptible to the build-up of toxic mold so raised floors and open spaces ensured proper ventilation. The walls of traditional houses were rather thin to withstand frequent earthquakes so it would get very cold in the winter, resulting in the need for 囲炉裏 Irori “Hearth”, 火鉢 Hibachi “Fire bowl”, and 炬燵 Kotatsu. 

    Depending on the season, life in Japan can be very different, here’s a helpful guide: Seasons in Japan

    shoji doors and walls

    Can I live in a traditional Japanese house?

    If you’re itching to join in on the fun and live in your very own Japanese house, it’s possible. You have the option to buy a traditional Japanese house in Japan. In fact, because there are so many unoccupied houses in the countryside, the government apparently sells some of them for around $500USD. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of buying one:

    The good and the bad 

    Pros: 

    • Preservation of history
    • Cultural immersion
    • Unique

    Cons: 

    • These types of houses tend to depreciate in value as they get older and run down
    • They need constant upkeep from the tatami replacements to Shoji changing. 

    There are also 空き家 akiya, which are abandoned or vacant houses in rural areas of Japan. These are extremely low cost but are usually fixer-uppers, requiring a lot of time and patience.

    Traditional Japanese House woman nature trees kyoto

    Things to consider when buying

    • Age and structure: Almost all Machiya was constructed over 50 years ago using wood. These houses, unless they were previously renovated, don’t have steel reinforcements like in traditional modern houses. This absence of a stronger structure makes these houses more vulnerable to damage if there was a strong earthquake or another natural disaster as they do not come with the earthquake resistance like modern Japanese homes.
    • Renovation: If you want to expand the house, it may be difficult as there may be restrictions on rebuilding or creating more space, additionally the aged material used in making these houses may make them delicate.

    How and where to buy (or just take a look)

    If you are still interested, you can contact a housing property agency with questions and set up a viewing. There are several websites where you can see available listings:

    • Koryoyaa real estate portal site for buying traditional Japanese houses such as Kominka (Minka) and Machiya real estate properties.
    • Hachise: a real estate company in Kyoto that focuses on traditional Japanese townhouses, Kyo-Machiya, and to give them new concepts and new lives through renovation.
    • Japan Property Central: Fully licensed real estate brokerage in central Tokyo
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    Japanese vs Western homes

    Just looking from the outside, there are obvious differences between Traditional Japanese Houses and Western homes but there are actually other not-so-apparent distinctions. 

    • No Attics or Basements - You’ll notice that Japanese horror movies almost never take place in the basement like in American films, that’s because Japanese houses don’t have attics or basements. It's actually prohibited by law. 
    • Prepare to be Elevated - It is said that Southeast Asian influence made it so that traditional Japanese houses were more elevated. This feature was seemingly utilized to keep grain and other foods so that they wouldn’t go bad from the heat and humidity. Some American houses were also elevated in the past but it is not as common as in Japan.
    • Space - The biggest difference between Japanese houses and those in the west like America, is the spatial difference. Most Japanese houses are two floors maximum and much narrower, especially in cities with high population density like Tokyo, which is the most populated city in the entire world. Japan is a small country and even in 田舎 inaka, countrysides, houses are modest and not too big. 
    • Mansions aren’t what you think - You won’t see many grand mansions like in Beverly Hills, actually they call a concrete apartment/condominium complex of three or more floors, mansions. A sharp contrast to what typically comes to mind, it’s almost comical as mansions have small spaces where many people live in one building. 

    Get to know more differences between Japanese and Western homes, Japanese homes compared to European and American ones

    artwork temple shrine kyoto tokyo

    How do I make my home look like a Traditional Japanese House?

    If you've been reading and feeling a little jealous that you don’t live in one, there are ways to bring the Traditional Japanese House into your own home! Although it’s not easy or cheap to buy a traditional Japanese house, you can add elements to it to create your own version. 

    • Natural colors - Sticking to natural colors and textures like wood and earthy tones will give the element of traditional Japan as they value the essence of nature. You can add bamboo or a bonsai, a miniature, container-grown tree that sticks to Japanese tradition and principles. 
    • Open space and Natural Lighting - Keeping with the theme of nature, it’s good to have an open area with lots of natural lighting coming from the windows to mimic a Japanese style home. 
    • Zen space - Zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism that focuses on the value of meditation and intuition. It is associated with peace and tranquility. You can get a mini Zen garden that comes with a little rake and sand.
    • Japanese style furniture - Getting a low table, floor cushions, and traditional Japanese art is a way to really bring in the essence of old Japan. 

    There are more ways to make your home Japanese like, 10 Ways to Add Japanese Style to Your Interior Design 

    Traditional Japanese House artistic sliding doors with asian art

    Conclusion

    After learning about traditional Japanese homes, do you wish Japan still kept them as the common housing style? Will you be going to see these houses yourself? Maybe you were inspired by these houses and will add components of them in your own home.  If you want to learn Japanese to make your life living here easier, Japan Switch offers helpful and affordable Japanese lessons that can set you on the right path to mastering the language. 

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