Traditional Japanese Houses

Japan is a country with a rich and diverse culture, and one of the most distinctive aspects of its culture is its architecture. Traditional Japanese houses, or minka, have a unique style and design that reflect the values and aesthetics of the Japanese people. In this article, we will explore the basic characteristics of Japanese traditional houses, the architecture and design of the house, and some examples of traditional houses in quaint mountain villages


The basic characteristics of Japanese traditional houses

Traditional Japanese houses are typically made of wood, bamboo, straw, paper, clay and stone. They are built on wooden posts that raise them off the ground, which helps to prevent dampness, insects and earthquakes. They have a steep thatched or tiled roof that slopes down to cover the eaves, which protects the walls from rain and snow.




The sliding doors and windows made of wooden frames and translucent paper, called shoji, which allow natural light and air to enter the house. The movable screens, called fusuma, which can divide or connect rooms as needed. They have a floor of woven straw mats, called tatami, which provide insulation and comfort. They have a central hearth, called irori, where food is cooked and people gather around. They have a small alcove, called tokonoma, where a scroll painting, a flower arrangement or a calligraphy work is displayed. They have a minimalist approach to interior decor, with few furniture and ornaments.


Traditional Japanese houses are designed to harmonize with nature and the seasons. They can be opened up or closed down depending on the weather and the time of day. They have a close connection with the garden, which is often seen as an extension of the house. They have a sense of balance and symmetry, as well as asymmetry and contrast. They have a sense of simplicity and elegance, as well as rusticity and warmth.




The architecture and design of the house

Traditional Japanese houses have various architectural features that make them functional and beautiful. Here are some of the most common ones:


Entrance (genkan) and Earth Room (doma): The entrance is the transitional space between the outside and the inside of the house. It is where people take off their shoes and store them in a cupboard or shelf. It is also where guests are greeted and welcomed. The earth room is an area with a dirt floor that is adjacent to the entrance. It is where cooking, washing and other household chores are done. It may also have a well, a sink or a stove.


Washitsu (Japanese-style room): The washitsu is the main living space of the house. It has a floor of tatami mats that cover the entire room or part of it. It may also have a low table, cushions or chairs for sitting, a chest of drawers for storage, a futon for sleeping and a kotatsu for heating. The washitsu can be used for various purposes, such as dining, relaxing, entertaining or sleeping.




Tatami (straw mat): The tatami is a rectangular mat made of woven straw that measures about 90 cm by 180 cm. It has a soft texture and a pleasant smell. It provides insulation from the cold or heat of the floor. It also defines the size and layout of the room, as rooms are measured by the number of tatami mats they can fit.


Sliding door (fusuma): The fusuma is a sliding door made of wooden frames and thick paper or cloth. It can be moved along grooves on the floor or ceiling to divide or connect rooms as needed. It can also be removed completely to create a large open space. The fusuma may have paintings or patterns on them to add color and beauty to the room.




Engawa: The engawa is a narrow wooden veranda that runs along the perimeter of the house. It connects different rooms and provides access to the garden. It also serves as a buffer zone between the inside and outside of the house, as well as a place to enjoy the view and breeze.


Mud wall (tsuchikabe): The tsuchikabe is a wall made of clay mixed with straw or sand. It has a rough texture and an earthy color. It provides insulation from heat and cold, as well as fire resistance and sound absorption. It also creates a natural and cozy atmosphere in the house.


Rooftop: The rooftop is an important part of the house’s appearance and function. It has a steep slope that allows rainwater and snow to slide off easily. It may be covered with thatch, tiles, shingles or metal sheets. It may also have decorative elements such as gables, ridges or ornaments.




Shrine (kamidana): The kamidana is a small wooden shelf that serves as a shrine for the household gods. It is usually placed in a high and clean spot in the house, such as the kitchen or the living room. It may have a miniature shrine building, a mirror, a lantern, a rope, a paper streamer and offerings such as rice, sake or fruit. It is where people pray and show respect to the gods.


Some examples of traditional houses

Japan has many charming and picturesque mountain villages that preserve the traditional way of life and architecture. One of the most famous examples is Shirakawa-go Ogimachi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gifu Prefecture. This village is known for its gassho-zukuri style houses, which have a distinctive shape of a steep triangular roof that resembles hands clasped in prayer. 




Gassho-zukuri houses were built between the Edo and Showa periods, about 300 years ago. They were created by the villagers to cope with the harsh winter and heavy snow, and to accommodate large families. They used local materials, and did not use any nails to fix the whole house, but instead used joints and ropes. The roof was covered with thatch, and was replaced every three or four decades. The roof had a steep slope of 60 degrees to prevent snow accumulation, and looked like hands clasped in prayer, hence the name.


The roof is made of thick layers of thatch that can withstand heavy snowfall and provide insulation. The roof also has a large attic space that can be used for storage or work. The gassho-zukuri houses are usually built around a central hearth, where family members and neighbors gather to share stories and warmth. The village also has a scenic landscape of rice fields, streams, forests and mountains.


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Traditional Japanese houses are not only historical relics, but also living examples of the Japanese culture and spirit. They embody the values of harmony, simplicity, elegance and adaptability that have shaped the Japanese identity for centuries. They also offer a glimpse into the lifestyle and customs of the Japanese people in different regions and eras. They are truly a treasure of Japan’s heritage and beauty.

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