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In harmony with nature: Home design in Japan

Japanese water feature

Japan is a mountainous archipelago located nearly 1900 miles off the eastern shore of the Asian continent. It is made up of four main islands and several hundred smaller ones.

Japan stands at the convergence of four tectonic plates, and is therefore a geologically active zone that has nearly forty active volcanoes and experiences about 1,000 earthquakes a year, making it a place where one is always aware of the power of nature. Japan’s earliest signs of agriculture date back to 5000 BCE, but the relationship between the people of the Japanese archipelago and the natural world surrounding them dates backs much earlier to when ritual structures of stone circles and standing stones were erected across the archipelago.

The peoples of ancient Japan attributed geographical features, especially mountains and rivers, with divinity. Shinto, meaning “way of the gods,” is the oldest religion in Japan, and its key concepts of purity, harmony, family, respect, and elevation of the group over the individual are deeply interwoven into Japanese culture today.

In Shinto, gods, spirits and supernatural forces, which are thought to inhabit places of beauty, govern nature in all its forms. Japanese home design is influenced by a close harmony with the natural world, as well as an awareness of and respect for the ever-present forces of nature.

Buddhist teachings have also greatly influenced Japanese home design. The three marks of existence – impermanence, suffering, and emptiness – gave rise to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, which is based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

In home design, this translates to an appreciation of the imperfect, weathered, natural, simple and austere. Arising from this awareness is a flexible and impermanent philosophy of home design, incorporating natural materials, gardens and outdoor spaces whenever possible, and reminding inhabitants of the natural world by enhancing natural light and inviting harmony with nature.

Transitional Spaces: Gates, Doors, Entryways, and Hallways

Gates stand at places of transition, offering passage from one state to another, as well as separating outside from inside. Gates may be welcoming but also offer protection. In Japanese home design, traditional roofed gates separate the private spaces from the public arena, ensuring privacy while welcoming nature in the form of a surrounding home garden beyond the gate.

Besides gates, Japanese home design includes other types of transitional spaces. At the main entrance to a Japanese home is the genkan, a transitional space between outdoors and indoors where shoes are removed and stored, and where slippers are donned before entering the home.

Another transitional space in Japanese home design is the engawa, which are exterior, covered hallways that connect rooms and act as verandas in warm weather. Doors and thresholds symbolically and physically mark yet another point of transition, and sliding doors and shoji screens are commonly employed inside Japanese homes as window coverings, interior doors, and room dividers. Easy to slide open and made of translucent paper or plastic over a wood frame, shoji screens enhance the home’s flexibility, privacy, and natural light.

Elements of Nature: Gardens, Baths, and Natural Materials

The Japanese aesthetic of harmony with nature means access to the outdoors is a high priority in Japanese home design, so both traditional and modern Japanese homes embrace minimal transition between indoors and outdoors. Gardens are a key feature of Japanese home design. Often designed to be enjoyed from the house, Japanese gardens utilize elements such as ponds, streams, islands and hills to create miniature reproductions of natural scenery found in grander landscapes.

Most of the elements in a Japanese garden, such as water, stones, sand and vegetation, are more than just decoration, because they carry a meaning that has developed historically. For example, in rock gardens, raked gravel surrounding stones represents ripples of waves around islands.

Creating a beautiful Japanese garden in your home doesn’t require a huge amount of space. It only requires the use of these elements, no matter how large or small they may be. The way these elements are used in relation to one another creates a miniaturized version of nature. The designs of these gardens are based on three principles: reduced scale, symbolism, and borrowed view. Borrowed scenery, or shakkei, is the idea of integrating the background landscape outside the garden into the design of the garden.

Another way to bring the outside in and harmonize with nature is creating a connection with the water element in the form of a bath. Public baths are an important part of Japanese culture, but today many Japanese homes have their own furo, or soaking tub, which is maintained between 100 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. After first washing and rinsing with a handheld showerhead, one enters the furo for a relaxing and reviving soak.

One of the most important elements of traditional Japanese home design is the tatami mat. Once used as a status symbol for the rich, tatami mats and rooms have lived on in Japanese culture, and are still used as living and sleeping spaces. Made of woven rush grass around a rice straw core, they are comfortable but firm underfoot, and give off a natural aromatic scent, especially on rainy or humid days.

Respect for tatami mats started the tradition of removing one’s shoes before entering a tatami room. Although many modern Japanese homes have only one tatami room, or perhaps none at all, the mats are so ingrained in Japanese culture that, even today, many apartment and housing advertisements list room sizes based on how many tatami mats will fit in the room.

Simplicity and Flexibility: Neutral Colors, Multipurpose Rooms, and Art

Tatami rooms are quintessentially simple and flexible spaces. The open feel of a tatami room is meant to provide relaxation and peace of mind. Even when a home does not have a tatami room, the aesthetic of having flexible, multipurpose rooms is an important element in Japanese home design. Shoji screens, neutral colors and minimalist art enable simplicity and flexibility of the space. Neutral and earthy tones are preferred in Japanese home design, once again bringing the home more in harmony with nature.

This minimalism extends to the simple yet profound art of shodo, or Japanese calligraphy, which is one of the most popular fine arts of Japan. Calligraphy is the art of writing beautifully. The Japanese shodo master creates a work of art using a bamboo brush and inks on the rice paper to express harmony, beauty and philosophical concepts with kanji, adopted iconographic Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system.

There is nothing casual about shodo. The beginning, direction, form and ending of the lines of the kanji are intended to express balance between elements, while the empty space in shodo art is seen to be as important as the lines themselves. Simple and graceful, kanji paintings embody the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, and like Japanese gardens, gates, and tatami rooms, shodo is a microcosm of the greater concepts found expressed in Japanese home design.

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