The House That Flowed Like Water

You’ve just stepped through the door into a traditional Japanese home – and you’re already confused.

The first room of the house is absolutely empty, but your host is pointing at your shoes. Oh – um right. You hurriedly slip them off and back towards the door, ready to pop them outside.

Your companion shakes their head, asks you to wait, and slides a wall-mounted cupboard open to reveal rows and rows of archived shoes.

You’re given a pair of slippers, and your shoes are taken and placed in the cupboard. The cupboard slides shut and the room is entirely, perfectly empty again.

Slippers outside a Japanese house

That the sole function of this room, then. It’s all about shoes. No hat-stands, no jackets on pegs, none of the lovable disorder at the entry-point to most Western houses. It’s just the shoes.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for imagining the rest of the house will follow suit. Is there a special room for storing umbrellas? Is wearing odd socks an offence punishable by banishment?

In fact, the genkan (entryway) is the exception to the rule. This is an architectural style defined by fluid roles and shifting scenery, mirroring the flowing natural of the country’s natural landscape.

What we non-Japanese think of as “traditional Japanese housing” dates back to the 16th Century, influenced by a number of earlier styles, some originating in China.

You’ll still find examples of it everywhere (including on our upcoming Japan: Ancient & Modern), but modern styles of housing are the norm these days, albeit with some very traditional twists.

The most recognisable traditional form is called shoin-zukuri, referencing a study area, and typified by compact, unadorned spaces within the house that can be changed to fit different roles at a moment’s notice.

With your house slippers on your feet, you’re now inside the house, and nothing looks recognisable. The floor is covered with tatami, densely-woven rush matting, that runs from wall to wall.

Some of the walls are plain white, some with carved wood alcoves, and a few glow softly, as if lit from within. You lean forward to have a closer look.

Of course. You already know about this. They’re made of paper.

That’s when you notice the sound. The soft shush-shush of your slippers seems so loud. You can hear birdsong – do they have a special room for storing birds?

Inside a tea house in Kanazawa

No, it’s just the sounds of the outside, filtering in. In a sense, this is the outside – almost as much as when you’re in a modern tent, your brain wrestling with the paradox of being “indoors” but able to hear every tiny sound for fifty yards in every direction.

Mild embarrassment makes itself known. What if your stomach gurgles, or worse? But then you notice your heart rate has lowered and your breathing is softer.

As environment dictates behaviour, your body is adjusting to these tranquil surroundings. It’s like a form of upright meditation.

Up close, those paper walls are a wonder. They’re made of a wooden frame arranged in latticework, over which is stretched a tough-looking white material, looking like it’s somewhere between the type of paper you’re feed into your printer and the material your shower curtain is made of.

You ask – “can I…?” Your host nods – and you touch the wall. It’s tough but delicate, stretched tight, with a rough internal texture that softly filters diffused daylight into the room.

Your companion steps forward, touches a part of the panel, and the whole wall slides sideways. One room becomes two, like a work cubicle becoming open-office.

This is the magic of shōji, or papered sliding doorway architecture. It’s designed to fit the surrounding landscape, not strong-arm it into submission. Sunny, humid day? Simply slide the panels back and enjoy deliciously well-aired views of the countryside.

Gloomy, rainy and cold? Pull the doors shut and partition everything as intimately as possible, to create pockets of warm air (space heating, not central heating, is the standard here).

It also extends to social functions. Dinner party ahoy? Remove walls entirely and rearrange the house to accommodate.

Shōji is also about the materials. Almost everything is natural, from the wood to the paper, and probably sourced locally.

Ryokan House in Japan

If you went outside and viewed the building as a whole, you’re be able to see where the architect had been guided by the lay of the land, where steps and platforms followed contours and where roofs evoked distant hills and mountains.

Everything says “this house respects its surroundings.”

The space efficiency is impressive. You think about modern doors as they swing open. What happens to that real estate behind the door, where it swings? It’s wasted.

Nobody would put anything there, or sit there, because that something or someone would get clobbered the next time that door opened. Sliding doors save so much space and you never knew until now. Amazing.

But there’s a modesty of scale here too. Space isn’t wasted because space is conserved. You always have room to move (there’s no much thing as clutter in a traditional Japanese home), but everything feels intimate, human-sized.

The sound adds to it. You could never be in this house with someone else and not be aware of it – unless they were being really quiet, of course. Privacy? Well, that’s what the great outdoors is for! It’s a fascinating inversion of a Western norm.

You’re being led onwards, to the back of the house. A larger panel slides open, and you head outdoors, into an immaculately-kept garden space, threaded by a small path. Is this still part of the house?

Technically yes, but this garden is designed to separate and make special.

At the other end is the cha-shitsu, a purpose-build garden pavilion. If your timing is right and you’re lucky enough, it’s where you will be invited to journey along the Way Of Tea, better known as the Japanese tea ceremony.

A woman performs a traditional Japanese tea ceremony

There are people in there right now. You see shadows against the paper walls, a soft murmur of conversation. (No clinks of teacups, of course – they’re much too careful to do that.)

These tea ceremonies can take up to four hours. Alas, you’ll have to see it another time.

It’s time to go, and back in the genkan, you reluctantly slip your shoes back on. Back to the land of bullet trains, billboards and thoroughly modern Japanoise, leaving traditional Japan behind.

You wonder what it’d be like to spend a full day in such a place, or a week, and who you’d be when you emerge again…

You feel like Japan is asking you to find out.

Find out how to tour Japan the right way! Read our complete Japan travel guide: Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide.

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