Traditional Japanese Houses & Buildings

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Traditional Japanese Houses & Buildings
Japanese builders have traditionally used wood as their primary building material. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

From elaborate temples and shrines to single-family dwellings, wood is the primary component of a traditional Japanese building. Since before the Nara period in the 8th century AD, builders have erected structures on wooden columns placed on a flat foundation of compacted earth and covered them with sloping roofs to keep the rain out. The interior of a traditional house is spacious, despite its small size, and has design features reminiscent of a temple.

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Framing

The traditional frame of a Japanese house consisted of a series of vertical columns connected by horizontal beams until builders, influenced by foreign visitors, began to include diagonal beams for stability. They place the columns on flat, tamped earth, and raise the floor several inches to keep out moisture. Japan is a country that receives abundant rainfall, so builders have always sloped the roof and extended it far beyond the walls to provide dry areas around the entrances. A traditional roof is supported by the columns and beams and has deep eaves to catch and divert rainwater.

Walls and Roof

The traditional way to make walls was to cover them with woven bamboo covered on both sides with earth, but a modern house built in the traditional style may have walls made from plywood or wooden planks. Interior walls are often plastered with a mixture of sand and mud, or a synthetic product that resembles it. Traditional roof coverings include straw, shingles and a special type of ceramic tiles called kawara. The heavy tiles overlap to provide protection from wind and rain, and those placed on the eaves and at the peak often include ornate decorations.

Floors

The Japanese people spend much of their leisure time on the floor, so the traditional floor covering for the living room and bedrooms is tatami. A tatami mat is about 2 inches thick, slightly smaller than a sheet of plywood, and covered with woven straw. It is so ubiquitous that Japanese people measure the size of a room by the number of tatami mats that will fit inside it. Wooden planks cover the floor in a traditional kitchen, bath or walkway. In some temples, monks have hand-planed these planks to a flawlessly smooth surface that literally shines.

Interior

The interior of a traditional building includes several rooms divided by paper-covered sliding doors called shoji. They furnish minimal privacy but can be left open during the hot Japanese summer to provide needed ventilation. The entry doors are also shoji, and some exterior walls have two sets of shoji separated by a narrow walkway for extra insulation. Every Japanese building has a genkan, or entryway, where visitors leave their shoes, and a traditional house always has a tokunoma, which is a small alcove dedicated to honouring the gods with flowers, art and incense.

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