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Home - Living in Japan
Japanese style rooms

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A Japanese style room: (clockwise from front) tatami, fusuma and ranma, chigaidana, tokonoma, shoji and tsukeshoin

Traditional Japanese style rooms (a, washitsu) come with a unique interior design that includes tatami mats as flooring. Consequently, they are also known as tatami rooms. Their style dates back to the Muromachi Period when they originally served as study rooms for the wealthy before gradually becoming more commonplace as reception and living quarters. Washitsu are still very prevalent around Japan. Tourists have the opportunity to overnight in one by staying at a ryokan, minshuku or temple lodging. Alternatively, you can view a variety of beautifully preserved historic tatami rooms at sites such as temples, villas and tea houses.

Common Elements

Tatami
Tatami mats are thick, woven straw mats that measure about one by two meters in size. Originally a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, tatami gradually became more common and can now be found in virtually all traditional Japanese homes. Tatami mats have been so integral to Japanese homes, that the size of rooms in Japan is commonly measured by the number of mats that would fit it, e.g. an 8-mat room. Note that footwear - even slippers - should be removed before stepping onto tatami.

Sliding Doors (fusuma)
Fusuma are sliding doors made up of wooden frames covered in thick, opaque paper. The doors are typically used between adjoining rooms akin to large removable walls, allowing one to partition off areas or open up space as needed. Historically, fusuma have been the canvases of famous painters, and some elaborately painted examples can be seen at temples and palaces. Fusuma in regular homes and ryokan tend to be more simply adorned.

Translucent sliding doors (shoji)
Another type of sliding door or partition are shoji, which are made up of wooden lattices covered in translucent paper. Shoji are typically found along the perimeter of the building, allowing light to filter in. Some shoji doors incorporate sliding panels that move up and down like small windows to allow more light or air to enter the room. Occasionally shoji may have a sheet of glass covering one side of the door.

Transom (ranma)
Ranma are wooden transoms that are typically found above fusuma in traditional Japanese style rooms. They may be intricately designed and carved, and serve to allow air and light to move between rooms.

Alcove (tokonoma)
Tokonoma are recessed alcoves and are typically decorated by a hanging scroll in addition to a vase or flower arrangement. The decorations are typically changed to reflect the season. Traditionally, the most important guest is seated in front of the tokonoma.

Ceiling (tenjo)
There are a variety of ceiling types in traditional Japanese style rooms. In regular rooms the ceiling tends to be flat and simple. But in rooms of importance, such as a lord's grand reception hall or a temple's worship hall, the ceilings may be raised, coffered and decorated with paintings, as shown on the image.

Built-in Shelves (chigaidana)
Chigaidana are built-in, staggered wall shelving typically found beside the alcove and used for displaying decorations like vases and incense burners.

Built-in Desk (tsukeshoin)
Tsukeshoin are study desks that are typically built into one side of the room below a window. The amount of light filtering in is usually adjusted with the use of shoji.

Common Furniture

Partitions (byobu/tsuitate)
Byobu (shown on the image) are portable folding partitions that are arranged in a zigzag fashion for the panels to stand without extra support. Another type of free-standing partition, called tsuitate, are single panels supported by legs. Both types of partitions are available in varying sizes to divide up a room, enhance privacy or block drafts of wind. Partitions come in various designs from simple ones to highly priced collector items that adorn celebrated paintings.

Low Tables
Low tables are used in traditional Japanese rooms, as sitting on the floor is common practice there. During the colder months of the year, heatable low tables (kotatsu) are popular. They are covered by a blanket and heated underneath.

Cushions (zabuton)
Large, flat cushions are used for sitting on the floor in tatami rooms. In some cases, the cushions are put onto low chairs without legs (zaisu, see photo) that provide some support for the back. Note that it is considered impolite to step on cushions other than your own.

Futon
Futon are traditional Japanese mattresses that are laid directly on the tatami flooring. They are kept folded in the closet during the day and set out in the evening after dinner. Visitors can experience sleeping on a futon at accommodations like ryokan and minshuku.

History

In the early days, tatami was only used by the nobility who would sit on a single, stand-alone mat placed on the floor. Tatami became more widespread during the Muromachi Period; however, it was still common to use stand-alone mats as only the wealthy could afford to cover entire rooms by tatami. In the following centuries, tatami mats became increasingly more common, and they were found at virtually all Japanese homes until modern, wooden and carpeted floors started to replace them in recent decades.

A shoin style room with the built-in desk in the left background

The traditional Japanese rooms that can be seen today mostly come in two basic styles: shoin and sukiya. Shoin style rooms originally served as study rooms in temples and typically incorporated a built-in desk, an alcove and built-in shelves. Shoin style rooms became popular in Muromachi Period residences where their function was extended to receiving and entertaining guests. Additional characteristics that developed in shoin rooms of the time included floors covered entirely with tatami mats, fusuma sliding doors and shoji doors.

The sukiya style is a variation of the shoin style with subtle artistic differences. The sukiya style was heavily influenced by the tea ceremony and is commonly seen in tea rooms. Sukiya style rooms tend to be more rustic and understated compared to the formal shoin rooms to better reflect the way of tea. Characteristics elements include unadorned clay walls, woven straw or bamboo ceilings, undecorated fusuma and unfinished wood.

A sukiya style room

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