Traditional Houses

Traditional Japanese houses are made of wood and rest on wooden pillars. Visitors and residents take off their shoes in the Genkan, the entrance area, and wear the prepared slippers to keep the house clean. The living area is one step higher than the Genkan which is at ground level, so that the areas where shoes and slippers are worn are clearly separated. The corridors (Engawa) are partially open to the outside like a veranda. To walk on their wooden floors, slippers are worn. The O-zashiki, a room where, for instance, guests are welcomed is accessible through sliding doors made of paper (Fusuma). It is completely covered with Tatami, the Japanese straw mats and to avoid damaging them even the slippers have to be taken off in this room.
Tatami have been common in Japan for about 600 years. They are made of a tightly tied core of rice straw on which a rush mat made of Igusa grass is fixed with decorative cotton bands. Freshly made Tatamis have a rather green surface, while they get more and more yellowish or brown the older they are. In the summertime Tatamis convey coolness, in wintertime warmth – and above all, they are much more durable than carpets during the humid months from June to August. One Tatami mat has a surface of 1.6 x 0.8 meters and is 5.5 cm thick. Its size is still used to declare the floor space of rooms, flats or houses (one jo is equal to about 1.64 square meters). For example, six jo, equivalent to about ten square meters, is a common room size in Japan. In the night Futons are laid out instead of beds to sleep on.

The O-zashiki is also equipped with a small, slightly raised alcove, the Tokonoma. There, art such as scrolls, Ikebana (flower art) or Bonsai are displayed matching to the season. Usually, the most important guest sits closest to the Tokonoma.

Today also well-known in western countries are the white, translucent sliding doors, developed in the 10th century as Akari-shouji. Translucent material such as thin silk or, later, in particular Japanese paper (Washi) is glued to one side of the wooden lattice. In hot, glaring summers the rooms beyond the Shouji doors are illuminated by a warm, soft light.

Fusuma are also sliding doors made of paper or silk. But they are glued with thick paper or cloth from both sides and therefore are used to divide big rooms into two parts or as doors for cupboards. Especially in palaces they are lavishly painted and very expensive.
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