Following an Architect Through Japan

Learning from Rural Japan

Knowing that we would probably want a break from the intense urban world of Tokyo, Buzz and I planned a respite into the middle of our itinerary. We headed up into the “Japanese Alps” northwest of Tokyo where the mountain villages there are known for their well-maintained vernacular architecture. In fact, two towns have been given World Heritage Site status, and continue to function as working rural agricultural centers.
image004We explored the old town of Takayama: long cobblestone streets lined with shop fronts and dwellings above and in behind. Of course every façade was composed of numerous styles of screens – see my earlier post on “screens”

We spent our nights in a very old, restored grass-thatch roof “ryokan” (a traditional Japanese inn), which was an architects’ delight!


We visited the Hida Museum Folk Village  an open-air museum exhibiting over 30 traditional houses from the Hida region, the mountainous district of Gifu Prefecture. The houses were built during the Edo Period (1603 – 1867) and were relocated from their original locations to create the museum in 1971.
In a village-like atmosphere, the museum features buildings such as the former village head’s house, logging huts, storehouses and a number of gassho-zukuri farmhouses. These massive farmhouses are named after their steep thatched roofs which resemble a pair of hands joined in prayer (“gassho”).


But most interesting to us was to discover that many of the architectural features we’d been seeing in common structures throughout Tokyo were here, although in more primitive (earlier) form! It made us think about how and why an architectural element can become engrained within that culture.



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The ubiquitous practice of stepping off the entry path UP onto the floor of one’s dwelling. Here in a farmhouse, it makes perfect sense; taking off one’s shoes leaves the mud outside, and being up off the ground probably kept the rats out! The interiors of these structures had the requisite tatami mat layouts, and we could imagine how these interiors must have stayed surprisingly clean given their rural setting. But when we thought about how this element continues to be so integral to Japanese design today, it’s remarkable that the act of removing ones’ shoes and stepping UP into your dwelling (even though your home may be an apartment or hotel in a high rise!) has obviously taken on such deep significance within the culture. Read my first Japan blog post on this concept.

Another feature that puzzled us for many days was a deep box-like screen that we noticed on the exterior wall of virtually every residential structure throughout our travels. We wondered if this might be some kind of storage unit for a fold-down table or cabinet inside the house. We finally discovered here in a 400 year old farm house that it’s a screen storage system – for screens that would act like shutters in inclement weather. These are fabricated in contemporary materials for housing still today!


Touring this assemblage of very old rural buildings was fascinating. The structures were exquisitely crafted and the cultural history behind them is incredibly rich. And as we were starting to realize, this architectural heritage has seeped into the fabric of the built environment everywhere, and across centuries.

The Screen’d World of Japan


Having studied traditional Japanese architecture for years, I’ve known that screens are a major element in the folk (or vernacular) architecture here.  But I never expected to see such pervasive use of screens as I’m seeing everywhere we go. By screens, I’m referring to the wooden latticework covering window and door openings on building facades.
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I expected to see screens only on older traditional homes. And there are lots of these.
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But the surprise is how screens have been incorporated into more recent common structures…

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…and even into very sophisticated contemporary designs.

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So what is it about screens that they continue to be such an integral element in Japanese architecture? I’m mesmerized by these beautiful features. I have some theories.

1. Historically, windows were of paper. The wood screens probably protected the paper from punctures. Wood (or bamboo) was the material of choice for almost every building element, and wood craftsmanship evolved to an art unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Screens I’m seeing range from rustic to exquisitely detailed.
2. They slide! Sometimes there are 2 or 3 layers of screens, and all can slide….creating new rooms and spatial configurations at will. The sliding feature allows for very efficient use of limited space; a major issue in an environment where spaces are small. And they ARE small! But the screens can open one room to another, making for a much larger space…which is done frequently.
3. They afford layers of privacy. In a densely populated environment where the culture is very private and demure, the screens allow light into interior space, but restrict views into that space quite effectively. Occasionally you might get a momentary glimpse into a private interior garden through a screen that is more open in its design as you pass by on the street. It’s most enchanting!
4. I am personally fascinated by how the multiple layers of screens create a textural complexity to the streetscape that is so rich and beautiful. And how the facade of a modest structure is rendered so exquisite by the composition of its screens. I can’t stop taking pictures of these elevations!


Tokyo Culture

I am quickly coming to love how urban Japanese have such a sense of personal style. Young men and women take great care in assembling interesting or unusual outfits in a very individual, sometimes eclectic fashion. It’s  very rare to see anyone looking unkempt or sloppy.

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Which speaks to what we come to perceive as an overall deep-rooted culture of respect in this place. No matter how crowded the locale, everyone seems able to maintain enough personal space that no one is ever touching another, even in a crowded subway! We NEVER see anyone talking in public on their cell phone, even though personal devices are ubiquitous! Crowds are always relatively quiet and respectful, and people are gracious to one another. Every interpersonal transaction, whether it be the exchange of money, entering or leaving a restaurant, exiting a train – is imbued with layers of respect and consideration that is so characteristic of this culture. It’s amazing, and lovely.

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This afternoon Buzz and I meet up in SHIBUYA – another stop on the circle line – another distinct neighborhood known for its ultra-hip fashion scene! There’s an international fashion festival going on this week here, and we find a young upcoming designer staging a runway show outdoors in a prominent public park. What a visual feast!
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The park and streets are pulsing with energy. It’s a young, revved-up crowd and the tempo of the place is vibrating! People come here to strut and dance and see and be seen. It’s wild!
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It’s fantastic how the physical environment supports this show. Plazas, terraces, pedestrian bridges, promenades…all allowing views across or over or down onto whatever scene is happening. Thousands of interesting-looking people on the move!

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Exploring Tokyo


Tokyo is unbelievably huge, but impressively easy to move around. The subway (METRO) system is vast and efficient, and we discover that each stop on the ring loop – the Yamanote Line – is a city unto itself, at least by our standards of size! Each seems to have its own distinct qualities, and we are enjoying exploring a couple each day.

I went off to Nippori this morning in search of Japanese fabrics, and discovered myself in an older working class neighborhood.

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Dense urban development around the station, but within just a few blocks, the cityscape gives way to older, smaller streets lined with wall-to-wall shop fronts and dwellings, punctuated by 4 or 5 story quirky “modern” buildings that scream “unique architecture here”!

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And every block or two, tucked in along the wall of the street is a roofed gate that opens into a temple or shrine. Usually there’s a lovely garden inside the gate, with the temple complex set back in behind. I can never resist pausing and looking into each of these oasis-like environments; the lush gardens and calm of the temple is such a contrast from the chaos of the streetscape.

As I grow more accustomed to this place, I realize that the fabric of this city, even with its crazy contrasts and juxtapositions, is actually a tapestry with real continuity. I start to get a sense of the patterns of major and minor streets, and what I’ll find where. I start to feel like I can know this place and feel oriented. And I notice that there is a real sense of neighborhood community within these streets.

I think this is what’s really important in successful city planning and architectural design: respect for the contextual fabric of a place enables people to know their environment and feel comfortable in it. Continuity of place seems to allow for a more cohesive community. I’m seeing it all around me, even in a city of 35 million people!
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