Living Traditionally in Modern Japan

Japanese people have a healthy association to the past, and maintain a strong connection to their traditions and roots, unlike most of us in the Western world.


Traditional Japanese homes are built entirely of wood with timber frames, have no ornate edgings, and have many paper screens within to create separate rooms.  Free-standing houses called minka are the traditional houses; city houses are called machiya and houses in rows are called nagaya.

The entry way to each house has a genkan, which consists of a foyer and a space to leave your shoes. The rest of the rooms in the house could traditionally take on any use or function as the shoji dividers create additional small spaces, and items not in use are stored away.

The bathroom and kitchen were generally add-ons along the side of the houses, and the western-styled bathroom in Japan is made up of separate units, such as one room for the toilet, one room for the sink, and one for the ofuro (bathing room). Modern apartments follow the usual western convention and now include all of the above in one room.

Despite modern conveniences, such as electricity and the use of metal in housing structures, traditional homes use predominantly eco-friendly or all-natural items that include:

  • Tatami mats–mats made from rice straw which are lightweight and around 5cm thick. The way these are laid out in a room can bring fortune or misfortune, eg: three or more corners touching will bring sickness / bad fortune.
  • Futon beds– thin beds that are easy to roll and store
  • Shoji screens– room dividers
  • Low-rise furniture such as tables and zabuton (scatter cushions)
  • Kotatsu – small tables with an under heater built-in
  • Fusuma – a sliding door covered with cloth/paper on both sides, making it opaque. Usually there is a painted picture in the middle of it, to make it more aesthetic.

The minimalistic approach means there is never too much clutter, and items not in use are stored away in oshiire (large storage closets) until they are needed.

Traditionally, every room in Japan had tatami, though nowadays there is only one private tatami (also known as washitsu) room which is kept specifically for ceremonies and entertaining guests.


Many sculptures and ornamentsin Japan have alternative uses, apart from being visually attractive, such as the lucky cat, tanuki (a racoon-dog), and frog. These items are believed to carry good luck within them, and you’ll likely see them in front of homes, temples, and businesses.

Another common décor items is a tokonoma- also called toko for short. It is a raised alcove with artistic items displayed within such as decorative scrolls, ikebana flowers, a bonsai tree, and other small carvings. Usually a pillar separates the alcove from the rest of the room, and entering it is forbidden unless the display is being changed.


The garden is another important aspect of traditional Japanese homes, and the gardening technique has been refined over a thousand years.There are naturally different styles of gardens, such as strolling gardens that herald back to the Edo period with large ponds and lakes where moon viewing parties were held; and another common garden to see is the dry stone gardens, such as the ones monks use.

Typical lush gardens: Traditionally large stones were considered to be kami (spirits) and gravel was used to designate a sacred spaces. Nowadays the large stones symbolise mountains while gravel is used as decorative accents to ponds. Bridges and walkways are common features as are stone lanterns that provide light and when paired with water basins (to wash before a ritual) make up the basic components for a tea garden. Water features such as Koi ponds are employed and artificial islands are created to represent real or mythical places. Plants are expertly arranged around the garden to imitate nature and are trimmed and shaped to be more appealing, as well as changed for the various seasons.

Dry / Zen gardens: These are made entirely from stone, moss, and gravel, and usually ringed by a wall. Large stones are used to depict islands, mountains and waterfalls, while the gravel and sand replace water.Dry gardens were created to imitate nature, and to be a source of contemplation for important things, such as the meaning of life. Zen gardens are usually much smaller than their lush counterparts, and are created to be viewed from a single place outside. Rakes and other items are placed around the side so the garden can be shaped, and special emphasis is placed on the overall harmony of the garden.


The two major religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. They have co-existed in Japan for several centuries, and to a certain degree even complement each other – death, for those who are Shintoist, is considered ‘dirty’, so all burials are performed by Buddhists. Most Japanese people consider themselves either one or the other, and sometimes even both.

There are many mitsuri (festivals) which are celebrated, as every shrine and temple has its own special festivities annually. There are several main festivals celebrated across the whole of Japan, and these include Sh?gatsu (New Year), O-bon (Festival of the Dead), Hina-matsuri (children/doll’s day), and Hanami (first flower viewing).

The rich heritage of Japan is something that is still celebrated today, and it is their dedication to the past allows them to live a life of meaning in the present day.

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