The Traditional Buildings of Japan

My experience in Japan was a feat for the senses – each corner we turned, each place we stayed the night had a wealth of design details that could have kept me staring and sketching for hours at a time.  Instead we made an effort to see as many different parts of the country as possible and so I was left to photo document as much as I could and reflect on it later.

As I designer I couldn’t be more impressed by the simplicity and elegance of Japanese traditional architecture.

pointing montage

Here’s a photo series from Himeji castle.  My sister asked me to pose for snap – something to show our parents back home how much I enjoyed the design.  In three clicks of the camera I go from pretending to point something out, to noticing yet another fantastic joinery detail in the beam, to praising with faint damns and pulling my own camera.  Note that to preserve the original wood floor, guests at Himeji are required to remove their shoes.

One of the first traditional buildings I encountered in detail, this is a little shop in Nagasaki.  It is in a district built around 1900, shortly after the Meiji restoration of contact with the west.  We went in to look at the textiles for sale and I started getting distracted by the wood work.  I explained in my faulty Japanese that I am an architect -“Watashi wa kenchikka desu” – and the shop keeper invited us up the ladder like stairs to examine the gallery space above and the stunning wood joinery of the doors.

Every detail of wood joinery, transition between two materials and view through a space seemed intentional and highly crafted, even as the spaces and materials themselves were relentlessly minimal in their detail.  Spare spaces are saved from being bland by a delicate asymmetry that keeps the eye moving and seems impressively and perplexingly hard to replicate to a western mind.

The pallate of a traditional Japanese building is restrained: stone, tile, wood and a few metal fittings.  Ancient buildings were often remodeled and updated in style and sometimes disassembled and the parts reused.  This was relatively easy since they kept each material so pure and unadulterated.

These pictures show O-Hashi House, the home of a wealthy merchant family in Kurashiki which is now a museum space.  We got there approximately half an hour before it closed and so had it to ourselves.  I went through it almost dizzy with the detail. One point I particularly loved was the note over a large oven used for ceremonial occasions which mentioned that they believe that the god of that hearth still guards the house.


Himeji castle was one of the biggest tourist locations we hit – but totally worth the trip.  In fact, we didn’t encounter many other western tourists, most of our fellow museum goers were either Japanese or from other Asian nations.  The scale and detail of the wood structure was impressive, as is the fact that its never been burned  – one of the few surviving castles from its era.

Even better than Himeji castle was the set of reconstructed gardens next to it, which we visited almost alone for the low low price of 30 yen.  My sister is the garden buff – she took more photos there.  So the shots below show pictures from that garden as well as the Ōkōchi Sansō garden in Kyoto.

I’ll be working to assimilate the details I observed for years, I’m sure.  I can’t wait to start incorporating them into my designs.

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