Three ideas from traditional Japanese homes to simplify your house

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Japanese traditional style house interior design / 和風建築(わふうけんちく)
Other peoples’ homes fascinate me. They always have — it was part of why I was so excited to apply to become Offbeat Home’s editor. If windows are open when I walk by, I’ll be looking in your house. When I go to a friend’s house, I love to see how they’ve solved problems in ways I’d never think of, or what crazy way they’ve found to store their towels, or what habit is completely verboten in their space.

As an extension, I loooove to virtually explore homes around the globe. I walk the street view of Google Maps, collect photos of foreign houses, and read no end of Wikipedia entries. It’s especially fun to think about, well, just about any country not in the Americas — their cultures are so much older than most of ours!

This week, I revisted Japanese homes to find three things we could adopt to streamline life in the Western world. Ready? Let’s go.

Take off your shoes

Japanese traditional style house exterior design / 和風建築(わふうけんちく)

People in Japan have been removing their shoes prior to entering a home for over a thousand years to leave dirt outside, figuratively and literally. This isn’t just a casual house habit; it’s sometimes written into rental contracts that shoes will not be worn in the apartment. This is a culturally ingrained mores.

Now, I grew up in a strictly no-shoe household. My mom was militant about her floors: only in the case of emergencies was I allowed to leave the mud room for the rest of the house with shoes still on my feet. I abandoned this in an act of rebellion when I got my own place (“Take that, mom! I’ll show YOU who can’t wear shoes!”) But now we’re in a house with very pretty wood floors and now I am the person responsible for sweeping those floors and now I make everyone take their shoes off.

It’s nice to keep the dirt out, but I’m going to try to keep the figurative dirt in mind when I come in, as well. And at our house? Shoes are usually discarded, willy-nilly. I’ll be focusing on a peaceful placement of shoes that are ready to be slipped back into, quickly and easily.

Be flexible

Traditionally, Japanese homes haven’t had permanent living or bedrooms. Instead, rooms have been arranged as-needed around the kitchen, bath, and toilet rooms using sliding panels. For this reason, furniture in other rooms is often portable — and pieces like futon mats can be stored in house closets, as needed.

I dig this principal, and I realllly wish our house was set up like this. HOWEVER! Even though I’ve got drywall and brick in all my rooms, I can put this idea into effect in a really interesting way: if you want your rooms to be a bit more multi-purpose, avoid buying furniture in the sets often offered by furniture stores. Put together pieces that look nice together and don’t sweat it if they aren’t all the same microfiber brown. That way it’s a little easier to put together a living room for your Festivus party out of mixes and matches.

Ditch the major appliances

Egg drop soupModern Japanese kitchens usually have a fridge, stove, and microwave — and if there is an oven it’s not usually full size. Some homes have just a single gas stove burner. In America, we’re usually going for the bigger and the badder. Have you seen the size of those fridges Kelly Rippa pitches?

We cook a lot. Almost every night. But I could totally replace the stove/oven with a two burner stovetop… and maybe a small convection microwave oven, as many homes in Japan have. When was the last time I used the oven, anyway? Mama don’t bake.

Clearly, this is just a start. It’s gleaned from my stalking of Japanese homeowners via Flickr, readings of Haruki Murakami books, and Wikipedia. Japan experts! What have you seen in Japanese homes you thought would be a good idea for other cultures to take on?

Comments on Three ideas from traditional Japanese homes to simplify your house

  1. The idea of losing major appliances horrifies me! We spend a lot of our evenings cooking and baking together in our house in our teeny kitchen. It makes me sad that more people don’t cook healthy meals, honestly.

    Now the idea about mix and match furniture I can totally get behind. An easy way to do that is a new coat of paint when you’re ready to move it room to room. I’m a huge fan of painting furniture after rebelling against it for so long.

    • Oh no, BELIEVE me — I’m an advocate for more at home cooking, not less. But we make almost every meal at home and I almost never use the oven. I could ditch that so fast for a little two-pot stovetop.

        • Where is that?
          Here (San Francisco bay area), there are a good number of restaurants that ONLY have an oven (a woodburning one usually). I’ve been to two or three that only have an oven, no stovetops, but ovens are so useful.

      • I’ve had only a two-burner stove top, a toaster oven, and a microwave for the last two years. As someone who loves to cook, it’s sometimes not enough but I actually love it – I love learned a lot about mise en place and proper timing so that everything comes out right at the right time. Mostly I just dream of a bigger kitchen for more counter space and the chance to bake more than six cupcakes at a time.

        • Ha! I had to chime in on the 6 cupcakes at a time part, same here, I end up doing them in four or more batches which takes sooo long. We have a convection/microwave dealio and whilst I’d love a proper oven (we only use the hob on ours as the oven door is busted) we get by, albeit 6 at a time. Soon as I have £200+ to throw at one (um, yeah, I’m a student so a good few years at least) I’ll revel in it.

          Regarding the shoe thing .. I have appalling circulation, I seldom have shoes off and hate it at other peoples houses when I feel obligated to remove them. It causes me pain when my feet inevitably get freezing. If you’d supply me with super fluffy heated slippers we can talk :).

          Flexibility is good, I love mismatched items with character too, far better than a full set to me.

          • My Canadian relatives take a pair of slippers with them when visiting each others’ homes. Keep your feet toasty and your floors clean!

      • I would almost totally agree that me and my partner could get by on two burners (we did for our extended vacation in Berlin), but the only issue is that I am gluten-free while he is not. The rare pasta/sauce/veggie night has us using all 4 eyes, one for my pasta, one for his, one for sauteing veggies and we somehow always have the kettle on for tea.

        But forgoing all the other appliances, three steps ahead. We’ve lived without a microwave for a year and we don’t drink coffee. The only appliances we keep out are the toaster oven and the blender for my morning fruit/veg smoothies.

    • I cook almost every night, but I’m still with Cat–I think I’ve used more than 2 burners at once, oh… twice? three times? in the 2.5 years I’ve lived in my apartment? The full four burners is overkill.

      I *do* use my oven all the time though. This chick bakes like it’s going out of style.

      • Last night I had my husband’s aunt, uncle and mom over to dinner. I used the oven to bake blackberry pies, I used one burner for spaghetti, one burner for hamburger, and 2 for 2 different kinds of sauce. I also used the broiler to make garlic bread. We have mix and match furniture in our living room but I need my appliances. . .

        • Oh yeah, I use 3-4 burners all the time, and the oven too if bread or dessert is involved. Plus my favorite, easy way to make veggies is to roast them.

          I mean sure, I can get away with two burners is need be. Heck, when we camp, all we use is a two burner propane stove and the campfire to cook. That doesn’t mean that’s how I want it all the time though.

      • Wow, I’m surprised. Currently, I cook for two people when my boyfriend isn’t doing the cooking (and I’m not exactly great or even particularly fond of cooking) and I regularly use 3 burners. Growing up in a family of six, we would use 4 burners quite often – although most often during holidays.

        • Me too. My boyfriend won’t eat brown rice, while I prefer it to white. And my roommate is vegetarian. So, we generally have white rice in the rice cooker, brown rice on one burner, chicken or some meat on one burner, the meat-free sauce on a third burner, and finally whatever vegetable I am stir-frying or saute-ing on the fourth. Four burners are a must for us.

          Also, my boyfriend loves french fries so there’s no way I could get rid of the oven. Plus, when my roommate makes any pasta dish she bakes it for a few minutes with a layer of extra cheese on top after assembling the sauce and pasta. It adds a special something I love!

    • I can’t imagine life without an oven … no more roasts! 🙁 Give me my chicken with stuffing, and kumara and carrot and pumpkin and peas … *drool*
      Plus I bake like it’s going out of fashion. I love giving baking as presents <3 Dad's getting tan square for father's day on Sunday!

    • Like Kayla I couldn’t imagine going without an oven. We use it at least every other day. The microwave on the other hand I could easily go without, we only really use it for defrosting and a bit of planning would get around that.

    • Ugh, yeah when I lived in Japan I HATED our kitchen. It made it pretty much impossible to entertain with the limited space we had. I think the only reason Japanese kitchens work for most Japanese is they don’t entertain guests in their homes usually. My Japanese friends were always amazed at what I could accomplish in that hole of a kitchen, and honestly I was pretty amazed too!

  2. Great ideas! I’m thinking of trying to set up a Japanese-style bedroom where we can roll up the futon bed during the day to make space for yoga and meditation.

    P.S.: It’s futon (cotton-filled thin mattresses) and zabuton (floor pillows) that are usually stored in closets in Japan, not tatami (woven reed mats used as a floor covering). I tried Editz but I’m not sure if it works if I don’t have an account.

  3. Just as a heads up, tatami mats can’t be stored in the closet. They ARE the floor. I tried the editz button too, but it wants me to register. (EDIT: nevermind! I see you corrected it!)

    Anyhoo. I love Japanese homes. Some things my husband and I would love to do would be to get a kotatsu. It’s a low table (for floor seating), that has a blanket covering the empty space between the table and floor. There’s a small heater installed under the table. So you sit under the blanket at your kotatsu and turn on the heater. NOM NOM so perfect for a Canadian winter.

    We also want to install an indoor charcoal grill when we buy our own house (we live in a condo right now) for yummy yakiniku! It’s my favourite thing to eat when I’m in Japan.

    This also may just be me but I thought it was standard/normal to take off your shoes before entering someone’s house? I’ve never been to a house where that WASN’T a rule. It was just common knowledge/courtesy. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing to remove your shoes as well? Or is it an American thing to leave your shoes on?

    • I’ve noticed that the further north you go, the more common it is to take off shoes. While I think it’s common in places that get snow to take off shoes when it’s snowy or slushy, it may not be as large of a deal when you don’t have to deal with it.

      My house was a bit odd as my mother gave piano lessons often and so obviously did not ask them to remove their shoes, except when they were particularly muddy/slushy/snowy. But at that point, everyone just automatically removed their shoes. (I’m from Michigan)

    • I think its a Canadian thing too…I was in Chicago visiting family this summer and they couldn’t care less if I took off my shoes. I am DILIGENT in having people take them off at my door. Who knows what they stepped in coming over? And in our Canadian winters (ESPECIALLY in Winnipeg) I don’t want snow or slush in my home. I also have a cat that will lick up said slush. Yuck!

    • I don’t know, but I live in Michigan and I learned my OCD about shoes in the house from my parents who have both beautiful wood floors and cream colored carpet. We never walk in the house with shoes on unless we’re getting ready for a formal event (which is rare) since formal shoes are kept relatively clean anyways. Michigan weather wreaks havoc on any kind of flooring! Almost all my friends have the same rules in their homes, too!

  4. I have always kept a big wicker basket by the front door. All shoes go straight into the basket when one enters the house. To be truthful, I never ask guests to do it, but my son and I both shed the shoes as soon as we enter. And the basket is great because it keeps the shoes together and tidy, but not OCD tidy. No lining up, no big deal about taking them off, just flip ’em off into the basket. Boom! Score! Done!

    Oh, and — in case you wonder about how large the basket is — I switch out the winter shoes in summer and vice versa so there’s no overflow.

  5. Kotatsu!
    Kotatsu are small tables with a heating element in the bottom, and picture blankets coming down on all four sides (google it, I’m doing horrible at explaining).
    In most traditional Japanese homes (as in crappy rental places many of us have had to – or still – live in) there’s little heat insulation, and no central heat. A kotatsu is functional as well as just plain awesome, and I’m attempting to build one myself.

    • I love kotatsu too! If you manage to build one, submit it here! My husband and I want one so bad, but they’re so expensive to order (like $600 without the cushions and futon covering).

      • safe heating element, look at reptile shows for cut to order heat mats, then the power source you buy clips onto it covering the exposed ends. to protect a wooden table from the heat use a heat resistant adhesive (2 part epoxy most likely) to adhere a silicone baking sheet between the table and heating element. same glue to attach the heating element. you can also buy thermostats that it just gets plugged into then that gets plugged into the wall at the reptile shows.

  6. we have a rack for shoes at our front door and another at our back. the shoes in my bedroom closet are the fancy pants shoes i never wear.

    i could never get rid of my oven though. i bake all the time! not that i’m a real baker, but i do love me some pillsbury crescent rolls.

  7. When I was in Germany everyone was really insistent about not wearing shoes when you went into their house. I grew up not wearing shoes around the house but then again I’m also that girl who’s likely to not be wearing shoes in the middle of class either. Right now I have a vintage round suitcase by my front door for shoes which is nice because the top can be closed.

  8. I always take my shoes off at the door and put them in a little cabinet that I bought. Even when I’ve got my arms full of groceries, I have to take them off just out of habit. My husband doesn’t wear his shoes around the house, but he won’t take them off right at the door. Of course, with two dogs and two cats, there’s really no keeping our floors clean for very long, but I still like to try. Plus, I just hate wearing shoes.

  9. Lol @Melissa- I was going to mention that shoes are off at the door in Canada too. I remember when I was a kid we studied Japan in social studies and our textbook made such a big deal out of how weird it was that Japanese people took their shoes off at the door. No one in my class could figure out why this was even mentioned (obviously our textbook was printed in the US).

    Flexible furniture solutions are always genius. People can knock IKEA and all it’s big-box associations, but if you need to figure out a custom solution there are an endless number of hacks with all the pieces. Losing my appliances would make me very sad though. I frequently use two or more burners at the same time as the oven (yes, even for dinner on a Tuesday, I’m a masochist).

    My husbands favorite Japanese home adaptation is to have a stall shower next to the end of a bathtub with either an opening or a connector door between the two so you can step directly from the shower into the tub. It makes Jim sad that our shower and tub are at opposite ends of our bathroom.

    • I think the reason Japan is different than Canada and the like when it come to taking off shoes is that in Japan people often have to take off their shoes in public buildings, as well. It’s always required in private homes, but schools and many other public areas also require people to take off their shoes and wear indoor-only slippers.

  10. When I lived in Japan, it was written into our lease no shoes in the house. However, Japanese often have house shoes and I embraced that idea. These aren’t slippers or house shoes that end up worn in Wal Mart. Often times you could have extra pair for your guests as well (but that might have just been what us Americans were doing). These were a necessity during winter! As for my kitchen, we had a fish oven and that’s about as big as a shoebox. We were able to cook way more than fish: hamburgers, chicken. We had a small convection oven we used for baking and it was about as big as our microwave. It was easy to get used to, once I posted a C to F degree conversion chart on the wall.

  11. All of the photos I’ve seen of Japanese houses and design are very minimalist. I especially luh-uh-uh-uve the open floor space and on-or-near-the-floor living. I recently cleared out my living room of everything but the sofa and a built in desk that holds the TV. I love having the big open floor space for dining, entertaining, and working on craft projects.

    Oh, and us Boulderites take shoes off, too – but that may be because some of us are hippies that don’t like wearing them in the first place. 🙂

  12. Just have to chime in here with KOTATSU ARE THE SHIT. Number one thing i missed when I moved back to the states after 2 years in Japan. Also,house slippers. Finally, if you are a big tea drinker many homes in Japan have what I can only call a hot water heater/dispenser? You put water in and set it, then it warms up the water to just below boiling so it doesn’t boil away, and keeps it hot and there endlessly! Also has different temp settings if you are obsessed with the perfect cup of white/green/herbal/black tea. It’s great to have the water ready to go whenever you want a cup (especially in the morning). I found one on amazon when I moved back and love it.

  13. I got used to taking off my shoes when we lived in an apartment in Tacoma, WA a few years ago. If you aren’t familiar with the situation, many industrial areas (or ones that used to be) have pretty bad stuff in the soil, such as arsenic and lead in higher levels. Tacoma had billboards up frequently at the time asking people to keep outdoor shoes at the door and not let children play in soil too much. I had really liked Japanese shoe habits so it was only natural for us to do it at our house.

    As for other Japanese things I would like to adopt at home: smaller fridge with easier to see shelves (just downsizing some appliances in general, but I would still want them), an actual shower/tub room with drain in floor/all tile for bathing Japanese style (easier to clean and use!), sliding walls for house rearranging, entryway lower than house…

    I could go on, but my husband and I have both agreed that we will be building our own house in the future and incorporating this stuff into the design. A lot of the features we love have to do with use of space differences. There is no wasted space in a standard Japanese home, whereas many standard American homes today have overlarge rooms, a lot of space that isn’t utilized except for looks, and unnecessary walls.

  14. Taking off your shoes before entering the house is a prevalent thing in Filipino culture too. 🙂 That’s even the case when having big 25 person parties, so we would have a little sea of shoes just inside of our front door. XD Little shoe racks help out a lot.

    The following link is just for fun. If anything, you can learn how to brush your teeth, do something that looks like morning exercises, and pull up your pants without using your hands all at the same time. XD

  15. For those of you who don’t remove your shoes when entering a home, three things to consider: E. coli, MSRA and Klebsiella pneumonia. That’s just a sampling of the bacteria that live on your shoes’ soles. If you’re not familiar with these guys, E. coli is commonly found in poop and causes diarrhea, MSRA is a highly-infectious staph that causes boils, K Pneumonia causes–you guessed it–pneumonia, among other things.
    Who’s most susceptible to these bacteria baddies? Kids under 2 (the ones who spend the most time ON the floor, too) and the elderly, but they’re bad for anybody.
    You shoes just AREN’T clean. I’m no germophobe, but these are pretty serious invaders.
    I feel like I’m saying “Dooom, Dooooom, DOOOOOOOOOM” but really, it’s just something a lot of people don’t think about. If nothing else, please just wash your shoes, floors and carpets a LITTLE more often. For me? Please?

    • I had a relative who cleaned carpets for a living and said they were the filthiest things in any home because so many Americans wear shoes indoors and track in all the gross things you mentioned and more.

      His wife was Japanese, and their shoes-off, carpet-free house was completely devoid of dirt and clutter even though they had three kids. Someday…someday my own home will be that clean.

      Removing shoes indoors is also common in Scandinavian countries, though my Danish dad sure doesn’t take his shoes off at the door…

    • not to mention, as a massage therapist, i can tell you, shoes are VERY unhealthy for your whole body. you weren’t designed to wear them. so people end up with issues like back & neck problems just from shoes! not to mention the less air your feet get, the grosser they get. so leave them off as much as possible.

  16. We don’t take our shoes off. I’ve never like having to keep my shoes in my room or by the door or all over the house. Also, my husband had FIL both have flat feet and it would be uncomfortable for them to be walking around without their custom insoles.

  17. Pretty neat, the shoe thing is a Maltese (Italian) custom as well. It’s a bit like instinct to take off shoes whenever I walk into anyones home.

    Love the simplicity of Japanese style. Has anyone here ever seen the House Hunters international show on Japan? The houses are TINY! Still though, a majority of them are incredibly high on personality and style, while being pretty low on space… which rocks. =)

  18. My husband and I (plus one furbaby) currently live in the Netherlands. I’ll be the first person to admit I’ve “gone Dutch.” I love the cultural climate here and I have brought a lot of it into our home. One of the strangest things when I first got here was the decorated front windows. Wide bay windows in the front of the house are THE rule in the Netherlands, and EVERYONE decorates them. Whether it’s just a simple vase or two or a large hanging display of photo frames and lights AND flowers. We don’t have one yet–but a DIY is in the works. Plus, the Dutch are all amazing gardeners. On our block you can literally play “Spot the American yard” despite my best attempts!

  19. Like many others, I’d LOVE setting up a Japanese home, complete with kotatsu,wooden tub, slidding walls and… a rice cooker! Talking about appliances, this is a must! And of course these outwordly Japanese toilets.

    As for taking your shoes off, this is definitely cultural. In France, this is a major cultural blunder, you just don’t ask anyone to remove their shoes (I’m working on that). Which is a pain, because who wants someone who’s just been walking in the rain to enter your house and dirty your carpet?

  20. This is prevalent in Hawai’i as well. Our landlord wrote it into our lease agreement. I didn’t notice it when I lived in Canada, but maybe Vancouver is different from the rest. The only time people appreciated me taking my shoes off was when I was visiting 1st generation immigrant families from Eastern Asia. The rest of my Canadian friends thought that I was weird.

    My family has done this for most of our lives. Sometimes, we are in a rush and forget, but overall we have two spots by the front and back door for shoes. It’s convenient.

    • Vancouver is definitely different from the rest of Canada! It rains instead of snows, so taking shows off isn’t as necessary (though why you’d want to wear wet shoes around the house is beyond me).

    • As a lifelong Vancouverite, the only people I’ve noticed who don’t remove their shoes indoors come from away. I have no idea why people would leave their soggy shoes on indoors, completely aside from cleanliness issue.

  21. I love this, and the minimalistic idea ofliving greatly appeals to me,but always seemsimpossible to accomplish. I do however give everyone who won’t remove their shoes (with exception of granny) thestink eye. The coolest thing I ever saw was at my yoga studio and it made so much was a simple wooden shelf with it was smallish and perfect for stacking shoes on before entering the studio room. I have been using one just like it ever since. I am eventually going to make a sign that says “take. off your shoes or burn” or something lol.

  22. At my mom’s house we always took our shoes off, well usually 😉
    We try to at our apartment but our wooden floors are painted brown and the floors are quite sticky in warm weather. Yea, our floor is absurd. I think I will make/invest in slippers/house shoes though.

    I love the idea of a home being fluid. A season into our lease we’ve been changing things constantly to make it work for my brother, my husband and I. We have our common rooms arranged into sectors with different purposes and when needs change we change things.

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