Three ideas from traditional Japanese homes to simplify your house

Posted by

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. Re: No shoes in the house. I would put on house shoes or socks. My parents lived in Hawaii for a number of years and after that basically vowed to never have people take their shoes off. Apparently, the dirt can be cleaned, but in the homes where people took off their shoes my parents saw the occupants replacing their carpets and rugs earlier than “normal,” becuase the natural oils from feet started to stain and degrade the fibers.

  2. I’d like to just emphasise the closets. Maybe they aren’t so unusual to Americans, but to Brits having a closet where you can easily fit futons and those massive floor pillows, they’re astonishingly large. The lesson I take away is that storage is king, because actually it is rather nice to be able to put *everything* including furniture away in a room.

  3. Appliances: Ours have been dying on us lately. Instead of running out to replace them immediately, we’ve been biding our time, to see if we really NEED to replace them:
    Microwave – No
    Toaster – Yes
    Coffee Maker – We now use a french press, but are thinking of getting a bigger one.
    When our fridge died, we did replace that almost immediately – but bought a smaller one, because it was cheaper, and it’s just 2 of us. I do worry a bit about when we sell our house, whether people will view the smaller fridge as a draw-back. It’s not half-size or anything, but compared to some of the monsters out there it may be tiny to some.

  4. I live in Canada, and yes you definitely take your shoes off at the door 😉 not just for cleanliness but I just think it’s polite! Besides do people really like wearing their shoes that much? Sure some shoes are cute but I like taking them off just as much once I get inside – but I guess it’s whatever you are used to. When I was younger when I was on my own property or out on my grandparents farm I would often even run around outside without shoes on, but then I would have to wash my feet off once I came inside.

    As for the appliances I could sure live with smaller ones myself – but my boyfriend likes to cook chickens fairly often so I don’t think we could really do away with the oven. Neither of us has owned a microwave in years though, so I guess that’s one less appliance than usual as far as North American standards go.

  5. With four kids I did a lot of cooking for years–stove and fridge were absolute necessities to keep enough food to feed everyone (and all the kid’s friends who seemed to show up at mealtimes). Now with just us I could maybe get by with a smaller oven, but I still do a lot of baking for meals as I’m trying to get away from frying. The only big appliance I ever wanted was a fridge–more storage room! Though I do have a small freezer, at least, for long term storage now and I’m learning to can food. Furniture was never a big priority as I just used what I could find. We have sort of inherited some and I will weed it out later on. There again the only thing I ever really wanted was a good desk and storage units–a must if you do any kind of crafting or have books!

  6. I moved back to America this summer after six years in Yokohama. I found the teeny kitchen very difficult. My second apartment only had room for a two-burner stove, and I often found that I needed three burners. I miss my shower room, though. So much room! I get claustrophobic when I shower in America. I’ve heard that some old apartments don’t have showers or baths, however. People just go to the local public bath. I was very embarrassed to go to those at first, but I got over it quickly. When I went with friends, we would have the most intense conversations while sitting naked in a tub together. It seemed to encourage intimacy. (Unfortunately tattoos are still taboo, thanks to the association with yakuza, so I once got kicked out of a super-posh public bath.)

    The storage is great. Small shoe closets near the door are pretty common. Mine had one built-in, and I could fit about twenty pairs of shoes in there. Most people have slippers for guests, but my husband and I find them uncomfortable so we never bothered. A friend of mine had heated floors in her house, which was amazing when we sat under the kotatsu in the winter. I’d get very drowsy!

    Another aspect I loved was the decorating. Japanese culture is big on the four seasons, so people tend to change what they have hanging or displayed in the tokonoma throughout the year. It’s fun to change up the art on the walls depending on the season, since it always feels fresh. I bought a hanging scroll with several different pictures that can slot into it, and I can’t wait to get it set up.

    My favorite aspect of my first apartment was the shoji screen in the bedroom. I taped a postcard in each small frame, and that never failed to make me smile.

  7. i could lose the microwave and keep the oven. I don’t see the point of doing the opposite. Especially since the oven usually goes below the top stove. Basically, lots of the dishes i cook involve putting together vegetables and maybe meet or fish and dumping the thing in the oven. It is simply not the same either in the microwave or on the stove. No major appliances otherwise, except for toaster, though i survived a long time just with just an iron grill.

    Taking you shoes out is very widespread in Scandinavia as well. Basically the weather is so crappy that you would never ask people
    to come over if they would drip all over your wooden floors. In Eastern Europe, one usually has house socks or house shoes.

    Storage is important, but i definitely would not like to have to move it around all the time. After years in college of sleeping on a sofa bed (bed in the evening, sofa during the day as the flat was 25sqm), the first thing i wanted was to have a room with a bed that i could leave undone sometimes and just close the door when people came over.

    I really like the idea of changing the decor with the seasons and the screen with postcards – should definitely borrow them :).

  8. The thing I miss the most about Japan is the way bathrooms are configured. American bathrooms suck. In Japan the toilet has its own water closet and the bathing area is closed off with an area for you to shower before you get into the bathtub. The way our current house is there’s not nearly enough space to convert either of the bathrooms to Japanese style but the next house we get I’m going to be adamant about converting the bathroom!

  9. While I could not live without an oven (no, really, I’m trying to start a baking/cooking business sometday!) I love Japanese styled living. I would move to Japan tomorrow if I could! I love the idea of simplicity in the home. Save a TON of cash in the long run!

    • I think it’s a common misconception that Japanese home = simple = cheap. I know I certainly thought that before living there. But I can guarantee you Japanese people buy as much consumerist junk as the next industrialized nation. This seems to be especially true if you have kids haha. And you can get an oven in Japan; it’s just going to cost you more 😉

  10. Oh, I’m sorry, I do know that. lol I only meant it is cheaper to not buy tons of furniture, etc. Sorry!!! I know Japan can actually be a very expensive place to live… I just love the culture. ^_^

    • That’s what I mean though. You may not be buying a $2000 sectional sofa in Japan, but I knew plenty of families that would spend $2000 on a massage chair or something. So really it doesn’t work out cheaper at all. Outfitting my 400 sqft apartment in Japan cost me about the same as outfitting my 650sqft apartment in America. And then when you consider the fact that most apartments in Japan don’t have insulation, even if you did get some savings from furniture, you lose it in heating and cooling efficiency.

  11. i could never dream of going without my oven. since i moved out on my own i’ve even had a double oven. just me and my hubby human wise but oven is used everyday, even if just the smaller of the 2. when i was in the college dorms i even used the oven and stove in the common area. during winter finals it was on 5 days in a row 24 hours a day. (we did a whole dorm floor cookie baking that week as finals fell on most families cookie baking day for the holidays. it was also stress relief between finals.) i did pretty much replace the microwave with our kurieg though. need to cook ramen or pasta large setting on the kurieg once or twice will do, we don’t use the single use cups with ours. and 4x fills my teapot. canned veggies drain the water and large setting on the kurieg. oven is cakes, pies, cookies, bisquits, bread, cupcakes, meats, and some times veggies. love my double oven.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation