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The International Writers Magazine
: Japan House Style (From Our Archives)

Zen And The Art of Home Design.
Sam Barnes

Japanese homes have a plethora of unique features, that have evolved to suit a highly variable climate, and as an integral part of one of the world’s great cultures. Though many Japanese people now live in high-rise apartment complexes, the more traditional aspects of Japanese home design still thrive.

zen bathroom
For people living in Bladerunner style metropolises, short on space, incorporating simple design and natural materials in the home can help breath a little fresh air into an otherwise digital existence.
The bonsai tree is a cheap and rewarding way to add some greenery to a balcony, or windowsill. They come in a variety of species, and can be gradually transformed into the perfect shape by careful trimming, and the use of wires to direct the growth of young branches. Be warned though: Keeping a Bonsai indoors can be tricky, as like any plant, they are sensitive to temperature and humidity.

Sliding doors are commonplace throughout Japanese homes. They take up less space than their hinged counterparts, and make less noise. The only problem is that obstacles such as small stones can sometimes get stuck in the tracks, requiring removal. Avoid this by introducing a rule that everyone take their shoes off on entering your apartment. Not only does this cut down on floor cleaning, it helps you relax after a hard day in the office.

If you want to go a step further, you could add sliding paper window screens. The creamy opaque paper crossed with delicate light-wood frames, creates a romantic ambience on moonlit nights, as can be seen in the James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice.’ For those who want to save on their winter heating bills, there are a variety of options. The ‘kotatsu’ is a knee height table, which has a blanket inserted between the removable tabletop, and the underlying frame. (Picture a sandwich made with an oversized piece of ham). A heater under the frame warms the space under the table to toasty levels. You sit on the floor with your bottom half under the table, and trap in the heat, by tucking the blanket in around your waist.

Sitting on the floor eliminates the need for costly and space consuming furniture, but can cause soreness over prolonged periods. Thus, you may wish to acquire some ‘zabuton’. These are large flat cushions designed for kneeling or sitting on the floor.

If you really are serious about shelving furniture and creating the ultimate Zen room, you should consider changing the flooring itself. ‘Tatami’ are durable rectangular shaped mats, woven from finely shredded rushes. They are arranged in a tightly fitting pattern to create a cohesive floor surface. When new, they are a milky green colour and fill the room with the pungent aroma of freshly cut grass. After several months they turn brown and give off a pleasant scent, similar to wicker. While tatami may be a little costly to install, the results are well worth it.

Finally, as you snuggle under the kotatsu, feel the smooth springy texture of tatami mats under foot, and meditate upon the silhouette of your bonsai tree behind the paper window screens; few things could be better than sipping a glass of Japanese sake, especially when it’s served at the correct temperature—98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, that is.

© Sam Barnes March 2005

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