Japanese house architecture & our condo rental
The most important thing when on the perpetual travel road, is a cozy place to work and live while being close to all amenities of the city.
Living in various places gave me an insight into the different housing culture of countries.
Japan’s architecture is easily recognisable, with its perfectly cube shaped small shops and houses, intermingled with tall residential buildings which all stand very close to each other.
Japanese middle class.
Japanese well off.
Sometimes, black cables run from electricity posts in front of buildings which doesn’t look pretty but is easier to fix in the case of earthquakes and also a lot cheaper than putting all those cables underneath. Our town house in Tokyo (I am typing this from now), has a balcony and a great view up to the horizon but cables run across that view. Another peculiar thing, Japanese houses have no cellar no lofts, probably for the same reason.
We have lived in three typical Japanese buildings (the condominium, town house and traditional domicile) which are all a bit different but exemplary dwellings in Japan.
In this post, I will sometimes refer to our Tokyo townhouse, which you can tour through the link!
I will start with the condominium or condo in short, a typical Japanese apartment, which we have rented in Fukuoka on Kyushu island for three weeks. We’ve booked via Airbnb and we’ve paid $50 per night. The location was excellent, right downtown Fukuoka, in a district called Tenjin.
When looking at Japanese architecture in cities, you will notice that Japan has had its greatest building boom in the 60s to 80s. It does feel a bit like well-maintained-retro housing. New buildings stand out with their (still cubed) but very modern look.
Due to limited space in cities, many people live in tiny (western point of view) but highly functional flats in high residential buildings – which are incredibly clean when comparing the density vs cleanness factor in other countries.
In contrast, traditional Japanese houses are spacious in more rural areas of Japan, like this one in Yamagata, Honshu island. Free standing, mainly wooden and with a garden (pure luxury in Tokyo terms). We were staying at this residence with the parents of our friend Takumi and had a fantastic homestay experience last year.
Back to Fukuoka and walking the red carpet every day! This is the main entrance to our multi-unit residential building.
A very common thing in those multiple-unit housings (in better off parts of town) is the reception with 24h staff.
We also had a nifty waiting area. The whole ambience would made me think of my once favourite 80s TV shows. The perfect setting for Laura Holt and Remington Steele.
Welcome to our rectangular one room condo. All we had as storage room, was the Ikea coathanger fixed to the wall, carrying more than Ikea would ever dream about. The floor had a retro olive green colour.
Our bedroom. The bed is actually a sofabed which we never used as a sofa. The back rest was my idea how to integrate an otherwise useless air-mattress into the sleeping area. The mattress was just okay as a back rest… I cannot see three people living here!
We had big covers which we didn’t use because it was so nice and warm (in October!) but in case of heat or cold, there is only space heating (aircons, electric and kerosene heaters). The Japanese do not use central heating and don’t make use of insulation either, windows are single pane. I am truly enjoying the atypical floor heating in our Tokyo residence.
In Yamagata, temperatures were below zero and it did get pretty cold in the house. We were tucked in tightly in our futon bedding of which one layer was also an electric blanket. My cousin on the futon.
To keep warm, the whole family shares the kotatsu. A low table with electric heating attached to the its underside. Everyone keeps their feet under a light duvet-like cover, which keeps the heat in. It feels very cosy – like being still in bed!
This is what’s going on – feet undercover!
Notice the sweet heater with kettle behind me.
Japanese house altars
Traditional Japanese houses have a small shrine. In our room, the arrangement was dedicated to the memory of Takumi’s deceased grandmother.
Tatami mats and shoji doors
A comfy thing are traditional tatami mats making up the floor. The mats are made from rice straw and it is so soft to walk on them! Tatami mats are deeply rooted in the Japanese real estate market. Advertisements state the number of rooms, followed by its size given in tatami measurements! One tatami = 180cmx90cm, so a six tatami room would be… eh, you do the maths.
Here is Tomek and my cousin working the laptops.
Japanese people are much more flexible and used to sit on the floor comfortably. Stuff and furniture is accordingly placed low. Takumi’s lovely parents made sure we didn’t starve, nor freeze in those early spring days.
Rooms within traditional house are created using shoji, sliding doors made from wood and paper.
I really liked the patterns on the doors.
You really have to get used to the height of sliding doors – they were a real head banger for the guys, except Takumi, who has a head for Japanese doors and, as every proper Japanese, a personal manga collection.
In Fukuoka, a small table and two chairs made for a smooth transition from our bedroom to kitchen to ballroom (okay, I am joking, there wasn’t a ballroom).
The lack of space and furniture promotes inventions like these: kitchen shelves above the sink were converted into a wardrobe.
A slightly better equipped kitchen in Yamagata.
The kitchen in our condo had a very retro look. The colours of tiles and cupboards have a hard time matching. The Japanese stove did not work which is why the owner had assembled electric cookers.
With no sockets around, we had to plug in the kettle to a socket from the fridge, the cable was just about reaching it and had to be changed if we wanted to use the microwave or tiny oven on top of the microwave. Fridge, microwave and oven staked on top of each other, looked like the Bremer Stadtmusikanten.
Typical for the Japanese stove is an integrated narrow fish grill. Dishwashers are not common (small family units and no need to do a great amount of cooking). Despite our big kitchen in Tokyo, the dishwasher is the shape of a mini-drawer. Sometimes it is quicker to do the dishes by hand than to try to fit them into that cube.
Panels on the wall to monitor the entrance, adjust heating and water temperature are very common in Japan’s city homes. The water can be adjusted to very high temperatures (up to 70 C) with a typical Japanese wall control, which was a blessing in our Fukuoka apartment, as there was no washing machine.
Every balcony in the building had a place for a washing machine and it is a common thing to place them there in Japan.
A huge difference to western flats is the use of balconies. Used as recreational areas with tables and flowers in Europe, in Japan they are typically very narrow and functionally occupied by either aircons, washing machines or integrated drying racks.
Our aircon. These monsters produce the hell of a noise and the only thing I seriously do not like in Asia.
The hideous view to the right.
Hideous view up front.
And hideous view to the left.
The apartment was on the 3rd floor but dark, so lamps had to be on, even during the day.
The Japanese condo has a classic rectangular shape with the generous sento (bathhouse) to the right after you enter. Well, truthfully, it is more of a tiny version of a bathhouse.
The apartments are designed for Japanese people, which are on average not as tall as Westerners. So we had to make the apartment Tomek-fit, or at least prevent him from bumping his head and shoulders against low and narrow door frames. Here is Donpen, the penguin mascot of Japan’s craziest store, functioning as a buffer. The narrow bathroom entrance.
The tiny bathroom is a good example of a cool unit bath, with all the fixtures build in, as if made from one molded piece of plastic. Enjoy the 70s colours and try to close the door when you sit on the throne without hitting your knees.
We also had a very Japanese toilet with a small sink and tap on top of the toilet tank. The water from that tap can be used and is then reused when you flush.
The Yamaha bathtub – designed to take showers.
Another common example of a typical Japanese bathroom in a house would be: a separate room for the toilet and sink, as well as the ofuro (bathing room). In our town house in Tokyo, we enjoy a more spacious Japanese bathroom consisting of two rooms.
In the traditional house in Yamagata, we even found three rooms for what Europeans only use one room. The sink/washing machine room, the bath/shower room and the toilet-room.
You change clothes here and then proceed to the ofuro through another door. BTW, Japanese washing machines usually open from the top, some are 2 in 1 models with a tumble dryer.
The room with the bathtub is awesome. You enter right into the shower area adjacent to the tub and can splash up a storm in the waterproof cabin! The Japanese always clean themselves before entering a soaking bath, simply to relax. Bathwater is therefore reheated an reused (bathtubs are often covered) – as it never really gets soapy or dirty. The hot water in the tub just sits there, ready to be used any time after you have scrubbed yourself clean.
Anyway, this is how we were doing laundry in Fukuoka. Old but cute faucets for hot/cold water with pastel colours (rose instead of red, baby blue instead of dark blue).
A typical Japanese invention is the genkan (entryway). It is just a small space where you take off your shoes before taking a small step and entering the rest of your home. The whole living area will be on a raised floor. BTW, the tip of the shoes should point to the outside – not at all like in the picture below!
The walls between units of two apartments is thin, so that you can hear a noisy neighbour. We were lucky and had a hair salon next door which opened late and closed early.
On the way to the elevator. Our apartment was only on the third floor but there was no staircase, except the emergency one running outside the building.
If you look up, you will see the sky and more cube shaped buildings.
The best gadget of our rented homes are portable wifi eggs which provide you with internet all over your place and in fact, the whole of Japan! We took it with us wherever we went.
A special in Fukuoka: you can use free wifi all over places in the city. Even Tokyo does not have that!
Japanese housing can be inspiring!