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Japanese wood

Arriving in Kyoto in 35-degree heat and 96% humidity, I floated jetlagged through narrow streets absorbing the atmosphere of old wooden buildings not more than two storeys high.

Kyoto house and garden

Gardens poked out of leftover spaces, nature present in a calm, inviting way. In contrast to our classical streets and squares there is a charming absence of symmetry here. Timber screens and windows vary in size and scale, in compositions always managing to be balanced with some parts set forward, some back, and fine vertical lines contrasting with undressed tree trunks that are part of the structure. A few of the houses offer a bench outside for passers-by to rest which I briefly took advantage of, contemplating my arrival to Japan for the first time.

Japan - wooden shop front

Small shops mingle with these early carpenter design led houses. An ancient tax on street frontage created long narrow plots with domestic spaces reached through random-sized but generally small courtyard gardens, making the transition from public to private a friendly process. Roofs overhang generously to offer anybody shade or shelter from the rain, widening further around doorways. This makes it clear where the entry is to each house, the sense of the street more one of a pathway with pausing places than a road. I noticed parcels and household objects left on benches among flowerpots and bikes leaning against planked walls: no one steals any of these. It is a more polite world than I am used to, with private and public living blended.

Japanese shop interior

It was not until I reached Tokyo and went to visit the Fukagawa Edo Museum that I gained insight into historic Japanese kitchens and interiors, based on a maritime area of Tokyo as it was in 1847. With the help of a translator I was taken through this meticulously researched reconstructed village. Modest houses had tiny (say 2.5 metres square) kitchens off an entrance corridor with a public or a living space behind. The shallow wooden unlined sink was set at right angles to a hand-built stove with brick pillars acting as a heat sink. A set of wooden shelves arrayed with beautiful hand crafted vessels was placed on the third side of this partly open plan space that linked with the entrance hallway, which itself included a workshop space for grinding and storing rice. You could see the respect and skill in the way the Japanese crafted all the vessels they used to store food, cook and eat. These were made from copper, cast iron, pine of various kinds, bamboo, twine, and dark and light stoneware. Glazed pottery and fine ceramic serving plates are displayed. All but the latter show the effects of time, which are traditionally welcomed and loved in Japan under the influence of wabi-sabi, a way of thinking and feeling that inspired me to develop my own philosophy of maintenance (more on this in a future blog; also read Leonard Koren's Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers). The reconstruction of traditional Japanese homes allowed me an insight into unpampered lives of grace, charm and simple pleasures.

 Kitchen in the Fukagawa Edo Museum
Kitchen in the Fukagawa Edo Museum

Japan's modern kitchens have retained the small size of Edo ones. While centuries of limited space have honed people's skills in living carefully, they have sadly mostly lost sight of wabi-sabi. Gone are the asymmetry, roughness and aged materials including for preparing food on - incidentally, wood has been cleared for hygiene, as it contains live natural chemicals that destroy bacteria and yet their kitchens have plastic surfaces. Wood seems pretty much associated with the past. New kitchens, often described still as systems kitchens, have the advantage of configuring multiple sized appliances and making use of residual storage space with their standard units. Self-cleaning sinks are a feature. Here you can prep, wash and drain food and crockery. While the kitchens are thought-out ergonomically, the overall shortage of space seriously restricts social use. Partners, kids, grandparents, visitors and friends cannot join in food-related activities as a result. As Japanese home cooking is currently overwhelmingly women's work, new ideas in kitchen design and technology could be catalysts for interesting change.

Photos by Johnny Grey


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