This short essay by traditional Japanese carpenter, Chris Hall, is intended to give an overview of the relationships between house and garden in traditional Japanese residential architecture. (If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word.)
A term commonly used in Japanese to mean ‘residence’ is ka-tei, 家庭. This expression encapsulates a Sino-Japanese character pairing representing both the house itself, 家, and the garden, 庭. While there are many other arrangements of living spaces in Japan that accommodate gardens in one form or another, in terms of an arrangement that would correlate most closely to North American and European patterns of detached houses on separate plots of land, ka-tei is undoubtedly the closest.
While one can relate the ka-tei pattern somewhat well to the detached western house on its own plot, the relationship and functions of the parts which compose the scene are wholly different in the two cultures.
In the West, the house is a conspicuous object set into a scene (the garden, or, most typically, the lawn), intended to be viewed and appreciated from the street. The lawn is as often as not a place to exercise or relax in. The garden is an adjunct to the home, and if elaborated in detail and planting, it might be best characterized as a place meant to call to mind images of life in the woods. It is common in both the United States and Europe for people to put out feeders and drinking troughs for birds and small animals, a practice seldom seen in Japan.
In Japan, the house and garden are meant to have a certain integration, and the perimeter of the property is generally going to have a wall which blocks the view of most of what is contained within. The garden in a Japanese traditional context is akin to a slowly unfolding work of art. It is not intended as a place in which to relax or play. The relaxing is meant to happen within, or at the edge of the house proper, while sitting in the drawing room, zashiki 座敷, or on the veranda, engawa, 縁側. The garden is intended primarily for visual enjoyment, and the architecture around it is positioned in such a way as to both frame the garden scene and provide ideal viewing locations from which to appreciate different aspect of the garden.
Some writers have speculated that given the island nature of Japan itself, and the likelihood that early settlers of the archipelago had lives which revolved around the sea, and were somewhat hindered in their movements due to the sea, gardens themselves are reflections of that ocean and are designed to evoke such a setting. In that sense then, the structures in and around the garden are akin to islands or boats.
The first structure encountered when visiting a Japanese single family residence is the entry gate,, mon, 門, and its associated fence.
While western homes begins from the inside of the front door of the home, the Japanese home begins from the inside of the door on the entry gate. The front door of the western home is a stout barrier with its locking mechanism clearly displayed - connoting a strong message of the barrier between inside and outside. The yard is clearly an altogether separate entity than the house.
In the Japanese home, the relationship between outer wall and gate, to the garden, to the house itself is one of continuity, each flowing into the other without clear demarkation. Therefore, the perimeter wall and gate of a Japanese residential compound is most directly analogous to the front door of a Western house.
One word for fence is kaki, 垣, which originally signified a solid enclosure made of stone, earth and/or wood. In the strictest sense, kaki are essentially a demarkation of territory and do little to obstruct the view of the area contained within. It may easily be surmounted or crossed over and would not keep out intruders.
Another word for fence in Japanese is hei, 塀. These originally were walls made from earth or brick and first saw use exclusively for temples and aristocratic homes. Later, samurai homes also came to have these fences, but they were not used around ordinary homes. Hei are enclosures akin to a blindfold and do not permit an outside viewer a peek within. Thus they are effective barriers, unlike kaki, which are largely symbolic. Nowadays, hei may be made from wood (itabei, 板塀), stone (ishibei, 石塀), earth (dobei, 土塀), or a combination of those elements. For durability, it is customary for hei to be roofed structures.
The gate is a standard feature of the modern Japanese single-family home. In times past however, homes of ordinary people and farmers did not feature gates, which were confined to those of the warrior class and above. Every temple, every nobleman’s and every courtier’s house had a gate, and the degree of elaboration seen in the gate structure indicated the status of the owner. Indeed, the Japanese word for gate, mon, 門, is not limited to gateway structures but appears in various terms referring to coherent social groupings and social relations. One’s family clan or lineage, for example is kamon, 家門, while a powerful person is termed a kenmon 権門 (lit., having power over the gate). Entering into an institution of higher learning is referred to as nyūmon (入門 )or gate entry.
Gates are considered symbols of family solidarity and clan unity. Virtually every residential gate will display the name of the family, either on a plaque or on a gate lamp. The simplest form of residential gate would be a pair of posts set in the earth, upon which are suspended a pair of plank doors, however most gates are roofed structures supported by 2, 4, or 6 posts. The more posts, the higher the status. The form of roof atop those posts further indicates wealth and social status, with ordinary gates typically having a gabled, or kirizuma, 切妻 roof, while more upscale residences featured hipped gable (irimoya, 母屋) construction, or, the ne plus ultra, ‘Chinese style’ gates, karamon, 唐門 which have what is termed a ‘cusped gable’ form.
As noted previously, the Japanese house is part of a transitioning scene which began upon crossing the threshold of the gate. The house itself has two points of entry and exit, both of which are not zones of clear separation between inside and outside. The higher status entry/exit, and the one at which the visitor is received, is the front door with it’s associated vestibule, or genkan. The word genkan, 玄関, translates literally as “mysterious gate“. One passes into the genkan walking upon a stone footpath, crossing under the building eaves and through a set of sliding doors. When within the house proper, one is still standing upon a stone surface, though it is likely to be of a more polished sort than the exterior path one started out upon. Thus the genkan is at once inside the living space, yet remains tied to the outside by the flooring material. That floor is also at a lower height than the floor of the house, and the transition between them is by way of a raised wooden horizontal frame, termed the agari-gamachi (上がり框). Agari-gamachi are often made with large sections of timber, as measured in the vertical dimension. This cross section is in excess of any structural need, so the agarigamachi has a symbolic role. The entry as such is not a place, in terms of visitors at least, where one can come and go as one pleases, and given the function of the genkan as a place to receive guests, the thickened framework at the boundary line is an expression of status, both of the householder and of the esteemed guest.
The other principal transition zone where one may pass from inside to outside the Japanese house is the veranda, or engawa. The word engawa literally means the “side of the border“.
The engawa is a place where family members come and go freely, and as such does not require status distinctions to be displayed architecturally. Hence there is no thick framework or significant height change associated to the threshold. As an architectural piece, the engawa is thought to have evolved from the primitive pit dwelling to provide access, give a grander appearance, and serve those aspects of daily life which involved the outdoors, such as admiring the view of the moon, or the garden. The earliest engawa were extensions projecting from from the house’s outer wall. Later, engawa came to be incorporated within the main roof structure, yet are still beyond the line of the house walls. Even more so than the genkan, the engawa is a place where the line between inside and outside is blurred. When one is inside the home, an open veranda with its wooden floor and overarching roof appears to be part of the interior. However, seen from the outside, with the glazed sliding doors and thick planking exposed to, and weathered by, the elements, and looking at the exposed decorative rafters visible under the eave, the engawa can also seem to be an exterior space. It is neither and it is both.
The first character in the word engawa, en (縁), has an original meaning of the hem on a garment, a place where loose threads are neatly tied together. The idea of the edging which completes the piece might be a useful way to consider the engawa, as it is a form of reinforcement for a part of the structure which would otherwise be exposed to the elements and easily damaged.
The veranda is additionally a space of relaxation and play, an area not proscribed by the dictates of social rank and etiquette, unlike many of the rooms in a traditional Japanese house. That said, there are high class engawa and ordinary engawa, the differences relating to the sumptuousness of materials, width and thickness of the covering boards, arrangement of the boards, and the engawa width, length and so forth. The engawa serves as an element to provide charm, warmth, and livability to a house, while connecting it to the garden in a seamless manner.
I hope this has provided a useful overview of the Japanese house and garden as related and interconnected spaces. Those who wish to incorporate Japanese style garden into their western living fabric would do well to consider the architectural elements which serve to inter-relate the garden and architecture.
Chris Hall is a designer and builder specializing in Japanese traditional wooden architecture and interiors. He writes extensively on traditional timber architecture and joinery, East and West, in his blog (http://thecarpentryway.blogspot.com). Chris lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife Ilana.
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