The Tokonoma: the Focal Point of a Traditional Japanese Home

The Importance of Art in Japanese architecture and interior design

Art is one of the most important means of expression not only for the Japanese but for anyone in the world. People can express pain, fear, anger, love, happiness and all sorts of emotions through art. There are different media as well, they can do it through sculptures, paintings, writing, and much more. This is why art is important not only for the Japanese but for anyone in the world looking for an outlet for their emotions.

Art can be seen everywhere in Japan – it could be seen through their furniture, their way of dress, their language, their writing and more. However, what really sticks the most would be their architecture and interior design. This is one of the aspects of Japanese industry that have changed so little over the decades. So much of the Japanese identity could be seen in Japanese homes, it is in almost every nook and cranny. It is in the flooring, the wall designs, the window designs and more. The Japanese identity could be seen in every piece of wood and paper used inside the house.

These kinds of schemes can even be intertwined with cultures of the west to create interesting and unique designs. For the Japanese, art does not always need to be elaborate. Sometimes, it is through simplicity that beauty can be attained. This is why the majority of Japanese architecture and interior design focuses on minimalism and simplicity.

What is a minimalistic design?

A home with a minimalist design focus on simplicity and functionality. It is about owning less but achieving more. For instance, any furniture that might not be used on a regular basis can be removed from a home. This will allow for more space for light and air. Also, a minimalist design involves less extravagant colors and more practical ones like browns and whites. A minimalist design can make a home look cleaner and the entire space wider. It might be a good idea to keep multitasking spaces, like rooms that can transition from one kind to another.  

Interesting Features of Traditional Japanese Houses

There are a number of interesting features that traditional Japanese houses have which makes it unique to other structures in the world. One of this would be the use of the shoji – wooden sliding panels which are made from paper. These are usually used for doors and windows inside and outside of a traditional Japanese house. Another special feature that traditional Japanese houses would be the engawa. This is the wooden corridor that surrounds a traditional house. It looks like a veranda or a patio that surrounds the total perimeter of the house.

The Tokonoma is also an interesting part of a traditional Japanese house. This is a small space used to receive guests in the home. Another special feature of a traditional Japanese house would be the tatami flooring. This is a traditional kind of floor matting made from rice straw. This provides a soft and comfortable padding for the floor allowing additional comfort for sitting and sleeping.

The chabudai is still a common furniture found inside a Japanese home. These are tables that are used by individuals while sitting on the floor. This is a normal sized table with very short legs. The chairs are equipped with a back and arm rest but do not have legs to allow sitting on the floor. People can use this as an office space but it is more common to see this as a dining table for the entire family.

The modern version of this would be the Kotatsu which is a short-legged table as well but is equipped with a heating system underneath. It provides a comfortable level of warmth which is great for the winter season. This is because most Japanese houses are not equipped with centralized heating systems.

It is also common to see folding partitions or folding screens known as byobu. These kinds of partitions are foldable and are easy to transfer. They have been developed to provide additional private space inside rooms. This could be used to separate two parts of a bedroom. It could also be used as a dressing area for those who do not have large closet spaces.

What is the Japanese Tokonoma?

A tokonoma is a small space inside a Japanese home which is used to receive important guests. It is also known as toko and it is a built-in space inside a Japanese home. Most often than not it is a small space to feature the home owner’s favorite and most valued art pieces.

What is interesting about the tokonoma is that it has been designed simply as a means to show-off. This is how a powerful nobleman can boast off their wealth to people of lower ranks. On the other hand, for important guests, it might be a better idea to keep them seated facing away from the alcove. This is a means of showing humility that all prized art are not being boasted off.

The tokonoma is an elevated space inside a home where the most priced art pieces of the homeowner can be found. This could be in the form of a tokonoma scroll, describing intellectual proverbs or sayings. Another important art work might be an ikebana flower arrangement. Some people also use decorations such as bonsai, paintings, ceramics, and more.

A typical Japanese Tokonoma is equipped with many things. One is that it is located inside a small portion of a receiving room. It has an elevated platform no taller than a foot. The floors are made from tatami matting. There is a large scroll of a proverb, a saying, or a family name in the middle of the tokonoma, known as the kakemono. The room is equipped with a shoji or a sliding wooden panel.

The receiving room is usually very simple but is home to a number of valuable and expensive art. It could be the calligraphy of a famous calligrapher from centuries ago. It could be a hand painting of some very famous individual. The artwork displayed could belong to anyone.

The History of Japanese Tokonoma

There is not much history in Japanese Tokonoma except for the fact that it was first conceptualized in the early 14th century. It was during this time when walls are designed to be bare to allow space to hang artwork, scrolls, and other pieces. Most of these artworks are antiques and have very high cultural and economic value.

Most of the time, scrolls that were hung on walls during this period have a more religious symbolism. For instance, it is a form of prayer or wish. Or the calligraphy might be a religious mantra that an individual must repeat throughout his or her days. Usually, these scrolls have incense burners, flowers, and even candle holders.

What are Japanese Tokonoma Scrolls?

Basically, these tokonoma scrolls stand as the center piece or focal point of an alcove. Since this area is raised above the flooring, the scroll that hangs on the tokonoma is the usual center piece of the entire room. It is one of the most special spaces inside a traditional Japanese home.

There is actually no such thing as a Tokonoma scroll, instead, these scrolls are known as kakejiku or kakemono. These scrolls are usually designed in calligraphy and most of these date back to earlier centuries. Often times, these are writings from Zen priests teaching about simplicity, being, life, and the like. It is a constant reminder that the way to a good life is through the soul.

These calligraphy scrolls can also be those that are written by noblemen, emperors, and the like from the 10th century or the Heian period. These could be life lessons about governance, wealth, land, and more. Furthermore, these calligraphy scrolls can also be poems which are written by tea masters during tea ceremonies. These are very sentimental and it could be about love, life, happiness, or more contrasting concepts like fear, hate, grief, and sadness.

Sometimes, these scrolls are paintings instead of writings. These could be simplistic and minimalist drawings of nature – like birds, trees, branches, and flowers. There are paintings that are in simple charcoal while others have abundant color. Elaborate paintings can be interpretations of landscapes and scenic views squeezed into a small piece of paper to be used as a wall hanger.

There are two styles or paper orientations to be considered in these tokonoma scrolls. One style of the kakejiku scroll would be the standing scroll and the other style would be the side scroll. Both are very stylish to use but each serves a different purpose. The standing scrolls are used for tea ceremonies while the side scroll is not used for tea ceremonies and can only be used in house design.

Tips in Japanese Interior Design

A lot of individuals aim for a house design that will bring about not only comfort but relaxation. This is why there are a number of zen ideas and traditional Japanese interior design that is intertwined with western schemes for a unique yet relaxing home. A few tips to remember are as follows:

Natural elements are always go-to design scheme for Japanese homes. Anything simple, natural, and green can be good centerpiece to a room. For instance, bamboo can be used as wall accents while bonsai can be used as a center piece for a coffee table. It is important to keep a single item as a center piece for an entire room.

Another tip to remember is that minimalism is the way to go. Having too many furnitures and decorations inside the home not only makes it look cluttered, it will also make it look smaller. A lot of people prefer larger spaces to allow more light and air to pass through.

The use of wood and other zen elements can be a great way to keep the home cozy and comfortable. It will create a vibe of sturdiness and structure. Both of these are important elements in a traditional Japanese home.

Adding Japanese artwork is not exactly necessary to make a home more traditionally Japanese. These items are not only expensive, good ones are also hard to find. Perhaps adding a small tokonoma inside the home can be helpful to feature one or two pieces of artworks. But more than that might be overkill.

For a full-functioning Japanese styled home, the use of tatami mats might be a good idea. It not only adds accent to the room but it also makes the floor even more functional. With the addition of a few seating mats, cushions, and pillows, the entire floor can become one large living space.

Other Japanese Interior design items

Bonsai – Designed with such carefulness and attention, bonsai is not only a hobby but it is also a piece of artwork. Shaped from branches to be reformed into a miniature tree, expertly done bonsai can be internationally acclaimed and award winning. This is why this kind of artwork can also be used as a focal point or center piece for an alcove.

Ikebana – An Ikebana is a special, traditional flower arrangement which is popular in Japan. It is common to see these kinds of flower arrangements in hotels, reception areas, and more. They are highly sophisticated yet very simplistic. Any person can create their own Ikebana arrangement with different local flowers and plants. Because of its beauty, a seasonal ikebana can be used as a temporary focal point of a tokonoma.

Suiseki – The suiseki is a small piece of rock which is interestingly shaped. These are formed naturally and were usually brought as gifts. What is interesting about this is that they are often described to have special shapes. They are known to naturally imitate landscapes like mountains, hills, islands, and more. Some stones are even shaped like plants, animals and the like. What is important about this is that they must not be reformed and the shape must be unaltered and natural. This is also a special piece of art which could be featured in a Tokonoma or alcove.