In the Japanese home

Marie Ebersolt

17th January, 2023

In Japan, space is a highly symbolic place, with nooks and crannies reserved for specific functions. It has a practical but also a spiritual meaning, very often in a mixture of sacred and profane dimensions. 
To understand the Japanese relationship to space, there is nothing more relevant than to observe their behaviour at home. 

When you walk through the door of a flat or a house, you arrive at the threshold. You see shoes next to each other, and a cupboard for storing them. If you are a guest, you should make sure you are wearing clean socks with no holes in them! You take off your shoes and direct your pumps, moccasins, or other, towards the exit. This gesture is very important for the Japanese, it is inculcated from a very young age. Finally, you will cross a small step because the dwelling is raised from the threshold where the continuity of the exterior ends and the transition to the interior takes place. Don't worry, you won't be barefoot for long as everything is provided. Slippers will be provided, and there are always several pairs reserved for guests. 

<div><br class="Apple-interchange-newline">Near the entrance is the toilet. In case of need, you will find another pair of slippers reserved for the small corner. You don't want to contaminate the other rooms with suspicious fluids. You take off your shoes and put them back on again, then again when you leave. The toilet is also very special as it is entirely electric. If you get the cream of the crop, you'll see the seat lift up as you approach the throne. When you take your seat, you don't get that raging thrill, which you can't do anything about back home in France, as the seat is heated to body temperature. After your business, you can experiment with the integrated shower. For the more discreet, you can set off a sound that disguises any indiscreet noises. You won't hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Brahms' Lullaby, but simply the sound of the toilet flushing.

Let's move on to the main room of the household, the living room. This space is similar to ours, with a sofa, coffee table and television, except for a few details. An ancestral altar is present among the older generation, less so among the younger generations who are waiting to inherit it. It is a raised piece of furniture with a meditation bowl and stick, a censer and wooden statuettes that can be bought from a temple. There are also portraits of the deceased, and every day for the most assiduous, a different offering. The practice is less common today, but all Japanese have had the opportunity to join hands and pay their respects, even within a home. Sometimes an adjoining room with tatami and a painting or calligraphy on a silk scroll hanging on the wall is the perfect resting place. In the past, this area was used to serve tea from a small rack embedded in the floor. Literally called the "guest area", it will welcome you with tea and a Japanese delicacy prepared in the kitchen, the rack having disappeared today. 

The vast majority of Japanese people nowadays eat at the table, on chairs. So you don't have to sit with your legs bent over, or "just sitting", which would quickly make your legs numb. The kitchen is never far away. If the furniture is similar to the Western model, the menu is very different. Contrary to our succession of starter, main course, cheese and dessert, the Japanese feast on several different dishes simultaneously, at least four or five, which the guests enjoy with a bowl of rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other. You'll be eating a little bit of vegetables, meat or fish, rice and soup, in whatever order you find most harmonious. Pickled vegetables and a cup of tea round off the meal, with sweetness reserved for snack time.

Now let's take a look at the more intimate rooms, the bedroom and the bathroom. 
The bedrooms are now much like our own, although futons are still common. These are folded up and stored during the day in a cupboard with the duvets, regularly beaten and dried in the sun to clean and maintain them. The bed, or futon, is carefully positioned. The pillow should not be on the north side and no mirrors should face the bed, otherwise one's soul will be sucked out the other side while sleeping. Similarly, a psyche should never face the front door, as happiness could be sent back out. These implicit rules come from feng-shui, in Japanese fu-sui, a combination of the characters of wind and water. The idea is to try to control the flow of energy, the metaphor of which is provided by these two natural elements.  

The standard bathroom design is very specific to Japan. It consists of two adjoining rooms, one used as a laundry and storage room, the other for a bath and shower. In the first room, you undress. Equipped with a washbasin, you wash your hands and face, comb your hair and apply make-up. In the second room, the floor is entirely covered with a waterproof floor with a drain. You sit on a special stool (yes, everything is provided!) and clean yourself before taking a bath. Most Japanese people shower in the morning, but in the evening they often take the time to bask in a bathtub. The bathing culture is very strong in Japan, so that public baths are not the preserve of the poorest people, but rather a solution for people living in small houses. There are many hot springs in many areas and some people's baths are connected to hot springs. It is rare that you will be invited to sleep in a Japanese home, but if you do, remember to wash yourself thoroughly before stepping into the bath! This rule is also important in public baths and spas. It is a matter of hygiene in a water where everyone wants to splash around in peace. 

Finally, don't ask to visit your host's house or flat, as is sometimes done in our sweet France. Consider yourself honoured to be invited into a private space and let yourself be guided, you will be spoiled by the welcoming spirit of the Japanese!  

Marie Ebersolt