*First broadcast on February 17, 2022.
Traditional Japanese homes, featuring earthen walls, wooden beams and thatched roofs, have been used for centuries. Built using local materials, they incorporated clever techniques to keep the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. Our guest, architect Maruya Hiroo, introduces several traditional houses, and explains what life was like for the people who called them home. And in Plus One, Matt Alt sees how the restoration and continued use of old houses is helping to revitalize a small town.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
the Japan Open-air Folk House Museum,
in Kawasaki, just outside Tokyo.
It features 25 houses,
mainly from around the 18th century.
They're all from
different parts of Japan,
and each of them has been carefully
disassembled and rebuilt here to be
preserved and displayed.
These traditional houses
are our theme for today.
They would have been lived in
by people like you and me,
and they're all made of wood,
using traditional techniques
which are still relevant
for currently hot topics like
eco-friendliness and sustainability.
Nice to meet you.
I'm looking forward to this.
It's nice to meet you too.
Our guest is Maruya Hiroo,
an architect inspired by
traditional Japanese homes.
He also conducts lectures, both for
professionals and for the public.
So, shall we start our tour?
Oh, I've seen one of these before.
Tell us something about it.
This house dates from
the early 18th century.
It was built in Toyama Prefecture,
in an area that experiences heavy snow.
This is "praying hands" architecture.
Look at my hands,
and the angle of my arms.
Then look at the roof.
In Japan, when we pray,
our arms form a similar shape.
A steeply-angled roof doesn't
have to bear as big of a load,
because a lot of the snow falls off.
A flat roof would collapse in winter,
under the weight of the snow.
Also, these houses were built in
Flat land was at a premium—it was
better used for farming.
Houses couldn't occupy a large area.
And so—unusually for the time—
they used vertical space.
Please step inside.
Dark, isn't it?
This space was a stable.
The floor was covered with straw.
Manure would accumulate.
That waste would ferment, creating heat.
It generated warmth.
And it was subsequently used
to fertilize fields.
-Ah, of course. Yes.
-That's how it was.
This is the main living space.
People spent their time here,
on the wooden floor.
And there's an upper floor as well,
like an attic.
It may seem strange for the attic flooring
to have so many gaps.
Actually it was for silk farming.
This is the area where the house
was originally built.
Most buildings here had three
to four floors.
The entrance level would generally
be a living space.
The cultivation of silkworms
was one of various everyday activities
conducted on the upper levels.
People did sometimes live upstairs.
Back then, many people were poor.
The eldest son of a family
would get married.
His bride would move into the house.
And they'd raise their own family here.
But what about the second or third sons?
In a valley of farms, they couldn't build
a new house for themselves.
And they wouldn't receive a share of
the family farmland.
So they'd live upstairs.
In fact, as many as 40 people
might live under one roof.
All from the same family.
Next, a large house from a fishing
community in Chiba Prefecture.
It showcases some typical characteristics
of a traditional Japanese home.
A thatched roof was an extremely
Various materials were used, including
reeds, pampas grass and straw.
The earthen walls were made from
a mixture of clay and straw.
The dried earth helped to regulate
the level of humidity.
Houses in different regions
looked very different.
But inside, they had a lot in common.
Step through the entrance at ground
level, and you'd find a dirt floor.
This was used as a work space.
It also functioned as a kitchen,
with a traditional cooking stove.
Elsewhere on the ground floor
would be a raised area,
with wooden flooring and a sunken
fireplace in the middle.
There are actually two fireplaces.
This one would be used by the family.
The children, women, and so on.
And the one over there was used
by the master of the household.
What a waste of space!
There was a difference in status.
Beyond the area with wooden flooring
would be a space with tatami mats—
for welcoming guests.
This house is notable for its beams.
Houses were built using local materials
that were easy to obtain.
Here, the beams were made from
extremely warped pine wood.
Important buildings such as palaces and
temples were made from cypress.
When that wasn't available,
zelkova was used.
Good wood tended to be in short supply.
It wasn't an option for regular homes.
And people ended up using
awkwardly shaped pine.
-So this is all that was left?
Oh my god.
But they're very beautiful.
Oh, it looks great now.
The carpenters had such skill.
Yeah. It's quite dramatic.
The beams really tell a story.
Traditional homes in Iwate Prefecture
include a stable.
It is set at a right angle to the main
house, forming this L shape.
The stable generally faces south,
so it gets a lot of sunlight.
That reflects the importance
of the horses inside.
They were indispensable for farming.
Horses are more sensitive than
They require a lot of care and attention.
The family would be in and out of
the stable all the time.
Actually, there's an old story about
someone who stays in a house like this.
Afterwards, they complain to a friend.
"I was made to sleep in the stable!
What an insult!"
But in truth,
they'd been given the warmest and most
comfortable place in the house.
Wow, they're really nice house.
And there's always a fireplace like this.
Fireplaces like this have an
The hook is used to hang a pot
over the fire.
There is also a multipurpose shelf
above the fire.
It can be used to smoke fish,
dry clothes, and so on.
But most importantly,
it blocks a strong updraft.
Thanks to the shelf,
more of the fire's warmth can be enjoyed
by people gathered around the hearth.
A barrier. That was important.
This one has an interesting roof,
Oh, I've never seen one like this.
It's certainly unusual.
It's shaped like a samurai's helmet,
so it's known as
The house was built in the late 18th
century, in Yamagata Prefecture.
It's another design intended to
cope with heavy snowfall.
You'd have a build-up of three to
four meters of snow.
That would block the door.
The winter entrance was up there.
What, they…you go in…that would be
the door, during the winter?
So the walls are made of wood,
but the whole house is covered in this
layer of straw as well, isn't it?
Snow is also full of air,
so it has insulating properties.
For that reason,
having three to four meters of snow
offered some advantages.
But it was heavy.
Pressure would build up.
This straw protected the house.
Inside, there are lots of
clever little touches.
Look at this door.
It's actually very easy to slide.
Have a try.
-Oh yes, it is.
The weight of accumulated snow can
make sliding doors difficult to open.
This one has rollers in its grooves to
make it easier to use.
A lot of effort went into regulating the
temperature and creating warm spaces.
You can really feel that history.
These old houses are made with all
It's wood, straw, rushes, bamboo.
Obviously, people had a number of
techniques for making the houses livable.
Perhaps you could talk about it
in some detail.
Traditional houses are very well built.
They're made from local materials.
If they're taken care of,
they last a very long time.
And that's not all.
A thatched roof performs
an important function
in capturing moisture and rainwater.
Then, when the sun shines,
that water evaporates—
which helps to keep the inside
of the building cool.
The roof serves that role.
So there's a kind of cooling effect
Yes. That mechanism is a key feature
of a thatched roof.
But did people know that,
or did they discover it later on?
People learned from experience,
and gradually discovered the best way
to build a roof.
It's the same when it comes to
building these walls.
There's a wooden frame.
You add a lattice of bamboo.
And then you pack it all with mud.
The mud is reinforced with straw,
making the wall stronger.
The results include good insulation,
and higher humidity during
the dry winter months.
Maruya ran an experiment
to demonstrate the benefits of
He compared wet earth, dry earth
and a modern insulating material
under an infrared light in order to
simulate exposure to sunlight.
One hour later,
the temperature within the
had risen by around 31 degrees Celsius.
The temperature of the dry earth had
risen by 14 degrees Celsius.
This shows that it has better insulating
properties than the manmade material.
With wet earth, the temperature
changed by just 8 degrees.
That's because the water it contained
evaporated, producing a cooling effect.
Many of the houses have a dirt floor
just inside the entrance.
The ground is cool in summer
and warm in winter.
Several years ago I conducted a study.
I did it here at this museum.
It was in September.
-OK, so late summer.
The temperature outside was 30 degrees.
On the surface of the roof,
it was over 50 degrees.
But the water in the roof evaporated,
and the cooling effect
brought the interior of the house down
to around 24 degrees.
And as the temperature rose,
the same effect even brought down
the temperature of the dirt floor—
to 22 degrees.
I hadn't predicted that at all!
This archaeological site
contains a settlement dating back
almost six thousand years.
There are reconstructions, showing what
typical houses were like in those days.
People would dig a pit, install pillars,
and add a roof.
A sturdy framework
was covered in a thick layer
of thatch to keep out the cold.
This approach became standard,
and was used in ordinary Japanese
homes for thousands of years.
Then, from around the 13th century,
the basic design began to change.
Now, wooden frames, wooden floors,
and earthen walls became the norm.
A thatched roof was retained—
creating the basic image of
what is now considered
to be a "traditional Japanese home."
Another development came
in the late 19th century,
when the government's
promotion of industry
led to an expansion in silk farming.
People in agricultural communities
began raising silkworms to earn a little money.
Many traditional homes
"Praying hands" style houses,
had a space for silk farming in the attic.
As silkworms are sensitive to
temperature and humidity,
sliding paper windows and other
openings were added
to improve ventilation.
"Praying hands" houses were all built
facing the prevailing wind,
so that air would flow through
Traditional Japanese homes,
built in harmony with nature,
supported work and everyday life.
Japan is prone to natural disasters,
of course, especially earthquakes.
How did people deal with that when
building houses like these?
Have a look at this.
This pillar is simply resting on top
of the stone.
Let's say an earthquake strikes,
and there's a sudden, dramatic
By jumping, jiggling,
then settling back down,
the house protects itself.
Each pillar might shift a little
on its stone base,
but the house won't collapse.
Then we have the roof,
covering the house like an umbrella.
It's made of thatching, bamboo and logs,
all bound together with straw rope.
We can think of the roof like this.
A totally solid roof would break
in an earthquake.
But if the roof is allowed to move,
it's more resilient.
The energy can dissipate.
To describe these houses
using modern terminology,
we could say that they're an ideal
example of sustainable construction.
They're mostly built
from local materials.
But here's the problem.
Those materials are flammable!
People protected their homes
from spreading fires
by leaving a space between
But in urban areas,
where houses were close together,
fires could spread quickly.
To stop that,
firebreaks were installed
They'd stop the spread.
It was a very clever technique.
Japan's population is declining,
and many people in the regions
are moving to large cities.
Fewer and fewer Japanese live
in traditional homes,
and each year, around 50,000
are demolished or abandoned.
I'm Matt Alt, and this is Plus One.
On today's episode,
I've come to the town of Omori,
in Shimane Prefecture,
Like many rural municipalities,
this area has been
losing population for decades.
That is, until a fairly recent movement
to restore and maintain
traditional old houses
has drawn more people back to the area,
making this a bustling town once again.
Or so they tell me!
I've never been here.
So follow me, and let's walk around
and check it out.
Today, Omori has a population of
In centuries past,
when it was a silver mining town,
200,000 people lived here.
Around a hundred traditional homes
are still standing.
This is absolutely amazing.
Japan just doesn't look like this anymore.
I feel like I'm on the set of a movie
The sign says this is a bank.
Oh, look at this.
It's actually in business!
This is a working bank!
What is this?
Is this a barber shop?
Look at this.
There's the barber pole.
This is really amazing.
The restoration of Omori's traditional
buildings is revitalizing the town.
Matt meets a man who has contributed
decades of hard work.
Mr. Nakamura, nice to meet you.
Very happy to meet you.
Thank you for having me.
Nakamura Toshiro runs a company
that makes prosthetic devices.
He uses some of the profits
to restore old houses.
First, can you tell me why you decided to
rebuild and restore all these
traditional Japanese homes?
My parents loved this town.
I'll always remember that.
Preserving its traditional character
has become a big goal of mine.
Nakamura got serious about
restoring old houses in the 1980s.
The town's population was already
falling, and many houses were empty.
So far, he's restored 64.
Namakura's son, Tetsuro,
shows us a few of them.
First, a large, two-story property.
It's so pretty in here.
What is this place?
This is actually an opera house.
An opera house!
In the middle of traditional Japan.
Why an opera house?
Well, there used to be a theater here
But as the population dropped,
that building was knocked down.
My father thought that was a real shame.
He wanted to establish
a new cultural hub,
and so he created an opera house
by renovating this building.
What a stage!
This makes me want to perform!
That's not me!
It's a bakery. Shall we go in?
Yes! No, I'd love to see inside. Please.
The bakery is especially well known
for its German bread.
The owner moved here from Tokyo.
Can I ask, why did you move here
and open up a bread store?
Well, I fell in love with the town.
And I thought I could fill a role
in the community.
So I took the plunge.
The high ceiling creates a really
pleasant, airy environment.
I'm very happy to be here.
Another positive outcome
of the restoration project
is a growing number of young residents.
I'm really happy to see
more and more children here.
I hope this place can develop into a
fun, inspiring town.
Well there you have it:
a town that has resurrected itself,
thanks to the traditional Japanese home.
Next time you're in Japan,
keep an eye out for
traditional places like this.
And as you'll see, they might look old,
but they're far from history.
See you next time. I'm outta here.
The knowledge and skill that made
traditional homes so comfortable
are now being applied
in modern architecture.
traditional, eco-friendly techniques,
this house is cool in the summer
and warm in the winter.
Ohashi Toshiki is the architect
who designed it.
The property showcases the essence of
his design philosophy.
I take advantage of
The floor is made of stone,
and the walls are plastered.
I use all-natural materials.
The heat that comes in during the day
is absorbed by the stone and plaster.
It's a form of thermal storage.
In the evening,
when the temperature drops,
surplus heat is radiated,
warming the house.
Here we have the kitchen plus
and the living room.
In the ceiling,
I've used cryptomeria wood.
And in the floor, I've used oak.
Both materials are completely natural.
Natural timber absorbs moisture
when it's humid,
and releases moisture when it's dry.
It regulates the humidity.
It's winter right now,
and winter can be very dry.
These materials help to
keep things comfortable.
That's one of their features.
This house was designed by
our main guest, Maruya Hiroo.
Traditional techniques are applied to
achieve a comfortable temperature.
It's rare for the residents to use any
powered heating or cooling.
Here's how it works.
There's an air circulation system
that applies the principle
of a traditional dirt floor.
Even on a cold winter day,
the sunlight warms up the roof.
That heat is transferred
to the bottom of the house,
and allowed to radiate
into each of the rooms.
Thanks to the natural heat
stored under the floor,
the house is warm and comfortable.
This traditional approach minimizes
the need for additional heating,
even in the coldest months.
The walls were inspired by
traditional earthen walls.
The material used is called
It's a natural material that
absorbs water and retains heat.
Walls like this help to regulate
temperature and humidity.
Modern eco-friendly houses
can be comfortable all year round
thanks to knowledge
inherited from centuries past.
Old houses like this provide comfort
in so many ways.
They've stood the test of time,
and they still have a lot to teach us.
In Japan, from the 1950s on,
many old structures were destroyed
and replaced without a second thought.
But those replacements were not always
intended to be long-lasting.
Modern homes are generally demolished
after 30 years, on average.
Traditional houses may last for centuries.
And here's another problem.
In Europe, lots of old towns still exist.
They look just as they always did,
and people love them.
They've become tourist attractions.
Sadly, in Japan, many old towns are gone.
What we do next is important.
We must do our best not to
destroy old buildings.
In fact, we should use them.
For so many reasons,
I think that's a crucial step
for Japan to take.
Today, we've seen various
But we weren't just looking
back into the past.
Old techniques can be combined
with the new.
By doing that, we can achieve
efficient solutions at a low cost.
There are a lot of possibilities.
I've learned so much from
traditional Japanese homes,
and I'd like to pass that knowledge on
to those who follow in my footsteps.
That's my focus.
-Thank you very much.
-Thank you very much.