Written by Makoto Fukada, Master Carpenter | Seyseysha Design And Build, Japan
Traditional Japanese Houses
The Japanese houses of old are incredible achievements in construction and artistic virtuosity. Exuding a gentle, understated grace, they embody the idea of co-existing harmoniously with the outside world: trees, earth, and stone fuse into natural dwellings, creating habitats where people can savour the beauty of the surrounding land, forests, rivers, and wildlife.
Centuries ago, Japanese people embraced the belief that humanity lived among nature, gods and a divine presence. Our forebears had an innate capacity to hear the whispers of the wind, a power to intuit the voices of nature, a sensitivity to the unseen. Whenever they built dwellings, wove clothing, cooked meals, or made daily necessities, they performed every task with a sacred reverence, breathing the profound into their creations.
A traditional Japanese house has a specific form that defines both the structure itself and the spaces inside. Look around Japan, and you’ll find vestiges of those classical motifs still alive and well today. The techniques behind the form, which brings the power of nature into harmonious balance with human artistry, engender a unique brand of warmth and contentment-a universal, artistic harmony-by harnessing the vitality pervading the natural world. The form has continued to survive through the generations because it reflects the rich internal world of our predecessors, a vision with an enduring, irrepressible foundation, and resonates with the truth that human happiness depends on the respect for the natural world.
Technical Concepts Behind Construction
Traditional construction methods refer to the techniques used to build flexible joined wooden frames-the culmination of our predecessors’ wisdom, forged across centuries of toil and artisanship. The process involves arranging cedar, Japanese cypress, pine, chestnut, and other lumber in optimal old-fashioned shiguchi (multi-angled joints) and tsugite (straight joints where timbers are placed end to end to provide added length). The wooden frame then goes on granite cornerstones called ishibadate (a setup where pillars stand on stones instead of being fixed deep into the ground). Under the traditional approach, carpenters develop and design the entire building plan, cut the timber themselves, and then work together with teams of specialists to erect the structure. Faithful to the long-standing techniques, builders render their designs into architectural form one diligent step at a time.
Central to Japan’s traditional construction methods is the element of wood, a material whose unique strengths and physical properties realise their full potential in flexible structures. Through an intricate arrangement of joints, a flexible structure disperses stress across the entire assembly. The key components are sashikamoi (joints that connect pillars at the top and provide resistance against lateral load), ashigatame (horizontal ties that interconnect the bases of posts and provide resistance against lateral load), and toshinuki (beams that go through pillars, providing horizontal resistance and serving as the framework for the building’s walls). For the angled joints linking the members of the structure, traditional Japanese techniques use aikaki watariago (a type of joined wooden frame for connecting members and an important component of the horizontal lattice structure). For the walls, meanwhile, builders plaster tsuchikabe over takekomai (laths of bamboo woven into lattice-like arrangements). To keep external forces from affecting the building, the traditional methods focus on enabling the wooden structure to respond fluidly to force atop the cornerstones.
Traditional buildings use at least ten types of lumber with different thicknesses and shapes, depending on the magnitude, direction, and role of the load involved. The angled joints connecting all the different wood components thus have different orientations and shapes, making the marking process a unique challenge. The buildings also adopt the arawashi style, which leaves most of the structural materials exposed. Unable to conceal a vast majority of the structural components, then, carpenters have to be extremely precise in how they cut and place the beams-and that means that nearly all of the carpenter’s most intricate, demanding work takes place before the framework actually goes up.
While traditional construction takes time, the process itself is crucial to the vitality of the architecture. The technical concepts focus on keeping the human-nature relationship a nourishing, fulfilling connection, one that brings people and wood into joyous harmony. To fulfil that ideal, the design and building phases need to be part of an integrated whole. As centuries of tradition have shown, that all depends on entrusting the process to the carpenter-an artisan with a deep, far-reaching familiarity with wood and a physical intuition of the composite structure. After designing the building, the carpenter’s job is to craft the work in complete accordance with the laws of nature, mark the lumber with care, and build the structure. With that sense of honest humility toward nature, the carpenter represents a lifeline to traditional construction methods-and the singular source from which exquisite, captivating wooden buildings can emerge.
For more information on Makoto’s design and construction firm, Seyseysha, please visit www.seyseysha.com