Since the house was declared complete, there has been one room that has remained unfinished. It’s pretty visible too, right at the top of the stairs, there has just been a pile of boxes and wood on the subfloor. We’ve just been telling visitors, “and that will be the Japanese room.”
Now, finally, it is the Japanese room!
After the excellent bookshelves downstairs done by Jeremy Balint, this time it’s the work of another brilliant local carpenter, Joe Calnan. Joe is multi-talented as you can see from the projects on his website: historian, educator, guide, boatbuilder, historic building restorer – and just occasionally, lucky people get to have him do some interior woodwork. We had him in mind for this project from the beginning as he’s also interested in Japanese joinery, and we’re delighted he was able to find the time to fit us in.
What we are calling the Japanese room is a typical multipurpose space that would be found in a small house or apartment in Japan, known as a washitsu. Japanese rooms are generally measured by floor area, in tatami. Tatami are thick mats woven from a special grass straw and filled with another kind of grass stuffing (although many these days have some kind of artifical foam instead), often edged with fabric. The sizing is slightly complicated by the fact that tatami are traditionally slightly different sizes in different parts of Japan, but generally they are around 90cm x 45cm and arranged in various different patterns depending on the exact shape of the room.
We had designed in this space along these dimensions from the beginning, to be a 4.5 tatami space (yojohan), plus tokonoma (alcove) and chigaidana (cupboards). In most traditional rooms, the tokonoma and chigaidana are next to each other, split by a tokobashira, a pillar that is often deliberately rustic, and sometimes even just a whole tree branch. However, in some the alcove and cupboards are arranged vertically, and this is what we decided to do because it makes the cupboards, in which we will store guest futon mattresses, more easily usable, and it also makes more a potential feature of the top of the low cupboards. We will still have a tokobashira in the centre but the ash branch from the island we are going to use is still still drying. The tokonoma has certain other traditional features too, usually a flower arrangement and scroll, both of which are changed seasonally or more frequently. Ours also has an otoshigake, a valence at the top of the alcove. The room is not divided from the upstairs hallway by walls and a door but by shoji, translucent sliding screens (although it could also be fusuma, which are opaque screens).
Our tatami mats and shoji screens both came from the Vancouver-based Lilin, who were really excellent to deal with and very reasonably priced for quality products. The shoji are made of fir, and this really determined the choice of the rest of the materials in the room – and outside. We had already choicen to use a fir top for the stair rail, and Joe used fir for the frame post and kamoi (top rail) for the shoji, and carefully matched pieces of fir for the valence and the cupboards. The tatami mats are held in place by a narrow fir frame and the base of the sliding screens and cupboards. However, the shikii (base rail) for the shoji is clear maple, the same as the floor of the upstairs landing. Maple is also much harder than fir, which makes it more suitable for the shikii, which will need to be hard-wearing. We’ve generally tried not to use any foreign or unsustainably-harvested wood for any part of the house, but Joe had a large piece of Honduras mahogany, which he has had in the store in the back of his workshop for quite a few years, which was absolutely beautiful and was almost exactly the right size for the cupboard top. All Honduras mahogany is now supposed to be sustainably harvested or cultivated, and this was certainly not from Brazil, where that is often not the case and mahogany is frequently illegally harvested.
The tokonoma is lined in this really special hand-made silk wallpaper from Ubushina in Japan, which has ‘grain’. Inspired by pictures on their website, we decided to hang it as equal size squares, alternating the direction of the grain for each so that the light would catch it in different ways. It made the cutting and hanging processes a little more complicated but the result is beautiful.
And finally, we sorted out the lighting. The tokonoma is lit by a flexible LED strip around the inside of the valence. This can be set to all kinds of color outputs, and even has some sort of ‘disco’ settings, which FK loves, but generally, a warm yellow light works best with the wallpaper and wood. The main room light is another one from Toshiyuki Tani, who also made the birch-bark shade in the lounge. It’s a simple washi-paper shade in the shape of Mt Fuji.
Overall, we are delighted with the room.