Japanese Architecture: A Short History

4.0 out of 5 stars Japanese architecture over the years

Japanese Architecture: A Short History (Tuttle Classics)

A.L. Sadler’s 1941 book “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” is one of several books Sadler wrote to help introduce the West to the then-unknown culture of Japan. More than just a textbook or academic exercise, Sadler infuses his description of Japanese architecture with short lessons on Japanese culture and society. One cannot separate the building from the people, after all.

“Japanese Architecture” goes through each period a chapter at a time, from the Early Period (660 BC – 540 AD) up to the Edo Period (1616 – 1860 AD). He then discusses some of the special features of Japanese architecture, such as the shoji screens, the bathroom, and the ceilings. He goes into some depth of the building regulations of the Tokugawa period, which prescribed what kind of house you could live in by what class you were born into.

By “short history,” Sadler isn’t kidding. Each period gets only a few pages to cover several hundred years, which makes for quick and easy reading. Fully a third of the book is illustrations. Unfortunately, the illustrations are not spread throughout the text but collected in the back as an appendix. That means you have to do a lot of flipping back and forth as you read the book to look at the picture that Sadler is describing.

I enjoyed “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” even though the writing was a bit dry. I was happy for the short chapters, and I wish the pictures had been published next to the text instead of in the back. I don’t know if this is how the book originally appeared in 1941 or not, but that is likely. When I lived in Japan I was curious about the different types of buildings, particularly in the shrines and temples that appear everywhere but are often stylistically different. Thanks to Sadler’s book I have a better grasp of the architecture and can better place when a particular building was made by what style it is in.


Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Illusion of Gardens

Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

The study of the Japanese Stone Garden is the study of Japanese religion. The two are as inseparable as the symbolic architecture of Catholic Cathedrals and the Bible. There are no rocks in a Japanese stone garden, but only icons of Mt. Horai, home of the immortals, or great turtles swimming in the cosmic ocean, bearing the Earth on their backs. As author Stephen Mansfield states, Japanese gardens are works of religious art.

Which is why “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meanings, Forms” is much more than a guide to the garden. Mansfield does his best to give you a crash-course on Buddhism and Shinto, on why stones in particular are of importance to Japanese religion, and how those views have been shaped by contact with China and India. He takes you on a tour through the symbology of stone, showing what to look for and how to recognize certain arrangements and what their meanings are.

The book is split into two sections. The first, “Introduction to the Japanese Stone Garden,” takes up the bulk of the book and lays out all of the religious motifs and meanings, as well as the nature of Japanese stone gardens. He is quick to point out that the term “Zen Garden” is entirely American and has no meaning in Japan; these are gardens linked with Buddhism, but rarely with the Zen sect. He also talks about some of the standard design elements of the garden, the use of borrowed scenery and framing. I particularly enjoyed the talk on modern stone gardens, and how modern materials and techniques have shaped new gardens.

The second section, “Japan’s Exquisite Stone Gardens” is a picture-tour through some of Japan’s most famous and beautiful stone gardens. The focus is really on imagery, although some text is provided for each photograph along with a brief history of each garden. I have been to several of these gardens, and I think the photographer did a masterful job of capturing their elusive beauty.

Of course, having been to several of these gardens in real life, I also know what an illusion the photographs are. While they look like visions of serene peace, and in some distant time they must have been, now they are loud, rambunctious places packed with tourists and all the support industries of food hawkers and souvenir stands. I would love to see the Ryoan-ji pictured here, austere and unembellished. In real life, your attempts to contemplate the stones are interrupted by jostling crowds and blaring loudspeakers that give a pre-recorded history of the temple and the garden nonstop.

And that is really the only complaint I have against this book (and books of this kind). While the author does mention the reality of crowds and noise in the text, I would have loved to have seen a picture of these gardens packed with tourists and sellers as they are in real life. Because anyone going to Japan seeking the serenity they find in this book will be sorely disappointed.

Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan


Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan

3.0 out of 5 stars Wrong about Love Hotels

I am of two minds on this book. On one hand, it is full of great fantasy-land photos representing a slice of Japan that I love; the bizarre, the outrageous, the unashamed blending of cute/sexy/violent and anything else that can be thrown into the mix. On the other hand, this book completely misrepresents what love hotels are, the purpose they serve in Japanese society, and pretty much every other aspect of this unique aspect of Japanese life. Anyone reading this book, then going to a love hotel in Japan, would be sorely disappointed.

I lived in Japan for many years, and during that time I went to many, many love hotels. The vast majority are nothing like these photographs, and the themed rooms are actually quite rare. If you notice, most of these photographs are from the same couple of establishments, Hotel Adonis, Hotel Loire and Hotel Snowman (not the actual name of the hotel, which is really Gang Snowman), because they are the few out of the thousands of hotels that offer these kinds of rooms. Most love hotels are…somewhat boring in décor. They are nice rooms, with lots of services such as free movies, karaoke and a big bathtub, which are usually cheaper to stay in than regular hotels. Yes, there are some outrageous love hotels, like the ones in this book, and those are the kind worth seeking out because they are so much fun, but they are hardly the norm.

The introduction to this book, by Natsuo Kirino, author of the book Out, is depressing and also misrepresentative of love hotels in Japan. She would have you believe that they are some sort of seedy place where men live out their dark fantasies while cheating on their wives and abusing women in general. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Oh yes, there are those who use them as “cheating hotels”, but all of my Japanese friends and co-workers, teachers and chefs, young and old, used love hotels without embarrassment. Why? Well, for one thing because Japanese houses are small, with thin walls and families often sleeping in the same room together. Privacy is a valuable commodity. For another reason, they are just fun. It is nice to get out of the house, out of the routine, and go with your partner and indulge in a love hotel for the night. People would chat at work at which hotels they liked, in the same way people swapped good restaurants. My wife and I stayed at a great love hotel for our anniversary, complete with private roof-top pool, huge bed and massive bath. It was fantastic.

On another note, in the introduction Kirino calls Japan “a land without religion” and blames that for the moral failing of the country. Japan is indeed a “land without Christianity”, but that is not the same thing as being “without religion”. I was quite shocked at how poorly she represented her native country, and with such spite and venom she discussed the Japanese people. I dearly hope no one takes her opinion as indicative of the country and its populace.

So, in other words, great photos and a nice look at the more bizarre and fringe love hotels, but no one should take this as representative of the industry or the country as a whole. Without Kirino’s introduction, this would have been a much better book, buts its inclusion drags it down to a sad and misinformed level.

The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space


The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space

4.0 out of 5 stars  Architecture book celebrating the Japanese Modern Mini

Japan is a country with a large population and very limited living space. Due to its mountainous geography, there is a tradition going back centuries for comfortable living in small areas. A classic of Japanese literature is Kamo no Chomei’s “Account of a 10-Foot-Square Hut.” Traditional Japanese homes are built to be convertible, to maximise space with collapsible furniture that can be stored and multipurpose rooms that can have walls removed to create bigger spaces when necessary.

Building on this need and tradition is the current architectural Small House movement, where new homes are built on miniature lots, maximizing the space with a surprising efficiency. There are TV shows and books galore on the topic in Japan, and the ideas are starting to creep over in to the US as well, with book such as “The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas For Living Well In Limited Space.”

“The Very Small Home” is a showcase for some of these architectural marvels, eighteen of them to be precise. Each building begins with a different problem to be solved; an ancient tree that must be accommodated by law, a tiny lot in Tokyo that needs to fit two houses. My favorite is the family who each inherited a portion of their parents home. One child inherited the driveway, and needed a long, thin house where he could live in on his section of the land. Going for a traditional feel, the architect created one of the most beautiful homes in the book, complete with tiny garden and a luxurious traditional bath. Many of the solutions are quite ingenious, and the photographs of the homes are beautiful to look at.

What the book is not is a guide to better utilizing existing small-space homes. These are definitely architectural solutions, not interior design or decorating solutions. A lot of money went into these houses, and unless you are willing to completely tear down and rebuild your little living space, there won’t be much here for you.

For what it is, however, the books succeeds very well, and those interested in architecture as well as those looking to build a small home of their own will probably be amazed at the creativity and beauty of these buildings. The homes are much more modern than traditional, featuring the sparsity of modern Japanese design. I can’t help but think of a master-crafted piece of sushi, reverently sitting on a pristine white plate. Small, but incredible.

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