Dolls' Houses Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern. Plus furniture and accessories.

A Small Japanese House by Jill Friendship

My tiny Japanese house was an Ebay find, but efforts made to discover where and when it was made, and who made it, have drawn a blank. So I just decided to enjoy it as it is - and learn something about old Japanese houses. I think it is possible this one is quite ancient. It stands just 11" high and 15" wide. There are two rooms with verandas, sliding screens, a thatched roof and mat floors. It is made entirely of bamboo and weighs just a few ounces. It appears to be a 19th century house in style. The details of the house are very authentic. Whether or not my house is as old as the 19th century I doubt if I will ever know. The design is similar to the one in Faith Eaton’s Ultimate Dolls' House book, but that one is considerably larger than mine.

The thatched roofs of the 19th century houses were made from straw, which was the basic material, and from either grass known as kaya or a reed called Yoshi.  A thatched roof only required a framework to support the bundles of thatch which were smoothed down and secured in place by bamboo poles, later removed.  On my little house the thatch is laid in two tiers, the ridge being a simple piece of wood. On a "proper" house the ridge may be tiled, and the ends of the ridge may be decorated with the Chinese character for water, the superstition being that water guarded against fire. The thatch was pushed into shape with a tool shaped a bit like a wedge of cheese - and trimmed with shears. It fascinates me watching thatchers at work in this country, and I love the characters they make to adorn the ridge. In Japan often the ridge was flattened and flower boxes were placed on the roof top, where maybe a profusion of lilies were growing.

The walls of the little house are all bamboo, as used for building normal houses. There are sliding screens across the front and inside the house, to create 2 rooms.  The screens can be removed for the summer, but I don't take them out as the bamboo is very fragile and dry and liable to break. However they all slide, and the light comes in, subdued but pleasant.

A Japanese house of those times would have seemed to be very sparse and basic to Western eyes. Simplicity was the major part of their interior design and few ornaments were used. Perhaps a vase, or a painting. The floors were mats or tatami - arranged in spiral patterns. A six mat room would be about 9' x 12 '. They would be quite thick, edged with a black linen strip. The little house has 2 x 4 mat rooms, one down, one up, and the main room is an 8 mat room Because of the soft nature of these floors the Japanese would never wear shoes inside, leaving their wooden clogs on stepping stones near the veranda steps. If wet shoes were worn inside the tatami would soon become damp and smelly.

Inside the Japanese house the ceilings would seem to be very low. A lintel or kamoi would stretch across the room divider, shallow grooves being left between the mats of each room. It was across these grooves the screens slid. In my miniature house the internal screens - the fusuma - have to be imagined. A small wooden divider is at the far side of the house between the 4 and 8 mat rooms. The sliding screen on the outer walls are called the shōji. These outer screens are substitutes for windows. Japanese summers are very hot - the winters very cold. The fusuma would be covered on both sides with thick paper- kara-kami, often depicting a painted scene across the screens. I dread to think how draughty a Japanese house like this little one would be! Much like our old houses with slits for light, and no glass.

There is a lot of detailed work on the outer walls of the dolls house - interwoven slivers of bamboo, arranged in intricate designs. I have seen illustrations of such work on old village dwellings. It must have taken a great deal of patience to reproduce the designs in tiny bits of bamboo.

When I bought the house I was given the opportunity to buy furniture to go with it. I said "YES PLEASE!!"  The detail is astonishing. Each tiny drawer opens, each little screen door slides. Many of these pieces are less than 2" high. I have photographed them in order for you to see what I mean.

The tiny steps lead out into the garden from the encircling veranda. I put my house on a piece of varnished ply. Outside, in the garden, I made a tiny rockery, and a stone edged pond. The pond has a little humped bridge - and beside it all there is a crane - an important bird in Japan. It was made for me in paper, by my niece-in-law Kazue, who comes from Chiba, outside Tokyo, and is wholly responsible for my love of Japan. I am very lucky to have this little house, and another much larger, which Kazue (say Kazaway) assures me is more like a temple. I will write about that one for another issue.

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