LWIF EP20: What a Very Old Japanese House is Like

Aiko and Shin visit their Great Uncle’s house and pay respects to their ancestors. The house has a storehouse (kura) that may or may not have hidden treasures as well as a separate house just for guests.

This summer we got the chance to visit the town where Aiko’s grandfather (おじいさん) grew up. His oldest brother now lives in the family house that’s been around for about 130 years (it’s been rebuilt several times). The area around the house (Yokkaichi, Mie) is becoming depopulated as the older generations pass away and the younger ones live in the cities. Aiko’s Great Uncle lives by himself in the old family house while his children and relatives reside in major Japanese cities, like Osaka and Tokyo.

Haka – 墓 – Grave

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The first scene we see is Aiko and Shin praying at the grave site of their ancestors, specifically her great grandmother that recently passed away. The grave (haka – 墓) is buddhist. They left food for the deceased to eat, although for practical purposes they ate the food themselves when they left. Praying was done with prayer beads called juzu (数珠). Aiko mentioned that they were praying wrong, as they weren’t supposed to rub their hands or make noises (by clapping hands). I think the confusion of how to pray lies in how you pray at a Shinto Shrine, where you do clap your hands as you pray (this was a buddhist grave). 

Genkan – 玄関 – Entrance

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Aiko entered the century old house through the genkan (玄関), which is a Japanese entrance way. People must leave their shoes at the entrance as they don’t want to bring dirty footwear into the house. This is common in all Japanese homes, old and new. If you visit Japan, you may notice you need to remove shoes when entering changing rooms at clothing stores or at restaurants that have tatami rooms or special seating areas.

Butsudan – 佛壇 – Buddhist Alter

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The main room in the house has a large butsudan (佛壇), which means buddhist alter, in it. Usually only one person in the family (which is usually the oldest sibling) will have a butsudan in their house . There are no ashes kept in the butsudan, in case you’re wondering.

Guest house

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Since the house is located in the countryside (inaka – 田舎), it’s on a fairly large lot (by Japanese standards)  I don’t know if the video shows this well, but there’s a separate guest house separated by a garden.

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The guest house is on the left, the main house is on the right

If you’ve seen Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), the style will be familiar (and if you haven’t watched it, you should!)

The guest house has tatami mat rooms, lovely shoji (障子) (dividers/window coverings/doors), and a wood floor walkway (rouka – 廊下) that overlooks the garden.

shoji
shoji (障子)

Kura – 倉 – Storehouse

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The last place visited in the video was the Kura (storehouse – 倉). We’ve never been in one before, so it was very exciting to see what was inside. Travelling around the old town, we had seen many derelict storehouses, so we were expecting to see something in disrepair.

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But, to our surprise, it was very well kept inside. Unfortunately for Aiko and Shin, no treasure was to be found. Shin thought he saw a ghost (yokai – 妖怪), so that’s where the Yo-kai Watch anime reference is from.

What’s an old house like where you’re from?

9 comments on LWIF EP20: What a Very Old Japanese House is Like

  • Laure

    Hello

    Thanks for sharing we are amazed by how beautiful this house and the garden is!
    the kids love to watch your videos but are too shy to reply themselves!
    Here we are a bilingual family french and american.
    Where we are from (France ) my grand parents had an old house about the same age as the one of your great uncle, in a small village in Auvergne (in south of France). The house had very thick walls as winters are cold and summers very hot. It kept the heat of the big fireplace inside in the winter and kept the fresh air inside in the summer. It had 3 floors with a big wooden stairs. The main room had the fireplace a big wooden table and a garde manger (food keeper) that we did not used much (it was to keep foods before fridge were invented:)
    The windows were not big and the beds were old fashioned (my parent’s one even had curtains!). There was a ceiling that was very mysterious : we were not allowed to visit (so we made up all kind of stories about it).
    Outside were old stables where my grand parents put a ping pong table for us, and an orchard where my grandpa’ would take us to pick us fruits. Along the house was a little stream with icy water and rocks that hurt the feet but felt so good in hot summer days.
    Nobody thought about taking pictures of it when my mom and her sisters had to sell the house so I do not have any … just memories…
    By the way do people keep these house as vacation house when they move to the city ?
    it was something that we discuss before selling but it was really too far away from where we all live.

    Thank again for your movie, your energy and to make us discover a country we hope to visit one day!

    • lifewhereimfrom (author)

      It sounds like you’re describing a house right out of a movie! I don’t know if people in Japan often have vacation homes or not. I do know that in the countryside, there are a lot of houses left derelict as the population decreases. – The Dad

  • SEA monster

    Hello Aiko, Shin and ‘Dad’!

    And thank you for taking us on a visit through your Great Uncle’s house. I especially liked the shoji dividers and the awesome garden. I have to chuckle thinking the old man probably keeps wondering why on earth would you want to see the old storage house.

    Below is my aunts farm house. The building is about as old as the one featured in your video, and it pretty much represents the traditional farm house in the Czech Republic. (I wonder if you could find my country on a map – without your Dad’s helping hand.) It is partially built from brick & stone and partially from wood, or whatever was available at the time of construction. Adjacent to the living quarters is a cowshed (the entrance on the left, where the pig is hanging). Back in the days, small farmers would keep a cow or two, some pigs and maybe a goat inside the shed. You seldom see that nowadays. My aunt uses the building as her country house.

    You must be wondering why we have the pig hanging upside down and what’s going on over there. Every year my entire family gets together to organize and celebrate ‘shambles festivity’. We buy a pig, (humanly) slaughter it, process the meat and guts, and eat much of it on the spot. The rest is divided among the families. Everybody is taking part in the process. You cannot see them on the picture, for they are all inside drinking Slivovitz to get their spirits and morals high before they get to work. 😉

    Take care and keep us entertained and educated.

    PS: I think Shin deserves his own show. He is hilarious!

  • Emily Cooper

    Hello Aiko, Shin and the camera man 😉 !
    I love watching your videos, thank you so much for sharing. I thought you might like to see my home in the UK, it is 500 years old. Our home is in a county called Kent, which is in the South East of England. Kent is also called, “The Garden Of England” because it is where most of the fruit was grown for the people in our country in years gone by. We have lots of fruit trees here in Kent and so, a little like Japan, we have lots of cherry blossoms in the Springtime which is very beautiful. We also grow lots of apples, strawberries and pears…. Yummy!
    Our house was built in the time of a very famous English King, King Henry VIII (King Henry The Eighth- VIII is Latin for the number eight and these Latin numbers are still used here in the UK when we write about things like kings and queens!). King Henry VIII was a big fat man with red hair who had eight wives! Not all at the same time though… He married them one at a time but when he decided he wanted a new wife, he got rid of the old one by divorcing her or chopping her head off! You can find out lots of information on the internet about Henry VIII and about his poor wives!
    Back to our home though… Our house is made of wood and if you go into the attic, you can see the trees used to build it 500 years ago, some of them still have the bark on them! There are wooden beams in the walls and the ceilings which make it really pretty inside but the beams make the ceilings downstairs quite low, so tall people have to watch their heads when they come inside for the first time… It takes a while to remember where to duck down! We have had guests that have hit their heads and fallen on the floor! Oh dear! The floors are made of very strong wood called English Oak and they are all wobbly, so are the walls, a bit like an old man, who has drunk too much saki-very, very wobbly!
    We have a really big open fireplace in our sitting room, it is called an inglenook fireplace. It has enough space for a large fire and two benches on each side to sit on. It warms the whole house in the winter.
    Our house used to be a post office for our village about a hundred years ago and when we did some work in our garden last year, we found old glass ink bottles buried under the soil. I wonder what else we would find if we carried on digging? There must be so many things that have been lost or hidden over all these years. About thirty years ago, one of the people in our village found buried treasure in their garden. Lots and lots of gold coins from the Roman times. The coins are now in the British Museum and are called, The Bredgar Horde. I bet you could find a photo of them if you looked on the museum’s website.
    That’s all from me in England for now, I hope you have enjoyed learning a little about where I am from. I want to show your videos to my son Toby, he is nine years old and would love to learn more about Japan. It was my birthday last week and I received a Japanese Kimono as a gift. This evening, before Toby went to bed, I showed him photographs of my visit to Japan in 1999. During my trip I went to the Nishijin Textile Center in Kyoto and the ladies working there dressed me in 12 layered Kimono, the style of the ladies of the Imperial Court from 1,000 years ago! I have wanted a Kimono of my own ever since!
    Best wishes,
    Emily
    Have a lovely day! 🙂

    • Emily Cooper

      P.S. Here is a photo of the 12 layered kimono! 🙂

    • lifewhereimfrom (author)

      Thanks for this, really loved the description! – The Dad

  • Meli Zepeda

    Hello Aiko! Well, ancient houses here in Chile are not as interesting as Japanese, mainly because our Spanish Heritage is so strong, so they are just big houses with insanely tall ceilings, and Pillars. Here, old houses don’t have alters, and the walls are made with a mixture of clay, sand and water (and sometimes straw or chaff), weird huh?
    Our country is a very small one but we have a complety variety of landscape and wheater, up north there is the most dry dessert in the world and in the deep south we have the amazing Patagonia and glaciers. We have beaches and mountains and even a small island with semi-tropical weather!

    *Sorry for typos and bad grammar!

    • lifewhereimfrom (author)

      That sounds very similar to the materials used in old houses / buildings in Japan. – The Dad

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