HOME CULTURE Traditional Japanese Houses - Types and History

Traditional Japanese Houses – Types and History

A house is a house all over the world, but a Japanese house is quite interesting. Of course, they bear some elements inspired by a western kind of lifestyle and have some westernized features; however, they are not like western houses. Despite the westernization of Japan, many of the houses around the country still have traditional elements within them. Like everything modern in Japan, houses are inspired by the style of traditional houses. Here are six types of traditional style houses that you may find in Japan and their histories.

1. The Pit House

The Pit House is one of the first luxury homes in Japan. Well, it was as luxury as homes could get back at the beginning of Japanese civilization. These pit dwellings were made by digging a big hole into the ground and sticking in columns, then placing grass all around the structure until it turned into a neat little house. These houses were great for insulation. Among the 800 plus pit houses in early old-timey Japan were hundreds of houses that were raised on wooden supports.  This style of housing is thought to have been brought in from Southeast Asia and was used for storing food to protect it from heat and humidity.

2. The Shinden-zukuri Style

Speaking of luxury homes, Japanese homes became even fancier with the rise of the Heian period. The Shinden-zukuri or Sleeping-built style featured the main building, the Shinden, and two side buildings on the left and the right of the Shinden and sometimes there can be one behind. From the left and the right building, one corridor each ran southward to smaller, pavilion-like structures. The nobility of Japan lived in these U-shaped structures and some built additional buildings if they could afford it. Across from the Shinden to the south were the gardens with mountain-like shapes, rocks, and ponds designed to look like Amida Buddha.

3. The History of the Shinden-zukuri Style

This old traditional mansion style was built from the years 794 to 1185, all throughout the Heian period. Shinden-zukuri style of architecture was always built with a palace in mind.  For example, a place that really took advantage of the Shinden-Zukari style was, of course, Heian-kyo, also known as modern-day Kyoto. Although there are no standing original examples of this style to see, Kyoto’s very own imperial palace was built with the style of Shinden-zukuri in mind. The Shinden-Zukuri style served as inspiration for many later styles of domestic architecture in Japan including the Shion-zukuri style.

4. The Shoin-zukuri Style

Shoin-zukuri or study-built style houses are made with square posts and floors were completely covered in tatami mats from wall to wall. This style of housing is one big room with a main area seperated by slide doors. The main area is decorated with staggered shelves and desks. On the outter areas of the house are wooden halls and shutters meant to protect the room from the rain. The name Shoin comes from the word meaning study or place for lectures and this style of architecture is certainly cozy like one.  A simpler version of this style is called Sukiya-zukuri which is used in the architecture of traditional tea houses.

5. The History of the Shoin-zukuri Style

As time went on the secondary buildings of the Shinden-zukuri style began to lose the distance between them and the main Shinden building. This along with the influence of the lifestyle of the warrior class, a new style of housing was made–the Shoin-zukuri style. The style first begins to appear in the Momoyama period and reached its peak in the Edo period. This style also brought the first of the genkan, an entrance way where guests leave their shoes. The eldest of this style dates back to 1485 and can be found at Kinkakuji’s Togudo building.

6. The Gassho Style

Houses built in the Gassho-style typically have a high pointed, thatched roof that is steep and has a 60-degree angle. The steepness of the roof helps protect the house from heavy snowfall. The slow allows the snow to slide off instead of build up and possibly cave the house in. Inside the house, there are usually three levels–the base level, and two levels in the attic. The different levels are used for different kinds of farm work like raising silkworms. Thick crossbeams are used to support the roof. There are also openings in the roof that allow natural lighting into the attic and allows the attic to have ventilation.

7. History of the Gassho Style

Located in three villages, Ainokura, Suganuma, and Ogimachi are uniquely structures houses known as Gassho houses. What these villages have in common is that each of them are farm villages, so one may conclude that the Gassho-style houses are–yes you guessed it–farmhouses. These houses were built from the 17th century and the early 20th century. When it came time to build the roof many volunteers would come together to lend a hand. Actually, the name Gassho comes from the way that the roof looks like two hands touching at the fingertips. Gassho means join one’s hands in prayer.

8. The Kura-zukuri Style

The Kura-zukuri style was a turning point in residential Japanese architecture mainly for the fire resistant materials used to build this kind of house.The Japanese borrowed this technique from their warehouse design and began to build their houses using the Kura style. A typical house built in the Kura-zukuri style have the same basic wooden structure except in addition to the wood, the house is plastered with fire-resistant clay. The builders of these houses lay the clay on pretty thick at 18 centimeters around the entire house. With this style, the houses were not only resistant to earthquakes, but they were also fire-proof too.

9. The History of  the Kura-zukuri Style

Up until the Yayoi period, many of the traditional houses have been made of wood and grass that is susceptible to burning quickly after catching aflame. The Kura-zukuri style, also known as the clay-walled warehouse style, was the answer to this heated problem. From 300 BC to 300 AD, the Japanese built houses in the style of Kura-zukuri. Traditionally they were used to store items like food and later to store precious items like festival props and decorations. During the Nara period, people stored their rice in Kura-zukuri houses because they were taxed by rice.


A great civilization is one that can learn and evolve especially when it comes to building a shelter. A people’s shelter reflects the kind of lifestyle that they live which is quite fascinating. Modern homes Have still features from traditional houses including slide doors, a genkan, tatami flooring and more. How many can you spot in your or your friend’s Japanese home? The next time you visit a house in Japan, try to see if you can see the influences of these traditional styles.