Japanese Patterns of Design
One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma with blue wall and checkered pattern on sliding doors

Tokonoma: Japanese Alcove Design, Styles, and Scrolls

The Tokonoma in an Old Style Japanese House in Azumino, Nagano, Japan
The Tokonoma in an Old Style Japanese House in Azumino, Nagano, Japan (azuminokominka.blog136.fc2.com)

Tokonoma is the Japanese alcove we can see in the reception rooms of the traditional Japanese houeses. It’s taken as a focal point for the interior as it provides the sense of hospitality for the guests. Let’s take a look at its history to see how they have been developed.

Brief History of Tokonoma

The style of Tokonoma we see today began to be developed in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which is the time the types of art such as Ikebana, Chado, and Noh were developed as well.

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Buddhist Altar Fillings

Originally, the Tokonoma was developed for putting three Buddhist altar filling; a flower base, a candle stand, an incense burner for Buddhism thought.

Additionally, the Shoin (drawing room), in this case, a writing alcove and The Chigai-dana (staggered shelves) consists the Tokonoma in a strict manner.

Tea House

The Tokonoma in the tea houses took the different course. Unlike the one with the Shoin, it allows the more free style of design and it became kind of the showcase for expressing the sense of the season.

The Tokonoma we see in houses today inherit this spirit of the style to entertain guests with seasonal flowers, plants, and scrolls.

Symbol of Authority

In the Edo period (1603-1868), the significance of the Tokonoma has changed since Samurai constructed them to boast their authority.

Only after the Meiji period (1868-1912), the common people began to build the Tokonoma in their houses.

When having the higher ranking person in the reception room, he is supposed to be seated in front of the Tokonoma.

Tokonoma Design

The sketch of the Guest Room In Hachi-Ishi
The sketch of the Guest Room In Hachi-Ishi in “Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings” (1886) BY Edward S. Morse (Wikimedia)

The Tokonoma consists of Otoshigake (a bar placed across the upper part of the tokonoma), Tokobashira (alcove post), Tokogamachi (the vertical board that connects a frameless tokonoma to the floor), which enclose the Tokonoma squarely.

It looks like a huge frame.

In order to make it impressive for the guests to send the message, show the hospitality.

It’s designed to let the light in from the Shoin, the light through the Shoji (a sliding translucent screen) has the effect of indirect and soft lighting.

Look at the upper part of it, you see a small wall which makes a shadow and gives it the depth. It allows the scroll to look three-dimensional.

You can see the essence of the beauty of asymmetrical balance here just as well with the Japanese gardens.

Tokonoma Styles

The Tokonoma, Japanese Style Alcove with a hanging scroll and flowers
The Tokonoma, Japanese Style Alcove with a hanging scroll and flowers (japansheartandculture.blogspot.com)

The Tokonoma has variation in styles. Although we listed the three styles, Shin (真), Gyo (行), So (草) of the traditional Japanese rooms, sometimes its definition overlaps depends on how the precious wood is processed and the perspective of the designers.

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The “Shin” Style (真)

Shin Styled Room with the Tokonoma
“Shin” Styled Room with the Tokonoma (www.meiboku.co.jp)

It is the most formal and prestigious Japanese style room based on the Shoin-zukuri (style). It consists of the Tokonoma, the section of a room next to the alcove (where shelves are often placed), the beam running between columns, and the writing alcove.

The “Gyo” Style (行)

Gyo Styled Room with the Tokonoma
“Gyo” Styled Room with the Tokonoma (www.meiboku.co.jp)

It’s a little-altered one of the Shin style. You can say it’s the right in the middle of the Shin style and the So style. So it adapted the goodness of each, mix with the authoritative feature and the free ones from Sukiya-zukuri (style) we see below.

The “So” Style (草)

So Styled Room with Tokonoma
“So” Styled Room with Tokonoma (www.meiboku.co.jp)

It was developed originally for a tea room, usually called SUkiya-zukuri (style). The most prominent feature is it uses a lot of naturally grown trees. Also, it uses relatively thinner trees, which gives the sense of softness.

Japanese Tea House: Architecture of Ultimate Spiritual World

Scrolls

The Scroll in the Tokonoma in the Yamatoya Villa of Dogo Onsen
The Scroll in the Tokonoma in the Yamatoya Villa of Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama, Ehime, Japan (google.com)

The scroll in the Tokonoma is a main actor of the film. This is what catches the attention of the guests when they enter the room.

Originally, the scrolls were the object of Buddhist worship in the early times, then it became popular as an art of beauties of nature due to the popularity of Zen Buddhism.

In the 16th century, the scrolls gained immense popularity among tea lovers thanks to Sen no Rikyu, the founder of Chado (tea ceremony). He advocated the significance of the scrolls in tea rooms.

The tradition to change scrolls for each guest, season, day and night have begun at this period.

The motifs in each drawing have its meaning and it is changed to the seasonal events or for a good luck. They can be broken down into Buddhist drawings, original drawings of Ukiyo-e, drawings of beauties of nature, and many other varieties of drawings or writings are attached to the scrolls.

Modern Tokonoma

One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma with blue wall and checkered pattern on sliding doors
One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma with blue wall and checkered pattern on sliding doors (realestate.yahoo.co.jp)

It’s one of the styles of the bold line of cutting the space and the Tokonoma is on the same level with the floor matted with tatami.

One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma in Osaka, Japan BY FREEDOM ARCHITECTS
One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma in Osaka, Japan BY FREEDOM ARCHITECTS (www.freedom.co.jp)

The one which creates the sense of the extraordinary as if you were in a museum.

The Tokonoma in House in Hanayashiki,1999 BY TOSHIHITO YOKOUCHI ARCHITECT & ASSOCIATES
The Tokonoma in House in Hanayashiki,1999 BY TOSHIHITO YOKOUCHI ARCHITECT & ASSOCIATES (www.yokouchi-t.com)

It looks as if carps in the scroll are swimming in the pond of Tokonoma.

One of the exmaples of the Modern Tokonoma with tea ceremony utensils
One of the exmaples of the Modern Tokonoma with tea ceremony utensils (tagle.jp)

The bold cutting line creates the dynamic flow to space.

One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma BY Sekisui House
One of the examples of the Modern Tokonoma BY Sekisui House (Pinterest)

This Tokonoma expresses the night of the full moon, which would calm the souls of the guests.

The Tokonoma is the unique and even sacred space in the traditional Japanese house, which would encourage people to talk about the scrolls or flowers and cherish the changes of the season inside the house.

Also, its design allows us to appreciated the emptiness and it’s a great medium to remind us to stay still and meditate. How wonderful is that?

References

Tokonoma displays (BONSAI EMPIRE)
File56 床の間 (NHKオンライン)

Hiroko Matsuyama

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