Given Japan’s high population density, housing tends to be “compact” (and by that I mean – tiny – or at least tiny by American standards). Living in small apartments in Japan, I naturally pared down my lifestyle. And I learned the joys of simple and compact living.
How small were my apartments?
The kitchen in my first apartment in Japan had a single burner and a counter that barely fit a mixing bowl. In another house, I had to turn sideways to squeeze my way into the kitchen. If you opened the refrigerator door, the doorway to the kitchen would be blocked. In one house, I had to angle my hangers sideways in the closet, so that the closet door would close.
One (now) infamous European official once criticized Japanese for living in what he called “rabbit hutches.” Recently though, even in the United States, there has been rising interest in micro living, especially in crowded metropolitan areas like New York City.
And indeed, whether you live in Japan or the U.S. or another country, there are a number of nice benefits to having less square footage:
- easier to keep clean
- easier to maintain
- less expensive
- less decorating
- less debt and financial risk
Aside – In Japan we measure house sizes in “jo.” NOT!
Like the United States has its own idiosyncratic measurement systems (Fahrenheit, feet, inches, pounds), Japan also has some unique units of measure.
One of those Japan-specific units is “jo.” This unit expresses the area of a single tatami mat (approximately 1.653 square meters). Tatami are woven grass mats that cover the floor in traditional Japanese rooms. So you might say, “This room is 6 ‘jo’” (or about 10 square meters)
In my first Japanese class at Kyoto University, we drilled this one sentence over and over.“In Japan, we measure houses sizes using ‘jo.” “In Japan, we measure house sizes using ‘jo.’” “In Japan, we measure house sizes using ‘jo.’” Over and over.
I decided that one of my tasks of assimilating to Japanese culture would be to learn the “jo” system. I practiced smoothly converting from square meters to “jo.” I learned the size of my apartment in “jo.” So that when people asked, “How big is your apartment?” I could respond, “8 jo.”
And that’s what happened. One evening, I was attending a company party and my lab mate asked me about where I was living. She asked, “So how big is your apartment?”
I beamed. My moment had come!! The question I had been practicing for. “8 jo,” I answered with confidence.
Then there was an awkward pause.
She looked up at the ceiling and seemed to be hesitating to respond. I was confused by her reaction. The awkward pause continued. Her lips moved slightly but no words came out. Finally I asked, “What is it?”
“Oh,” she responded. “I am trying to convert that jo measurement to square meters.”
WHAT?! It was all a lie!! I laughed inside and felt defeated at the same time. That’s the last time that I ever tried to use “jo.”
Just how big is an apartment in Japan?
If you are curious what a single room apartment looks like in Japan, here are some floor plans for apartments that I considered when I was about to move to Japan.
Keep in mind – these apartments are in the “countryside” by Japanese standards. Apartments in Tokyo or other major urban centers would be smaller.
Okay back to lessons in simple living!
While houses are modestly sized in Japan, I find living in Japanese homes to be quite comfortable. Of course, sometimes I bang my knees and elbows, and wish that I had more space. But Japanese homes have made me appreciate minimalism, and the beauty in small spaces.
Now that I am back living in the United States, I still try to follow the principles of small-house living that I learned while in Japan.
Here are some ways that you can put Japanese ideas of simple living into practice (no matter where you live!).
1) Choose a small place to live.
Less space means fewer possessions to worry about. You simply will not have as much space to accumulate stuff. With less stuff comes less time spent on organizing, arranging, and generally fussing over your things.
In graduate school, I lived in a single bedroom in a shared house. The room was teeny tiny by American standards (just 10 feet by 10 feet) but it was just the right amount of space for me. The small space made me keep my belongings to a minimum, and it encouraged me to use my space creatively (just like in Japan). Since the space was small, I did not have much furniture – just a bed, a bookshelf, and a low table used as a desk.
2) Do laundry more frequently.
Doing laundry more might not sound like a trick to simplifying your life. However, by doing laundry more frequently, you can reduce your wardrobe and simplify the space in your closet or dresser. In Japan, homes typically do not have drying machines. Instead, clothes are washed and hung to dry outside (or sometimes inside if it is raining or cold). My first host mom in Japan used to do laundry every morning.
At first, it seemed like a burden. I soon became thankful for the daily laundry. I had only brought one suitcase of clothing with me, and it barely lasted through a week. With daily laundry, I could enjoy clean clothes all the time even with the modest set of clothes I had packed.
Also instead of accumulating a basket of dirty clothes, my clothes spent most of their time clean and folded. I enjoyed having neat and tidy clothes, rather than my clothes spending most of their time smelly and crumpled in a basket. When my visit with my host family ended and I returned to college, my full wardrobe felt almost overwhelming.
Now I have taken the slimmed down wardrobe to a new level.
This summer I brought just one pair of pants to wear for two months. I love it. I wake up, pull on my pants, choose a shirt, and my outfit is done! I am almost dreading going back to my generously stocked closet in California.
Another big advantage of doing laundry every day (or at least a couple of times a week) is that each time you do laundry you end up spending less time doing it. With a small load of laundry, I can easily do it as a short break from work, or take a few minutes in the evening to fold and put away clothes before going to sleep. It feels less like a major investment of time and energy.
3) Look for multipurpose objects.
Living in a small space with fewer possessions means that each object might come to serve multiple functions.
Forget about tools (the kitchen is a particularly dangerous area for this) that claim to specialize in just one narrow task. Instead, aim to get simple, well-made tools that can be used in many a variety of ways. For example, invest in a pretty towel that can serve as a towel or as a placemat or as a tray cover. Once you start looking, simple household objects can serve an amazing number of purposes.
For example – consider the humble Kleenex. A box of Kleenex is a must have in Japanese homes, and the sheer number of ways that I have seen Kleenexes used is quite impressive. Here are a bunch of those uses.
In my boyfriend’s family’s house in Japan, there is a green plastic basket with handles that I particularly like. I have seen it placed in front of the washing machine to gather dirty clothes. I have seen it toted around by my boyfriend’s 3 year old nephew to organize toys. I have used it as a trash can with a plastic liner inside. We carried it to the beach with towels and snacks. I am pretty sure the basket came from the $1 store in Japan. Clearly $1 well spent!!
Or how about the humble cardboard box?
Or how about a box of Kleenex as a laptop stand?
4) Take advantage of your floor as a multipurpose space.
Yes, there are chairs in Japan. While living in Japan, I found that my Japanese friends and I seemed to spend a fair amount of time on the floor. (Actually sometimes we hung out on the floor even when there were chairs available.)
I learned that the floor could be extremely multipurpose. In traditional Japanese living, the floor is used for most activities – eating, sleeping, and relaxing. I love relaxing on the floor. You can stretch your legs in any direction or even lay down when you want a break. Now, I love doing crafts on the floor because I can spread all my materials and tools around me.
In my room at graduate school, I did not even own a chair. I would instead sit cross-legged on the floor, or tuck my legs underneath me in the seiza position.
In addition to sitting and sleeping and sprawling, the floor can also be used as a display space. In traditional Japanese rooms, there is usually a small raised alcove space used for displaying flowers, or plants, or other precious objects. The objects are placed directly on the floor of the alcove. You can create a similar space by setting aside an area in front of a wall or window, and arranging a cloth on the floor to display small objects.
The great thing about using the floor space is that the floor is already there. You do not need to accumulate any furniture or stuff to enjoy the floor (although I will say that the floor is pretty comfortable with a soft rug or spread with a fuzzy blanket).
5) Enjoy simple pleasures.
This final lesson is not about the small space itself, but rather what you do inside that space. In Japan, I learned to create time and focus my attention on simple activities, while limiting distractions.
I have a tendency to multitask… to the detriment of each activity.
In the evening, you might find me watching a YouTube video, while snacking on chocolate and nuts, while drinking a cup of tea, while texting. I know there is a heap of research that this kind of multitasking does not really work. Yes yes, I understand that the human mind has limited capacity for attention. I know that we are very bad at switching and dividing our attention. Yet sometimes I cannot help but stack on more activities.
When I was in Japan, I loved having slow and quiet moments, where I had a chance to savor just one activity. I would visit a friend’s house and be served a slice of cake. We would enjoy the cake with a certain focus and intensity that felt unfamiliar to me. There was a certain ritual almost to the serving of the cake, the delicate eating of the cake with a tiny dessert fork, and the plumes of steam rising from the pot of tea.
I know this all sounds overly poetic but these moments really existed for me in Japan. (And I loved them.)
When I am in Japan, even the chore of cleaning myself at the end of the day, is wonderful thing and I always look forward to it. The design of Japanese bath divides the washing and soaking. First you cleanse your body; then you soak – up to your neck – in a deep tub of hot water. Those quiet moments in the bath, just looking at the ceiling or thinking about the day, calm my mind. I never sleep better than after soaking in the tub.
Living in Japan forced me into a smaller space than I might have chosen otherwise in the U.S. and it made me appreciate that kind of lifestyle. Now, no matter where I end up living, I want to have a compact, tidy home, where I can enjoy simple, quiet moments.
Want to see even more? Check out these other beautiful Japanese homes from Kotaku – “Cramped or Not, I Want To Live In These Tiny Japanese Houses.”
To my dear reader, leave any stories, comments, or questions below. 🙂
Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.