I may never get to Japan, though I’ve dreamed about it on and off for many years now. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a little slice of Japan here in the states, right inside Philadelphia in Fairmount Park. The Shofuso house and gardens are an impressive little site, representative of 17th century Japanese architecture. The home is complete with authentic traditional carpentry and building techniques, and the garden features native Japanese plants. And it’s beautiful.
I thought about asking if they wouldn’t mind me shacking up there for a bit to be able to experience the house a bit more fully… Here are some photos of the house and garden.
Japanese Architecture in Philly
I didn’t know anything about the Shofuso house before going, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s a remarkable historic representation of the architecture and technologies of 17th century Japan. Timber framing, a bark roof, gorgeous lime plasters, genuine tatami mat floors and shoji sliding doors are all well-represented here. I could have spent another few hours simply walking around and examining the details. Here are some photos of what I found.
The architecture is more representative of an upper-class home that would have been occupied by someone of the samurai or higher ranking monk classes. The finish and details are simple and beautiful. The home and garden are surrounded by a lime-washed wall with entry gate, and a pond creates a major focal point of the grounds.
The interior is sparse, and the floor is arranged with tatami mats — traditional woven straw mats that are very comfortable to walk on. There is no furniture to speak of, really, which was also representative of the time. Sliding doors throughout allow for a lot of freedom in creating a very open, ventilated space. Many of the doors were painted by artist Hiroshi Senju, inspired by the waterfalls in the garden site. You can see those above.
A separate tea house space, which was closed off to nosy tourists, looked to be very beautifully finished. Check out the woven ceiling. I love the simple yet ornate colors and textures.
The kitchen, built in a peasant style, had a lower floor of earth — a “doma”. This is where the cooking took place at a “three burner” stove with three separate fires. One fire was for soup (right), another for stir frying (middle), and a third for steaming rice (left). It was unclear how well the smoke vented — there was a screen at the top of the wall, vented to the outside, but no word on how cleanly the stoves burn. You might be able to just make out the stone barbeque at the far left of the photo — coals could be collected in the trough for cooking fish and other foods. Love that.
One of my favorite details in the whole house was this portion of porch, most likely finished by hand with an adze to create a scooped or scalloped texture. It felt really nice to step on with bare feet. The grain patterns are amazing, too.
Speaking of the porch… most of the house is surrounded by an ample roof overhang, protecting the walls and creating a space for an ‘engawa’. Some sections of the porch were narrow, perhaps 5-6 feet and serving as a circulation space to walk around the home. The deepest section of porch overlooked the pond and garden. This is one feature of traditional Japanese architecture that I am really drawn to — the amazing connection between the outside and in, tied together with this intermediate porch space.
Looking up is just as impressive as looking out at the pond — the carpentry skills and the quality of the wood are excellent.
Speaking of wood… all of the wood in the house was shipped in from Japan. The wood used was hinoki, or Japanese cypress, a highly prized and slow-growing tree. There was a single hinoki tree in the garden, and I was surprised to learn that it was 50 years old because the diameter was so miniscule.
The quality of the wood is extremely high, which is not surprising for such a slow-growing tree. Hinoki was also used in the construction of the roof — in this case, the bark. Layers of bark were installed in place of thatch or tile. Apparently, only about 100 craftspeople left in Japan know how to work with the bark of hinoki to build roofs. And the price to repair the roof of Shofuso? $1.2 million dollars. Yikes…
All of the walls were finished with a traditional lime plaster, some of which was glass-like in its smoothness. There were few cracks to be found. The Japanese clearly know their lime well…
One of my other favorite details was this copper gutter and rain chain. (I’m a sucker for copper). The rain chain is a beautiful alternative to a downspout — rain trickles down the chain into a drainage trench that flows into the pond. It’s all in the little things like this…
The family bathroom was as sparse as the house, and could easily be mistaken for something else, since the tub itself is made of wood. Individuals would not clean themselves in the tub, but wash themselves with water outside and soap outside of the tub, and then rinse and soak in the warm water of the tub. All of the family would use the same water to soak, since it would have been difficult to heat up that large quantity of water.
Hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit the house again in the future. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, I highly recommend a visit to Shofuso.