A Slice of Japan in Philadelphia: Shofuso House and Garden

by ziggy on April 15, 2014 -- 2 comments -- Follow

Shofuso House in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

The Shofuso House in Fairmount Park, Philly, PA

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.

Inside Shofuso House

Inside Shofuso, one of the main rooms — note the waterfall murals on sliding doors

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.

Traditional tatami mat floor

Tatami mat floor, made of woven rice straw and very comfortable for sitting and walking

Shofuso - Japanese Tea House Room

A look inside the small tea house — note the awesome woven ceiling

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.

Traditional Japanese Cook Stove

Traditional cook stove with holes for three pots — one for soup (right), stir frying (middle), and steaming rice (left)

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.

Adzed floor - Japanese House

Highly textured floor, likely finished by hand with an adze.

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.

Japanese Porch Roof

Wide roof overhang shelters an almost continuous porch around the house

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.

Japanese Garden with Pond

Looking out at the koi pond from the porch

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.

Hinoki, Japanese Cypress Tree

The highly prized hinoki, or Japanese cypress

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…

Hinoki Bark Roof

A sample of hinoki bark roof, unweathered…. it feels almost like leather

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…

Japanese Lime Plaster

A sample of “rough” lime plaster, not as smooth as other wall sections, but still very skillfully applied

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…

Copper Gutter and Rain Chain

A look at the copper gutter and rain chain — rain trickles down the chain into a drainage trench

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.

Japanese bath and tub

A traditional Japanese tub is made of wood, and is used for a nice, warm soak after washing

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.

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  • Beautiful house! Very traditional!
    The tatami are wonderful! The woven igusa reed covering over the straw core is why they are so comfortable to lounge on in the summer. It just lets the air circulate around you. But they do have mites…
    I love the kamado! If you build one, don’t forget to add salt to the clay/sand/rice-straw mix to prevent cracking! Usually kamado were vented inside the house- The smoke was a vital part of preserving the roof from the inside. In our area most roofs are clay tile (kawara) or thatched with “kaya” reeds. The smoke kept most of the insects from infesting the thatch/roofing, and also helped to dry it (we have a lot of rain and humidity… I mean a LOT of humidity).
    I imagine the salt could help keep pizza ovens from developing cracks as well.

    In my area of Japan, hinoki is a commonly farmed tree (and major allergen). I never thought of it as slow growing. We built our bath out of it because of its low cost and local availability, and we burn a lot in our stove because it smells nice and the thinnings from the tree plantations are readily available.

  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Hey Z,

    The Engawa 掾側 (porch area) are the focal point of many styles of Japanese architecture from Samurai-Imperial Class as you have seen now to the common Minka 民家. I have taught workshops on how to make both Ajiro 網代 (what you saw and liked) and the more common Yoshi Tenjou 葭天井 (or Gamamushiro Tenjou 蒲蓆天井)

    I am very glad you could experience this.



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