Think Zen: The Traditional Aesthetics of Japanese Interior Design


When we think about Japanese Zen interior design, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the tearoom decorated with futon and tatami mat, a type of traditional flooring material made of rice straw and fabric.

It is said that the Japanese interior style came into being in the Heian period (794 – 1185).

In the past, the Japanese went to hot springs and enjoy the nature for their health and spiritual benefits.

A window with a beautiful view is the defining feature in Japanese domestic design culture. Through the window, one can hear the water flowing in the hot spring, see the haze lilting on the white waters and smell the pine scent from the forest.

Such is impossible to achieve for urban dwellers like us.

Nonetheless, in the Zen culture, the spirit of tranquility and a live-and-let-live attitude are what we can all share despite the restrictions imposed by the environment.

And this, is the central belief of contemporary Wa-Fu (和風) interior design.


Wa-fu elements

‘Wa’ (和) in Japanese means ‘free of dissonance and incongruity’. It refers to a state of steadiness and comfort.


Put the chairs away


Traditionally, instead of chairs, Japanese sit on a tatami mat floor with cushions. In the room there is usually a wooden low table, and in winter, Japanese stay warm with a traditional Japanese table heater called kotatsu.

Kotatsu table


The Japanese’s low-seating tradition has a long history. In the past, people sat around a fire stove to eat, chat and engage in other social activities. This practice slowly entered their dining practice, and got passed down the generations.

To preserve the tradition, the Japanese designed low-seating chairs and sofas, and this type of furniture is very popular in the present times.


Paper partition

Shou-ji is a kind of traditional paper partition invented to separate different areas of a house while allowing light to pass through. Shou-ji can be a door, a window or a simple room divider.

During daytime, the paper held between a shou-ji’s bamboo lattice soften the light coming from the outside like a set of curtains.

At night, the paper prevents excessive light entering the house from the outside.

Washi, the paper used to make these room dividers, was later employed to make lamps. Since paper is fragile and not resistant to water, plastic materials are more popular nowadays.


Now you might wonder: Of all the materials there are, why do the Japanese use paper to make walls? With these walls, noise can travel across quite easily.

Well, perhaps the Japanese just did not need soundproof walls.

This goes to show that these people were just as tranquil and considerate as their embodied aesthetics.


Naguri-kakou woodwork

Old Kyoto’s houses featured a very special woodwork technique called naguri-kakou. This kind of technique involved sculpting ridges onto wood surfaces one by one, to create a delicate curved or checkered veneer.

The fine line of each ridge gives the wooden object a graceful and refined silhouette, and directs the light in a way that you seem to see flowing layers of shadow on the furniture.


Carved transom

Ran-ma is the traditional sculpted transom separating the sliding doors and the ceiling. Ran-ma’s main function is decorative, but it also increases ventilation and allows light to enter the interior. Ran-ma, to the decoration masters, is an arena where they demonstrate their skills and artistic vision.

Since the use of paper walls is rare in contemporary homes, ran-ma has evolved into a kind of wall decoration like sculpted paintings.


Flexible space planning

Having gone through a thousand years of evolution, the width of tatami mats, the sizes of furniture and other Japanese renovation materials, are all considerably standardised for the convenience of installation and moving around.

To easily control the space of a particular area in the house, for example, the bedroom and the living room, the Japanese uses sliding partitions to separate a large space into smaller rooms.

These movable doors can be hidden when not in use to open up a wide space, just like the more traditional teahouses in Hong Kong.


Rustic materials

In the old times, the Japanese often used what they can find in nature to make furniture and tools.

Japanese tea culture demonstrates a similar attitude in acquiring cooking ingredients: the Japanese uses a lot of herbs and flowers in their traditional cuisine.

Natural materials like solid wood, rattan, stone and mud are the beloved raw materials of Japanese furniture.

The Japanese held a belief that natural materials coming from the serenity of nature can heal the spirit and remove stress.

Natural materials can also emit a warmth which brightens the domestic environment.

The quintessential items of Wa-fu design are tatami mats, straw, bamboo, solid wood and paper furniture.


Wa-fu colours

The four seasons in Japan are very distinct and each has its own set of palette. Every month there are historical festivals and traditional rituals to carry out. Therefore, in wa-fu designs, colours are often representative of different seasons, and evoke natural objects and creatures like plants and birds.

Clever combinations of colours can evoke different moods and seasons.

(From top to bottom, left to right)


Hana A Sagi, the light blue of flowers;

Uguisu Iro, the colour of nightingale;

Kakitsubata, the colour of iris;

Kikuchiba Iro, the colour of withered leaves;

Ebizome, the colour of grapes;

Akacha Iro, the colour of red tea;

Budou Nezumi, the colour of a grape-coloured mouse;

Kogecha Iro, the colour of pan-fired tea


Apart from colours, you can also use evocative decorations like a picture of sakura blossoms to emphasis the theme of seasons in the traditional Japanese interior style. Besides, straw baskets and wooden wall decorations are also very Japanese options.



The Japanese are particular about the plants they put in their houses. It is a matter of art that deserves studying and practicing.

If you cannot afford the time to delve into the art of Japanese horticulture, but still want to embrace the spirit of Japanese interior design, looks for flowers and plants you can easily find in Japanese art, like sakura, iris, plum and bamboo.


Contemporary example of the Wa-fu style

Notice the use of rattan and bamboo furniture, as well as the low seating chairs and table.


The colours used in this example are quite traditional, while the shapes of the furniture are contemporary and chic.


This bedroom features a bed which is quite short in height, and evokes the traditional futon-on-floor Japanese bedroom. The bedframe prevents the mattress from exposure to humidity, but its short height gives it a traditional look.


If living space is lacking, the Japanese tend not to buy beds since they take up a lot of space. Collapsible furniture like the murphy bed is especially popular in Japan.

The Japanese also put away furniture that are not in use. They prefer to put away the dining table and chairs in the daytime. Therefore, Japanese furniture tend to be light, movable and easy to store.



Busy urban dwellers crave tranquility and time for relaxation. As long as there is a need for comfort, the traditional Japanese style will remain a perennial favourite in the years to come.


Author: decoadmin