Traditional Japanese Architecture: Sukiya-zukuri and Shoin-zukuri

Each country has its own unique style of architecture that tells a lot about its history and people. Japan can tell us interesting stories as seen in the wealth of its architectural history—from grand castles to humble farmhouses in the countryside. Staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) acquaints any visitor with the authentic vibe and feel of Japanese culture, hospitality, and way of life for hundreds of years.

Traditional Japanese architecture made use predominantly of wood because of the abundance of timber. Timber is particularly resistant to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Wood is also an ideal type of material for Japan’s humid climate.

Japanese traditional style house exterior design. | TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

Sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り) is an architectural style prominent in many traditional residential structures. Suki is defined as having well refined and cultivated tastes that delight in the pursuit of elegance as observed in performing the tea ceremony. The origins of the word describe a building where tea ceremony was done as well as ikebana and other traditional Japanese arts. Sukiya-zukuri’s architectural style is characterized by the use of natural materials and is based on tea house aesthetics in building and designing homes, villas, restaurants, and inns.

ShoinToyotomi Hideyoshi ( 1536-1598), a notable daimyo, warrior, general and politician during the Sengoku period, was regarded as Japan’s second great unifier. He succeeded Oda Nobunaga; the time of his rule is called Momoyama period.

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, example of sukiya style.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi employed  Sen no Rikyū  (1522-1591), who was known for the Japanese “Way of Tea.” The lavish Jurakudai castle in Kyoto is said to be the first sukiya-zukuri architectural structure in Japan.

Sukiya-zukuri is characterized by small rooms—usually four and a half tatami mats or less—with a tokonoma (built-in recessed space) and shelves. The traditional sukiya-zukuri layout has rooms that open to a garden through an indirect diagonal or curved path that permit a view of the tea house.

Shoin-zukuri (書院造) is another another Japanese residential architectural style used in mansions for the military, quarters of Zen abbots, and temple guest halls during the Azucho-Momoyama period through the Edo period.

Ginkaku-ji’s Tōgu-dō, oldest extant example of shoin-zukuri.

 It adapted its name from shoin, a term derived from a study and place for lectures on the sūtra inside the temple.  The characteristics of the shoin-zukuri style include square posts and floors completely covered with tatami mats.