My house has a shoji room. A room that’s special because dedicated artisans from an old country crafted it. To me, its walls are an homage to traditional craftsmanship rarely practiced now, replaced by machines which, I admit, can spew out very good products.
I find this shoji room a thing of beauty but much of the delight it elicits is in its construction. Mr. Nakai designed and built it. He immigrated here from Japan where, as a young man, he had apprenticed to acquire the finer skills needed to build craftsman-style homes.
One can get shoji screens of varying quality in the US, most of them premanufactured. Many western homes now use them, either built into the structure or as freestanding dividers. But true to his craft and the values he learned in Japan, Mr. Nakai said he would build us a shoji room but it would take time.
Why? To him, the screens must be made by a shoji maker whose skills he could guarantee. Just as important is the principle of supporting and being loyal to those he worked with in the past. So, he had ours built of traditional materials—hinoki cypress and washi paper—by another craftsman he trusted and worked with in Japan.
We had to wait a few months for the screens to be made and shipped here. When they arrived, Mr. Nakai installed them in wooden frames he constructed using traditional techniques. To crown off the shoji screens, he fashioned a beautiful wooden ranma (a transom) which he modernized a little by adding a graceful bow to a commonly-used design.
Our shoji room does not qualify, strictly speaking, as a traditional room in a Japanese house. Although the interior space in a Japanese house often has shoji walls or shoji sliding doors, its more unique feature are tatami mats. Tatami mats, in fact, define the size of a shoji room, based on the number of standard-sized (3ft x6ft) tatamis that make up the room’s floor. Half-sized tatamis may also be used. In contrast, our room has sustainable engineered bamboo floors and we chose its dimensions to suit our needs.
The Japanese room often serves multiple purposes. In the daytime, its inhabitants may work, play, talk, and dine there. They can sit on floor cushions or directly on the mats, which are softer than wood. At night, they clear away cushions and low tables and lay out futons to sleep on. A single tatami is actually the size of a single bed. In contrast, our shoji room has furniture you would ordinarily find in Western living rooms.