Saturday, 6 April 2013

Genkan 玄関


Fancy Kyoto genkan

“Genkan are traditional Japanese entryway areas for a house, apartment, or building—something of a combination of a porch and a doormat. The primary function of genkan is for the removal of shoes before entering the main part of the house or building. Genkan are often recessed into the floor, to contain any dirt that is tracked in from the outside (as in a mud room). The tiled or concrete genkan floor is called tataki (三和土). Upon entry, shoes are usually turned to face the door so they can be slipped on easily when leaving or placed into a getabako. After removing shoes, one must avoid stepping in the genkan in socks or with bare feet, to avoid bringing dirt into the house. Once inside, generally one will change into slippers, or shoes intended for indoor wear (Uwabaki). Genkan are also occasionally found in other buildings in Japan, especially in old-fashioned businesses. In schools and sentō (public baths), genkan are equipped with shoe lockers or cubby holes. The custom of removing one's shoes before entering the house is believed to go back over one thousand years to the pre-historical era of elevated-floor structures.”
On an unrelated note, because of the genkan doors in Japan open outwards, while in Australia they always open inward. On the other hand, Australia toilet cubicles open outwards while in Japan they (usually but not always) open inwards, so if you’re in a squat you have to stand between the squatter and the wall, lean over the bog and pull the door in before holding it open and jumping out over the squatter while trying not to get your shoes wet. Anyway.
The stairs on this genkan double as shoe cupboards
In smaller apartments the genkan usually opens right into the kitchen, with only the change in elevation to distinguish it. In very small apartments the genkan is just a square of different flooring material. I hadn’t thought much of genkans until we moved into a house. It’s quite a different beast. I’m a little in love with it. While in our apartments (I’ve rented three of various sizes and styles over the years), the “step” was just the slightest elevation, between five and ten centimetres. In the house it is a real step, about mid-shin hight. In a traditional house, the reason for the height is that when receiving guests one should be able to kneel in the formal seiza position to greet them, and still have your eyes on the same level.

My old boss demonstrates, but it looks slightly scary when photographed from below!
Our place is not quite that traditional, but it’s still a big step. Our genkan opens into a hall, with the stairs and a few doors off it and the toilet over to the side. If all the doors are shut, you can’t see into the house itself from the genkan.

Our genkan has pebbles!
I’d heard a lot about genkan culture in the past but it didn’t really make sense to me given my experiences with apartment lifestyle. For example, I was told that unless I kept my front door locked, sales people and neighbours would just open it and come into the genkan. This would have been a horrible invasion of privacy in our most recent apartment, from the front door of which one could see the kitchen, lounge and, if the door was open (as it always was), directly into the bedroom. It never happened, even though I sometimes left the door unlocked. In contrast, within a week of moving into the house it had happened. I couldn’t find my keys and I was running late, so I went to work with the door unlocked. I came back to find that a delivery driver had opened the door to deposit a parcel in the genkan. S/he subsequently failed to replace the dog gate as I had left it, which is how Hayate escaped and went on his big adventure. When I told a friend about it, he said that when he was a child the front door was never locked, they just shut the interior doors, and the genkan was treated more as an extension of public space. If it began raining suddenly, he said, the neighbours would bring his family’s laundry in from their garden and place it in the genkan for them.

Tasmanian "genkan"
It’s common for older houses in Tasmania to have a similar space, what we used to call the “porch” before the American usage became more common, although it is outside the front door not inside. I like the culture of having a transitional space between public and private.
Older version
 (The Tasmanian pictures are from A Green Renovation, a blog about renovating a 1950′s weatherboard and tin roofed house in the village of Westbury, Tasmania, Australia.)

Another way to intersect public and private is to share your blog in my J-Bloggers' Carnival...
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6 comments:

  1. We have a good size genkan with quite a big 靴棚 at our new place in Japan.

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  2. So in America a porch is outside the door and a foyer is inside. Just fyi. Also, usually a porch has a roof covering it, but doesnt usually have a seperate door to shut/lock.
    Watch that step... It's a doozie!

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    1. Ahh, and here I was thinking I had Americanesse all figured out!

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  3. Hi Sophelia! Thank you for checking out my blog and don't worry, you aren't nosey at all! We are trying to adopt from Japan, but since there are not exactly a plethora of Japanese adoption blogs I read mostly Chinese adoption blogs. Shrug.

    I would love to hear more about your volunteering with the orphanage. I've been told that most of the orphanages near where I live are not thrilled with the idea of American volunteers. Do you have any tips on how to get involved?

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    1. I'm going to drop you an email, but in case anyone else is interested there are some good resources at http://www.smilekidsjapan.org/ and http://www.kizunababy.jp/Japan_orphans_English.html

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  4. Once again a comment by George and Erika of http://japanhomesweethome.blogspot.jp/ has disappeared (T.T) I'm so sorry guys, I have no idea why this is happening! They wrote:

    The culture of removing shoes before entering a home is a good idea, but if I have American size feet and it can be a real pain to find slippers that will fit. Also, don't forget to change those slippers when entering the toilet area. Yes, toilet slippers do exist.

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