Japanese architectural styles emerged during the aristocratic era of the Heian period from 794 to 1185. The styles took over the architectural elements used in the Japanese dwellings influenced by the Chinese architectural style that was introduced in the country during the prehistoric period. 

The Heian period introduced the shinden zukuri style of architecture and later, this style cast its influence on the other styles like buke zukuri, shoin zukuri, and shuden zukuri during the military era of Kamakura (1185–1333) – Muromachi (1336–1573) period, the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1600), and sukiya zukuri in the late Edo period (1603-1867). These styles are linked to each other by the architectural elements predominant to those eras like shutters or sliding doors, tatami mats, roofing patterns, and interior decorations. 

Shoin zukuri architecture, among these styles, has had a strong influence on the residential architecture in Japan and is the foundation for today’s Japanese residential houses. Shoin, in shoin zukuri, is a study or a drawing-room, originally meant for Zen monks to read books, and later came to be known as reception or meeting rooms for guests in the mansions of the military elite. So the shoin-style mean a drawing-room or a meeting-room style of space.

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Phoenix hall built in the Heian period ©en.wikipedia.org

Establishment Of Shoin Zukuri Architecture

Shoin zukuri developed from the shinden zukuri architecture style during the Muromachi period from 1338-1573. Shinden zukuri style was used in aristocratic mansions, characterized by an open structure with views of garden consisting of hills and water, and sliding partitions- the only element to separate the inside from the outside, and influenced the shoin style. Since this style incorporated excess decorative elements, it did not suit the houses of the other military elite. It then led to a gradual extinction of this style and the development of shoin zukuri architecture. 

Shoin style, too, emphasized hierarchical ranks among the aristocrats and incorporated features like sliding doors or walls, minimum decoration, tatami, and made a compact dwelling. It is believed that the shoin style emerged due to the loss of income forced on aristocracy and also due to the scarcity of wood caused by deforestation which necessitated the use of lower quality and more abundant material, and so this style became more prominent among the military class.

Architectural Style

Since the shoin zukuri architectural style was primarily for the military elite, its architecture too featured decorative and elegant elements.

shoin, the main reception room, contained decorative features (zashikikazari), such as-

Tokonoma – alcoves to display artworks like paintings, calligraphy work, and other ornaments;

Chigai-dana – staggered shelves built into the wall;

Tsukeshoin – a built-in table; and

Fusuma or Shōji – various types of ornate sliding doors. A fusuma is made of hard fabric or hard cardboard-like material over a wooden stick frame, whereas shōji is made of paper over a wooden frame. These sliding doors were a substitute for a more elaborate paneled wooden door, as well as a replacement for the walls that allowed for a customized internal arrangement for different occasions.

The plan of the shoin zukuri architecture consists of the main room or the ceremonial room surrounded by aisles, to accommodate high ranked people and guests, and other small rooms separated by sliding doors.

As shoin is an important ceremonial room, the floor of this room is raised one step above the other rooms. The rooms were covered with tatami (Japanese mats used as a flooring material that has a standard size, and was used to seat the highest aristocrats). The tatami in the rooms were arranged according to the hierarchical seating and from wall to wall, so the size of the floor plan had to be according to the mat dimensions.

Columns, known as kakubashira, were square and grooved, the ceiling was coffered, and the walls were decorated with murals.

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Fusuma, coffered ceiling, tatami, and walls (slidings) decorated with murals ©en.wikipedia.org  
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Tokonoma, Chigai-dana, Shōji, and tatami in the shoin ©sillyarchitecture.wordpress.com/ 

Examples Of Shoin Zukuri Architecture

  1. Katsura Imperial Villa

The buildings in the Katsura complex are regarded as masterpieces of Japanese architectural styles. It consists of three shoin halls (old, middle, and new shoin), tea houses, and various pavilions set in harmony with the ponds, streams, and small hills. The old shoin has tatami and consists of a room with attached verandah to accommodate a large number of people. 

A part of the building also features the sukiya zukuri style architecture. The middle shoin consists of tokonoma and chigai-dana decorated with scenes from the landscape and has bath and toilet areas. The new shoin consists of a bedroom, pantry, and washrooms. Shoin features in the new palace include a coffered ceiling and an alcove having a window.

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The complex in natural setting ©www.flickr.com
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The shoin ©Raphael Azevedo Franca
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Interior view of the old shoin ©Yasuhiro Ishimoto
  1. Ninomaru Palace In Nijo Castle

The Ninomaru Palace was built in the shoin zukuri style during the Momoyama period. It has five buildings, 800 tatamis, and 33 rooms that are entirely decorated with paintings of nature scenes. The first building has the waiting room, the second building has the reception room, the third building has the main ceremonial area and has tatami, tokonoma, chigai-dana, and paintings on walls, the fourth building has another hall, whereas the fifth building has the private quarters. The floors are raised in the order of seating arrangements. The palace also has a garden known as the Ninomaru garden.

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Third building (left) and second building (right) ©Jennifer, japanwonder.com
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Entrance and exit of the palace (small building) ©www.discoverkyoto.com
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Shoin room in the third building ©designoclasm.blogspot.com/
  1. Tōgu-Dō At Ginkaku-Ji

Ginkaku-Ji is a Zen temple complex consisting of various pavilions, a dwelling, and a garden with ponds and other natural landscapes. The tōgu-do at Ginkaku-Ji is considered to be the oldest example of shoin zukuri architecture. It includes the chigai-dana, tsuke shoin, tokonoma for the display of calligraphy, flowers, and art objects, and painted shōji sliding doors. Tōgu-do also has a small room known as dojin-sai, the first tea room to standardize the tatami as four and a half.

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Ginkaku-Ji temple complex ©en.wikipedia.org 
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Tōgu-Dō having landscape elements around ©www.japan-guide.com
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The shoin style in Tōgu-Dō ©www.interactiongreen.com

The Decline Of Shoin Zukuri

A new style emerged at the beginning of the Edo period known as sukiya zukuri. Since the shoin zukuri style emphasized the hierarchy and status of the military class and contained impressive and decorative rooms, it was considered too imposing for residential structures. Sukiya zukuri, took influence from shoin zukuri and tea-house style architecture (chashitsu) built for the tea ceremonies and emphasized building a much simpler style, praising the beauty of the unfinished, natural materials in nature like simple tree trunks as columns, walls finished with earthen plaster and simple carvings. It then began to replace the shoin zukuri style gradually. 

Since sukiya zukuri architecture was characterized by complete elimination of status and style, it gained popularity among the other common people, and the houses, restaurants, etc. came to be built in this style, which, further, also adapted to the use of modern materials like concrete and steel and incorporate this style in today’s modern architecture.

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Sukiya zukuri style in Kikugetu-tei ©www.tripadvisor.com


Pranjali Karnik

Pranjali is a passionate artist and an architect who loves to blend her designs with nature. She designs meticulously and is always exploring the impact of architectural spaces on user's mind and body. You will find her lost in travelling, daydreams, books, and also on mountain trails.

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